Exploring wildlife on your own – Kruger National Park, South Africa

I was attracted to Krueger National Park, not only because many people described it as a must see experience, but because it promised do-it-yourself wildlife exploration. While most parks like this require a guided tour, all you need here is a car, a pass to enter and a reservation at one of the camps inside the park. I reach the park entrance in my little rental car from Johannesburg and the friendly rangers help me to arrange a hut in one of the nearby camps as well as my visitor pass and a map with tips and explanations: Let the adventure begin.

Kruger National Park MapNot quite sure what to expect, the well maintained roads and the plentiful sign providing directions are a pleasant surprise. Just a short time into the ride, I have the first wildlife sighting: Two elephants, mom and kid, are trotting slowly along the road in front of me. I’m surprised and slow down to watch them. When she turns around to look at me, I realize that there is no moat between me and them to protect me…just very thin sheets of metal and glass. I back off a little to give them some space, having read about their determination to protect their young and their willingness to charge anybody and anything. The mother and her young eventually mosey into the bushes next to the road. Once they disappear, I pass them and continue on the road…just to see more elephants, seemingly belonging to the same group, in front of me! As if that weren’t enough elephants for one day, mom and kid are coming back on the road – and now I’m trapped between them. My pulse is up, but with nowhere to go, I match their speed (or lack thereof) and they stay calm, leaving me patiently waiting for them to turn into the bush again.
086 SAF Elephant 3Unfortunately, another driver obviously has neither read the information about elephant behavior nor the patience to wait. He speeds towards mom and kid, crowding her, hoping to get her of the road. Instead, she and her baby pick up speed, running along the road, towards me – not good. Before I have a chance to do anything, she notices my car, and feeling trapped, decides to turn and charge the car behind her, head down!. I have never seen an elephant turn and run this fast – nor have I seen any driver slam his car into reverse this fast and race backwards in a cloud of dust! 1:0 for mom. With the pecking order re-established, she and the rest of the group eventually head back into the bush, allowing me to continue to the camp.
The camp is not only a comfortable retreat, with little huts and a restaurant, but also a great source of information. Rangers offer nighttime drives through the park as well as bushwalks in the morning. A large map of the surrounding area allows all the visitors to point out sightings of animals with colored pins. The rangers have plenty of stories about the park, the animals and the camp. A lion that broke into a camp without a fence and attacked one of the park employees makes for a good bedtime story. The knowledge that our camp has a fence, it happened years ago and is a quite rare occurrence, eventually lets the sleep come.
Kruger LionsWith a clear plan of where I hope to find lions, based on the big map, I get up at the crack of dawn and leave the camp at sunrise, heading to the bridge near where lions where spotted yesterday! And I do get lucky! I see a pride of lion heading over the bridge just as I pull up! I stop and take photos through the open window of them passing my car so close I could touch them! At some point, I loose trust in the advice that lions don’t see you and only your car – I never rolled up a car window so quickly!
Being able to explore wildlife on your own adds a whole new excitement to the trip, at least for me and it leaves a memory for a lifetime!

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