The next morning in Jo’Burg JM and I slept in to the ripe hour of 6am which came as quite the relief. As we lay in bed discussing the possibility of the day, it seemed to be an easy decision that we would be checking out a day early and heading to Kruger National Park in the northeast corner of the country. We had a few things to take care of first. One, we needed to make sure it was what everyone wanted to do; we needed to book accommodations ahead of time since we’d have no Internet or phone in that area of the country, and we’d need to do Shaun the favor of switching from the Nissan to a proper car with cruise control – preferably something German.
After calling nearly every car rental company at the airport JM found a Mercedes with cruise control and navigation at the Thrify. The car would be available at noon. We had to check out by 11. We thought we’d show up early and get the paperwork started so we could be on our way to the park which, according to Google, was nearly 7 hours away and we had to be within the gates by 6:30 in order to be accommodated or we would have to turn around and by sheer luck find someplace outside of the park nearby. Africa isn’t exactly Oklahoma either. There aren’t Motel 6’s in random exits. In fact, there aren’t event random exits. The only unexplained thing is the amount of people that are walking hundreds of miles from any major civilization. Where are they going? How long have they been walking? How the heck do they balance a basket on their head and tie their toddlers to their Dijabouti (pun intended) with only a towel?
Regardless, we hadn’t even experienced these things yet because our “thrifty” car rental took 2 hours for some mild paperwork and a car that was hardly ready. We weren’t the only ones. Every renter in there was there long enough to get an intimate peek into their personal lives. I know quite a lot now about the inlaws and the recently engaged couple who had just come back from diving off the coast of Mozambique and/or quite possibly Durban. The girl was quite tall but about my age. She was still excited from getting engaged that weekend and treating her soon to be mother in law like her best friend. The entire ordeal was sweet. The rest of us, however, were far less enchanted to be stuck for two hours. Jeff stressed the count down now that it was far past 1pm and we had a few short hours to make Crocodile Gate at Kruger.
We finally piled into what South Africans refer to as a “Merc” (the Mercedes), ready to go while we all jokingly egged Shaun on, “All for your damn cruise control…” only to realize the car had no navigation system as promised. 1:15 and we are back in line for another set of paperwork for a separate nav system. Thankfully this time the process was short and we were out before too long only to discover by the time we reached the highway that our newly rented navigation system had entirely no clue where we were going. Junk!!!!
After several minutes of trying we stored the rented system and used our cell phones to nav to crocodile gate pushing 20-40km over the speed limit in certain areas in order to cut enough time off of the precious time we had wasted at such a “thrifty” car rental in order to make it to Kruger in time.
Moments down to 6:30 with only a matter of breaths to spare, we pulled up to the gate only to have the gate patrol quiz us —
“Where is it you are going?”
“We are staying the night.”
“Yes, where!? The name!!!???”
“Uhhh. It starts with an S. It is in the lower corner right here by the gate.”
“You need a reservation numba.”
“We don’t have one.”
“Then you have no reservation.”
“We called this morning…”
“Reservation numba?” she quickly cut us off. “Without numba you have no reservation. I cannot let you in.”
Entirely discouraged. We paused a moment before the conversation started to repeat itself and the attendant seemed more annoyed. She called her manager in the main office just behind us and quickly sent us over to verify.
We verified quickly. However, even after verifying they kept us at the gates for quite some time. We could not go in until an escort was called. We were staying at camp Shonga in the lower bush region, beyond the river and grassland. At sundown, our escort showed up in a pickup truck and we trailed behind him to the lobby of our camp at a high pace past a rhino that stood lonely at the side of the road, leaping impalas and several other animals.
The instant sighting of so many free roaming animals was amazing. We were excited to reach our camp. Our camp had a capacity of 10 and the 4 of us were the only one’s staying. This made everything about the camp private accommodations at no additional cost.
Our camp consisted of grass roofs and wood framed buildings that held together walls that were made of tent material – the very same we are accustomed to in the US with the see through bug layering and then the rain sheltering. Bugs could crawl through the space between the floor and where the tent started so the bed had a mosquito netting. The setting was extremely nice with a claw-foot bath tub, an outdoor shower and a queen bed. Aside from the tent shield the only thing remotely familiar to a camp-like setting was the overwhelming smell of the nearby septic tank or lack thereof.
We rose early. 5am was camp wake up call. 5:30 was tea time at the main camp. As soon as our tea or coffee was done it was time to set out for three hours of safari with our guide. Since there was only four of us in the camp, there was only four of us in the safari. This made for a private safari ride. We were as lucky as anyone could be as all the surrounding camps were sold out. We immediately saw a variety of animals and heard lions roaring in the distance. We spent the first hour circling the sound of the lions, tracking their paws and listening for them in the distance. We unfortunately never came close enough to see them. However we saw hippos cruising the currents of the powerful river, zebra running across our path, elephants off in the distance, etc. Our guide taught us that here in the reserve they refer to impalas as McDonald’s not only because their tail markings make an M shape but because they are around every corner and are considered “fast food.”
After our first run we had breakfast which was nothing too unusual. So far it was very South African and referred to as Continental like most places. We had passion fruit alongside other typical fruits and a variety of meats – sausage (which is not always your typical beef like here in the states, but this time I think it was), bacon, salami, and a slice of turkey. The meal usually includes some cheeses and olives as well. In other words, it is my perfect variety of breakfast and very European. We have more tea and mango juice, fresh. I am delighted.
Afterwards I watch Jeff and JM play Scrabble in the shade of the deck overlooking miles of bush, eyeing for any grazing animals. We saw nothing but Shaun had a giraffe visit his camp for a brief eye to eye stare down. I wondered around – back and forth between the main camp and our room. I read a book on the porch and attempted to tan my tragically white legs. The scariest animals out there to me seemed to be the size of the horse flies which would chase you as if you were a baby elephant to them so I quickly retreated inside to cool down from the ever-sweaty surroundings of Kruger National in the claw-footed bath tub. From there it was time for our second, afternoon safari with the greatest tour guide of all.
We started with tea again as we had already had our lunch around 1pm. Our afternoon safari was from 4pm to about 7:30. Straight out of the gates we came upon an entire herd of Buffalo, one of the Big 5. However, the Buffalo were hidden behind some trees and off the beaten path. Contrary to the rules, because there were only 4 of us and our guide knew we were up for adventure and ok with a bit of danger upsetting the animals, he drove off the path and down over the bush and within a few feet of the entire herd who sat begrudgingly starring at us. Some males kicked their hoofs as if they wanted to charge us and then decided our Toyota Land Cruiser (named Timon, no joke) was a much larger animal than them. We were surrounded. Our guide said there were easily 200 or more.
We moved on and it was not much longer when he spotted the same instance with a herd of elephants. Buffalo are known at killing the most humans on foot in the pride lands. However, elephants kill the most within the vehicle as they are much larger than us and can turn us over easily and trample us all when mad. It was just the other day that our tour guide had to out run an angry elephant… in reverse. However, he brought us right up to the herd off the beaten path again. We saw baby elephants of all sizes rushing to keep up with their mothers and reach for their tails just like in the movie Jungle Book. The entire sight was delighting. For the most part the herds travel without any males and males travel together, separately. Therefore the herd immediately wandered away from us. We weren’t eager to get that chummy with any male elephants.
For hours we circled around finding miles of zebras and impalas, but never able to find the mornings roaring Lions or any Leopard which apparently can only be spotted in the trees and usually in the evening. Leopards are usually spotted by drivers (who are there every day) every 1 to 2 months. Our guide hadn’t seen one in over 2 months so we were sure it was time, but we did not get to see any cats on our brief tour.
Back at the main camp I was the only one to be daring enough to ask for Kudu for dinner while everyone else ate chicken. Kudu was one of the animals we saw on our safari and rather tasty although with our malaria medication none of us had any appetite. I went to bed without dinner already a handful of times on the trip. I would say it was hunger that made it appetizing, but I still wasn’t hungry at all. I came to dinner out of kindness which quickly backfired into an absolute cranky need to go to bed. First night of “camp” was anything but a pleasant night of sleep as we all attempted to get used to the noises of the bugs and frogs around us. I woke that morning in an absolute panic thinking a local bird was something similar to a Smartphone alarm created in our somewhat peaceful world back home which I’ve now realized is a digital impression of what the rest of the world realizes is peaceful – the squawk of a bird and the constant buzz of forest bugs. Welcome to the Motherland.