It’s a sight that visitors from all over the world travel to see: the real Africa, up close and personal. Elephants ambling down beaten dirt paths, giraffes dipping their graceful necks for a drink at a waterhole, and herds of impala sprinting across the savannah. Just 6 hours outside of Johannesburg lies the vast Kruger National Park. Spanning 350 kilometers (218 miles) in length, Kruger is a Mecca for game viewers.
The Holy Grail for any tourist to see is the Big 5: lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant make up this coveted group. No animal however seems to elicit as much awe and excitement as the elephant. Once an endangered species in Kruger, the elephant population has bounced back, and flourished to more than 14,000. In 2008, South Africa lifted a 13-year ban on killing elephants to keep the numbers down, however that has not diminished the elephant sightings.
Despite the fact that they may seem slow and peaceful, elephant encounters in Kruger are no joke, and visitors should exercise a good deal of caution around these animals. The park camps are filled with posters warning of the damage that an elephant can inflict on a car and its passengers.
The best time to see elephants and other wildlife are the winter months (May – September). Sparse grass and bushes mean that animals are much easier to see without lush greenery to hide behind. Winter months are also drier in Kruger, forcing animals to come out of hiding and head to the waterholes to drink.
Winter months also pose the lowest risk for contracting malaria, which can be a problem at Kruger. However, it’s mostly a danger during the rainy summer months (December – April) when mosquitoes are most active, so it is vital that visitors take anti-malaria prophylactics before visiting the park. There are a variety of different kinds of anti-malaria drugs with varying degrees of side effects, so it is best to consult a physician before embarking on any course of medication.
The park offers a variety of accommodation, just make sure to book ahead as space fills up fast. There are more than 35 lodges and rest camps to choose from, each with its own unique features and level of comfort. Luxury lodges like the Imbali Safari Lodge give guests a taste of Africa, without sacrificing comfort. And for those who would prefer to experience Africa at her most raw and natural, Balule Camp is rustic and electricity- free; accommodation for only the most die-hard camper. Each camp is enclosed by an electric fence to keep out unwanted animal visitors. Well, most of them. Monkeys come and go as they please, so keep food locked up when it’s not being used. Each camp has it’s own cooking or “braai” area, and many of the individual huts have their own braai. Most campsites also have a small shop where visitors can pick up the basics, but supplies are limited and selection can be sparse. Fortunately, many of the camps have their own restaurants.
Dawn and dusk often prove to be the best time to spot game, and tourists often leave camp before the sun rises to get a head start. Most camps offer early morning and evening game drives with professional (and armed) game rangers. Space is limited, so guests must sign up the day before to guarantee a spot. Nighttime game drives are often the best as the park closes camp gates just before dark, and tourists and their privately owned vehicles must return to camp before the evening curfew. The camp-sponsored drive is a great way to see some of the animals that only come out after the sun goes down, especially the elusive leopard.
For more information on the Kruger National Park, visit: www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/
Elephant population: www.africapoint.com/newsletters/kruger.htm