This morning would start the high point of our trip – a four day hiking safari in South Africa’s crown jewel, Kruger National Park! Sure, we had done a few game drives during the Rovos Rail journey last week, and those were very cool, but to actually get on the ground and walk through the African bush with wild animals all around you is a completely different experience. I had done some hiking in my safari to Kenya back in 2001, and I remember the exhilaration of spotting crocodiles on a riverbank or a herd of elephants around a bend. However, those hikes were relatively short and last no more than an hour or two at a time. For this trip, we would be almost exclusively tromping around the savannas for hours at a time and for several days in a row. Who knows what manner of beasts we would run into.
However, before any of this could start, we had to make our way out there. For that, we woke up again at the lovely hour of 4:30, got ready and packed and made our way to the pick up spot at Pretoria Backpackers by taxi, arriving at 6 AM. Our driver was already waiting there for us, and so we immediately transferred vehicles and took off. There was one other group to pick up near the Johannesburg International Airport, and so we headed southwest for about 45 minutes before heading east again towards Kruger. The ride itself through the countryside was actually quite pleasant, especially as we drove through the northern Drakensberg range. The landscape is sharp and rugged, the foliage is a dense green, and rivers and waterfalls dot the region.
We arrived to the greater Kruger area just after 12 PM after a 6 hour drive from Pretoria. As it turns out, the two people we picked up in Johannesburg were not going to be on the same safari as we were, so they stayed in the vehicle while we were dropped off at the base camp of our outfitter, Transfrontiers, at the edge of Kruger National Park. Once there, we learned that we were actually going to be the only two guests for the next four days and would have the entire Klaserie Game Reserve for ourselves — all 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of it! To avoid any confusion, let me be specific here about the reserve and how it connects to Kruger. The Klaserie Game Reserve is a private game reserve and can only be visited with a reservation. However, this is an open reserve and is part of the greater Kruger National Park system. There are no fences or obstructions of any kind and animals are free to roam both into and out of the Klaserie reserve. It remains inaccessible to people to cross back and forth due to a lack of roads. I suppose one can always walk back and forth between the reserves, but there is always the chance of being eaten by lions or gored by rhinos, which would certainly add a crimp to your day.
After we signed our life away at base camp and relieved Transfrontiers from any liability in case we were eaten by wild animals, we jumped into the Land Rover with our guides Brian and Phil, and headed out to the Klaserie Game Reserve. It took about an hour to get there. The vehicle only had a cloth top which would be nice in most circumstances, but it was rainy and cold today and so we sat somewhat bundled up rough dirt road that led to the camp. We stopped every once in a while even before we got to the reserve boundaries as we spotted wildlife like giraffe or antelope to take a quick peek before moving on. Once we arrived into the Klaserie reserve, the roads were completely dirt trails with hills, which made the driving to the camp site even slower. As before, we stopped off in several areas to spot more wildlife. Although I was hoping not to see one, we did see a rather large python snake slithering in the grass. Just a short distance away, a bird was giving a warning cry to anyone who would listen as she also spotted the snake and wanted to make sure everyone was on full alert. Irritated at both the bird’s cry and our Land Rover intruding on its hunt, the python wandered off into a nearby thicket of bushes to await its next opportunity.
A little while later, we arrived at our campsite…a charming little place called Tusker Camp. This makeshift spot is well built out. It has a kitchen, two toilet areas, two shower rooms, a kitchen, dining tent, and enough tents to sleep up to 12 people. Unfortunately, that last part was not true at this point since several tents had been destroyed by a rather violent thunderstorm that had swept through the area a couple of weeks before our trip. Only the frames of the tents were still standing while the tent walls and roofs were in ruins. The camp was also situated right next to the Klaserie river. In fact, our tent looked over the sloping hill that led right into the river bank. For safety reasons, we were advised never to walk down to the river as there could be wild animals there including hippos, lions, and any number of other predators that could easily make minced meat of us. To make our stay here just slightly more paranoid, the camp was completely open like the rest of the reserve. Animals could, and would walk, through camp as if it was anywhere else in the bush. So, every time we needed to walk around camp or set foot outside our tent, it would be a good idea to look around and make sure a leopard was out for a Sunday stroll through our site. Not surprisingly, the chase scenes from the movie Jurassic Park kept popping into my head.
After we dropped off our bags in our tent and spent a little while resting, we were called out to the kitchen for lunch. In addition to our guides, there were two other workers supporting us: Phindile and Esther. Both of them were the camp attendants and took care of the cleaning and cooking. They did an absolutely fantastic job and the food they prepared was amazingly delicious, despite the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere.
Around 3:30 PM, our guides gathered us for our first bush hike. We loaded up into the Land Rover, and headed out to the western section of the reserve. Once there, we had a quick orientation on the rules for being out in the bushveld. Here they are:
1. Always stay behind the rifles at all times.
2. Walk in a single file line. The reason is because we want to look as small as possible from the front.
3. No talking while walking. We can talk once we stop, but we need to remain quiet while on the move so that we can hear animals.
4. Follow all hand signals. We were given an overview on the hand signals used such as stop, crouch, this way, etc.
5. Always listen to the guide. That last one is pretty much a given.
Speaking of guns, each guide carried a .458 Winchester Magnum rifle. They were loaded at the start of each hike and then emptied after we returned to the Land Rover or back to camp. The safety was kept on to prevent accidental discharge of the bullet. Rule #1 meant that both guides would be at the front of our line. I ended up at the rear. For the first couple of hours of the hike, I couldn’t help but keep looking back over my shoulder to ensure that I wouldn’t be jumped by a lion or some other beast. After a while, though, I became used to it as my own senses started picking up on the sounds around me and having my rear flank unguarded was no big deal.
This first hike was beautiful. The weather had cleared up from the rain and wind we had earlier in the day, and we spent about three hours hiking over the terrain. We didn’t spot too much wildlife on this particular hike other than the usual zebra and antelope species. Brian pointed out a number of birds and plants to us and gave us more information than I possibly could have digested in one sitting. Just from a personal perspective, having knowledgeable guides makes all the difference in the world. Just about anyone with some training could have led the trip, but without real knowledge of the flora and fauna to pass on would have made the experience far less enjoyable.
Returning to the Land Rover, we drove a bit to a lookout point for our sundown. Refreshments and food was pulled out while we enjoyed the sun setting over the rugged landscape. As it approached dark, we got back into the Land Rover for our night drive. For obvious reasons, we are not allowed to hike the bush after dark since that is the time that the predators come out and start hunting. You really want to be in the safety and security of a vehicle during this time. As if to prove this point, a short time into our drive brought us face to face with two adult female lions. Our guides had told us earlier in the day that they had spotted these two lioness’ a couple of days before and one of them seemed like she was injured. On this encounter, both of the lionesses looked to be in pretty decent shape. They were not travelling together, but we spotted each one about a quarter of a mile from each other. They were making grunting sounds to communicate over the distance and eventually the first lioness met up with the second one and they both crouched into the grass and watched us as we observed them. It was both wonderfully cool and oddly creepy at the same time.
Not wanting to stress out the lions too much, we left after about 20 minutes and continued our night drive as we made our way back to camp. Dinner followed soon after in the dining tent and then we prepared some dessert with bread, banana, and chocolate over the campfire. By 9 PM, we were in our tents and in bed for our full day excursion tomorrow.