Touring the Kruger National Park – tips on how to make the most of your African safari

So, hopefully, you’ve read our previous post, (Read: Planning-a-kruger-national-park-safari-from-cape-town ) on the various options and ways to get to the Kruger Park. You’ve reached your destination after a wonderful road trip or a quick couple of flights and you’re now ready to enjoy your African safari.

Giraffe drinking (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Giraffe drinking (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

How to squeeze everything you can out of your African safari

Today we’re going to focus on how to fully enjoy every moment of your safari in the Kruger National Park. You might only have a few days, or you might be lucky enough to spend a week or longer exploring the park. Whatever the case, you’ll need to know some basics to make the most of your time there.

Sunset over Kruger Park (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Sunset over Kruger Park (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

I’ve already mentioned in the last post that you need to be aware of speed limits and distances in the park. It should be theoretically possible to drive from Malalane gate in the south to Letaba camp in the north, for example. This is a distance of almost 250 kilometres and at a maximum speed limit of 50 km/hour on the main tar roads, you’d think you could get there in about five hours, easily.

Well, yes, you just might – if you drive like a bat out of hell (at 50 km/hour!) and don’t stop for anything. I can hear you laughing while you read this, but seriously – this is the Kruger National Park we’re talking about! It would be a complete waste of your time and money, as you would see almost nothing and what you did see, you would not be able to stop and look at and appreciate.

Driving through the park – what not to do!

When I lived in the Malalane area and managed the game lodge, we often had to drive through to Skukuza for my daughters’ sporting events. For those of you who don’t know, Skukuza is the largest camp in the park and its commercial hub. Everything happens there – the camp itself has banks, a doctor, mechanics, workshops, a museum. And just beyond the camp is the staff village, with their primary school, an indigenous plant nursery, and a golf course. Yup, that’s right. A golf course, in the middle of the bush. Let’s just say it makes for interesting games. And golfers on this course don’t often go looking for lost balls!

Getting the girls to Skukuza Primary in time for their hockey matches was always a bit of a challenge. There was usually something at the lodge that needed my immediate attention and I literally had to sneak out. We’d end up getting through Malalane gate and driving at the maximum 50km/hour non-stop, to get to Skukuza in time. That’s a distance of almost 65 kilometres from the gate to the camp, then a bit more to get into the staff village.

Invariably, this is when we would see most of the Big 5! I always felt like the worst kind of ignorant, uncaring person, racing past the most spectacular sightings. We had to endure scathing looks from the regular park visitors, knowing what they were thinking. So, I would slow down just long enough so that we could see what everyone was looking at, confirm “Oh, a beautiful big black-maned lion, just lying there, out in the open”, and then have to drive on.

Turn off the radio (and/or music), slow down, and just enjoy

What I am trying to say here is this: don’t be like that. Especially when you’re new to the park and new to game and bird watching. When we first started visiting the Kruger Park, I was 11 years old. My mom had managed to persuade my dad to leave the city behind and experience The Bushveld. The first thing she made him do, the moment we entered the main gate, was to switch off the radio.

The second rule was that he was not allowed to buy any newspapers while we were in the park. And the third rule was that he was never allowed to drive faster than about 15 or 20 kilometres an hour. These rules endure today when I take my own family into the park.  We cut ourselves off completely from the outside world and revel in the world that is the Kruger National Park. It is vast. It is unique. It is one of the most profound experiences you will have in your lifetime.

Open your windows and breathe in all that fresh air!

Leave all the cares and stresses of your everyday life behind you. Visit the museums and the ruins. Meander through the bush and go back in time to a world where men rode out on horseback with nothing but a rifle, a bedroll and a few utensils for cooking, for days on end, and pitted their wits against nature. Just a heads up – you will really feel like you’ve gone back in time, as cell phone signal is intermittent in the park these days (on purpose). This is due to the horrendous scourge of poaching – and in particular, rhino poaching.

A brief note on that topic – all camps have a sightings board, with a map and coloured pins. Each colour corresponds to a specific animal. This is for visitors to note any interesting sightings in and around the area of that particular camp by “pinning” the sighting on the map. These days, no-one is allowed to note where they have seen rhino, to prevent poaching syndicates from knowing specific locations. As I said – a scourge.

Looking for the “Big 5”

Most visitors to the park have only one thing on their minds. And no, it’s not what you’re thinking… it’s the “Big 5”. These are not, contrary to popular thinking, the five biggest animals in the Southern African bushveld. Many people I’ve guided in the park have listed the Giraffe, when asked to name the “Big 5”, thinking along these lines. They are in fact, the five most dangerous animals when hunted: Elephant; Lion; Leopard; Rhino; Buffalo.

The mellow-looking, cow-like buffalo, for instance, seems like it would not hurt a fly. And nine times out of ten, you could walk right past a herd of buffalo and they’ll simply stand and watch you pass by. But – wound this animal and it becomes a treacherous creature. Buffalo are known for the ability to come up with cunning battle plans. One of their favourites is doubling back on their prey (read: hunters/poachers) and attacking when it’s least expected.

Looking out for the “Little 5”

While seeing the Big 5 is the ultimate for most people – and granted, it’s always exciting – there is so much more to the bushveld game-viewing experience.

If you can learn to appreciate the small as well as the big, this makes for fascinating game drives every time. If you’re only looking out for elephants, leopards or lions, and you’re not driving slowly enough; not looking far, or close, or wide enough – you’re bound to be disappointed quite often.

Kudu bull (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Kudu bull (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

I have learned from experience that it is when you really slow down, take the “road less travelled”, open your windows to experience all the sounds and smells, that you’ll be rewarded with something quite spectacular. And it doesn’t always have to be a lion or leopard about to make a kill. Or a huge herd of buffalo crossing the road out of literally nowhere.

It can be a family of Southern ground hornbills –  now sadly on the  IUCN Red List of decreasing and vulnerable species. In South Africa, they are heading for “Endangered”.

Stop, look and listen

This is a very special creature to see, even if you’re not really that into birds. Watch our YouTube video below and look at those eyes and to-die-for eyelashes, to start with! This one is calling to his mate if you listen carefully – over the sound of someone’s noisy diesel engine!

This, by the way, is a perfect example of visitors to the park who just don’t get it. If only they’d stop, relax, switch off their engines and enjoy for just a few minutes. Not only would their experience be a helluva lot better – ours would have been too! But let’s cut them some slack. Maybe they had to get to a hockey match at Skukuza…

The birds, the bees and the trees

With so many different animal and bird species found throughout the park, you could take hours to drive just a short distance. But take the time to look at everything around you – insects, flowers, trees, grasses – and you can experience so much more.

On a side note here – every camp (except the very rustic, satellite ones) has a shop providing the basic foodstuffs and drinks, as well as wonderful curios. Here you can buy the latest Kruger Park guide and map, containing detailed maps and distances; gate opening and closing times; and camp information. They also give you excellent facts and photos of the most popular animal and bird species to be seen, checklists and tips for spotting game. In our opinion, this is a must-have for any visitor on their first African safari to the park. Even as regular visitors, we still buy the latest edition the moment we get in.

Flap-necked Chameleon (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Flap-necked Chameleon (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Armed with a little bit of knowledge, you will increase your chances of spotting the most elusive creatures. For example, understanding that you’re suddenly seeing a very different type of vegetation and habitat – more grass, wide open plains, fewer trees – means that you’re more likely to find cheetah in this area.

If you know a little about the animals themselves and their behaviour, you would know that a cheetah prefers open plains to hunt, as it needs to reach its top speed of between 100 and 120 kilometres per hour to be effective in catching its prey.

Cheetah brothers resting up during the heat of the day (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Cheetah brothers resting up during the heat of the day (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

What is this “Little 5” you speak about?

But back to the “Little 5”. Due to the fact that people have become so obsessed over the years with finding and seeing only the Big 5, some conservationists decided to introduce the Little 5. This was so that visitors could learn to appreciate that there is so much more to see and know, as I’ve mentioned. Each of the Big 5 has been given a corresponding, little “opposite”:

Big 5 – Lion (Panthera leo)

Lion (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Lion (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

The true “King of the jungle”. Nocturnal by nature, it may seem that every time you see these magnificent animals, they are doing nothing but lying around and sleeping. It’s a bit like if aliens landed on earth and tried to observe us only at night. They’d probably say the same thing: these creatures do nothing but sleep! This is because their day starts at dusk, as the temperatures cool. They then start to think about their next meal (if they haven’t eaten in a couple of days) or a cool drink of water. If you book a night drive in the park, you will be taken out on open vehicles by experienced guides and then have a greater chance of seeing the nocturnal creatures – lion, leopard, hyena, jackals, bushbabies, owls, genets and many more.

Little 5 – Ant Lion (Myrmeleontidae)

Scott Robinson - Ant Lion (by) Ant Lion – larva phase

You seldom see this little creature, which digs depressions in dry, soft sand, lying in wait to trap its prey – ants. The adults have wings and resemble dragonflies, though they are not well-adapted for flight.

 Big 5 – Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

Buffalo with Red-billed Oxpecker (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Buffalo with Red-billed Oxpecker (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Sociable animals, buffalo live together in large herds (sometimes up to a few hundred) and are diurnal grazers – meaning they are most active during the day and eat grass. You will often see small groups of large, older males that have broken away from the main herd. These are what we’ve always called the “daga boys” – daga being the colloquial term for mud. This is because they often wallow lazily in mud pools and like to cover themselves in mud to beat the heat and avoid biting, stinging insects and flies.

In the big breeding herds, if you look carefully, you’ll notice the cows and calves stay mostly in the middle of the herd, protected by the big bulls, who post themselves all along the outside. Predators such as lions will always pick off the weak and the young as their first choice. In this formation, they will have to face the massive bulls and get through them first. No easy task, as it takes a few, very experienced lions to bring down one big bull such as the one in this photo.

Little 5 – Buffalo weaver (Bubalornis niger)

Red-billed Buffalo WeaverBuffalo weavers (Bubarlornis niger) are noisy, social birds that build their nests in colonies in the split branches of tall trees. Their nests are large and messy, made from coarse grasses and twigs. They forage for food on the ground and eat insects such as butterflies, bees, wasps, locusts, and ants.

They are the easiest of the Little 5 to spot and to photograph.

Big 5 – Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Leopard (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Leopard (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Another nocturnal animal, the leopard is a shy creature and you will be extremely lucky to get a photo such as this one! They spend much of their time (by day and night) in trees, and will almost always drag their prey up into the highest, thickest branches of tall trees. When looking for leopard during the day, you would do well to scan the thick, shady bush on the ground as well as looking up into trees with sturdy, horizontal branches – the perfect “leopard sleeping spot”.

If you are a keen photographer, you need to understand that those special shots require a lot of patience and a lot of trial and error. You will probably end up taking hundreds of photos to get that one really great pic.

Sometimes, it’s worth just picking a spot somewhere, switching off your engine and waiting. You’ll be amazed at what comes out of the bush at you after a few minutes!

Little 5 – Leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis)

Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) drinking rain water (14007735144)The leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), named for its black and yellow spotted shell, is one of the largest breeds of tortoise in Southern Africa. A mature tortoise can weigh 23 kilograms, have a shell circumference up to one metre and a life expectancy of 80 to 100 years.

Water, water everywhere… or maybe not

Seeing the tortoise in this photo drinking rain water, this is another thing to keep in mind. Water is life. All animals need to drink at least once a day. In the dry winter season, one of the best things you can do is pick a dam or a waterhole, pack your “padkos” (literally translated as “road food” and consisting of coffee and rusks; or sarmies and drinks; or whatever else takes your fancy) and wait for the animals to come and drink.

Early mornings will give you the last of the nocturnal animals before they find somewhere to hide and rest for the day; midday will bring herds of antelope and various other animals and birds; and late afternoon might yield lions, getting ready to hunt!

In the rainy summer season, it becomes more difficult as there is suddenly water everywhere and animals are not forced to congregate in one spot.

Big 5 – Elephant (Loxodonta Africana)

Elephant cows with calf (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Elephant cows with calf (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Physically the biggest of the Big 5, and the largest of all land mammals, the African elephant stands approximately 3 metres tall and males weigh around 6,000 kilograms (6 tons). In the early 80’s, visitors regularly spotted the “Magnificent Seven” big tuskers. Each of these elephants had tusks weighing more than 50 kilograms each. Tragically, thanks once again to the poaching scourge, you no longer find big tuskers such as these in the park today.

The good news though, is that there is now a category that the park has named the “Emerging Tuskers”. These are younger contenders and the criterion is that the tusks must emerge at least a metre from the lip. There are currently 15 of these elephants.  The tusks of six of the Magnificent Seven (Dzombo, Kambaku, Mafunyane, Ndlulamithi, Shawu and Shingwedzi) are now displayed in the Elephant Hall at Letaba camp, which is well worth a visit. The seventh, João, is missing as his tusks were broken and never recovered.

An elephant’s lifespan is usually around 70 years, and they invariably die of starvation as their final (sixth) set of teeth wear out. It’s no wonder, really, since they eat constantly and can consume up to 250 kilograms of food a day. This comprises not just grass but also leaves and bark.

Be “elephant aware” – they look big, clumsy and slow… but they’re not!

When viewing or driving past elephants, always be aware of the following: these huge, gentle creatures can turn very nasty when threatened. Threats to them mean: they’re being hunted or deliberately harmed and wounded; or, you’re getting too close to mothers with babies. The other thing that can make them mean is that they are young, male and in “musth” – the equivalent of a teenage temper tantrum.

This, as I’ve mentioned before, is the only one of the Big 5 that I am still very wary of when in a vehicle. As long as you follow the rules – don’t hang out of your windows, get out of the car or make a noise – you’re generally quite safe in your car or even in an open vehicle. With elephants though, if you drive into the middle of a breeding herd; if you get between a mother and her calf; or if you drive up to an aggressive bull elephant, you are at high risk.

They have been known to stick their tusks right through vehicles and overturn them, or worse. I strongly advise caution whenever approaching elephants. Stop a safe distance from them. Never turn off your engine, just in case (this is the one exception) – unless you are a safe enough distance away. Always make sure that you have an easy escape route if necessary, and make sure that you’re not the one car caught up in the middle of a “sighting traffic jam” with nowhere to go!

How to read the signs

More often than not, they’re just taunting you (elephants are known for their extreme intelligence), and when they’re done having fun, will walk off with a toss of that big head and a flap of the ears. But, you need to be able to read the signs if you’re going to push your luck. Elephants flap their ears naturally because the veins act as a cooling system. They toss their heads and flap their ears as a warning to anyone they feel threatened by. They might take a step towards you, or even run at you for a short distance. This is what we call a “mock charge”. When they tuck their trunks in, however, and the head goes up and stays still, with ears straight out to the sides, and they start to run… so should you!

If possible, and taking all of the above factors into account, if you can switch off and just watch and listen, try and pick up the low rumbling sound. This is how they communicate with each other and is a fascinating thing to experience.

Little 5 – Elephant shrew (Elephantulus myurus)

Bushveld-elephant-shrew

Elephant shrews (Elephantulus myurus) are small insectivorous mammals with elongated snouts resembling an elephant’s trunk. Mostly living in monogamous pairs, they weigh between 50 and 500 grams and feed mainly on insects, spiders, centipedes and earthworms, with some fruit and plant matter as well.

Big 5 – Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) and (Diceros bicornis)

White Rhino (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

White Rhino (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

The two distinctive species are the white rhino (pictured here) and the black rhino (Diceros bicornis). The names stem from the original description “wide-lipped rhino”, which then morphed into white; and its opposite, the black rhino. White rhinos are much bigger (up to about 3,000 kilograms, or 3 tons); are grazers; and less aggressive. The black rhino is about half the size of the white rhino, much more aggressive; has a hooked lip and is a browser – feeding on leaves and bark.

Once again, if you know this, and learn to distinguish between the two, you know where to find each of these species. The white rhino is to be found on open, grassy plains; while the black rhino is more likely to be found in dense bush. A white rhino mother will walk behind her calf, with danger clearly visible to her on the open plains. A black rhino mother’s calf usually runs behind her in the thick bush, where danger could lurk around every corner.

A species about to go extinct

Both of these species are now extremely vulnerable and threatened (black rhino is now listed as “critically endangered” on the  IUCN Red List ) – and once again, poaching and human greed and ignorance are entirely to blame. For some strange reason, eastern belief dictates that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac. It is made up of keratin – the same as human nails and hair – and has absolutely no medicinal value or use to humans!

The debate rages on about what should be done to save the rhino. Should we allow trade in rhino horn, in order to flood the market and slow the demand, because rhino horn can be cut safely and will grow back (without the animal having to die)? Or should we ban all trade because this will continue to promote demand?

And while this happens, hundreds of rhino are cruelly and unnecessarily slaughtered every year and this species heads for extinction under our watch.

Little 5 – Rhino beetle (Scarabaeinae dynastinae)

Oryctes species, rhinoceros beetle male, Scarabaeidae EOS 045cThe rhinoceros beetle (Scarabaeinae dynastinae) is one of the largest beetles in Southern Africa. Males display aggressive behaviour, using their horns to fight rivals – much like their namesake. They are herbivorous and feed on fruit, nectar, and sap. They are harmless to humans as they neither sting nor bite, but when confronted they hiss and squeak by rubbing their abdomens against their wing covers. They’re also nocturnal and avoid predators during the day by hiding under logs or in vegetation.

Most of these Little 5 are generally much more difficult to spot and harder to take good photos of! Challenge accepted?

To conclude – a short summary of good game viewing tips

So, just to recap the basics (and add a few extras) of good game spotting for you:

  • Switch off all technology
  • Drive slowly (not more than 25 km per hour)
  • Stop and wait – switch off engines (except when too close to elephants!)
  • Stop at dams and waterholes for a while in winter
  • Check the ground and the trees
  • Look in the water in rivers, dams or waterholes for eyes (crocodiles; hippos) and terrapins (the “water tortoise”)
  • Buy or borrow a good pair of binoculars. Many sightings are too far or not clear enough for the naked eye, but spectacular with “binos”
  • A good camera is great for capturing those perfect mementoes yourself, and for growing into your wildlife photography – but not essential to start with. Also, you often find yourself missing out on the real-life moment if you’re always behind the lens
  • Buy yourself a basic guide so that you know what you’re looking at (a book guide, not a human guide!)
  • Have respect and consideration for animals and other people. Don’t race up to a sighting, revving your engine, or with loud music blaring (see the first point!)
  • Follow the rules – never get out of your car (except at designated spots); and never hang out of the window or sun-roof. Animals view vehicles as inanimate objects that are non-threatening and will often even walk right up to a car. The moment a human limb extends beyond that, it breaks the perception of the inanimate, “metallic box”. Animals then also detect your human scent beyond the petrol or diesel fumes
  • Be aware of everything around you
  • Use the camp sightings boards to check what others have seen that you might have missed

Spring, summer, autumn or winter?

And one last thing to leave you with for now. Winter (May to September) is the best time in the Kruger Park for your African safari, for many reasons. Firstly, if you suffer in excessive heat conditions, it’s much cooler. Secondly, it’s dry so the bush is not as thick, so it’s much easier to spot animals and birds. Also, game must go to waterholes and dams to drink. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, you don’t have to worry about mosquitoes!

The autumn and winter colours can also make for some beautiful photographic canvasses (as with the kudu above).

Spring, though, can be just as rewarding. There’s new life everywhere and the kind of vibrant greens of new leaves and grasses that just don’t seem real. This is the ultimate season of “rebirth” and is a truly special time to be in the bush. So it’s a difficult choice to make and one that will depend entirely on you and your preferences.

That’s enough to get you started, so we’ll leave it there for now.

Don’t forget – we’d love to hear your comments and feedback, as well as your own experiences. Please send us any comments or questions you may have, or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; sign up to receive new posts; or click on the Booking.com search box to book your next adventure!

 

Until next time!

 

 

 

About the Author

Hello there! Welcome to our travel blog. We are the Westerweels – Janine and Otto.
Our passions in life (apart from each other) include: travel; wildlife; photography; wine; fine dining; our children; our animals... and experiencing as much as we can.
We'd love to share that with you, so here we go...!

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