We arrived at the iconic Kruger National Park with an hour and a half to go before the gates closed. Whilst we were much earlier than we had been for Addo, the closer we got, the more I had been getting concerned.
This is Kruger, probably the most famous national park in Southern Africa. We didn´t have reservations, had we allowed optimism to triumph yet again? This time it really was a close call!
The brusk gentleman at reception raised an eyebrow when I asked to book a camping slot and advised that most of the campsites were fully booked. After about half an hour, eventually we managed to get a space at the Orpen campsite that night and Skukuza the following night. Not a bad selection.
We headed straight to Orpen to set up camp. It was quite a small and comfortable campsite. And also very close to lion territory. As darkness fell we heard our first grunt, way off in the distance. My heart lept and I grinned at James.
As the night wore on the grunts turned into roars, the roars into pants and by morning it was clear that there was more than one lion very close – maybe as close as a 1km away. I was up early, my heart in my mouth. My training went out of the window and I was pacing up and down the campsite holding my camera trying desperately not to put too much pressure on James to HURRY UP!!!
As I prowled up and down the fence line of the campsite I tried to take my mind off the lions by chatting to some of the other campers. I had been woken in the night by a very disturbing shrieking from some poor creature, a sound I had never heard before and which I hoped never to hear again. I asked around if anyone knew what it had been and found that those camping nearest the fence had had a ring side seat – whether they had wanted it or not! Two hyena had chased an impala into the fence and eaten it alive in front of everyone. I was taken to see the kill site but there was nothing left except a small spattering of blood – everything else had been eaten.
Somewhat subdued I wandered back to Henry to see how James was getting on. The lions roared again and my eyes lit up, I looked expectantly at James just as he was lighting the jet boil for a cup of tea. My mouth opened to protest but before anything came out he raised an eyebrow in warning and said ´you can bugger off, I´m having my tea!´. He is a builder after all!
But eventually we were out of the gates and heading towards the roars. As we left the campsite the lady who had told me about the hyena waved us off and said she was ´holding her thumbs´ for me! But sadly that was where the excitement ended. We drove up and down, round and round but the lions were nowhere to be seen.
Slightly disheartened I pulled out the Kruger book and plotted a route through the heart of lion and leopard country. Before long we saw three or four vehicles crowded round a tree with everyone looking up. There was only one thing it could be – a leopard!
Excited, we thrust Henry into the throng and asked the nearest person where we were all looking. As we followed their pointed finger our eyes focussed, not on a leopard, but a rather poorly looking wilderbeest.
The leopard had dragged the carcass up the tree and was sitting a little further back licking his lips. James saw him first through the binoculars and was thrilled when he turned and looked straight at us. I eventually prised the binoculars off him and saw a beautiful face looking out over the landscape. But we had no chance of a photograph, he was far too hidden in the branches and foliage.
We drove all day from Orpen to Savuti and down to Skukuza. We saw no more cats but were entranced by the birds of prey seemingly perched on every branch.
An eagle was preening and dancing before posing nicely for his photo
This vulture had killed a snake in the road and was waiting for us to leave so he could retrieve it
And this owl was fast asleep but it took us a while to notice with his markings!
But my favourite was the little owlet sitting on a branch watching us watching him
We found plentiful giraffe, our first since arriving in South Africa
And more elephants!
One of which was having a good shower!
There were a number of very pretty song birds everywhere including the African Starling and Purple Breasted Roller Bird
But this one I didn´t know…he looked for all the world like he was hunting something
The impala were as delicate and beautiful as always, often with passengers who were cleaning the parasites off them
We headed towards the river and found plentiful activity there
Including our first siting of hippo, thankfully from a safe distance!
This vervet monkey was too busy chewing on her lunch to worry about us…
But dusk started to threaten over the horizon so, tired but happy, we headed towards our next campsite, ready for a good night´s sleep and an even earlier start the next day.
We made it out of the campsite before 7am the next morning – and James still managed a cup of tea! We were in the heart of leopards-ville and I was determined to find my cat. The guide book said your chances of seeing a leopard around here early in the morning are ´high´!
We drove slowly around and around, up and down every trail, round every loop, staring up at every tree. After a couple of hours James sat bolt upright, pointed in front and said ´what was that??´. Henry lurched forward and we sped towards the spot. James had seen a large leopard ambling across the road but it disappeared into the undergrowth before I had chance to turn my head. We drove up and down searching the bush but the leopard had done what leopards do so well and merged into the vegetation without a whisper.
We carried on, slightly disappointed, but before long came across a group of five or six vehicles clustered around some bushes. This is lion-spotting-behaviour and our hopes raised again. We tucked ourselves into the crowd but initially couldn´t see what everyone was looking at. A couple of people pointed helpfully and mouthed ´lions´. Finally our eyes focussed, behind the largest bush…
Head down, crunching on bones, a large male lion was tucking into a recent kill. Unlike the leopard kill it was impossible to see what the poor creature had once been but right now it was lunch!
We saw far more with our eyes than the camera could pick up on and slowly we realised this was actually a grade-one lion spot! One by one we saw another male, two lioness´s and then a cub. They were sprawled out in the long grass, every now and again stretching and wandering to the kill for a bite to eat then lying back down again.
We sat and watched for almost an hour before, happy and finally contented, carrying on to see what else the day would bring.
The answer was a lot! We were having a fabulous time in Kruger.
But we had to leave South Africa the next day, the very last day left on our 90 day visas. We couldn´t risk over staying our welcome. We had to make a decision – stay another night in Kruger, animal spot the next morning and race for the border of Eswatini in the afternoon. Or head out of the Park today, find a campsite close to the border and cross early in the morning giving ourselves plenty of time to deal with any unexpected delays.
We had spent the last 3 or 4 weeks rushing around, frantically trying to squeeze everything in and driving many long days. Kruger was lovely but we were exhausted. We headed out of the Park that afternoon and made straight for a campsite within an hour of the Eswatini border.
´Under the Stars´ by name, under the stars by nature. We pulled up early evening and were greeted by a very friendly and helpful owner.
There was only one other person on the campsite, an elderly gentleman in his 70s who was staying for a month whilst he did a few Park Runs. He came over the next morning to chat to us about his Park Runs, passionate about running, excited to be planning international runs in Namibia and Eswatini.
It was a lovely morning, open air showers, beautiful views and the pressure of finishing our South African itinerary starting to ebb away as we were just an hour´s drive away from our goal.
In the meantime James had been doing some reseach and decided that Henry´s overheating and loss of power was down to a blocked diesel filter. Eswatini is another mountain kingdom and we had a lot of steep mountains to climb that day. So he pulled on his overalls, got under Henry and set about changing the filter.
Finally, just before midday, we pulled off the campsite and set the sat nav for the Eswatini border. We had loved and hated South Africa passionately. We were relieved and incredibly sad to be leaving.
Eswatini beckoned along with rest, calm and some time for reflection. We needed to take some time out to feel safe, to relax and to catch up on Henry maintenance, laundry, the blog and various other bits of life-admin.
As we drove away we smiled at each other – South Africa, tick! Eswatini – here we come…..