Our next big adventure on our South African trek was a visit to Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in all of Africa, and home to hundreds of birds and mammals including the Big Five (the most feared animals in Africa): lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalo. To say we were excited about this particular excursion would be an understatement - we had talked about it for months before our trip even started. Needless to say, we were up early (5:00 AM), showered, dressed and in the dining car just after 6:00 AM. Following a hearty breakfast, we disembarked the train and walked across the platform to the waiting Toyota Land Cruiser open safari vehicles that would take us through the park. Each vehicle held up to 10 passengers plus the driver - 3 bench seats behind the driver could seat 3 people each and there was a seat beside the driver. We had 7 passengers in our vehicle which made for a relatively comfortable ride with 2 passengers on two benches and one with 3 passengers. Once we were all loaded, our convoy of 7 vehicles left the train just after 7:00 AM and drove for about 20 minutes through a light drizzle to the Malelane Gate at the southern tip of Kruger National Park.
When we arrived at the park entrance, we waited for approximately 1/2 hour while our driver, Chrisman, registered us at the park office. Once all of the formalities were done, we passed through the entrance and continued on the dirt road leading into Kruger. At this point, each vehicle in our group went in a different direction along various routes through the park. The terrain was quite flat, the dirt road rutted and bordered on both sides by the iconic bushveld of Southern Africa. My heart was racing at the thought of finally being on an African safari!
Less than 10 minutes into the park we saw our first herd of impalas at the side of the road. Chrisman stopped briefly for us to take some photos. As he started to pull away, there was some grumbling in our group as we wanted a bit more time with them. He laughed and told us that there were over 250,000 impalas in the park and that by the end of the day we would have seen so many that we wouldn’t even notice them.
After driving another 10 minutes, Chrisman stopped the vehicle at the side of the road and pointed to a bushy area about 20 yards from us. There, scattered under the shade of an acacia tree were 5 lions - 4 young males and a female. What a sight! We sat quietly in awe and admired the majesty of these beautiful cats. After a few minutes Chrisman focused our attention to a group of vultures perched on a tree about 50 yards up the road and on the other side from where the lions were. (By the way, a group of vultures is referred to as a venue when they are roosting on trees and a kettle when in flight - see the list of what other groups are called at the end of this post). Chrisman inched the vehicle slowly towards the commotion that was happening under the tree where they were perched. As we got closer, we were able to see a number of hyenas pacing back and forth beside the carcass of a buffalo, the victim of the lions we had just been watching. The larger hyenas were feasting on the carcass while the younger ones were waiting their turn and keeping the vultures at bay. Over the next 2 days this unfortunate buffalo would be food for dozens of other animals and provide testimony to the Circle of Life.
We watched this amazing display of nature taking its course for another 15 minutes before continuing on into the park. We had driven another kilometer or so when Chrisman again pulled the vehicle over and stopped. This time we all noticed the movement in the acacia trees to our right as a group of elephants made their way slowly and deliberately towards the road just a few yards in front of us. It took a couple of minutes for them to reach the road as they stopped to eat from the acacia trees. It was breathtaking to see these huge beasts crossing nonchalantly just a few paces in front of us. What we had initially thought was a small group of a dozen or so turned out to be a large herd of more than 40 elephants of all ages and sizes.
We again began to trek further into the park and within a couple of more minutes we could see a large herd of buffalo in the distance. As we were gazing at the buffalo, Chrisman pointed to some large boulders between the buffalo and our vehicle about 50 yards away. He pulled over and as we watched intently in the direction of the boulders we realized that they weren’t boulders at all, but rather 5 white rhinos. They were standing perfectly still, but every few seconds we could see their ears and tails twitching. We had only been in the park for about 45 minutes and we had already seen 4 of the Big Five! Chrisman explained that we were extremely fortunate - the early morning start combined with the light rain had meant the temperature was relatively cool and so the animals were a bit more active than normal.
We spent the next couple of hours exploring different trails and were amazed at the number and variety of wildlife in their natural habitat. We spotted several hippos and crocodiles at one large watering hole. The hippos were floating in the middle of the pond and the crocs were basking around the edge. Not far away were zebras, antelope and impalas grazing on the grasslands. Further along as we drove, we spotted a beautiful male kudu displaying its elegant curly horns.
Just before 2:00 pm, Chrisman pulled into a gated area off one of the roads. This turned out to be a lodge, and the meeting point for our lunch with the rest of our group. We had been in the park for over 6 hours and the time had just flown by. We stopped for about 45 minutes and had time to eat and use the facilities before heading off again for more safari.
Because of the time of day and the fact that the animals weren’t quite as active, it was nearly an hour before we spotted anything we hadn’t already seen. On the road in front of us was a majestic male giraffe sauntering with elegance, his head higher than the acacia trees at the side of the road. He looked back at us briefly and then headed off into the bush where he nibbled at a nearby tree. Not far behind, a female and her calf browsed on some brush by the side of the road. A bit further along, we came across another large herd of buffalo. Nestled among the buffalo were several dozen zebra. Not long after, we spotted 8 wart hogs grazing at the side of the road and then a little further up the road, a waterbuck.
It was finally time for us to start heading out of the park and back towards the train. We had been told to be back at the train by 4:00 PM and we still had nearly an hour from our location in the park to the train. We needed to hurry to make it back in time. As we started in the direction of where our train was waiting, Chrisman spotted a venue of vultures in some trees about 100 yards ahead of us. He slowed the vehicle and proceeded cautiously towards the trees. On the left side of the road, about 10 paces from the vehicle was a dead impala being picked at by a few of the vultures. The vehicle now stopped, Chrisman stood up and peered along the brush on both sides of the road. He raised his hand slowly and pointed to a spot on the opposite side of the road from where the carcass lay. There, camouflaged in the grasses and brush, was a beautiful female leopard, staring intently at our vehicle. She sat perfectly still for several minutes before scooting off behind some trees.
Chrisman started up the vehicle and continued down the road towards the entrance gate. A sharp crackle emitted from the truck’s 2-way radio followed by a male voice asking Chrisman where we were and how much longer would we be. It was just past 4:00 PM and we still had another half hour before we reached the train. We were going to be late getting back but that last brief stop had been well worth it. Because of that stop, on our very first game drive, we had been extremely fortunate and seen all of Africa’s Big Five!
Even though ours was the last vehicle from our group to pull up to the train platform (a 1/2 later than anyone else) we were still greeted by the train crew with the traditional red carpet reception including warm wet towel, a glass of champagne and liqueur! We boarded the train and headed to the lounge car for our daily gin and tonic and reminisce about our fabulous day before getting ready for dinner. It turns out this became our daily ritual for the group of us who had spent the day together in Kruger - Kim and I, our 4 Tasmanian friends (Helen and Merv, Tina and Julian) and our engaging American priest, Chris.
After our drink we freshened up for dinner and waited for the xylophone call (which came at precisely 7:20 PM) to let us know we could proceed to the dining cars where we enjoyed an appetizer of coconut carrot soup, an entre consisting of shrimp, fish and mussels followed by a poached apple dessert. We retired to our room and sunk into bed after an exhausting day.
I have to say, it was extremely difficult writing this blog post because it is so hard to put into words what we experienced that day in Kruger. Being in one of the world’s most famous game reserves and seeing animals that are on the endangered species list in their natural habitat was visceral. A list of the wildlife that we spotted in Kruger is noted below.
White back vulture
Lappet faced vulture
Nest of red billed buffalo weaver
African fish eagle
African buffalo (48,000 in this park)
Impala (250,000 in this park)
African elephants (12,000 in this park)
Grey Go Away bird
Crested francolin bird
Red billed hornbill
Yellow billed hornbill
Brown snake eagle
Lilac breasted roller
Yellow billed kite
Red billed woodhoope
Zodiac of Dazzle of Zebra
Journey of Giraffe - while travelling
Tower of Giraffe - while standing
Rank of Impala
Sounder of Warthogs
Parade of Herd of Elephants of if a smaller group breaks off it is a clan
Crash of Rhinos
Vultures when flying are a kettle
Vultures when sitting are a venue
If you are considering visiting South Africa, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
After our first night on the Shongololo Express we woke up early at 6:00am and admired the scenery as we continued along the tracks towards our next destination. We went for breakfast at 8:15am. We finished up in time to board the bus en route to Pilgrims Rest at 10:00am. Our tour was supposed to start at 9:15am, but because the train did not arrive at Nelspruit Station until after 9:30 we were late leaving. Nelspruit is the capital of Mpumalanga province and though it goes by its original name, the city is now officially called Mbombela. Mbombela is a city in northeastern South Africa situated on the Crocodile River, is 110 kms west of the Mozambique border and 80 kms north of the Swaziland border. Because of its location between Johannesburg and Maptuto, Mozambique on the Indian Ocean, Mbombela is a major route. The population is approximately 60,000 with a racial mix of 49% white, 42% black with the remaining 9% being coloured and Asian. The main industries are agriculture, coal mining, lumber (paper mill) and the export of Macadamia nuts.
Average summer temperature for this area is a high of 29C and low of -1C in winter. During the Apartheid period pre 1994, many indigenous Africans lived in homelands, which are similar to North American Reservation lands for indigenous people. Many of the new houses are constructed of brick with concrete tile roofs. Land is not privately owned but considered tribal land. Agriculture crops include avocado, citrus fruits, bananas, and papayas. There is a thriving forest industry in the province but many of the trees are not indigenous to the area. Pine trees were initially brought in from Mexico and hard woods, including Eucalyptus, were brought in from Australia. We passed dozens of empty lumber trucks on our 100 km drive north to Pilgrim’s Rest as they were going to load up at the various depots. As we continued on our trek we drove along the Panorama Route looking down at the huge forests that were blanketing the landscape. The scenery was spectacular as we wound around the mountains and climbed to 1700 metres above sea level.
We finally arrived at our first destination along the Panorama Route - Pilgrim's Rest - the first gold mine located in South Africa. This mine was established in 1873 by Alex Paterson, known as the “Wheelbarrow Man” (because he brought all of his belongings with him from the Cape by wheelbarrow - a distance of 1600 miles!). This started the biggest gold rush the world had ever seen It was a huge resource and the town grew up around the miners and their workers. The mine was officially closed in 1974 however the town has remained as a heritage site and the original buildings are still maintained for visitors. Due to the remote location, there is a high rate of unemployment in this town with the locals doing what they can to survive. Many individuals can be seen carrying macadamia nuts in boxes on their heads to sell to tourists. As well, residents will come and clean vehicles for a small fee. We strolled along the main street of town, visiting the museum and had a coffee and milkshake at a small cafe. Then were back on the bus to our next destination for lunch.
We left Pilgrim’s Rest and drove for 20 minutes arriving in Graskop where we went directly to the suggested restaurant for lunch only to find it was an overcrowded with the large group from the bus. We decided to walk around the town first and browse in the shops. We were convinced by a starving artist on the street to purchase one of his wood carvings - he was very persuasive. Much of the town has very lovely flowers along the sides of the streets and we admired their colour and varieties. Afterwards we found a pancake house to have lunch and shared a minced meat and cheese crepe and a cheese and tomato crepe.
The next location on our stop was the Blyde River Canyon that sits at 1730 metres above sea level. The area has 7 waterfalls with the tallest at 92 metres. The Canyon spanning 57 kms is absolutely stunning. The jagged rocks and ragged walls make for a wonderful sight. The canyon had a natural river at the bottom and even though it was quite hazy you could see the stunning natural sculptures of the canyon with the different coloured rock and the rounded shapes from years of windy weather.
Once we had admired the Canyon we boarded the bus again towards our next stop - Bourke's Luck Potholes. Another mining location - Tom Bourke found a small amount of gold in this area and staked a claim however someone else found gold on the other side of ridge which turned out to be a bonanza. So Bourke actually didn't have much luck. This area is an incredible natural wonder where crevices have been created by the natural erosion of the earth where the rivers Blyde and Treur converge. The setting is really beautiful with man-made bridges spanning from one side to another. The pools (or pot holes) at the bottom make for breathtaking scenery. It was a long walk down to the bottom but very worth it to see the rock walls with the variations of color and the waterfalls cascading from one level to another. We were informed that the Northern Sutu is the native tribe in this area and there were many women in their traditional dress wandering around the area as well.
Approximately 1/2 km away from Bourke's Luck is God's Window looking over the valley to Hazy View. While this would be an incredible view overlooking the valley, it was unfortunately very hazy with smoke rising from the villages below. We tried to capture the beauty of the rolling hills and grassy slopes but it was difficult with the hazy conditions.
After all our sightseeing for the day we had a 2 hour drive back to the train in the dark. It was a tricky drive along with winding mountainous roads and made even more difficult with the numerous lumber trucks that our competent driver passed along the way.
We arrived back at the train at 7:00pm and quickly rushed to get ready for dinner at 7:30pm. We enjoyed a sweet potato cake as an appetizer and springbok with vegetables and rice.
The train left at 7:30pm and travelled until 11:30pm. This provided a much more restful sleep than we had managed on our first night.
If you are considering visiting South Africa, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.