KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH AFRICA — The weather couldn’t have been worse. Temperatures in the mid teens Celsius and a constant drizzle beat against the canvas tarp that covered our Land Rover as we barreled down the highway.
This was our third day on safari in and around Kruger National Park and it was the big one — a full day jaunt into the heart of the park proper, where the wide Savannah and numerous watering holes give you the most chance to see the full ensemble of African wildlife.
But we hardly gave the weather a second thought. In fact, our guide Mayneth said that the cool weather and wet conditions could help to bring the animals out without such oppressive summer heat.
So when we arrived at the Phalaborwa Gate and peeled back the musty tarp. Nature seemed to mimic us, the drizzle turning to a light mist as the clouds began to peel back from the eastern sky. From there, we were off, rumbling along the roads that criss-cross the park’s 20,000 square kilometers.
This is big game viewing at its finest, the jeep giving us an elevated 360 degree view, while the park’s less-adventurous, but faster paved roads give you quick access to areas that animals congregate.
And animals there were. As the last sheets of rain fell, we found herds of wildebeest, buffalo and zebra. Fields where there were too many impala to count. And all sorts of smaller fauna — a stubborn leopard tortoise that played chicken with jeeps down the middle of the highway. As well as a pair of incredibly rare red breasted hornbills — one of the most endangered species in the Africa due to habitat loss.
We passed small groups of giraffe, calmly munching on leaves as if we didn’t even exist. They rambled across the road before us, searching out the best succulents.
In Kruger, you get the distinct feeling that despite the paved roads and lunchtime rest stops, that this is really the animals home. We are only noisy intruders. Despite our joy of seeing them, we are nothing more than a slight disturbance to them.
The elephants in Kruger were much more spread out than in the deep bush, moving in groups of half a dozen or less — seemingly enjoying the uninterrupted space awarded to them.
So far we had only knocked two of the big five off our list — buffalo and elephants — and were hot on the trail of the much more allusive big cats and rhinos. Just before lunch we heard from a driver of a leopard sighting a few miles away, so we rushed off.
Leopards are perhaps the hardest of the big five to spot. Not only are their numbers down, but they are perfect stealth fighters — blending in with the tall grasses of the plain. But after just a few minutes of careful scouting, Mayneth’s eagle eyes just happened to catch a blur of gold fur out of the rear-view mirror. We stopped and tracked the leopard, just making out the tips of his ears as he made his way through the grass and climbed a wide tree. There he laid out lazily for most of an hour, only getting up to change position and give us a couple glamour shots.
In Kruger, a jeep parked on the side of the road is a massive stop sign for other explorers, so the sight of the leopard naturally drew some attention. As we left the group of a half dozen jeeps, one of the other drivers gave us the hint of some lionesses that were lounging near a half-dry watering hole. We shot off.
Sure enough, we found the pride of three lionesses relaxing in the deep grass, some 300 meters off the road. Even at that distance, we could see them playing and lounging — one laying on its back with its outstretched tummy soaking up the sun.
But nothing in the bush remains tranquil for long. A big bull elephant, obviously used to getting his way, came roaring down the game trail just meters from the cats, creating a perfect photo opp. And if that wasn’t enough, we watched as an apparently unaware impala bounded nearly directly on top of the lazy pride. If they had been paying attention at all, we would have seen one of the most amazing kills in real time. Instead, those lazy girls just got up and watched the impala bound off, obviously offended by the intrusion into their nap time.
After lunch, we tracked down a line of jeeps coming and going from an off-limits airplane landing strip. Apparently there was a massive buffalo kill by another pride of lions. Unfortunately, drivers that ignored the clearly posted “no entrance” signs were smacked with a massive fine. We didn’t want Mayneth to get in trouble, so we grudgingly passed by.
We were rewarded in the end, as we made our way out of the park. In a low dry riverbed, a massive male lion was sunning himself, belly bulging from a recent meal. As we quietly watched this old dude, he lazily rolled around like someone who ate too much at Thanksgiving dinner — then sat up to give us a beaming smile.
It was the perfect end to an amazing day. The sky light up like fire was we sped back through the grasslands and back to the treehouse camp.
Cold beers, stories and the day’s best shots were passed around between our little group of adventurers as we bounced on the highway.
Four of the big five down — and one day still to go.