South Africa: Kruger NP & Hlane NP

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We were nearing the end of our time in South Africa which also meant our final days seeing animals in the wild. Before heading back to Johannesburg to drop off our car (after 53 days!) we wanted to visit Kruger. And the timing was absolutely perfect – my best friend Lindsay was coming to visit with her husband who was in Joburg for work. We picked her up from OR Tambo and as we waited for her to come through the arrivals door I was like a kid on Christmas Eve.

Linds, James and I packed up the car and started the drive to Kruger – Michael (her husband) would be meeting us there the following day. The weather was grey and rainy, but it didn’t deter us from heading into the park after we checked in at our guesthouse. We had about two and a half hours before the gates closed and managed to see lots of wildlife despite the weather. Though I could never tire of seeing African animals in the wild, James and I have seen a lot of zebra, antelope, wildebeest, etc. so it was awesome to experience those sightings with Linds as she saw them for the first time! The highlight for all of us was seeing a female hyena with her playful cubs just beside the main road. I think we could have stayed watching them for an hour, but since we weren’t staying in the park we headed to the gate without a minute to spare! That night was spent catching up, drinking wine and laughing so hard my abs hurt and I lost control of the muscles in my face.

The next morning we headed to Kruger airport to get Michael who we were just as excited to see! We decided to stay at Letaba camp, which is basically in the middle of the park and was a good six or seven hours drive through the park. Of course we took our time, spotting animals along the way and stopping at rest camps to stretch our legs.

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We arrived at camp and got unpacked before heading out on a sunset drive. Though we would usually self-drive when possible we thought going on a guided drive would be a good idea since the park is so big and we’d be more likely to spot some of the trickier animals with a guide. I was really hoping we’d see some lions close up for Linds and Michael! And from our past experience we knew that guides are usually in contact and will alert each other when there’s been an awesome sighting. Unfortunately, this was not the case with or guide from Letaba – Dashi, our guide, jokingly (or maybe seriously) became the villain of our safari trip as he didn’t seem to care what we saw or try particularly hard to find animals for us. He didn’t even have a set of binoculars which we found shocking!

We arrived back to the camp after dark and slightly deflated that we didn’t see any predators, but were optimistic that we would see some the following morning on our sunrise drive (and hopeful that we would have another guide).

After too little sleep (we stayed up chatting until 11 and had to be at the safari truck for 3:45) we clambered into our seats and saw that Dashi would be driving us again. It was dark and cold and, to be honest, we all looked completely miserable. We spotted even fewer animals on this drive, and as we turned to make our way back to camp from the exact route we’d taken the day before, a man on our tour shouted ‘stop! Lion!’ And indeed, as Dashi backed up his truck we saw a male lion walking off in the distance. He redeemed himself slightly when he turned off the road to try and get closer to the lion but there isn’t a safari guide I’ve encountered that would have missed that!

We arrived back at camp before 7am and decided we could all use a few more hours of sleep. After catching some zzz’s and making a hearty brunch we decided to pack up the car with snacks and drinks and head back out for another self drive. It wasn’t too long before we came across a group of elephants off to the side of the road drinking water. It was forested and we couldn’t see that well so we decided to head closer for a look. There was a car parked off to the left and since we couldn’t see any animal activity we drove past them to where we could see the elephants. They were heading toward the road so we pulled off to the right, turned off our car and waited. Suddenly, a herd of elephants emerged from the trees, right in front of our car and a few behind. It was incredible and we were glad Linds and Michael got to see them so close up. We were looking around at each other in complete amazement!

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The last one walked past and as we were getting ready to go the car parked on the left side came up. The older gentleman rolled down his window and asked ‘Did you get some good pictures?’ Just as we were responding and saying how incredible it was he cut us off and said ‘because all we could see was your car your inconsiderate twats!’ before driving off in a huff. Now we were really looking at each other in amazement! We wouldn’t have been blocking his view at all, given how far up we were. James and I hadn’t encountered anything like that in any of our self drives, so we all just laughed it off and continued on our way.

Shortly after, a car coming toward us slowed down and we stopped to see what they wanted. The man in the car told us that at the next left, if we turned there was a large pride of lions. We thanked him profusely and drove off, hoping we didn’t miss anything.

As we made our way down the side road, we were starting to wonder if we’d taken a wrong turn or missed them altogether when we saw a group of cars just over a small hill. Not only was there a pride of lions, but they were eating a male giraffe! I never thought I would enjoy seeing something like this, but when you’re on safari you gain an appreciation for all the animals and the role they play. I couldn’t help but be awestruck by the energy and force it would take a lion to bring down a giraffe. And watching the feeding frenzy unfold was a whole other introspective into how the animal kingdom works.

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A young male was eating the giraffe from underneath while the rest of the pride watched. A few times, other lions tried to approach only to be growled at or hit by the male lion which was quite a sight to see! We stuck around for an hour or so and then decided to make a move so we could see other parts of the park before sunset.

When we were a fair distance from the lions I hopped out of the car (very quickly!) to pee figuring that with a full giraffe at their disposal, I’d be safe. As we headed out to the main road, we decided it was unlikely we would see anything else this remarkable in the time we had, so we went back and parked our car to watch the lions interact for another hour or so as other lions were given the opportunity to eat.

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As we drove back out we saw a beautiful young male, about 10m from where I’d gotten out of the car before. Yikes!

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We drove back to camp just as the sun was setting (and slightly over the speed limit to ensure we made it back before the gates closed!).

The next day we were dropping Michael at the airport, but not until later in the afternoon so we packed up camp and headed back through the park for a game drive along the way. We decided to head back to the lions, figuring with the size of the giraffe they must still be there and sure enough they were, this time with some older males.

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As we continued down the main road toward Paul Kruger Gate, we spotted a bunch of cars on the road and elephants about to cross, so we decided to pull over. Some of the elephants weren’t too happy with how close the cars were and a few (a fair distance away from us, thank goodness) made some noise to show their agitation! When we stopped for lunch and realized that James and Michael were dressed pretty much the same, it was time for a photo op.

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We (sadly) dropped Michael back at the airport before heading to the Managa border to enter Swaziland. We weren’t sure what to expect as, technically, we were not supposed to be bringing our car in. When James and I originally rented the car, we were going to drop it back off on Dec. 4th (also the day James’ license expired). When we heard Linds & Michael were coming, of course we extended our trip and it worked out well because we were expecting James’ new license to arrive in Canada before L&M came over so they would be able to bring it. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, so when we called to extend the rental they informed us that we would need to come in on Dec. 7th when we were back in Joburg to show James’ new license and get an extension on our permit for crossing borders. Of course, since we didn’t have the license we didn’t go back to get the extended permit! But given that very few border crossings had asked for the permit in the past, we decided  to try our luck. And it turns out luck was on our side, because we passed through with no issue (typical Africa).

We arrived at Hlane National Park after dark and were shown to our accommodation – The Big Hut which could comfortably sleep 8 adults! We soon realized (from the number of gas lanterns littering the hut) that we would have no electricity – so dinner was prepared by lantern light with the help of our head torches.

The next morning was a bit cloudy, so we slept in a bit. After a big breakfast, we got into the car and embarked on a self-drive. It didn’t take long to notice that the vast majority of the roads were closed off, though we weren’t sure why. Either way, we stuck to the open roads. We hadn’t been driving for more than 5 minutes when James exclaimed ‘Holy S&*T!’ and we turned to see a massive rhino on our right. It was by far the closest we’d come to seeing rhinos in Africa! We parked and watched as the rhino crossed in front of our car before heading off again.

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As it turns out, that was the most exciting thing we’d see all morning! We knew that there were lions, elephants and leopards in the park (in addition to the usual suspects) but didn’t see anything except antelope. It had been less than 2 hours, but we decided to turn around and head back to the camp,  through a different gate. Just before we reached the gate we saw a side road that wasn’t closed off! I suggested we go down it; I reasoned that we should go down whatever roads we could since there were no many closed off! We started down the dirt path and, again, didn’t see too much – some antelope and a few warthogs.

We saw a large mud puddle up ahead, but there was about 4 feet of dry ground beside it – better than some of the puddles we’d been through with this car! We started up on the left side beside the puddle, but within seconds the right side of the car was pushed into it. Crap. We were stuck. In the middle of a national park. Again. (Only this time, we weren’t sure if/when we’d see other tourists!). James and I had grown accustomed to car issues and so he quickly hopped out to assess the damage while Linds looked at him like he was insane. He started looking for rocks or large sticks to put under the back tires to give some traction and then he pushed while I tried to get us out. No luck. I hopped out and started to help and soon after Linds was out too. I was constantly on the lookout for wild animals (we had no idea what might be out there!) and when Linds heard a warthog and screamed, I hopped into the car as fast as I could slamming the doors.

After an hour of trying to get the car out, it was clear we needed more help and James said we should walk back to camp. ‘No freaking way!’ Linds and I said (perhaps using different words). We wanted to wait on the off-chance a park guide would come by. James was sure we would be stuck on our own and after a lot of back and forth we came to somewhat of a compromise – it was 1pm. If no one came by 4pm I would walk back to the camp with him (we didn’t want to be stuck in the dark). In the meantime, I was constantly trying both our phones to see if we could call the camp for help. We had SA sim cards, but they weren’t providing a lot of help in Swaziland. Linds turned on her phone and got a signal so we quickly called over to camp and (after getting lectured) they told me they’d send someone over.

I think the growing frustration and James knowing he couldn’t do anything provided some incentive for him to get creative, and soon he was rocking the car by moving forward as much as he could and then quickly throwing it into reverse.  A centimeter turned into an inch, which turned into 6 inches and then a foot moving back and forth. I looked back at Linds optimistically and she shot me a thumbs up. After moving back nearly a meter, James and I got out of the car and gave a final push while Linds reversed. We were out! We turned around and headed back to the main road, not before we drove past some rhinos (I’m not sure how they would have reacted if they’d seen us on foot! As we approached the main road (from a different entry point) we ran into the park ranger who was coming to pull us out. I wouldn’t say he was angry, as much as he was disappointed as he scolded us for driving on one of the closed off roads. ‘But it wasn’t closed!’ we insisted. ‘We never would have gone down a closed road!’. He told us that even the park rangers don’t use those roads on rainy days because of the mud puddles and the potential damage getting stuck could do to the roads. We continued to apologize profusely and explained exactly where we had entered the road.

We arrived back at camp and changed to our second night’s accommodation which was even larger than the night before! And luckily a little more private because we gave our car a quick wash to avoid attention and embarrassment.

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Later that afternoon, we went on a sunset drive. Before departing, we saw the ranger who had come to get us and he gave us a big smile – presumably he went to the road we’d told him about and seen for himself it wasn’t blocked. Our guide for the drive introduced himself and then took our drink order, grabbing 6 beers for the 3 of us (this guy was already much better than Dashi!). We had 3 others join on the drive, including a little girl who provided hilarious commentary throughout. After driving down the main road, we came to a locked gate (which we had seen on our morning drive) and the guide informed us that this is where the lions were kept – no wonder we didn’t see any in the morning! Since the national park is divided by a main highway that people walk and bike on (in addition to driving) they decided to keep the lions fenced in for safety reasons.

Before too long, we came across a large male elephant. As we watched him, our guide told us about the different ways elephants give warning signs before they charge. “They flare our their ears”. This elephant’s ears were out. “They pretend to eat”. This elephant was picking up grass, putting it to his mouth and then dropping it. Literally all of the warning signs he went through were ones that this elephant was giving! As we continued to approach the elephant, he slowed down and then stopped – his hand on the gear shift ready to throw it into reverse. And as we inched forward and the elephant suddenly moved his head and made a loud noise, the guide did just that! We sped away backwards, nervously giggling. These elephants were quite different from the ones in other parks! We figured that since only guided drives come into this area, at max 2 times a day they probably weren’t as used to cars and humans. Either way, nothing like 2 near-death experiences in one day to add some excitement to your safari adventure!

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As we drove off and saw a vulture, the little girl thoughtfully asked ‘If we die here, will vultures eat us?’. It definitely broke the tension we were all feeling! We continued to drive and came across a group of female lions, walking toward us. The nerves from our elephant encounter were still a bit fresh and as they neared, staring at us,  I think we were all wondering when our guide was going to move the vehicle.

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Eventually, we were back safe and sound at the camp and after a few glasses of wine, relaxed enough to laugh at the excitement of the day. We were headed back to Joburg the next day, having had some incredible animal encounters. We gave Linds a real, authentic safari experience – that’s for sure! I have no doubt we’ll be talking and laughing about this trip for many years to come.

-Catie xx

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