Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Kruger National Park – by Keith Marallich, September 2017

I am not sure that I had ever written a piece dedicated solely to the Kruger National Park, so maybe now is as good a time as any to do so. One of the motivations is that there are continuing plans afoot to change the park from what it was in the days of yore, to improve and modernise it, if you will. These changes have been on-going since the Kruger National Park was proclaimed and we know that some good changes have taken place in the last few years, for example, all the main camps now have private restaurants – prior to this the restaurants were run by the Parks Board themselves, with mixed results. I remember in my early days of guiding, I always looked forward to visiting the Kruger Park (for the wildlife experience and not so much for the culinary delights), and I always had a problem of how to prepare the guests for the type of meals that they could look forward to (or not!). At some camps, at some times, meals were reasonably good, and then at the same camps, at various other times, meals were pretty shocking. For those of you who may have had this experience, think of boarding school meals in the 1960’s/1970’s (overcooked meat, boiled vegetables and jelly and custard!). However, for the last few years, the private restaurant options have been, in my opinion, far superior to what had been on offer under the old Parks dispensation and long may it continue. Now for many people, this may not be an issue, but for a guide that is getting long in the tooth, it is not wise to do self-catering, for a number of reasons (mainly because the guests don’t want just ‘pap en wors’, the guide (me) had spent the major part of every day driving in this magnificent park (for a few months of the year the gates open at 04:30 and close at 18:30!) and doesn’t have the energy to cook and serve up three meals a day, what with all the dishes and pots and pans that have to be washed, fires that have to be started and then one has to take into account the dietary requirements of the guests! If I remember back to one of my earlier tours with a group, one person didn’t eat eggs, one was a vegan, one a vegetarian, one was lactose intolerant, one had to stay away from gluten, one had irritable bowel syndrome and then you have Jack Sprat who could eat no fat and his wife who could eat no lean…can you imagine satisfying all these requirements at one braai?) No, we would rather use the restaurants!

Just some of the current new developments that are being envisaged or may already be in progress are:

 (a) As from 1 September 2017, all visitors who are 18 years old and above must produce a positive identity document (ID, Passport or Drivers Licence) to gain access to the park. For non-South African visitors, they must produce passports. Now this is straightforward and works like a charm, so that box is ticked.

 (b) On 18 February 2017 our Environmental Affairs Minister officiated at a sod-turning ceremony for the start of the building of the Skukuza Safari Lodge. This lodge is expected to be a 3-star facility with 128 rooms and will be located within the existing Skukuza Camp. The completion of this lodge is scheduled for September 2018.

 (c) In March 2017, following complaints on various social media platforms in relation to the quality of service experienced by guests at the Letaba, Satara and Olifants restaurants, SANParks put it on record that it is now in dispute with the operator of the former Mugg & Bean Restaurants at the above-mentioned camps. Seemingly, SANParks is embarking on an arbitration process with the operator in question and is unable to confirm how long this process will take.

These are some of the issues that I needed to check out for myself to see whether they would have any impact on our tours or if they would affect any of our self-drive clients.

Most people have heard about the Kruger National Park as it prides itself on being one of the most famous game reserves, not just in the country, but also the whole of Africa. The Kruger National Park is vital to conservation in South Africa not just because of the wilderness area it preserves but also as an educational tool and about a million visitors go through the gates of the Kruger Park annually. Its density of permanent game is unrivalled with hundreds of distinct species; 507 birds, 336 trees, 147 mammals, 114 reptiles, 49 fish and 34 amphibians! People can choose to experience the Kruger in many diverse ways, depending on their preferences and budgets, from a camping, bungalow, family cottage, guest house or tented accommodation self-drive holiday where you explore the reserve on your own with the help of a map, on a tour with a guide as part of a longer itinerary, or by visiting an exclusive concession lodge within the reserve for a more luxurious offering.

 Now, just a very, very brief history of this Park:

(a) The surface area of Kruger National Park is 7,580 miles² (19,633 km²) (or almost 2,000,000 ha) and to put this into perspective, the Kruger National Park is a bit bigger than Israel. The excellent public road network inside this park exceeds 3000 kilometres – that is a lot of road to watch wildlife from! I must confess that even with my many visits to this park, there are still many, many roads that I have not travelled on, especially those in the far-flung northern part of the park and even two main camps (Punda Maria and Shingwedzi) that I have not stayed at. The park lies in the north-east of South Africa, in the eastern parts of Limpopo and Mpumalanga Provinces. To the north and south of the park two rivers, the Limpopo and the Crocodile respectively, act as its natural boundaries. To the east the Lebombo Mountains separate it from Mozambique and its western boundary runs parallel with this range, roughly 65 kilometres distant to the west. The park varies in altitude between 200 metres (660 ft) in the east and 840 metres (2,760 ft) in the south-west near Berg-en-Dal Camp. Several perennial rivers flow through the park from west to east, these being the Sabie, Olifants, Crocodile, Letaba, Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers.

(b) The park was first proclaimed in 1898 as the Sabie Game Reserve by the then president of the Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger. It is not the oldest park in South Africa - that honour belongs to the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park in the KwaZulu Natal province, which was proclaimed in 1895.

 (c) James Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed the park’s first warden on 1 July 1902.

(d) It was only in 1923, when the South African Railways implemented a tour to the Lowveld that the potential of the reserve as a tourist attraction was mooted. An overnight stop in the Sabie Reserve at the Sabie Bridge (now Skukuza Camp) was included by the S. A. R.

(e) Up until 1926, it was only the Selati railway line (i.e. the tours run by the South African Railways), ox wagons, buggy carts, pack donkeys and horses that were the only forms of transport in the park - there were no vehicles or roads. The first tourist services introduced since 1923 by the SAR, was also exclusively limited to rail transport. As from 1927 onwards, the building of roads was started.

(f) The first three tourist cars entered the park in 1927, jumping to 180 cars in 1928 and 850 cars in 1929.

(g) In August 1927 the board decided to open the Pretoriuskop area for tourists.

(h) In 1928 the provision of amenities for tourists commenced. The first so-called “rest huts” were built at Satara, Pretoriuskop and Skukuza. Other rest camps were envisaged for other parts of the park.

(i) When an application was submitted in 1929 to open a “tea-shop” at Pretoriuskop, it was declined on the grounds that it would prejudice the “natural facilities” of the Park. Today the Pretoriuskop Camp has the only “Wimpy” in the Kruger Park, along with all its accommodation units and a quite lovely swimming pool.

(j) When the Park was opened to tourists, there were rather few rules and regulations besides that bringing in firearms was prohibited. When overnight facilities were created in the reserve, tourists were not even compelled to return to the camp at night. They could casually make their camp fires in the bush and then spend the night there. It soon became evident that this state of affairs would result in mischief and in November 1930 the first list of regulations was published.

(k) Today the Kruger Park boasts twelve main camps, four satellite camps, five bushveld camps, three bush lodges and fourteen private concession lodges. As mentioned earlier, the main camps all have their own restaurants and shops, whilst the other camps are self-catering. The private concession lodges are fully inclusive, so a stay here is in luxury accommodation and includes all meals, teas/coffees/cakes and two game drives daily – one of them, Rhino Plains Lodge, focus’ mainly on guided walks. Today the roads are well sign-posted and there are quite a few rules and regulations that one must follow – it may be a good idea to acquaint one-self with these before visiting the park.

Hereunder an image of a road sign at a crossing, as well as one of the rules, all presided over by a very conscientious inhabitant!

The first of the three camps that I stayed at on this trip was Lower Sabie, which is on the banks of the Sabie River in the southern sector of the park. This rest camp is symbolised by the most conspicuous of its numerous trees, the sycamore fig, which provides generously for the livelihood of many birds and insects. Not only do these giants produce fruit at least twice a year, but different trees produce fruit at various times, extending the gifts of life over many months. Watching the endless procession of animals coming to drink at the Sabie River establishes a sense of one's own place in the eternal cycle.

Now without a doubt, Lower Sabie is the most popular camp in the Kruger Park and one is very lucky to secure any accommodation here. There is no ‘easy’ way of securing accommodation here – usually, when reservations open eleven months in advance, Lower Sabie gets booked up in the first 48 hours. One then must continually keep checking for any possible cancellations and this is how I managed to secure my reservation.

Hereunder two images of this camp taken from the bridge, one in the morning with some elephants in the foreground and one at sunset.

The restaurant at Lower Sabie is the well-known South African franchise Mugg & Bean and provides good service, friendly staff and solid meals with a fair selection on offer. There can be no better view at any of these restaurants in the Kruger Park than this one at Lower Sabie – you can enjoy breakfast on the deck and watch wildlife in the river, birds overhead and all accompanied by the grunting of hippos.

Hereunder a small selection of images that I photographed in the Lower Sabie area:

A Yellow-billed Kite stretching its wings.

A staring contest with a zebra.

A crocodile gliding past us at Sunset Dam.

A Blue-headed Tree Agama photographed inside the camp

A Yellow-billed Stork fly past

My second camp was Satara, which is situated in an excellent game viewing area in the south/central part of the park, with the bush relatively open and the animals plentiful and diverse. The camp itself has a rustic charm, with the bulk of the accommodation set out in a series of circles. At night, the clink of fruit bats is fused with the chirping of cicadas and crickets. The calls of owls and nightjars add to the symphony that is punctuated intermittently by the whoop of hyena, the screech of jackal or the roars of lion.

At Satara we had some of our meals at the “Ring Gold Restaurant” – this restaurant is in place of the former Mugg & Bean that had been here. The M&B furniture was still the same, but all M&B signage had been removed, the menu had been downgraded and much of the items that had been on the M&B menu had been removed. Gone was that large selection of speciality drinks and many of the food and dessert items. This menu had been scaled down considerably and a relatively small selection of dishes were on offer, although most tastes were catered for. It seems that the staff numbers too had been scaled down as the service was quite good but without the friendliness that had characterized the M&B. There was no branding of this restaurant, except on the rather tatty menu and the till slip – no other indication of what restaurant this was. Dinner was fair to middling (I am not Jamie Oliver or Marco Pierre White or Gordon Ramsey) so I will not give a foodie’s perspective, except to say that the meals here seemed to lack the freshness of the M&B offerings and the menu was rather underwhelming. However, as with the restaurant at Letaba, their coffee was pretty good and their omelettes were filled and very tasty. Olifants and Letaba Camps also have this “Ring Gold Restaurant” so I expect that the meals are in the same league as the one at Satara. I did however have a cappuccino at the Ring Gold Restaurant at Letaba, and this was not too bad.

At all three these camps, they also have a “Tindlovu Boskombuis” (or Rustic Bush Kitchen) which operates until 16:00 daily. I decided at Letaba to have breakfast at the Tindlovu and there was nothing wrong with my omelette, filled with cheese and bacon and served under canvas outside in a rustic setting. They did not have toast on the menu (which, by the way, was quite limited but also has unique items on offer), but instead had freshly made “braaibrood” which was prepared over open coals and was quite delicious, served with butter and jam and/or cheese if you preferred).

The Tindlovu Boskombuis at Letaba

Hereunder a small selection of images that I photographed in the Satara area:

A juvenile African Harrier Hawk (previously a Gymnogene) that we watched for some time as it searched cracks and holes in the tree bark for something edible.

A Swainsons Spurfowl

A young hyena close to a den where there were another eight or so animals

Tree Squirrel

A hyena moving past some wary wildebeest

Skukuza is the Kruger National Park's largest rest camp and administrative headquarters and was home for my last two nights in the park. It is situated on the southern banks of the Sabie River and is well foliaged. Skukuza, for some reason, is shunned by quite a few people, mainly because it is the largest of all the camps in the park, as well as being the administrative headquarters for the entire park. The excuse for not wanting Skukuza that I often hear, is that it is too ‘busy’ or ‘too big’ My answer to this is forget all that – you go to the park for the wildlife, and Skukuza’s surrounding areas have a large selection of animals – enough for all to go around, notwithstanding the density of visitors!

The restaurant at Skukuza is the Cattle Baron. Their marketing claims that they are renowned for their steaks and that their aged grain-fed beef is wet-aged ensuring consistently juicy, tender and full of flavour steaks. But vegetarians, don’t despair, you are also catered for as they have an extensive menu (oh, and they are also the restaurant at the Addo Elephant National Park and the Storms River Mouth Camp in the Tsitsikamma National Park). This restaurant, in my opinion, is the best in the entire Park, with a wide variety of items on their menu. It is advisable to make a reservation here for dinner as this restaurant can get quite busy and you may want a specific table.

The construction of the Skukuza Safari Lodge is well underway, but the building site is hidden behind a large wall of shade cloth and the noise is minimal and does not impact on a stay here at all.

Hereunder a small selection of images that I photographed in the Skukuza area:

A Giant Kingfisher enjoying the catch of the day. He proceeded to beat this fish until it was soft so that he could swallow it whole

A trio of elephants in the long grass

Chacma Baboon – these you’ll always find along the Sabie River

Three swallow chicks being fed by a very busy mother – this at Lake Panic and continued for at least 30 minutes

Hippo display, also at Lake Panic

Other than game drives which is the major activity in the Kruger Park, other organised activities include guided game drives (with Parks staff), guided walks, mountain biking and golf. Of these parks-led drives, the following options are available:

Morning Drives - morning drives leave a half hour before official gate opening times, which vary according to the time of year. The drives' duration is 3 to 3.5 hours and you will be able to watch the sunrise over the bush. You will be transported on one of their open vehicles, usually a 22-seater vehicle, (but these differ from camp to camp) and a guide will interpret the natural bush as well as offer further insight into the ways of the Kruger National Park.

Sunset Drives - these drives leave the camp before dusk and return after sunset lasting around three hours. On these drives, you search for grazers in the cool afternoon and predators starting their nightly hunts. Sunset is a time when nocturnal animals emerge and a drive during this period is the perfect opportunity to witness the beauty of the bush as it changes from day to night.

Night Drives - the night drives depart at either 19:30 or 20:00 depending on the time of year and last for around two hours – these night drives are not available at all camps.

Guided Walks - Most of Kruger's camps provide guests with the opportunity to take part in daily early morning and afternoon guided walks. No more than eight guests are taken out of the camp's boundaries to explore the surrounding wilderness areas adjacent to the camp. Experienced (and armed) guides share their knowledge of the fauna and flora to explain natural wonders. The walks are relaxed and don't take longer than a few hours, so no over exhaustion will take place. Two armed field guides accompany you on the walk in order to ensure your safety and will focus on the things that you will usually not be able to see from a vehicle. By being out on foot you cover an area more intensely and you can experience nature using all your senses. If there is any large game in the area you are more than likely able to encounter them and have an exhilarating experience of approaching them on foot. Comfortable shoes must be worn, and clothing should be natural colours and applicable to the prevailing weather conditions. Cameras and binoculars can be taken along, as interesting sights may be discovered and guests can revel in the spotting of fascinating creatures and plant life. No children under 12 are allowed on these walks.

 Mountain Bike Trails. This activity is only available at Olifants Camp and allows guests to explore Kruger's environment by means of a mountain bike. Participants are taken to the start of the trail in an open game viewing vehicle, with a bike trailer carrying the bikes behind the vehicle. Mountain bikes are supplied as well as backpacks, water bottles, bicycle helmets (compulsory), snacks and a juice. There is place for a maximum of six participants per trail. Two qualified and armed field guides lead these trails where you can cycle in unspoilt bush and these vary from three to four hours, depending on the route taken. A certain degree of fitness is necessary; please remember appropriate comfortable bush clothing (neutral colours), insect repellent, binoculars, camera, correct footwear, hat, sun block lotion and personal medication. The guides carry a first aid kit and a hand-held radio for communication with the base camp in cases of emergencies.

Golf at the Skukuza Golf Course. The golf course was built in 1972 as a recreational facility for the Skukuza personnel, and is now available to visitors to the Kruger National Park. Since the course is not fenced-in, uninvited spectators are a common sight, hippo, impala, warthog and baboons to mention but a few. The Skukuza Golf Course has no bunkers, although 'aerial bunkers' abound because of the many trees found on the course. Tee-off times are available for visitors in the mornings between 07:00 and 11:00 from Sunday to Friday. An indemnity form must be completed prior to playing and standard golf dress code applies. Motorised golf carts and pull carts are available for hire. The Skukuza Golf Course is designed for all levels of golfers and this must rank as one of the most unique 9-hole golf courses in the world.

The game viewing on this trip was quite good, the weather notwithstanding. During the first few days it was very hot, in the mid to upper 30’s, with the thermometer registering at 39.5C (103.1F) on one day – and this less than two weeks into Spring! For those of you who may not believe that we are undergoing global warning, 39.5C a few days into Spring may change your mind. What will the sizzling summer months (December to March) hold? Anyway, back to the game viewing…Elephants were seen on every drive, lions were seen at least once a day (and one sighting a pride of 19 lions, but these were on the far bank of the Sabie River, too far for a decent photo), general game was plentiful. One morning in a 40-minute period, we saw three groups of elephants, totalling about 28 animals, two male lions and two white rhinos. We only saw leopard once, and this about 100 metres from the entrance into Skukuza Camp, but we did twice see fresh evidence of leopard activity in the form of dead impalas high up in a tree in two separate occasions and areas.

Three sightings that stood out for me were a flock of thousands and thousands of Red-billed Queleas flying as one, swooping down on the grass and then soaring up into the sky in perfect unison, three cheetahs, a mother and her two sub-adult cubs. Sadly again, too far for a decent photo but lovely to watch through the binoculars how the two youngsters played with one another and then one of the biggest pythons that I had ever seen, together with two smaller ones, under the bridge over the Olifants River.

Herewith two images of the pythons


Before any guided safari I will always try and get as much input from you as I can for your trip. For example, you may be keen on birds, and we will then concentrate on that, (but not ignoring anything else that we may encounter) or you may be a keen photographer and I will always try and position the vehicle to ensure the best view and lighting for a quality photograph. I have found in my years of guiding that quite a few guests, mind you, not all, but a few of them are those guests that have a different idea of how to experience wildlife from mine and I will also try and accommodate them. They have heard about the ‘big 5’, are maybe not keen photographers or not interested in birds, and want to ‘tick’ as many sightings as they can. They maybe don’t want to sit and watch the interaction of a herd of impala, or the antics of young elephant or baboon or maybe some giraffe interacting with one another – they want to see the animals, as many as they can, in as short a time as possible, maybe take a photo, and then move on to the next sighting. How many times have I been on a game drive in the Kruger Park (or elsewhere) where we have seen something? Before I can position the vehicle properly the clients are prevailing upon me to STOP, STOP, STOP! So, I STOP - and the animal/bird or reptile is now partly or wholly obscured by a shrub/branch/termite mound/whatever, so I tell the guests that I will re-position the vehicle and position it (as I would have done in the first place). The subject is now hopefully out in the open and can be viewed optimally for the conditions.

So, what does the daily safari programme entail? If it is with me, this below is what usually happens (but please note that this is not set in stone and changes are inevitable – each drive will be taken on its own merits). However, I will always endeavour to make your safari as enjoyable as I can and your input will always be sought. After all, this is your safari and you must enjoy it to the fullest:

• What time do we arrive at the Kruger Park? This depends on where we have spent the previous night, so for example, if we had visited the Panorama Route the previous day and stayed over in Hazyview, we will enter the park after breakfast. If we had stayed in Swaziland or the Itala Game Reserve, it will be a late morning for Swaziland and afternoon arrival for Ithala. If we had departed from Johannesburg directly to the Kruger Park, we usually arrive there at about mid-afternoon. These times are just rough estimates, as one also must consider at which camp one is checking into.

• Our game viewing commences immediately upon entering the gate and will continue so until we depart the gate again on our last day. We will head straight for our first camp to check in and freshen up. Again, depending on gate and camp, this can be anything from one to three hours from gate to check in.

• We always include a sunset drive with the park authorities and this drive usually is on the second evening. Again, depending on camp(s) and nights spent in the park, it can be on any other night. Although not included, I will also advise guests to pre-book a guided walk – this is really an activity that is recommended. You can also reserve additional sunset, night or early morning organised game drives if you so wish – but these guided walks and additional drives are for your own account.

• On our first full day in the park, we will exit the camp as soon as the gates open – this can be at 04:30, 05:30 or 06:00, depending on the time of year. Again, depending on which camp we stay at, we may drive to another camp and have breakfast there. The object is not to reach the breakfast destination, but to view wildlife en route. If we have breakfast at another camp, we head back to our overnight camp for lunch, again game viewing all the while.

• If we have don’t have breakfast at another camp, we usually go out for about 3-4 hours and return for breakfast at our overnight camp and thereafter another short drive until mid-day, when we take a break. If there is a hide in the area, we may also visit that. I have also previously had guests that don’t want the mid-day break and want to drive the entire day. I don’t mind this, but I also know that during the hottest part of the day one is unlikely to see much, and that which one does see, is also taking a mid-day break in the deep shade with very little or no activity. My experience is that guests only attempt one full day of driving before they realise that this is just too tiring for little or no reward and revert to taking a midday break during the hottest part of the day. Please don’t let this put you off, if you want to drive the entire day, we will do this (and every time I see a guest starting to nod off, I’ll point out a bird, impala or tree just to keep you awake!).

• I will also advise that one stays at a single camp for a minimum of two nights, but longer is better. For example, I recently spent four nights at Satara Camp and had still not covered all the roads in this wildlife-rich area! If your safari is for four nights or longer, we may decide on two camps (depending on availability) or more if your safari is longer.

• The remaining days follow a similar pattern to the descriptions above.

• On our day of departure we usually do a game drive to the exit gate and then enjoy brunch outside the park – but this really depends on what our next destination is.

In closing, let me just say that the game viewing in the Kruger Park, like any other state run game reserve in Africa, is dependent on a large portion of luck with a bit of local knowledge thrown in. If for example, you must see leopards, the chances of finding any on a three-day visit are quite slim (but not impossible) - if this is the case, I would advise that you rather visit the neighbouring private Sabi Sands Game Reserve, where leopards are very habituated to vehicles and are regularly seen (but still not guaranteed!). If your desire is to see elephants, I see elephants in the Kruger Park at least once a drive (so at least three times a day), lions on average one sighting a day and leopards, if I’m lucky, once a visit. Of the other two of the ‘big 5’ buffalo are also regularly seen, with rhinos less frequently seen. Having said all this, nothing is guaranteed – I remember a few years back on a 3-day tour, we had six different leopard sightings and not a single lion sighting!

The accommodation in the various camps is basic and not star-graded, but had they been, this would probably fall within a 3-star grade in the self-catering category. If it is luxury that you are after, there are many alternatives, from the private game lodges that abound in this area to the private concession lodges within the Kruger Park itself.

I have described the restaurants in the park above, so won’t elaborate on these. If it is starched white tablecloths and a soft colour scheme, champagne on ice and hovering floor staff in the dining room that you are after, with knowledgeable and attentive sommeliers on call, you won’t find this here. You also won’t find three-hat chefs preparing your meals in a Michelin Star graded restaurant, but the food (which for me is not the main attraction), is acceptable and reasonably priced - I hope the issues with the restaurants at Satara, Olifants and Letaba Camps are soon resolved and I will keep monitoring this and update this piece as soon as a slution has been reached.