Why I keep returning to the Kruger National Park, South Africa

Regular readers have probably surmised correctly that I love to travel.  Always have, from the time of my earliest memories.

When I was young, I yearned to see the world.  As soon as I could, I explored most it, and there are many places that I never tire returning to: Hawai’i: America’s western national parks like Yellowstone, Arches, Monte Verde, Chaco Culture, and the Grand Canyon; Australia (especially Queensland); St. John; Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Zambia; Cuzco and Machu Picchu in Peru; Thailand; Western Europe and England; Topsail Island, North Carolina; Singapore and Malaysia’s Johor Province; Guangxi Province in China; the Bay Area, Marin, and Sonoma; the Okavango, Moremi, Savuti, and Chobe regions of Botswana; and New Orleans.  Because of my diverse consulting clientele, I was often able to combine business with leisure, and most often I flew in First Class (later, Business Class, as Business slowly eclipsed First on many airlines).

Much as I love those and many other places, I find myself going back again and again to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Friends have recently asked me to explain why.  They ask, What’s the attraction? Especially since I know and like so many diverse parts of our planet.

I’ve lost count of the number of visits to the Kruger since my first one in 1991.  Okay, I lived there then (I was consulting for a large Johannesburg-based bank), so it was easy to drive the 250 miles due east from Jo’burg to reach the Park.  On most weekends in 1991 that’s what I did after I discovered the Kruger.  It was an easy four hour drive.

Johannesburg, after all, reminded me then of Pittsburgh.  (Still does, actually.)  Sure, it offered (and still does offer) some fine dining experiences, but otherwise, Jo’burg is just another big, boring city.  My desire to do something more interesting was my initial motivation for repeated weekend trips to the Kruger.  Unless I had made other plans, such as jaunts to Capetown, Durban, or Botswana, I typically spent Friday and Saturday nights in the Kruger and drove back to Johannesburg on Sunday afternoons.  You might say that I gorged on the Kruger.

Seven months later when my South African consulting gig ended, I spent 10 days camping in a veritable Eden of African wildlife in the Botswana wilderness, after which I went home to the USA.  I was pretty sure that I had well and truly sated my thirst for African wildlife adventures.

I was wrong.  Even with the many distractions of a 24/7 work schedule, I found myself longing for the African bush.

The longing didn’t pass, either.  With surprise, I came to realize that I was suffering from what the French have long called “mal d’Afrique” (the sickness of Africa). The phrase describes people who visit Africa and come to feel somehow deprived when they return to their home country.

I also came to understand that once you get the bug, it can last a lifetime.  In my case, anyway, it seems incurable.  I enjoy every trip back to the Kruger just as much as I did the first one.

Trying to put that feeling–that great feeling I get each time I return–into words, however, is challenging. Here’s my stab at it, in no particular order:

  • I’ve always loved the outdoors, “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson), and seeing wildlife in its natural state. One of the appeals of Africa and the Kruger in particular is that there is such an abundance of wildlife everywhere.  I never get tired or bored; there is always something to see, and often something surprisingly new that I have never seen before.  In my most recent trip (Feb, 2014 as of this writing) rare encounters included a baby black mamba trying to get under my front door; a baboon with a bloody gash from a leopard attack; a large number of very cute hyena babies curious enough to come close to the car; zebras mating (vigorously!); and a pack of seven wild dogs.
  • The “lowveld” of the Kruger has a distinctive earthy smell that’s unforgettably enticing.  I think about it when I am gone and enjoy the natural perfume of the area whenever I return.  Friends who accompany me on their first-ever trip to Africa pick up on it immediately without prompting.
  • I never get tired of sitting for long periods observing elephant behavior. Frequently, tolerant family herds will surround the car and placidly go about their business. Elephants are marvelous creatures.
  • The peoples of South Africa are warm. friendly, and a joy to be around. It’s always a pleasure to hear their gentle lilting voices again.
  • Kruger is the largest self-drive national park in Africa, and there are only two more national parks anything like it.  One is Etosha in Namibia, which is quite small, and the other is Hwange in Zimbabwe, which is closed.  I’ve visited all three and love them, but the Kruger is the largest and most diverse.  At 220 miles north-to-south and 40+ miles wide it is huge.  In other parts of Africa visitors must hire a guide and often go in groups to wherever their guides take them.  In the Kruger you rent a car from Avis or Hertz and drive yourself on hundreds of miles of paved and well-kept gravel roads.  You are the boss and decide where you want to go on game drives, when you want to go, how long you want to stay out, and how long you want to stop and watch anything that catches your interest.  This is a great freedom to customize the experience however you want.  Sometimes, for instance, it’s fun to just sit for awhile observing a dung beetle navigating his huge ball of elephant poop across the road.
  • Speeds limits in the park at 50 KPH (about 30 MPH) on tarred roads and 40 KPH (about 25 MPH) on unpaved roads.  This is strictly enforced, so speeders are rare. Driving in he Kruger is therefore stress-free and relaxing.  The slow speeds protect the wildlife and the visitors alike, and you soon get into the rhythm of life in the very slow lane. I find it’s hard to adjust to he normal pace of traffic each time I leave.
  • The 12 full-service “restcamps” in the Kruger are self-contained villages surrounded by electrified barb wire fences to keep the animals from eating the guests.  Each one is a beautiful marvel fitted carefully into the natural landscape and often on a river, with its own gas station, curio shop, grocery store, restaurant and snack bar, and a wide variety of individual thatched-roof  circular accommodation called “rondavels”.  Each rondavel is air-conditioned, most with private toilets and showers.  Of course they have electric lights, and they come with linens, soap, and towels.  The experience is hotel-like and very comfortable.  Most rondavels have a spacious roofed outside porch equipped with table and chairs, fridge, hot plate, and utensils.  Rondavels usually are equipped with an outside “braai” (African word for small charcoal grill) if you prefer to cook your own dinner rather than go to the restaurant.  Most camps are large enough to enjoy long walks when not out on a game drive, and many have swimming pools.
  • Kruger has famously varied terrain and eco-systems.  Map books available in all the park shops detail the interesting differences in geology, elevation, rainfall, and vegetation, all of which impact wildlife distribution.  Because of this topographical and environmental diversity, the Kruger landscape changes constantly as you move through it.  Some places are hilly, with large rocky outcrops called kopjes.  Other places are open, reminiscent of the Serengeti plains.  Still others are wooded, or scrubby grasslands, or large river valleys.  The many changes in scenery make for a stimulating experience.
  • South African food in the Kruger is tasty, a mix of the commonplace (chicken salad; cheese and tomato sandwiches; steak) and the unfamiliar (pap, a finely ground corn; biltong, which is like jerky; game pie, such as impala; kudu steaks, which is similar to elk).  While the S.A. wines available in the Park shops are not the top quality selections from the Cape Province, they are nonetheless quite good, as are the upmarket S.A. beers.  Even the local peanuts taste different, somehow better.
  • Late afternoons enjoying a “sundowner” on the wide, open-air veranda of a camp restaurant situated on a river embankment are hard to beat, especially just before tucking into a delicious cut of Cape Buffalo seared to perfection.  After dinner, savoring the twilight with my last glass of deep red wine as the hippos grunt loudly to one another in the river fills me with pleasure. It’s relaxes my soul.
  • Spending time with loved ones driving slowly through the Park on game drives is just as relaxing, and a great deal of fun, too.  Everyone is on high alert scanning the countryside for animals.  Kruger brags that it is home to 147 species of large mammals, more than any other African game park, and I have seen most of them at one time or another.  Then there are the 114 reptile species to look out for in the park.  Some, like the baby black mamba I mentioned finding on my doorstep and rowdy bull elephants in search of a mate, are best viewed from a safe distance.
  • The birds are reason enough to visit Kruger.  517 bird species are found in the park, and many are magnificent.  Look up Lilac-breasted Roller, Carmine Bee-eater, Saddle-billed Stork, African Fish Eagle, Secretarybird, African Hoopoe, and Malachite Kingfisher for some stellar examples.  I never tire of the birds in the Kruger, and they are everywhere, including in all the camps.

If my reasons aren’t enough to convince you that the Kruger excites all the senses magnificently, consider this:  I despise being cooped up in coach on ultra-long overseas flights (16 hours nonstop), yet I willingly fly in economy class again and again to return to South Africa. I plan to keep on doing it as long I can.

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