Kruger diary: Skukuza to Satara

I was in South Africa’s Kruger National Park on a self-drive safari in early October, 2018 and kept a real-time diary, of which this post documents getting to the first camp, Skukuza, for one night and then driving to the second camp, Satara, where I stayed for four nights. Previous posts have detailed how I flew to Johannesburg from Raleigh, and then from Jo’burg to Skukuza Airport.

The final leg: Johannesburg to Skukuza

This morning went well, and as planned. Walked from the City Lodge Hotel after checking out back to the airport and headed for Domestic Terminal B. Checked into my South African Airways Airlink flight after being careful to find the specific Airlink counter (B79), as opposed to the main South African Airways counters.

That’s not as straightforward as it should be. In the USA all major airlines contract with small carriers to operate under the big airline’s livery and booking code. Contract carriers flights use the same counters and gates as their employer.

South African Airways also contracts with little guys like Airlink, and those flights are marketed and sold online indistinguishable from mainline SAA flights. That’s where the transparency ends, however.

Passengers must find the specific airline’s counter to check-in, which why I had to locate Airlink’s counter and not South African Airways’ counters. At Johannesburg airport lots of knowledgeable men approved to work for the airport are always on hand to offer such direction and take you there. I usually tip 10 Rand for their help (which is only 72 cents).

Actual check-in only took a moment after a six minute wait in the Airlink queue. Soon after I was past security for the E gates and enjoying a complimentary hot breakfast in the Bidvest Premier Lounge, which accepts Priority Pass (part of American Express Platinum Card privileges) for entry.

The ERJ 135 boarded quickly and on time, and we arrived Skukuza Airport on time after a 50-minute flight. En route the single flight attendant easily managed to serve muffins and sandwiches and beverages to all 46 passengers. And she cleaned everything up, too. All done cheerfully.

Avis had my little Toyota Avanza ready to go (small SUV model not available in the USA). The Avanza has great visibility all round for wildlife viewing, and the 5-speed manual transmission is fun to drive. I zoomed out of the airport for my first game drive.

Well, the “zoom” was in my mind. Speed limits in the Kruger are 50 KPH (31 MPH) on paved roads and 40 KPH (25 MPH) on gravel roads.

DAY 1 – First game drive from the Skukuza Airport to Skukuza Camp

It is maybe 5 miles from the airport to the camp, but I wandered around and took my time getting there. On a one hour drive I saw two family herds of elephants, lots of impala, two leopards (too far off the road for a good picture), three rhinos, and two families of kudu. The trick to getting close to animals in the Kruger is to shut off the motor and coast up quietly. With no engine noise most wildlife keep doing what they were doing.

Big daddy kudu with wicked spiral horns was not far away, watching his harem. The male was obscured partly in the brush and never gave me the shot I was after. Didn’t matter. I have so many fine photos of African animals that I now only shoot if I see an exceptionally good picture.

I am settled into my bungalow #37 in Skukuza rest camp and am about to take off for my afternoon game drive.

DAY 1 – Pretty good afternoon sightings for a short 90 minutes

Lots of elephants, a well-fed hyena with sagging belly, a sleeping leopard in a tree, 3 giraffes, bunch of baboons (possibly escapees from the American Congress), lots of impala, 3 kudu, a massive pile of fresh buffalo scat but no buffalo, lots of bird species (including a long-tailed something or other—couldn’t tell in the blinding sun, but could have been a variety of shrike, widowbird, flycatcher, or whydah, though definitely not a Paradise Whydah. Sadly, no warthogs, always a favorite sighting.

Coming through the Skukuza Camp gate, I noticed again that signs warn residents to steer clear of baboons and vervet monkeys which run amok through Skukuza, and to keep food secure and doors and windows closed.

Tomorrow I move on to Satara Camp, which I booked for 4 nights because the game viewing in the vicinity is usually outstanding.

All accommodation in the Kruger National Park, like the bungalow I’m in at Skukuza, has electricity, fridge (my refrigerator is nearly standard size and has a separate freezer), heat (almost never needed) and A/C (almost always needed), overhead fans, toilet, showers with hot/cold water, and are supplied with bed linens, soap, and towels. Just like a hotel, except better, since each cabin (which they call a rondavel) is private.

Many rondavels, including mine, also have flatware, kitchen utensils, pots and pans, sink for wash-ups, and electric stove tops for cooking. Every rondavel has a “braai” (South African word for a charcoal or wood grill) for, well, grilling. Having a braai is a national pastime in South Africa, like grilling steaks and hamburgers in America (see here). All bungalows have an outdoor porch, too, with tables and chairs for dining.

DAY 2 – Second morning: Skukuza to Satara

Finally realigned my body clock to local time last night (6 hours later than Raleigh) and slept well. Arose at 530am, showered, repacked my bags, organized my groceries and cooler, loaded the car, and was away by 600am on both a game drive and to cover the distance between Skukuza Camp and Satara Camp.

It’s only 57 miles between the two camps, but at a max of 25-31 MPH, pausing for breakfast at Tshokwane, a park rest stop and cafe on the way, and, constantly stopping to watch animals (which is, after all, why I came), I arrived Satara at 1030am, four and a half hours after leaving Skukuza. I will be at Satara for 4 nights.

On the way this morning I saw elephants, a sleeping lion pride, kudu, a leopard guarding its kill in a tree, many more impala, giraffes, wildebeest, waterbuck, 2 steenbok, and 4 nyala. Also, in the large bird category, I came very close to a pair of beautiful saddle-billed cranes, even closer to a pair of magnificent secretary birds, and finally a family of 5 ground hornbills (each the size of an American turkey) crossed the road around my car.

The landscape around Satara is much more savanna-like than around Skukuza, with lots of open space. Thus easier to spot animals, which is why I like to spend time in this area.

Saw a barren tree by the road with weaver bird nests hanging dramatically from its branches. The tree looked dead, but it’s fine. This is the end of winter (early spring in the southern hemisphere) and also the dry season. So all the flora looks dead. It’ll come green when the rains return around Christmas.

The omnipresent impala are doing their thing, which is munching grass like lawnmowers across the landscape.  One minute they surround the car on both sides the road; the next they have slowly moved off as they moving and mowing.

Was delighted to see an nyala (In South Africa, whenever an “N” is the first letter of a word, it is pronounced as its own syllable, thus nyala is pronounced “IN YA’ LA”). First cousin to kudu, but smaller, shaggier, and with curved rather than spiral horns, nyala prefer riverine environments even in the dry season. I was lucky to get close; nyala are shy and typically move away when approached.

Also sighted a female steenbok eating by the road. No antlers. Males have short spiked horns. Steenboks are quite small antelope: super alert, shy, and lightning fast.

Then came across two waterbuck bucks, probably brothers, practicing for a future duel. A white circle around the rump is characteristic of waterbucks. Scientists believe it helps the species follow one another visually when chased through thick brush. The only thing wrong with that theory is that lions are not fond of waterbuck because of the antelope’s foul musk gland. The animal is too large for leopards to take down. Thus waterbuck are rarely prey and rarely chased. Like nyala, waterbuck prefer places with water.

DAY 2 – First afternoon game drive at Satara

After unpacking for my four-night stay, I loaded up my little cooler with water, ice, and Stoney Ginger Beer. Put that and my Kruger mapbook in the car and rolled away at 325p. Camp gates close in October at 600p, so I worked against that deadline to go north and then northeast from Satara towards the Mozambique border [see Kruger map below]. That way I could turn back south when the sun began to sink, putting it behind me for dramatic photo setups. Didn’t happen, but it was a sound plan.

Two hours, 30 minutes is not long for a game drive. However, I made good time even off the paved road. And eventually made a 50 mile circuit to the far east side of the park and back to Satara. That was possible because the gravel roads were in excellent shape there (unfortunately, not true everywhere).

Along the way I finally saw zebras, hundreds of them, and hundreds more wildebeest, too. Caught several giraffes off guard reaching for the tops of acacia trees on the road shoulder. Followed a family of 5 ground hornbills. Saw elephants and impala, and a duiker (another small antelope–this one lopes like a kangaroo). But no predators and no warthogs.

It was a beautiful late afternoon, and it was exhilarating to be driving through the African wilderness. Not every game drive racks up lots of sightings.

Too, it’s a challenge to be alone on a game drive. The driver has to focus on the road, obviously, and can’t let his eyes wander back and forth too much looking for animals. So I could easily have missed lots of animals.

DAY 2 – Washing clothes in the Kruger

I hand-washed some of my clothes in my rondavel’s sink tonight.  Although the infrastructure is excellent, the Kruger National Park is in the African wilderness. There are no dry cleaners here.  To avoid bringing a set of clean clothes for each day I’m in the Kruger—which would mean a LOT of luggage—I take a minimum of clothes and wash as needed.

To wash my clothes, I buy Omo, the local detergent, because it’s made for hand-washing clothes in bowls. The Omo powder dissolves instantly in cold water. And it’s less than a dollar for way more than I ever use. I give whatever is left to the locals when I depart. I also pick up some clothespins (locally called “pegs”) and clothesline when I arrive. That costs another $2.

So, yes, I primitively hand wash and rinse and dry my own clothes along the way in the Kruger. I imbibe a Moscow Mule or two made with vodka and the tasty local Stoney Ginger Beer while washing to keep my spirits high.

It would be a lot easier to use a washing machine, ad some of the camps have them. However, camp washing machines are often broken or malfunctioning, and, if operating, are in use, often with a queue of other laundry ahead of mine.

More maddening to me is the fact that the ancient washers require exact change in old 5 Rand coins, which are increasingly scarce because they were superseded years ago by a new 5 Rand coin. Which means I have to hoard the old coins if I can find them at all.

Even if I do accumulate enough old 5 Rand coins, sometimes a washing machine will swallow a bunch of them without activating when I push in the slide. And there’s no refund. When that happens, I have pay again, which means I have to collect TWICE the old 5 Rand pieces than I actually need just in case.

After years of putzing around with those damn washers and the damn hard-to-find coins, I finally gave up. Now I simply wash my clothes by hand in the sink and shower. Doesn’t take long, and I only have to do it once or twice each trip, not every night.

On the plus side, humidity here is low this time of year and clothes dry real quick.

Some context for the Kruger

The park straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, with about a third north and two-thirds south. The weather is temperate, tending to hot, like Florida. It was 53° F. this morning and 85° this afternoon.

This is early Spring in the Southern Hemisphere. The Park is hotter than Johannesburg because Jo’burg sits at 5000′ (like Denver), and the Kruger is near sea level.

The Indian Ocean is not far to the east across the narrow strip of Mozambique. The Kruger borders Mozambique on the east. It’s not far from where I am now, maybe 25 miles to the border. So the Indian Ocean weather patterns and warmth impact this area. Outside the Park, bananas and lots of sugar cane thrive in the heat.

Wildlife conservation versus visitor infrastructure

Kruger has always had a bias towards protecting wildlife over visitors. That’s as it should be. The paved roads are in excellent shape, but some of the gravel roads are not so great partly because Park management has always been sensitive about disturbing the native wildlife.

Minimizing use of heavy road equipment needed to smooth out corrugated sections of gravel roads, for instance, maintains wildlife tranquility in the Park. The downside is that I tried several gravel roads yesterday and today that were so badly rutted (like a washboard) that I had to turn back.

Lack of sufficient Park budget for road maintenance also keeps the worst dirt roads from being improved very often.

Kruger accommodation was always been called a “restcamp.” It’s an antiquated term. Over the years it was shortened to just “camp,” as in Skukuza Camp, Satara Camp, etc.

Each “camp” is a village surrounded by electrified razor wire to keep out dangerous wildlife so that visitors are not eaten or trampled by the very wildlife they have come to see.

Inside the wire each camp has a gas station, restaurant and snack bar, grocery/knicknack store, camp office, and lots of bungalows (locally called rondavels, as I have mentioned before). The thatched roof bungalows come in a variety of sizes to accommodate individuals through large families. Many camps also boast swimming pools and car washes (dust soon covers vehicles on safari game drives). All camps still have camping areas for visitors who prefer to bring their own camping gear and rough it.

That said, camps are focused primarily on overnight visitors who want every modern convenience. All bungalows have electricity, hot and cold water, showers, wash-up sinks, overhead fans, refrigerators, a veranda with table and chairs, and a braai (grill). Many have full kitchens.

That massive infrastructure was always limited to the 12 camps in the Kruger, but pressure to utilize more of the wilderness areas has led to private resort concessions being developed in some parts of the Kruger.

The new resorts are much more expensive than the comfortable, modest original camps. Aside from the new luxury, wildlife sightings are identical, so what are visitors at the resorts getting for the gobs of money they’re paying? Nothing, except a veneer of luxe.

But the regular camps where I am staying are under $100 per night. Who needs more luxury than that?

[Kruger map below for context]

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