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 my experiences at the second camp, Satara, where I stayed for four nights. See the first diary post here. Previous posts have detailed how I flew to Johannesburg from Raleigh, and then from Jo’burg to Skukuza Airport.
DAY 3 (October 2, 2018) – SATARA CAMP
An old friend emailed overnight to ask if I was kind of a Kruger guide. For 20 years I have often brought friends and family, and I certainly know Kruger better than most visitors. But that doesn’t qualify me as a guide.
My friend also asked whether Kruger is on the Equator. The Kruger National Park is not that close to the Equator. The northern one-third of the park straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, so its temperate, like North Carolina. It was 53° F. this morning and 85° F. 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. The border is not far from where I am now, maybe 25 miles east. So the Indian Ocean weather patterns and warmth impact this area. Think: Florida weather. That’s pretty close. They grow all manner of tropical fruit around here and bananas and lots of sugar cane. But it’s not Equatorial hot. That’s way far north. The Equator runs across Kenya.
DAY 3 (October 2, 2018) – SATARA CAMP – MORNING GAME DRIVE
Overslept this morning! In October Kruger gates open at 0530, and I had intended to be one of the first cars out. Early mornings are glorious in Africa, and the best game viewing is then.
I was soon out the door, however, with the small cooler I bought at the Skukuza shop two days ago packed with ice, Coke Zero, and a bottle of water. Should I have a flat or breakdown on a back road in the Kruger, someone is likely to come along in no time. It’s still a good idea to keep plenty of water in the car, and I do. There’s another big bottle of water in the back seat for just such contingencies.
Conventional game drive wisdom holds that both early morning and late afternoon are optimal rather than the middle of the day when it gets hot, driving animals to find shade and rest. My experience is that very early morning drives are best for catching the end of the predator night shift. I’m more likely to come across lions on a fresh kill as the morning dawns. Too, the herbivores are friskier before the African sun gets down to business.
Truth be told, the middle of the day can also be good for game drives when it’s raining or overcast. A vacant landscape suddenly comes alive with animals during and right after a cooling midday rain shower.
One of my closest leopard encounters happened on the main road north of Satara some years back at about 200pm following a quick rain. I remember watching the leopard splash through the shallow puddles of water as it sauntered down the road right next to the car, ignoring me, yet so close I could have reached out and touched it.
Thinking about that rainy afternoon made me remember a day when wet roads in the Kruger attracted Leopard Tortoises in vast numbers. They lumbered out onto the asphalt in order to sip from the pools of rain water before the sun returned to burn it off. Before the shower I hadn’t seen a tortoise in days.
That’s the way game drives go. I can drive for miles and see nothing and then suddenly witness a plethora of African wildlife.
It pays to stop and savor the experience when that happens. This morning, for instance, I pulled off a dirt road and killed the engine to gawk for a while at a mixed herd of zebras, wildebeests, and kudu all moving together. Must have been several hundred. Though tiny by comparison to the million-strong annual wildebeest and zebra migration in the Serengeti, which I’ve seen in Tanzania, it was impressive to see all those animals together. Yet all right here in the Kruger at one-fifth to one-tenth the cost (Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana safaris are now $500-1000 per person per day–yes, PER PERSON per day).
A bit farther on I stopped again to watch a family herd of elephants working through the tall dead grass, chewing placidly as they yanked it up. I was closest to two teenage siblings, so concentrated my attention on them.
I was fascinated to see that both elephants had already learned the pachyderm trick of holding a bunch of tough grass taut with their trunks while swinging one front leg across to cut the grass with their toenails at ground level like a scythe. I’ve seen elephants employ the same behavior on the side of the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania to cut and eat tall grass growing there.
A bit later I stopped to enjoy several hundred more zebras and wildebeests, joined by lots of impalas, moving slowly across the road. I let myself be surrounded by them, a marvelous feeling. Ten minutes later the area was empty, with not an animal in sight.
Another car came by just then as I was taking notes and slowed down to see why I was stopped. Having missed the sea of African animals that had only a few minutes before been everywhere around me, they looked at me curiously and drove on.
That’s typical of a game drive. There is no guarantee of seeing wildlife. But it sure is exciting fun to be there when it happens.
Just north of the Satara gate I watched a momma Black-Backed Jackal guarding her den where 8-10 little pups scampered around. I watched the little furrballs playing in the dirt with each other for about five minutes before it dawned on me to take a picture. Too late! Mama barked at them, and they scurried into the den before I could point and shoot.
Jackals are roughly the size of our foxes and occupy the same eco-niche. They’re famously fast at stealing bits off a lion kill without getting caught.
Just a bit farther on I came across a hyena traipsing down the road after a hard night gnawing the bones and drinking the blood of something dead. Or its meal might have been alive; hyenas aren’t discriminate about their food being fresh or rotten; any protein will do.
I’ve camped in Botswana in the open with hyenas all around the tents. It is not conducive to a good night’s sleep to have them testing for ways to get in. Being the ultimate opportunists, they would be happy to eat me if they could.
Trees and bushes are still bare from winter, revealing many weaverbird nests (empty this time of year). Some nests are more like single family homes compared to the big multifamily nests which seem to be more common.
Elephants knock down trees to eat and tend to drag limbs and tree trunks all over the place. Messy eaters, elephants frequently leave mangled parts of thorn trees in the roads, like ones I encountered this morning. It’s a hazard to driving, requiring alertness to avoid. Elephants also leave massive dung piles on the road which drivers naturally swerve around carefully.
DAY 3 (October 2, 2018) – SATARA – AFTERNOON GAME DRIVE
It was “stinking hot!” today, a South African woman of about my vintage exclaimed to me late this afternoon as we compared notes on our respective game drives. Like me, she’s doing it alone this time.
She’s dead right about the heat. It was, as already reported, a chilly 53° F. at Skukuza yesterday morning. 24 hours later, a comfortable 61° at 545am to start the day here at Satara. By 300pm, however, it was 96°. Seems the Kruger spring is turning quickly into summer, just like it often does in Raleigh.
The heat stifled much game movement this afternoon. The mom and dad of a young South African family told me that they chose to tent-camp at Satara this week with their two small kids because the Kruger is normally cool in October. But the scorching heat drove them from their tent, and they spent the entire day in their Toyota hilux truck with the A/C blasting.
Elephants, zebras, and wildebeests were lethargic but active near water holes. I spotted a single banded mongoose scurrying across the road. The high temp seemed to keep a lot of species in the shade waiting for dusk.
It didn’t seem to bother the birds, though. I was startled to see a Kori Bustard right by the car–surprised because it’s a huge species, the heaviest flying bird in Africa, I believe (though the Secretary Bird is nearly as large). The head was as high as the car window.
Later I saw another Kori Bustard, then another, and another. Altogether I counted 7 of the impressive birds this afternoon. That’s a one-day record for me in the Kruger.
Plenty of hornbills were flitting about hawking insects and lizards crossing the dirt roads. I noticed, too, a few Lilac-breasted Rollers–my favorite Kruger bird–also hawking insects by the road, a reminder that some LBRs have chosen year-round residence in the Kruger. During the late spring and summer, Kruger skies are alive with Lilac-breasted Rollers.
Camps are permanent home to families of Glossy Starlings, and I’ve seen more than I can count or estimate. A Glossy Starling help itself to bacon from my breakfast plate this morning after the morning game drive. This was at the Satara restaurant.
Starlings and hornbills have become so bold at Satara and other camps that leaving unattended food for even an instant risks losing everything on the plate. I used my cap to wave off several graceful, dive-bombing hornbills before this starling snuck in and robbed my pork.
The bird later perched on the chair opposite mine and proceeded to sing a long song. Whether to thank me for the bacon or to beg for more, I don’t know, but I enjoyed it immensely.
Camp gates are closed at 600pm and reopened at 530am in October. Opening and closing times vary with the seasons.
A wildebeest walked by my car this afternoon, turned to get a good look at me, shook its head in what I took to be disgust, and continued on. I couldn’t get my phone camera up quick enough to capture its look of revulsion.
Back at camp just before the gates closed, I enjoyed a light meal at the Satara restaurant and went to bed early so I could arise at 430AM for my fourth day in the park.