In 1991 I visited the Kruger National Park in South Africa for the first time while working for a consulting client based in Johannesburg. I had settled in for several months at a rented house in Sandton, the lovely northern suburb of Jo’burg, but I quickly became bored with staid city life. So I began a series of weekend forays to explore the country.
On one of my first trips I ventured in my rental car on a Saturday to the far north of South Africa to visit the town of Messina which sits on the Limpopo River across from the border with Zimbabwe. It was mid-afternoon by the time I turned back, and on a whim I decided to detour due east to reach the Punda Maria Gate of the Kruger National Park. I had heard about the Kruger and always wanted to see African wildlife in the their native habitats. I thought maybe I could drive in and out of the northern reaches of the Park quickly before heading back to Johannesburg. Just get a taste of what it was like, I thought. On the map, it looked close.
By the time I passed slowly through several small villages and finally arrived at the Punda Maria gate, however, it was getting to be late afternoon. The friendly Kruger Park staff at the gate explained that it was too late to drive in and drive out because the gate was closing for the day soon. But they offered to call Punda Maria Restcamp, just 8 kilometers inside the gate, to see if perhaps they had vacant accommodation for the night.
What the heck, I thought. Why not? I didn’t have anything pressing that Saturday night.
It was a lucky day for me: They did have a room available, and I set off at the Park’s paved road speed limit of 50 KPH (31 MPH) in the direction of the Punda Maria Restcamp (Kruger speed limit on unpaved roads is 40 KPH, or 25 MPH), arriving just at dusk.
The warm staff at Punda Maria made me feel at home as they checked me in, took my Rand in payment (about $30 at the time), and showed me to my bungalow accommodation for the night. I had no idea what to expect, so I was very surprised to find the comfortable room had two beds, electricity and lights, linens, a private shower and toilet, and air-conditioning.
Camp staff explained that the Kruger’s 12 so-called “restcamps” are really a collection of small villages scattered up and down the 300 mile length of the Park. Each Kruger restcamp, they said, is surrounded by electrified barbed wire to keep dangerous animals from getting inside to eat the guests, and the camp gates are closed and locked (and guarded) every night from sundown until sunup. They told me that each restcamp has its own filling station, grocery and curio store, restaurant, swimming pool, several types of comfortable overnight accommodation choices like the one I was in (all with the full complement of hotel-like amenities), as well as a campground with shared ablution block for folks who preferred to bring their own tents. All restcamps, they assured me, have electricity and clean fresh water.
Here’s a recent photo I shot of some of the bungalows at Punda Maria:
I was very impressed with the camp’s infrastructure. Somehow I had pictured it as crude and rustic, yet it had all the creatures comforts of any good hotel. I headed off to the curio shop to see what was on offer. I bought a Kruger Park driving map, a beautiful wooden hand-carved bowl, and an elephant-hide wallet. Shop personnel assured me that the elephant product was part of a wholly internal and government-approved South Africa National Park (SANP) program to make use of skins from wildlife that had died in the Park in order to help pay for the Park’s expenses.
By then it was dinner time. The restaurant menu offered a good selection of South African wines and beers, and it included a varied selection of meals. I ordered a kudu steak with vegetables, and a bottle of beer. The kudu was delicious, similar to elk in flavor, and I departed sated and relaxed.
I slept well in my bungalow and arose before sunup. I had been told that the camp gates would open at 5:30 AM, and I wanted to be the first one out. Looking over the Park map book the night before, I’d decided that since I was already inside the Park through a fluke of good fortune, I might as well see of the Kruger what I could. My plan was to start driving the main road inside the Park leading south from Punda Maria and to take it as far as I could before running out of time, after which I would exit to a main road back to Johannesburg. I was an accidental tourist in the Kruger anyway, so why not?
It proved to be a captivating experience, one I’d never forget. The Kruger is the largest self-drive national wildlife park in Africa. Unlike equatorial East Africa (think: the Serengeti Plains of Kenya and Tanzania), where tourists are always accompanied by guides and drivers and most often clustered into small groups, the Kruger National Park allows individual drivers to bring their own vehicles into the Park and use the many hundreds of miles of paved and unpaved roads to look at wildlife.
African wildlife in the Kruger is plentiful and extremely varied, so anyone who drives into the Park won’t be disappointed. On that first trip in February, 1991, I drove no faster than the posted 50 KPH from north to south all day long and saw an impressive number of African animal species for a first-timer: baboon, vervet monkey, zebra, kudu, Cape buffalo, impala, waterbuck, lion, giraffe, white rhino, crocodile, hippo, monitor lizard, leopard, nyala, reedbuck, warthog, elephant, hyena, jackal, wildebeest, bushbuck, duiker, tree squirrel, rock dassie, mongoose, and genet, as well as a dazzling array of Southern African birdlife. By the time I arrived at the southern end of the Park to leave at Crocodile Bridge Gate, I was hooked. I knew I’d be returning to enjoy and discover the secrets of the Kruger soon and often.
And that’s just what happened over the next 24 years, until I lost count of the number of times I’d been. Unlike return visits to some places, each time I go back to the Kruger I am as excited as I was on that first visit in 1991. My most recent visit (February, 2014) was just as interesting and enjoyable as that first time way back when.
The recent trip was especially memorable because I added a new Kruger species to my list: black mamba, arguably the deadliest snake in Africa. This particular sighting was, though, a bit too close for comfort, as the black mamba was discovered trying to worm its way under the front door of my accommodation at Letaba restcamp. I’ll provide details in a future post.