Kruger diary: Letaba, Olifants, and return to Skukuza Camp, Days 6-9

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 is the fourth post documenting my experiences. See the firstsecondthird and fourth diary posts. 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.

After four previous relatively short diary posts, this wraps up my 2018 trip to Kruger in one 5900 word post.

Morning game drive – Day 6 (Satara, Orpen, Olifants, and Letaba Camps, 05-Oct)

 The day dawned cold again in the high 40s F. but with a crystal clear sky and bright sun. No doubt it’s going to warm up again. I was 2nd out of the Satara gate at 530am and headed west on the H7 road to Orpen before heading north to Letaba, where I’ll overnight.

I was loving the beautiful morning and the view to the west of the distant Drakensberg escarpment. Suddenly I was surrounded by a pack of 11 African wild dogs, as rare a sight in the Kruger as a cheetah.

The Kruger population of wild dogs stands between 300 and 400 according to the latest counts. I couldn’t believe my luck this morning seeing them.

Colorful and friendly-looking, the dogs would happily tear me apart and incorporate the bits into their bodies if I got out of the car. I declined to give them a go at me.

Wild dogs hunt like wolves as a cooperative pack and are relentless drivers of prey. The animals chase their target until their energy wanes. Once the prey is surrounded, the pack harasses the animal from all sides until enough nips and bites bring it down. Then the quarry is quickly devoured by the pack.

This was a remarkable sighting. The dogs stayed on the H7 for miles, running down the center and occasionally moving off a bit before returning to the road.  Watching the wild dogs was thrilling!

En route north from Satara to Letaba, I paused at Olifants Camp for breakfast and a break, passing over the big, wide Olifants River just south of the camp. The entire distance Satara to Olifants was teeming with wildlife, including nyala, impala, wildebeest, elephant, giraffe, and zebra (see photo 2 attached).

Stopped at one point to see why five cars had gathered and were pointing and looking at something just off the road. I didn’t see anything, so asked one fellow as I passed what it was.

“I have no idea!” He admitted, and grinned sheepishly.

The driver of the next car, however, knew what was what. He pointed to a nearby small tree, under which a honey badger was busy eating a leopard tortoise, one leg at a time. Three were already missing. The remaining leg flailed helplessly, then stopped moving abruptly as the honey badger chomped off the tortoise’s head. I could just make out the crunching sound. Blood spurted over the badger’s muzzle, which its tongue lapped up energetically.

My jaw dropped. Nature red in tooth and claw, in miniature. The perfect African demonstration of how things work.

Well, I thought, who doesn’t like terrapin? And drove on.

Only later did I realize that I should have taken a picture. That’s not a sight one sees every day, not even in the Kruger.

The beautiful Olifants River, the bridge, and rolling hills around Olifants camp never get old for me. Such a gorgeous setting and panorama with a grand vista of the river below. Lots of elephants loiter around the river; hence, its name.

After breakfast I took the back way on dirt roads to Letaba. I enjoyed the drive immensely despite it being an arid moonscape of barren Mopane trees waiting for spring rains to leaf.

I nourish the illusion that I’m all alone in the Kruger when driving wilderness gravel roads like that one between Olifants and Letaba along the Letaba River.  That is, until another car comes by, dashing my fantasy.

The landscape there by the Letaba River looks like the American West this time of year because it’s so dry. Montana in Africa.

It occurred to me that all the gravel roads north of Skukuza have been in great shape. Not sure why those down south that I complained about were so corrugated. Sure, there are some rough spots on these roads and the ones around Satara, but they’re excellent overall, unlikely to break a shock absorber.

Admired a stunningly gorgeous leafless Baobab tree I passed on the Letaba River road between Olifants and Letaba.

I saw only a few impala on the entire 21 miles between Olifants and Letaba and reached the camp at 1145am. I’m not expecting much of a report this afternoon because the wildlife seems to have fled until the rains return.

It was just 29 miles Satara to Olifants. At max speeds of 25-31 MPH (and usually less, plus lots of stops to look at things), distances in the Kruger seem greater than they are. It’s a delightfully relaxed feeling, actually, to drive so slowly.

I wonder why, then, I feel so stressed driving at the same 25-31 MPH in I-40 Research Triangle rush hour traffic at home in central North Carolina. Oh yeah, now I remember: I NEVER have the illusion that I’m the only car on I-40.

Afternoon game drive – Day 6 (Letaba Camp, Fri, 05-Oct)

Hippo! Ground squirrel! Bushbuck! Mammal species seen for the first   the day.

Finally enough water in the Olifants and Letaba Rivers to provide a home for hippos. They are grunting to each other as I write this late afternoon Friday at Letaba camp. I am sitting by the fence near my “perimeter bungalow” watching 30-odd elephants working their way up to me from the Letaba River as I relax with a ginger beer and vodka. The river tableau beyond the fence is delightful.

Driving the roads this afternoon I saw many animals, but only near the two rivers. It’s too dry to support life too far from water up here.

Also saw ground squirrels, bushbuck here in Letaba camp begging for food (in the wild, bushbuck are extremely shy), lots of kudu cows just outside the fence, zebra, wildebeest, the implacable impala herds, hippos in both rivers, waterbuck, and thieving demon vervet monkeys here in the camp.

The monkeys are so bold they will steal food from your table as you prepare it, having mastered the sneak attack. God help the fools who leave a car door or window open to go in to the camp store or restaurant. Vervets will enter a car en masse, defecate all over the interior, and take everything.

I witnessed such a concerted attack on a car once at Pretorioscop camp. A dozen or so dropped in through the open sun roof and grabbed groceries and miscellaneous loose items. One emerged with the owner’s remote control between its vicious little teeth.

I love being in Africa, but thank God we don’t have vervet monkeys running amok in Raleigh.

Baboons are even worse. They are big and strong enough to kill a man. When baboons invade camps with that considerable monkey brain intelligence and primate dexterity, the vervet monkeys scatter, knowing when they’re licked. That’s why camp fridges are secured behind heavy metal grating and why everything else, from bungalow doors to trash can lids, has been baboon-proofed.

Morning game drive – Day 7 (Letaba Camp, Sat, 06-Oct)

Another beautiful morning of cloudless sky and cool temperatures greeted me here at Letaba as I loaded my little Toyota Avanza to begin a game drive. It’s predicted to reach the mid-eighties today. Knowing the wildlife was not likely to stray far from the Letaba River, I chose a road paralleling the water.

Or what little there is of it. Not much water flowing in the Letaba at the moment owing to the long dry spell. With another two months or so before the rains begin, it will be an ongoing struggle for local animals.

An upstream dam holds water for such times, releasing a trickle so the river never dries up completely. Many bore holes (wells) supplement natural water courses, too.

Water supply management is critical to keeping Kruger eco-systems healthy. Though the park wilderness is 250 miles long and 50-90 miles, it was carved out of a much larger area in the early to mid-20th century (just like U.S. national parks were).

Before fences constrained the wildlife on all sides, animals migrated freely east-west to find food and water between Mozambique and the slopes of the Drakensberg escarpment west of the Kruger in South Africa. Fencing them into a 250 mile by 50-90 mile space meant year-round water had to be provided.

Hence the many bore holes that feed artificial, life-sustaining water holes and dams on major rivers like the Olifants and Letaba to create reservoirs for the dry seasons. That water management has been massively effective for a hundred years, with the result that this wilderness remains an African Eden, a living world heritage.

The gravel road by the river became so rutted and rockbound that I gave up after a few kilometers and turned back. I wasn’t seeing any wildlife anyway.

The Letaba River is showing a meager channel compared to the vast basin that fills up when the rains come.

The first leaves of spring are showing on a few mopane trees near the river. Mopanes there are quite gnarly–more like a shrub than a tree. Which is why it is often called “mopane scrub.” Mopane is technically a tree, but being the favorite food of elephants, the plants are constantly broken down and chewed up.

A resilient species, mopanes grow back quickly, but stunted and broken, soon looking more like big shrubs and less like trees. A full grown mopane is rare to see in elephant country.

Slim pickings this morning on game sighting: elephants (I never tire of watching elephants), hippos, baboons, giraffes, impala, and little ground squirrels. All close to the river.  Two of the giraffes were enjoying a breakfast of wicked-looking thorns.

Better luck with birds I had not seen before today: resident Egyptian geese, magpie shrike, hadedah ibis, black-headed heron, Guinea fowl, and a grey lourie. The lourie is South Africa’s only parrot and is also called the go-away bird because of its call, which seems to say that. Of course also saw the usual hornbills and glossy starlings that hang around Letaba.

All those birds and animals were seen near the water. Once I moved more than a few hundred yards from the river, not even an impala was evident. Just sun-scorched earth.

Letaba camp is gorgeous, with lots of big trees and spectacular river views from the restaurant and from many riverfront rondavels (like mine). I always love coming here, but I’ll be moving south after breakfast towards Olifants camp, my accommodation for tonight.

Just engaged a German fellow about my age, also traveling alone, who has been coming to the Kruger since 1987. That beats me by four years (my first visit here was 1991). He gave me tips on where to find a big pride of lions south of Olifants towards Satara, and I’ll make that gravel road my afternoon game drive target. Maybe I’ll get lucky.

Luck is a factor in finding game, along with intelligence like his about where animals have been recently seen. I find my luck is enhanced simply by covering a lot of territory. The more miles driven, the better chance of seeing wildlife.

Afternoon game drive – Day 7 (Olifants Camp, Sat, 06-Oct)

The view from my perimeter rondavel at Olifants gives an idea how high are the hills. Herds of elephants at the water’s edge look like ants.

I passed over 100 elephants this afternoon, spread out along a half mile of road on both sides. It was magic to see so many in one herd. The little tuskers in the herd were having a ball ripping off tree limbs, testing their strength.

Lots of baby and young elephants sure seemed to be enjoying the lovely afternoon, running to and fro, blasting passing cars with their juvenile trumpets while the adults stood watch. I stayed for a long time because elephant behavior fascinates me.

I had plenty of time for it. Despite my plan to follow the noted gravel road to the location of the lion pride–information from my German buddy–I had to turn back. After rattling along that corrugated monster for about 3 miles, I decided not to risk damage to the car. Or to me. I already had a headache from the bouncing.

In addition to the severe washboard effect, the road was strewn with softball-size jagged rocks ready to puncture a tire. No doubt any one of those bloody hard stones held geological secrets of earth’s distant past, but I was more interested in not testing the physics of rubber versus sharp rock.

Disappointed that I might miss the lions, even though I knew the pride had long ago moved on, I flagged down a car coming out and asked the driver if they’d seen the big cats feasting on a zebra and how far up the road were they.

“What lions?” He said.

That’s when I turned around. I was happy to leave that bumpy road.

As this trip begins to wind down and I total up what animals and birds I’ve seen, I reflect again on the part chance plays in sightings. Luck or chance, take your pick. I believe, as I said this morning, that driving more miles increases the chance of finding wildlife.

However, that doesn’t guarantee I’ll see what I want. On this trip I came across two cheetahs–two out of a park population of 180 (latest count). Wow!

And I saw and stayed with 11 wild dogs for a few miles. There are estimated to be only 300 wild dogs in the Kruger.

Yet I’ve so far seen just one warthog of an estimated population of 5,000. Most peculiar, how does my single sighting of a small herd of buffalo jive with the park’s count of 40,000? I should by now have seen more of both species.

Point is, you never know what you will see or won’t see.

Except impala. What’s hard is NOT seeing impala everywhere. I love the brown little boogers, so I smile every time impalas surround my car.

One mammal I’ve heard more than seen this trip is hyena. I’ve already noted the hyena propensity to eat people. I am wary of the creatures. I learned in the 90s when I often went camping in the Botswanan wilderness never to leave the tent at night when hyenas were about–and hyena are always around. Pee in a bottle if need be, but keep the tent zipped tightly.

So I was not pleased when in Skukuza the first night, then in Satara, and last night again in Letaba, I heard hyenas calling to each other right right outside my rondavel windows. Hyena have dug under the electrified high camp fences and now freely enter those camps at night to forage.

Camp staff maintain the hyenas mainly target garbage at the restaurant, much as raccoons and rats do at home.

Except that ‘coons and rats aren’t human size, nor do those little critters have jaw muscles and teeth that effortlessly crunch through bones. And last I checked, humans weren’t on the raccoon or rodent menu.

So if hyenas are just innocently looking for garbage, why were the beasts loitering around my rondavel last night? Are they lost? Maybe I should have thrown out a Letaba camp map so they could find the restaurant.

Or maybe they smelled me. I sure as hell didn’t go outside with my flashlight to find out.

A family of four occupied the next two rondavels in line by mine at Letaba last night. The two sons, one a lanky teen and other about nine or ten, had taken the bungalow immediately adjacent to mine. I heard the little kid shrieking in fear to his older brother because the hyenas were calling and cackling to each other in their eerie voices between our bungalows. I thought to myself that the boy had good instincts to be afraid. I slept fitfully after that myself.

When I arrived at Olifants today, I inquired whether I have to worry about hyenas calling at my door in the night. No, they said. Staff had found the hole the hyenas had dug under the fence here, just as at Letaba, Satara, and Skukuza, and had filled it in with concrete. I was told: “No more hyenas inside Olifants!”

I certainly hope not.

Morning game drive – Day 8 (Olifants-Satara-Tshokwane-Lower Sabie-Nkuhlu-Skuluza Camp, Sun, 07-Oct)

This is my last full day of game drives, then overnight at Skuluza camp, and a final morning game drive tomorrow before turning the Toyota Avanza in to Avis at Skukuza airport and winging back home.

The air started warm and muggy this Sunday morning, with mostly overcast skies. I was first at the Olifants gate at 506am and could hear hyenas calling to each other just beyond the fence.

But not inside the camp, I am glad to report. I slept well last night.

Just three cars, including mine, queued at the gate before 530am. I was a little surprised, but then thought about how Olifants is kind of a country-club camp because of its gorgeous location. Some South Africans come here just to enjoy the view and the pool in an exotic environment. They aren’t so keen to go on game drives, and when they do, are apt to say things like, “Oh, look, Hon! Is that a horse with stripes?

I didn’t see much before getting close to Satara, and then saw many species of animals everywhere. Next trip to the Kruger I’m inclined to stay south of Olifants. That’s been the richest game areas of this trip and of many previous trips.

And yielded the best game-viewing this morning as well. After a brief rest stop at Satara, I continued south towards the little open-air snack bar at Tshokwane. Within a couple of miles I came across a lion-jam. A pride of lions had been spotted 300′ off the road. I squinted hard to see the tan lumps in the distance, then moved on. The pride was napping after last night’s big feast of something, and I knew they wouldn’t move much all day.

To my amazement, 1.5 miles down the road beyond the sleeping lions I came across two cheetahs sitting very near the road. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’ve been years and years never seeing a cheetah in the Kruger, and now I’ve seen four on this trip.

Then some miles south I came across more buffalo. And also elephants, kudus zebras, wildebeests, and many giraffes.

Just before Tshokwane I passed hundreds of impala grazing on both sides of the road, an awesome sight.

At Tshokwane I enjoyed a delicious kudu pie and chips for breakfast while doves, glossy starlings, and satanic little vervet monkeys begged food while sitting on my table. I hated to leave, but I had to cover a lot of ground to get to Skukuza.

Shortly beyond Tshokwane heading south, two maIn roads diverge. One goes a bit east towards the Lebombo Mountains that sit on the border with Mozambique, and then turns south to Lower Sabie camp. The other road proceeds west and south to Skukuza. I wanted to check out the game viewing in and around Lower Sabie camp, and I calculated that I had plenty of time to do that and still get to Skuluza for check-in to my riverside bungalow.

I also knew the drive up and over the hills towards Lower Sabie would be beautiful and that I could stop at the Ngube lookout at the top.  I did stop, and once again the vista reminded me of parts of the American West.  Well, except for the African wildlife all around, such as the nearby elephants and buffalo.

Lower Sabie camp was a zoo of people, (not animals), and I didn’t enjoy my brief stop there (to check out the shop, out of curiosity). Okay, I understand that it’s Sunday, and the weekend warriors from Jo’burg have invaded for an early spirng day trip to Kruger. But I’d hate coming back here if it was always like that. I left quickly and headed to Skukuza.

All along the way (about 28 miles) the road hugs the Sabie River. Lots of animals work back and forth across the road going for water, vying with car traffic in the process. So I was not surprised to come across many “lion-jams,” except knots of stopped traffic for every species, not only lions. Lots of gawking at buffalo in the river, and elephants taking a bath, and often just for a herd of impala.

I understood, of course. Day-trippers are looking for every sighting possible in the few hours they are here today, while I have had the luxury of 8 nights and 9 days to soak it in.

Therefore, I took it in stride when I came upon a thick jam-up of maybe 15 cars, with many blocking traffic flow entirely. I asked the occupants of the first car I passed what it was.

“Leopard!” And they pointed to my left in some underbrush. Sure enough, I could make out the cat skulking low and slow through the shadows, too obscured for a photo.

I knew the onlookers would not move until the kitty was long gone, and thus began to navigate carefully through the congested traffic. I was almost clear when two big safari trucks full of tourists blocked the guy in front of me from moving out of the way. I was trapped, so shut off the engine to wait.

To my astonishment, the big leopard suddenly darted just in front of my hood, its spotted body a blur, and crossed the road right by my open window. I was near enough to touch it as it streaked past.

Again, I couldn’t believe my luck to be closest of all those people there to the object of their attention. Especially since I had given up on seeing the creature and was just trying to escape.

Unprepared, I grabbed my phone and took a quick picture, but by then the leopard was headed away down the shoulder of the road. Unless I stay at the ready, that’s a typical animal photo, by the way: “Goodbye. See you later.”

It was a great morning game drive! 125 miles covered in 6 hours on the road. I loved every minute of it.

Afternoon game drive – Day 8 (Skukuza Camp, Sun, 07-Oct)

Final PM game drive was short and sweet: just two hours. I wanted to get back to Skukuza before 500pm to have a bit of daylight to enjoy my riverside bungalow and the view from it, bungalow #86. The camp sits on the Sabie River, normally full of bird life and animals, and I paid extra to get a front row seat on the river.

I had a good view of the old Selati Railway bridge over the river. In the early 20th century, passenger trains on that railroad made this part of the Kruger accessible for the first time to denizens of Johannesburg. It was then quite a high adventure to come to the “lowveldt” and see the wild African animals that had already been long eradicated from the rand (the area around Jo’burg).

My bungalow is at the very end of the camp, so it is quite private and peaceful. I have poured myself a ginger beer and vodka as I write this just past five–if I had lime, I could call it a Moscow Mule. The shadows are long, and the scene where I sit, tranquil. A great way to end this trip.

I rarely drink vodka at home; in fact, I don’t much like it. I prefer Windhoeck beer here, a superb Munich-style lager made by the Germans in Namibia.

But vodka is part of my strategy when traveling alone in the Kruger. It is easier to transport and keep from camp to camp than beer, and I don’t have to re-chill it after a long drive. Just add ice and ginger beer. Vodka is practical in the Kruger.

After 27 years of coming here, I have some routines down. I always wear long-sleeved shirts, a hat, and white cotton gloves for driving, all to prevent sunburn. The sun here is merciless, summer and winter. Best to stay covered up. I use sunscreen on exposed places, like my nose and ears.

I take malaria pills religiously when I come. Met a young South African fellow and his wife who said they had a friend who just came down with malaria after visiting the park. I asked if they were taking pills, and they both answered at once, “Yes, absolutely!”

A car charger for my phone is a must, and my phone always has a woefully expensive international plan for data, email, voice, and texts.

First day here, I always buy a cooler, ice, water, soft drinks, and snacks. I take a roll of toilette paper from the first camp and throw it in the back seat, just in case, along with a trash bag. I borrow a towel from the first camp and return it the last night.

Kruger map books are essential to choose where to go each day, available at every camp store. I also bring a homemade animal matrix to keep track of what I see every day, along with pen and paper.

Kleenex and paper napkins are handy, as is a cheap plastic insulated cup.

Driving on the left is a snap. Been doing it in many countries since the 70s. It seems as natural to me as driving on the right.

But, God help me, I cannot get used to the turn signal stalk being on the right side of the steering column. I’m constantly turning on the windshield wipers (lever located on the left side of the steering column) when I mean to be signaling a turn.

The Afsaal rest area south of Skukuza towards Berg-en-Dal is home to lots of rhinos, and it’s about an hour away at 31 MPH. I drove there and back and struck out on rhinos, but I did see many elephants close to the road.  I took several photos.

Also saw more lilac-heated rollers, a leopard tortoise, zebra, giraffe, impala, and three male lions near the road, dozing. No good angle to take photos, though, so the elephant pictures are all I have for the afternoon drive.

Speaking of which, some have asked how to approach an elephant real close like I did today. It’s easy. I drive up cautiously and watch the elephant’s reaction. If it is bothered, the ellie will let me know by facing me and shaking its head vigorously.

That’s the initial warning. After that comes loud trumpeting and then a fast charge. Sometimes it’s a mock charge where the animal turns away at the last second, but I don’t wait to find out. I have reversed and moved away after the first head shake.

If the elephant ignores me coming that close, and most in the Kruger do because they’ve become inured to cars, then I shut off the engine and enjoy being in the animal’s company. I never tire of watching elephants, the true king of beasts.

The sun has gone down in the Kruger, and light is fast fading. It’s been a wonderful trip, and I still have one more morning game drive before I head home.

Morning game drive – Day 9 (Skukuza, Mon, 08-Oct)

Last game drive this trip was quiet and short, just 2 hours, because I had to get back to Skukuza Camp to leave. I must return the car to Avis at Skukuza Airport by 1100am and repack before that.

I am leaving more clothes behind and a pair of shoes for staff.

The day broke cool with a light rain shower, presaging much more precip to come over the next few months. Except for the one morning I overslept, I followed this routine every day, including last night and today: arose at 430am, was at the gate by 505, out when the gates opened at 530, to sleep by 830-900pm.

Species seen this morning: one kudu, hundreds of impala, 2 common duiker (a small, shy antelope), ground hornbills, ground squirrels, and elephants. Of course the usual bird life, including francolin, Guinea fowl, glossy starling, yellow-billed hornbill, and numerous varieties of doves.

Some impressions this trip (my opinions, of course):

The park is now allowing too many outside safari company trucks carrying tourists in. Seems to be mostly a problem down here in the southern part of Kruger than at Satara and north.

Surprised at some species of animals not much seen, including warthogs, rhino, and buffalo.

I was surprised to see 2 sets of hyena pups. I never knew until now that hyenas breed year round.

Very surprised to have seen nyala in such large numbers, cheetah at all, wild dogs at all, and several leopards.

Changes since 1991 are few, and that’s good. I’ve come to the Kruger countless times in 27 years, observing the differences each time. Most of the changes have been to restaurants and snack bars. Park management seems not to be able to settle in what they want.

Thank goodness, though, menu basics such as chicken mayonnaise sandwiches (chicken salad), toasted ham and cheese sandwiches, and good breakfasts choices are still available. I do miss game selections for dinner, like kudu steak, buffalo pie, and impala flank schnitzel. Once at Punda Maria they even offered warthog ribs. On this trip I was able to get kudu pie at Tshokwane, but that was it for game.

Rhino numbers in the Kruger have been healthy and growing. Last count was 5000+, but due to poaching, the population figure is no longer reported. All are white rhinoceros, also called square-lipped rhino, because they graze more than browse, using their square lips to grasp grass on the ground.

Black rhinoceros, sometimes call hook-lipped rhinos, browse low bushes and trees with their protruding lips. Black rhino range never extended into the Kruger, I don’t believe, but that species is native to Botswana and can also be seen at Etosha National Park in Namibia.

I did see rhinos here the first day, but not since. By contrast, when I was last in the Kruger in April, 2016, I saw rhinos so often that I lost count. They are here in great numbers; just a factor of chance that I saw so few this time.

I was reminded this morning what dramatic terrain there is going south. I’ve commented several times how much I enjoy the Kruger simply for its natural beauty. It has so many varied eco-systems for such a relatively compact area (250 miles top to bottom). All are interesting.

I know, I know: Wilderness parks like the Kruger and our gorgeous U.S. national parks in the west are no longer more than vestiges of the natural world, but thank God for the spiritual rejuvenation I get each time I come here.  Even though along the southern border sugar cane refiners mar the view, I love the Kruger, just as I love our great western parks in the United States.

I drove a total of 1090 miles in 9 days = 121 miles per day. That’s about right compared to previous trips.

When I come, I want to be on the road seeing the wilderness and its wildlife. Not everybody who has come with me in the past has shared that obsession, and that’s fine. If folks want to sleep in, they can. I go out alone, in that case, and circle back midway through a game drive to pick them up at their leisure. Then continue on.

I’m already planning my next Kruger trip.

Not-so-deep thoughts on Kruger National Park

In my morning report I mentioned “safari trucks” without an explanation. Safari trucks are rigged to carry folks on guided game drives.

That is, a guide–hopefully one who knows his or her salt–does the driving, navigating, reconnoitering for wildlife, and talking while you sit with 8-40 (some trucks are large) of your favorite friends and family. It’s a fine way to see animals in places like private game lodges outside the Kruger. But it’s not necessary in the Kruger or in similar do-it-yourself game parks like Zimbabwe’s Hwange and Namibia’s Etosha.

In the Kruger you have to pay for the guided rides, of course, on top of anything else already paid. And guided trips ain’t cheap. Driving yourself is already paid for in your fees when you arrive: no extra charges apply.

I like the innate privacy and ultimate flexibility of driving myself. As do the majority of Kruger visitors, whether South African, Chinese, European, Australian, or American.

But recently the park has licensed many more contractor safari firms to bring visitors in for game drives. Just saying a few is fine, but I think it’s time to put the brakes on the numbers now.

Noticed the trucks at Skukuza Airport from Mala Mala and Sabi Sabi luxury safari lodges. Those two, plus Londolozi (my favorite), define the pinnacle of luxury safari lodge experience outside the Kruger. All three, plus a few other lesser-known safari lodges, are situated in the entirely private Sabi Sands game reserve, which is adjacent to the Kruger near Skukuza. Those trucks are waiting to pick up guests arriving at tiny Skukuza airport where I await my flight to Johannesburg.

I merely used those trucks as examples of safari trucks. Actually, no safari truck from Mala Mala, Londolozi, or Sabi Sabi would ever tool around the Kruger except to come to the airport. That’s because those three lodges charge $1000 to $5000 per person per day, and they pretty much guarantee your guided game drives to be spectacular, all inside the private Sabi Sands reserve. They don’t need to drive in the Kruger, nor are permitted to.

I’ve been there myself. When I first worked in Johannesburg in 1991, South African friends arranged special prices for me at Idube Safari Lodge in the Sabi, another luxury place (well, ALL lodges in the Sabi Sands are luxurious). Idube hasn’t the panache of Londolozi; however, even a “friend” rate there was a heart attack.

But Idube came through. I took my parents there for a 3-day weekend (they had flown over to see the country), and the game drives were extraordinary. Especially the night drives to watch a lion pride stalk and kill.

One advantage that guides at those luxury lodges in the Sabi have over the Kruger is the ability to go off-road to get close–as in REAL close–to wildlife. Kruger rules prohibit off-roading; it’s an offense that will get the guilty party expelled forever.

So what’s the other differences between driving yourself around in the Kruger and being guided in a luxury lodge safari truck in the Sabi Sands? Money.

The animals you see are the same. But the comparable Kruger cost per day, including fees, accommodation, rental car, gas, food, tips, and beverages came to about $181 for me this trip. Obviously, a small fraction of what the luxury lodges charge.

That comparison doesn’t include airfare because airfare isn’t included in the luxury lodge rates, either.

It would have been even cheaper had I not been traveling alone, halving the rental car and gas costs, and possibly the accommodation rates if sharing.

And because it’s affordable, I’m able to return to the Kruger relatively often.  I plan to return as soon as possible.

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