It wasn’t until I left my childhood home of South Africa to travel and live abroad that I began to appreciate the extraordinary natural beauty of my homeland. Its diversity of landscapes and geographies offer a visual feast of living wonders and breathtaking scenery. The richness of plant and animal life and world-renowned game reserves are a wonder to visitors who want unforgettable opportunities to get up close and personal with a variety of wildlife, including the famous “big five” – the elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion and leopard.
Kruger National Park
The Kruger National Park covers about two million hectares in the northeast of the country and is home to an impressive 800 species of birds and animals. Visitors are amazed by the sheer scale of the park, the excellent paved roads, and bountiful accommodation options that cater to every budget.
It’s the perfect destination for a self-drive holiday. Nothing beats the thrill of motoring through the bush scouting for animals. That hunter instinct kicks in and the adrenalin pumps – you never know what you’re about to see out there. It might be a herd of elephants drinking at the waterhole or a pride of lazy lions sleeping in the shade of an acacia tree. Or perhaps it will be a lilac-breasted roller trying to break open the carapace of an insect it caught by smashing it against the branch of a tree.
If you’re willing to wake up at 4am and be the first out of the camp gates, you have the best chance to see the rarer creatures such as hyena and civets. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times for viewing game, as this is when they’re most active. Though, of course, it’s always potluck as to how much wildlife you’re going to see in an area about the size of Israel.
Private game reserves
Visitors who prefer not to leave their wildlife sightings to chance should head to one of the private game lodges either within greater Kruger National Park or its neighbouring private game reserves such as Timbavati or Thornybush, where sightings of the “big five” are virtually guaranteed.
Private lodges, such as Tangala in Thornybush and Gomo Gomo in Timbavati, often cater to smaller groups, making it a much more intimate experience. Much of the accommodation is unfenced, so you are truly at one with nature. Of course, this also comes with a heftier price tag.
These reserves have a number of advantages over a self-drive holiday in Kruger National Park. For one, you’re in an open game vehicle with a higher vantage point, so it’s easier to spot animals in the bush. Also, these tough vehicles can go off-road to get you up close to the animals. And trained rangers and trackers know the animals’ behaviour patterns and territories. If you’d like to see a lion, they will more than likely be able to find one for you.
I vividly recall one afternoon’s game drive in Thornybush when we had sightings of cheetahs, leopards and lions – all with cubs – each from a distance of about six metres.
Predator-free game reserves
Scattered among the private “big five” game reserves are smaller lodges, such as Pezulu Tree House Game Lodge, which offer a different wildlife experience altogether – to wander on foot along bush trails without fear of being eaten or charged at by something bigger than you.
These predator-free reserves are home to grazers such as the giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, impala, and smaller game. At Pezulu, for example, guests can walk the easy Porcupine Trail, a loop that winds its way through the bush.
Approaching a group of grazing giraffes on foot gives you a very different perspective of their size and grace. You will no doubt find that the strange sights, smells and sounds you experience in the bush heighten your senses. The wealth of small, fascinating creatures around you will be more noticeable, from busy insects such as dung beetles, to colourful birds such as rollers or, if you’re very lucky, small, furry animals such as the mongoose.
If you’re visiting Kruger National Park or one of its neighbouring private game reserves, there are three nearby attractions you should visit to interact with animals you wouldn’t normally be able to get so close to:
Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre
This world-renowned facility, featured in the series Wild Orphans on the National Geographic channel, will no doubt be a highlight of any visit to the region.
This non-profit organisation headed by Brian Jones, a man passionate about saving Africa’s wildlife, takes in orphaned, injured and rescued animals and, where possible, rehabilitates them and reintroduces them to the wild.
A tour of the centre gives visitors an opportunity to get very close to a variety of animals such as lions, leopards and cheetahs that have been rescued. The knowledgeable rangers tell you about the animals and how they came to be there, while describing the conservation issues facing Africa’s wildlife.
At our most recent visit to the centre, we had the unforgettable opportunity to feed vultures and pet a beautiful, full-grown, female cheetah. The sound of a cheetah purring against your touch is definitely an experience to treasure.
Morning walk with a lioness at Tshukudu Game Lodge
The nearby Tshukudu Game Lodge also rehabilitates sick, injured and orphaned animals and, if your timing is right, you may be able to join some of these orphans on their morning game walk.
We joined an 18-month-old lioness and a gutsy Labrador on an early morning walk through the bush. The lioness would brush alongside the walkers to declare them part of her pride and, if you were quick, you could stroke her as she passed. We were not surprised that we didn’t come across much other wildlife during the walk.
Afterward, we were treated to a hearty breakfast before heading on to another unusual animal encounter – with a full-grown hippopotamus.
Feeding Jessica the Hippo
During the devastating floods of 2000, scores of animals were drowned or washed away by raging rivers, especially in the Kruger National Park area. One such casualty was a newborn baby hippo who had been swept away from her mother and was found washed up on the banks of the Blyde River.
The weak and tired little calf, who measured only 30 centimetres high and still had her umbilical cord attached, was found by a local couple, Tonie and Shirley Joubert, who worked to save her.
At their home on the banks of the river, they hand-fed the baby hippo a homemade formula consisting of egg yolk, cream and cow’s milk. Jessica, as they named her, grew to become a beloved member of their family.
This amazing hippo spends her days wallowing in the river outside Tonie and Shirley’s house where, on occasion, she interacts with other wild hippos – she even has a boyfriend now. Jessica still thinks she’s half human and loves teatime treats of corn-on-the-cob washed down with a delicious red bush tea.
At night Jessica returns home to the bungalow for her nightly aromatherapy massage from Shirley as she drifts off to sleep on her mattress on the verandah (which Tonie must keep replacing because of the hippo’s immense weight).
Jessica is truly a gentle giant and is quite happy for visitors to feed her and give her a nice scratch on her thick, soft hide. She is very impressive up close, and I would never have imagined I’d be able to pet a hippopotamus, the beast known to kill more people than any other in Africa.
Visiting each of these places has given me an abundance of unforgettable experiences.
I can’t recommend highly enough visiting this amazing area of South Africa. To come face-to-face with these remarkable creatures while surrounded by the magnificence of the African bush is something you’ll never forget.
I have no doubt that after one visit, you’ll be itching to go back again … and again.
How to get there:
Singapore Airlines flies to Johannesburg in South Africa daily. For a self-drive holiday, you can hire a car through agencies such as Avis, Europcar or National. The drive to Kruger National Park from Johannesburg International Airport takes about four hours.
If you prefer not to drive and want to stay at a private lodge, you could take an internal flight on South African Airlines to the airport nearest your destination. The airports at Nelspruit, Hoedspruit and Phalaborwa all border the Kruger National Park. Your lodge should be able to arrange your transfer from the airport.
When to go:
The best time to visit Kruger National Park and the nearby game reserves is during the dry season of June to September, when the grass is shortest and animals congregate around the watering holes. However, these are also the coldest months, and more pleasant months might be October or November. Although this is the start of the rainy season, temperatures are warmer and this is when animals give birth to their young, so you will have many great photo opportunities.
Where to stay:
Kruger National Park has an excellent website, www.krugerpark.org, and you can book your accommodation online. Most game sightings occur in the lower half of the park below the level of Phalaborwa, so it’s a good idea to be based at or near rest camps in the wildlife hotspots around Skukuza or Satara.
For a more intimate safari experience, head to one of the neighbouring game reserves. My favourites are Tangala in Thornybush for exceptional, up-close wildlife sightings of the big five; Hongonyi Private Game Lodge for outstanding hospitality and the chance to see cheetahs in the wild; and Pezulu Tree House Lodge for amazing treehouse accommodation, superb food and a great walking trail.
Thornybush Private Nature Reserve
Timbavati Game Reserve
What to do:
Visit the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre
Take a morning walk with a lion at Tshukudu
Feed Jessica the Hippo
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