Planning a safari is never easy. Everybody wants to see the Big Five when they hit Kruger. Most people are under the assumption that a good tour operator would assure them a chance to see the big ones. We, having never done a safari before, were under the same impression and religiously did our homework to finally choose Nhongo safaris.
We made it to Johannesburg in one piece with our bags intact; we were scheduled to leave for Kruger a day later. After a minor hiccup, where our Uber driver got us lost on the way to the airport for our shuttle, we were on our way! The journey was a 6 hour-long really boring highway drive with a quick stop in Nelspruit, where we changed over to the open-aired safari vehicle. Our guide was Robbie and based on his 19 year experience at Kruger, we assumed him to be quite the serious no-nonsense guy. Little did we know then, how wrong our first impression was!
Reaching the camp post noon, we quickly settled into our absolutely heavenly room and headed out for our first night safari at 5 pm. The night drive was quite an exhilarating experience, where we spotted the Daiker, Marsh Mongoose, Impalas, Eagle Owl and, Cliff Springer just to name a few. We even got to see an Eagle Owl kill a Scrub Hare! For a brief minute, around a lake we could hear a lion’s roar!
Our night safari guide, James did some serious off-roading drive, which was quite the experience! The extra effort of trying to spot the nocturnal animals using the headlights made it worth the while. Our hopes went up when he told us a certain smell was that of a leopard marking its territory but alas we never saw him! The eventful night drive concluded with a warm dinner and interesting discussions with the other safari guides back at the camp.
Our second day started quite early and post a quick breakfast, we were all pumped up with the hope of spotting the Biggies even in the freezing morning breeze. The sight of a huge White Rhino crossing the road in front us, just minutes after our entry into the park, got us jumping with joy. The magnificent animal, weighing close to 1600 kg, slowly made its way across the road making the ford focus standing on the other side of it look minuscule!
As we made our way deeper into the park, we spotted more impalas. These have been the most successful species in the park with a population running to millions! We spotted a variety of wildlife ranging from burchell’s, grey monkeys, kudu antelopes, giraffes to ubiquitous elephants but no sign of the big cats. After visiting the Paul Kruger Memorial, we grabbed lunch at Skukuza. After lunch a couple of hours went by with me, eagerly straining my eyes to spot more animals. The rest had happily dozed off! Robbie consoled us by saying that a bad day at Kruger is usually followed by a very good day. With the knowledge of no big 5 sightings by other groups, we returned to the camp with a heavy heart.
The next day, we were up even before the crack of dawn as Robbie was determined to get us to see the big 5. The weather was freezing cold and the open safari vehicle did not make it any easier for us. As the sun finally showed its face, a warm glow spread over the entire landscape of Kruger, we soon forgot the extreme temperature and took out our cameras to capture this beautiful sight!
Just when the discussions started on whether we would see anything today, we came across three extremely endangered African Wild Dogs roaming on the road apparently heading for a kill.
Once they disappeared into the bushes, we continued our drive when suddenly Roomi spotted the CHEETAH. Robbie made a quick reverse, and we set our sights on a cheetah with her cub! With their skin almost the color of the grass, we were lucky to not miss this magnificent beast. Robbie informed us that both the cheetah and the wild dog were extremely rare animals, which are spotted only around thrice a month maybe giving us immense happiness that we weren’t leaving Kruger without seeing anything!
As we drove on, we saw a leopard chasing down a hyena from afar. The leopard, however, gave up the chase and ran into the bushes, so we could not get a closer view. But, a few minutes later, Robbie got a quick call on his radio about another leopard sighting and vroom, we were on our way for the rendezvous! As we moved past the vehicles which had gathered to spot the animals, we came across two beautiful leopards walking in the most amazing synchronized manner towards us – giving us goosebumps and the most surreal feeling!
At this point, all of us were elated and on the seventh heaven. We were having an amazing day. The cherry on the top was the sighting of the King of the jungle, the LION! Yes, our safari had reached its climax with the sight of a beautiful lioness lazing in the shade with her cubs. Even with just three days in hand, we had managed to leave Kruger with the sighting of the magnificent 7. This was something which we had hoped for but never thought would be possible!
This was when we realized how lucky one has to be spot animals within an area as vast as Kruger! One can pick the best safari tours but none can guarantee animal sighting. One would ask why anyone would even go with a safari operator; simply why not rent a car and just drive into the park. But I believe, that the safari operators enjoy a slight advantage in such a vast park. All of them are well-connected through their radios. Most of the guides, both old and new, also have a strong knowledge base and are extremely experienced on where animals are usually spotted or were spotted last making the task of seeing animals a tad bit easier!
As we headed back to Johannesburg in our happy high, we sang along with our dear Robbie, (whom we found to be quite eccentric) dancing and singing at the steering wheel having felt quite content that he had kept his end of the promise!
We were told that even a week was too short a time to experience what Kruger had to offer. We understood that only when we were exiting the park. We, by chance, had managed to see the biggies but the wildlife in Kruger goes beyond that ,but it only left us wanting to spend more time there. With Robbie’s stories on horrific rhino and elephant poaching and dwindling wildlife count, it is a dark thought to even imagine a future, where these magnificent creatures may be extinct. The takeaway message was clear – say no to poaching in whichever way we could, live and let live!
P.S: We did see a lot of bird species at Kruger but the lack of a zoom lens ended in us not getting all of them on camera. But, here are few of the birds that we did manage to click.
P.S.S: If you ever happen to choose Nhongo Safaris like us, do a request for the self-proclaimed ‘King Of Kruger’ aka Mr. Robbie Williams as your guide. I am sure you wont be disappointed!