Self-drive safari? Yes, it is a thing in Kruger National Park!
10/01/2006 - 10/14/2006 95 °F
The Majestic Drakensberg Mountains - inspiration for Tolkein's Misty Mountains?
The cars in front of me suddenly began to swerve to the right and left, brake lights flashing. We'd all just pulled out of Pretoriuskop Rest Camp in Kruger National Park in South Africa at daybreak, and hadn't traveled much more than a mile. "What," I thought, "is a rhino charging down the road?" As the car immediately in front of me swerved to the right, I saw what had halted the line of a half dozen cars: A pride of lions, lounging at an intersection up ahead. I joined the jockeying for a good photo position, then noticed that there was more to the scene in front of me. A herd of Cape Buffalo were faced off from the lions, wanting to cross to their side of the road to graze. The lions looked at them nonchalantly, but after a few moments, lazily got up and began to slink away into the grass.
One of a pride of lions contending for my intersection in Kruger National Park
The buffalo plodded across the road, but had no chance to graze before one of the lions darted back and chased the herd back across the road. The lioness stood in the road, tail swishing, but the buffalo were not happy. A few of the bigger bulls lined up and and jogged across again, the lioness retreating back to the pride. Several lions took the affront personally, though, and raced back to the intersection in force. The buffalo scattered back across the road, again. This went on a couple times, before the lions finally surrendered the intersection, and stalked off parallel to the cross road. I followed alongside in my car, snapping pictures of their lithe forms and haughty glances at the bulls, the surrounding bush and me. My self-drive safari in Kruger was off to an amazing start.
The safari was the whole reason for my trip to South Africa. I'd told myself that once I was up to four weeks a year vacation at work, I'd bundle two of them and go to Africa for a safari. While researching country choices for a safari, I'd been struck by how much ELSE there is to do in South Africa, as well. Kristen and Zulu childrenWhat sold me on South Africa over Kenya, Tanzania or Botswana was actually where I headed first when I arrived: The Drakensberg Mountains. Stories said that South African native JRR Tolkein (of Lord of the Rings fame) used the Drakensbergs as inspiration for his Misty Mountains. The hiking and scenery were supposed to be spectacular, and after reading several guidebooks, I was sold.
One of the travelers I encountered taking a photo with some local kids
I'd also been intrigued when reading about the two tiny countries in and around South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Counting out my days, it seemed like a good itinerary could be Johannesburg - Drakensberg Mountains - Lesotho - KwaZulu Natal province - Swaziland - Kruger - Johannesburg. This circuit, as it turned out, was one of the options that the Baz Bus offered. This hop on, hop off shuttle bus picks travelers up at various backpacker hotels and hostels and drops them off at other ones at their destination. Its "Drakensberg Loop" runs clockwise one day, counter clockwise the next, and seemed the perfect way to get around -- particularly in the Drakensbergs and Swaziland, which my guidebooks warned didn't offer much in the way of public transport. So, I bought a Baz Bus ticket for about $144 online, and booked my various legs. The ticket has no time limit, but you can travel in only one direction. If I'd had more than two weeks, and the ability to make more stops along the route, it would have been more of a bargain. However, I still figured it'd save me a day or two with its convenience.
On my first Baz Bus ride from "Joburg" to Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge, more than half the 22 seats were empty. I was even more surprised when only two others got off at my stop -- Kristen, a college student from North Carolina, and Stefan, a German in his 50s. The Drakensbergs loomed so large in my plans I thought everyone would be visiting them. One of the nicest things about the Baz Bus, though, is the "instant friends" you make at each stop. Kristen, Stefan and I would pal around during our stay there, eating dinner together and swapping stories each night in the Lodge bar. Upon arrival, the owner Illsa showed us around and explained the excursions, meals, etc., at Amphitheatre. Since we'd arrived in mid-afternoon, she offered up mountain bikes for rent to explore a little of the surrounding area. The hike towards Sentinel Peak in the Drakensberg MountainsWe accepted, and had a pleasant couple hours, enjoying the scenery of the lodge's location at the base of the Drakensberg Mountains. That evening, we welcomed Rebecca, an English girl, into our little circle, and she entertained us with stories from her recent two month trip through Africa, which included exciting episodes like white water rafting at Victoria Falls and encountering the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
Hiking up into the Drakensberg Mountains - no goblins in sight!
The next morning, Kristen, Rebecca and I joined about a dozen others on the lodge's Tugela Falls hike. This strenuous, 11-mile hike ascends more than 3000 meters to a plateau near Sentinel Peak. To say the views were spectacular would simply be an understatement. Falling away from you on all sides, were wave upon wave of rolling, stark, green hills, with only naked brown rock for adornment. The beautiful, cloudless blue sky reflected off of mountain lakes, while above us, the jagged peaks of the "Dragon Mountains" grew closer and closer as we hiked. We ate our boxed lunches atop the plateau, marveling at the view. Imagine the Arizona's Grand Canyon surrounding you on all 360 degrees, and you can maybe get a sense of the majesty of the sight.
After a short rest, we then descended to Tugela Falls -- the second highest waterfall in the world. We followed the marshy stream up to where it plummeted more than 1 kilometer down sheer cliff face. I sat on the edge, my heart pounding, with my legs dangling over the abyss, watching the water go down, down, down. Far below, in a misty green valley, it sorted itself out and wound away into the distance as the Tugela River. The panorama was incredible, and was everything I'd hoped the Drakensbergs would be. On our return hike, we had another thrill of descending via two metal "chain ladders" down more than 20 feet of sheer cliffside. By the time we arrived back at the lodge, our feet were sore from hiking the rocky path all day, but our hearts were soaring from the experience.
The payoff for the hike up the mountains -- the incredible view
The next day, Rebecca and Stefan joined me on the Lesotho day trip (see my blog post on Lesotho that Amphitheatre sponsors (see separate travelog). Before I left, I tried to finalize my plans for a rental car the following day. Illsa had urged me to cancel the one I'd reserved online in Pietermaritzburg, as she said it was too far away to visit the battlefields of the Anglo-Zulu war, which was my goal. She would try to get it switched to the nearby town of Harrismith. In the end, confusion reined, and I caught a ride the next day to Ladysmith -- where Illsa said Budget Rent-a-car's regional head office was. Except that there wasn't a Budget office there -- only Avis. I ended up paying a bit more with Avis, but renting there DID cut hours off my drive distance.
The roads of the KwaZulu Natal province were wonderful, well sign posted, and easy to follow. I had no real problems driving on the "wrong" side of the road. Every once in awhile, especially when turning onto a side street, I'd want to drift to the right, but I made few actual mistakes. I drove north from Ladysmith to Dundee, where I hoped to stay for the evening. Following the advice of my guidebooks, I sought out Lennox Country cottages and was rewarded with the most beautiful place I stayed. I had my own little cottage in a garden blooming with flowers, with sitting room, bedroom, bath, toilet -- all lovingly furnished with bright colors and soft blankets and pillows. The price was just over $40, and I found myself wishing I could stay longer at Lennox. My drive to the battlefields of Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana went smoothly, despite much of it being down dirt and gravel roads. Both places are in the back country, off the main highways, and the slices of rural Zulu life I witnessed along the road were priceless. Children in school uniforms, cattle herders out with their animals, and quaint villages of round huts with tall, peaked thatched roofs all flashed by my open windows.
The famous battlefield of Isandlwana -- one of the colonial British army's worst disasters
It took me a few moments to realize that the Rorke's Drift visitors center WAS the actual rebuilt mission from history. I thought I was simply walking through a museum prior to visiting the actual building (or ruins of it) that the British defended against thousands of Zulu warriors in 1879. However, it is well explained, with lifesize displays of the various rooms where groups of soldiers held out. Less than an hour away, Isandlwana felt more like a true battlefield visit. The strangely-shaped hill (called "sphinx-like") loomed over the sloping field of calf deep, yellowish grass. Scattered across the battlefield are white-painted stones piled in pyramids, marking the spot were units fought and died. There are also monuments and grave markers, erected over the years by family or British army units to honor the dead. I had the battlefield to myself, as it was only about an hour before closing time. I tramped about in a rough circuit, imagining the tableau of outnumbered British soldiery firing at masses of brave, spear and shield armed Zulus until overwhelmed. It was interesting to see the low-lying ground, or dongas, that enabled the Zulu army to creep close to the British encampment before being spotted. As much as I'd read about the battle, I admitted to myself that the experience would have been more fulfilling if I'd hired a guide. I would urge other visitors to do so (many guides are listed on the internet or Dundee tourist information office).
The next morning, I had a nice chat over breakfast with the owner of Lennox, who took me on a ride around his working farm. In addition to cattle and goats, he also raises more exotic animals like ostrich and eland (the largest of the antelope species). We had a nice time talking about South Africa, its good points and its challenges. From there, I drove to another battlefield and museum, Talana Hill. I didn't have enough time to do its sprawling grounds justice, as I had to hurry back to Ladysmith to return the car. Once back in town, I discovered I had more than 5 hours to kill before the day's only bus to Durban. I had to be in Durban that night so I could catch the Baz Bus to Swaziland the next morning. I visited the excellent Ladysmith Siege Museum, which documents the Anglo-Boer War battle where the British were penned up inside the town for four months before being relived by approaching imperial forces. The displays told the story from both a military and personal point of view. It was interesting to read of how the both the inhabitants and soldiers coped with the privation, dangers and boredom of the siege. I found a booklet in the museum store which detailed a self-guided walking tour of Ladysmith, so I bought it and followed the first quarter or so of it before the heat drove me indoors. I've never enjoyed tramping about in my full backpack, so was not as driven as I normally would be in my sightseeing.
A watering hold on Lennox Farm
As luck would have it, my bus was several hours late, which made for even more sitting around waiting. However, I duly arrived in Durban and took a cab to the Hippo Hide Lodge, where I had a few beers with the other travelers before turning in for the evening. The Baz Bus picked up only two of us in Durban, then took on five more in St. Lucia, on the way to Swaziland (See my blog entry on Swaziland). This was where I met Casper, Ulla and a younger German named Stefan, who I spent much of my time with in Swaziland (see other travelog). After a couple days of solo travel, the Baz Bus had once again insured I was among friendly, fellow travelers.
Following the wonderful time I had in Swaziland, came the one dark spot on my trip to South Africa. I'd expected the Baz Bus to be able to drop me off at the airport, where I had a rental car waiting for the Kruger portion of my trip. However, the driver said they weren't allowed to take people to the airport, so instead another passenger phoned a cab company and I was dropped off at a main intersection in downtown Nelspruit. I waited for a half hour, but the cab never showed. So, I decided to walk to the local tourist information office in the meantime to find out the bus schedule back to Joburg.
I hadn't prepared myself in advance for walking in Nelspruit. Normally, I photocopy a map so I can pull it from my pocket and check it discreetly. Plus, I had my full backpack and camera bag strapped to me. Looking at a map on a street corner while carrying a pack was akin to painting a target on me, and at one point I noticed three young men seemed to be following me. It was bright daylight on busy streets, but nevertheless they tried to stop me. When I refused, one grabbed at my camera bag and another my pack. I clinched tightly, shouting at the top of my voice for help. Although they pulled me off balance and I fell, everything was gripped or strapped on too tightly, and they ran off empty handed. I'd read all about the dangers of South Africa's crime-ridden cities, but I'd figured smaller towns like Nelspruit would have less of a problem, much like Ladysmith, which I walked around safely. Needless to say, I was wrong, and travelers following in my path should take note and do their best to avoid the downtown area of South African cities. At Amphitheatre, I'd spoken with a Dutch student who said that EVERY member of his class had been mugged in Joburg. To the South Africans' credit, a shopping mall security guard who'd witnessed the incident helped me find a friendly taxi driver, who took me to the Nelspruit airport. I was soon on my way to Kruger National Park to seek out the four legged wildlife, rather than the two legged predators of the cities.
A white rhino just a few feet off of the road in Kruger National Park
Speaking of "seeking out" animals, my biggest concern with driving myself through Kruger was not any actual danger from the wild animals. Rather, I was worried that being solo, and having to watch the road while scanning the bush on both sides of it for animals, how good would I'd actually do? Would I blithely drive by a pride of lions because I was looking the wrong way? That was my biggest concern. My first night was booked at Pretoriouskop rest camp on the southwestern edge of the park. For the next three nights, I'd booked a spot on the Olifants Wilderness Trail, which seemed to me a very reasonably priced, three day walking safari. The very idea of hiking out in the bush amongst the animals (with armed guides, of course) sounded amazing. So, the self drive part was only my afternoon drive into Kruger, then the next day's drive from Pretoriuskop north and east to Letaba rest camp (6-7 hours, as it turned out), where I'd be picked up for my Wilderness Trail.
Any fears of failure to be able to spot game were dispelled in the first 15 minutes of my foray into Kruger. Pretoriuskop is less than five miles from the Numbi gate into Kruger. In that short distance, I spotted several Cape Buffalo and a pair of white Rhinos. It was astounding how close you could get to them. The rhinos were literally less than 20 yards away, and the buffalo about the same distance. I'd barely entered the camp and already could check off two of the "Big Five." The concept of the Big Five (Cape Buffalo, Rhino, Elephant, Lion and Leopard) is a relic of the Teddy Roosevelt era hunting safaris, being supposedly the five most dangerous to hunt. I didn't care about that aspect, really. Personally, I'd rather see a cheetah than a leopard, and giraffe than a buffalo...oops, too late! That evening, outside of my cozy little hut in camp, I met (and shared some drinks with) my neighbor, De Villiers Smith, a genial South African who put my fears to rest even more. He all but guaranteed I'd see elephants on my long drive the next day, as well as giraffe, and most likely lion as well. His tip was to depend on your fellow drivers -- if you see them stopped, slow down and see what they're looking at. They'll do the same if they see you stopped...we're all in this together, he emphasized.
You'd be surprised by how much something as large as an elephant can blend into the terrain
And what a next day it was! As detailed above, I was barely out of the gate when I witnessed the standoff between the Cape Buffalo herd and the lion pride. I was told later by a camp veteran that I was very lucky to see this kind of drama -- there are folks who've come to Kruger every year for decades and have not witnessed something like that. De Villiers was right. I saw my elephants. I saw my giraffes. I saw nearly everything I'd hoped to see, except sadly, neither my cheetah nor a leopard. As I'd read, the early morning hours were best for spotting game. Once 10 am rolled around, with the sun blazing down from on high, the game either sought shelter in the trees and the gorges of stream beds, or dozed unseen in the long grass.
It does become work, after awhile, too. Scanning to the left, then to the right, then back again, over and over, is tiring on the eyes. It was especially so since I was trying to be thorough and checking the branches of trees for leopards, and the shady patches for lions. So, when I arrived at Letaba around 1:30 pm, I was actually quite happy to take a break from game spotting. I bought an iced tea and relaxed on the restaurant verandah, watching two elephants far below bathing in a stream. Eventually, I motivated myself to drive to the camp store and buy supplies for my three days in the bush. My idea of being supplied for three days was light years from a couple of my trail mates' idea, as it turned out. When we all met in the parking lot at Letaba, my meager two bottles of water, six pack of beer, and one package of biltong (South African beef jerky) looked pretty skimpy next to the cooler full of wine, beer and other beverages and food brought by Pierre and Louie -- two South African veterans of the Wilderness Trails. In addition to the ultra friendly South Africans, our group included Andy and Anne from England, and Riccardo and Stefania from Italy. Our guides were the outgoing Aron and more taciturn Michael.
It was an hour and a half ride to our "bush camp," where the seven of us, our guides and the camp cook would stay. Our two man huts (I got my own!) were constructed of wood and elevated, with thatch roofs and ample screened windows to let in the breeze as much as possible. The camp was attractively sited high above the Olifants river, where we could hear hippo snorting their pleasure (or displeasure) in the pools below. The group mixed well, with much of the credit for this going to Pierre and Louie, who could not have been more genial and helpful. There was no "you're a rookie and I'm a veteran" attitude from these two, and their geniality kept the conversation flowing around the dinner table or campfire, at night.
Hiking on foot through Kruger National Park -- with two armed guides, of course!
Our first hike the next morning came as a bit of surprise to me. I knew that the Wilderness Trails were set up to have an early morning and late afternoon hike, with time in between at the bush camp. I was unprepared for how brutally hot it would be. At about 10am, whatever nice breeze may exist turns into a hot wind. This heated breath sucks the energy out of you, and I found myself tired and dreaming of our open air, reed-screened shower by the time we arrived back at camp. I was also a bit surprised at how little game we saw, and how far away it was. All the pictures you see of these Wilderness Trails show hikers creeping close to rhino or elephant. Whether it was our guides' preference, or simply the way the trails actually are, we had no real "close encounters" afoot during our two days of hikes. Towards the end of the second day, when this discussion came up around the dinner table, I put forth MY interpretation on what the Wilderness Trails were really all about, asking Pierre and Louie if it rang true. I said:Hikers on the Olifants Wilderness Trail in Kruger National Park
The trails are about hiking and living in the bush. You see some great scenery and get the experience of actually staying within Kruger outside of the comfy confines of most rest camps. You are guaranteed you will see animals, but usually at a distance. You will likely get much, much closer to them in vehicles. If you are luckily, you will have a "close encounter" with some big game. Ours came as we were hiking through woods, when suddenly we heard a sound like a truck driving through the trees, flattening them. Pierre was the only one who actually saw the Black Rhino about 30 yards away, but the rest of us certainly heard it!
Sunrise in Kruger National Park
Both Pierre and Louie said my summary of the Wilderness Trails was spot on, and they agreed 100%. Was I disappointed with the Olifants Wilderness Trail? No. It was just different than I'd expected. I saw some amazing scenery. I had several signature moments when I felt close to the heartbeat of the animal life in Kruger. One was when we were driving back to camp and our spot to ford a stream was occupied by an immense herd of Cape Buffalo. Watching the animals react as we s-l-o-w-l-y eased our way through the herd was incredible. Another signature moment came when we witnessed what I called the Baboon Domestic Violence Call. We were lounging in the Olifants River bed, when a nearby baboon troop broke out into a no hold barred scuffle. Louie pointed out that a baboon's challenge, "WAH-hol!" sounds like it's calling another "Asshole!" The struggle, which included periodic beating the crap out of young baboons, went on for about a half an hour, and was an amazing thing to watch and hear.
So, no, I wasn't disappointed -- it was simply different than I expected. I'll long remember those three days, and the friends I shared them with. I'll remember Riccardo, Stefania and I sitting up late one night under the stars, quizzing our guide Aron about his experiences in Kruger. I'll remember his stories of exactly why it was the leopard, of all Kruger's animals, that he said Kruger rangers are most wary of. I'll remember the sound of a nearby hippo garrumphing into the night, as I lay in my bed. My time in Kruger did indeed get off to an amazing start with the lions and Cape Buffalo, but it had a wonderful middle and equally amazing end, as well. The same could be said of my two weeks in South Africa -- days filled with beautiful scenery, amazing wildlife, and warm friendship.