BY BARBARA DRESSLAR
Alberta Newspaper Group
It was a pitch black night and eight of us from all over the world sat around the glowing campfire, listening to night-time animal calls and discussing the first day of our game walk amongst wild African animals. While on foot with two armed game rangers we had come face to face with elephants, giraffes, baboons, wildebeests, antelope and numerous small animals. The rangers had retired for the night so as the last embers died we stumbled to our two-person thatched huts, lit only by flashlights and by candle. In the dark we thought about the rickety chain link fence. There had been this disclaimer in the brochure: “A fence surrounds the camp but it is basically only to tell animals and people where the camp boundary is.” My partner and I had arrived In Kruger National Park in South Africa for a game safari, three days of which was camping at an eight-person remote camp with two game walks a day. The other seven days was more luxurious, sleeping in “Rondavels” round thatched houses with a bedroom, bathroom, small kitchenette with utensils and an outside porch. There was a cheaper option which are “safari tents” a wooden pad with a tent and two cots, no facilities, no utensils. We found that being able to cook saved money and gave us the food we were used to. We flew from San Francisco to Johannesburg via London. At the O.R Tambo airport we rented a compact car and drove what usually takes five hours to Kruger. There was a lot to see on the way, so four days later we arrived at the Phalaborwa gate about half way up Kruger’s eastern side. You can fly to Nelspruit and take a guided tour of Kruger but for economy and freedom we decided to do it self drive, where you book into various main camps and drive between them looking for animals. At night you are confined to a large camp which contains the Rondavels, safari tents, usually a restaurant if you do not want to cook and often a grocery store, the entire camp being surrounded by high fence and a gate at the main entry road. The camp gates open at 5.30 a.m. The best animal sighting is usually early morning and late evening so we would be at the gates when they opened, drive the many tarred and dirt roads in the park for two or three hours observing animals, arrive at our next camp late morning have brunch and relax, before heading out again late afternoon and scooting in just before they closed the gates at 6 p.m. As we had booked early, we often got a Rondavel on the outer loop so that we could sit with a glass of wine watching the animals parade around the outside of the fence 20 feet away and hear the lions roar. We stayed in four different camps, Letaba, Olifants main camp, Satara and the Oliphants Trail camp. Our favorites were the Trail camp for its isolation and game walks, the Olifants main camp which has a wonderful location overlooking the river where many animals come to drink, Letaba for its views, pool and Elephant Hall Museum. Satara has a high concentration of wildlife close by but is a large impersonal camp. Most of the camps offer morning and evening game walks for an additional fee. There are very high end game lodges surrounding Kruger costing a thousand dollars a night or more but for an inexpensive “African Safari” a self drive Kruger trip cannot be beat. Over the years we had looked at African Safaris but found them to be prohibitively expensive for our budget. Searching on the South Africa Parks website we found accommodations for two, in wonderful Rondavels, small round huts with a thatched roof. Most of them have a shower, toilet, fridge, stove, cutlery and bedding, which would allow us to eat the way we prefer. The price was around $95 US a night. These Rondavels are clustered into different camps some have grocery stores should you need one. Most have restaurants and bars and the two at Letaba and Olifants have outstanding views to the river below with many animals coming to drink. Travel to Kruger National Park requires a car, which can be rented at the airport in Johannesburg or if don’t want the long, but interesting drive, and have taken a connecting flight, the airport at Nelspruit (airport code MQP). Except for ranger led walks, game park visitors are not allowed to walk outside the fenced and gated camps. The best game viewing times are early morning and late afternoon so we were always at the camp gates when they opened at 5:30am for a 2 or 3 hour drive before arriving back at the camp for lunch, leaving again to view game from 3.30pm until the camp gates closed usually around 6pm. If you have booked early enough to get a Rondavel on the outer loop you can sit on your porch with a glass of wine and watch animals wandering around the outside of the fence well into the evening. Although the guided game drive rangers were better at spotting animals, we preferred the independence of driving ourselves. We had about 10 days to spend in Kruger so started at the Phalaborwa gate and went south. This allowed us to see the central and southern park areas, which have the highest concentration and diversity of animals. We spent our first night at the Letaba Rest Camp and the following morning joined six other guests and two game rangers for a short drive to the Oliphants Trail remote camp. The camp has no electricity but propane for hot showers and cooking and wonderful two person thatched huts. With just the 10 of us around the campfire and the night creatures calling under the stars, the game ranger told stories of endless wildlife encounters. Each day we awakened at dawn with hot tea or coffee perking on the campfire and then marched on foot into the veld looking for animals. We noted that the gun-toting rangers both walked up front, leaving those of us at the back constantly looking over our shoulders for lion and leopards. We saw elephants, giraffe, wildebeest, baboons, impala, rhino and on an evening walk, a large family of hippos soaking and grunting in the river. Two game walks a day left time to siesta at camp for a lazy lunch and early afternoon read or sleep. After three days of this we left this tranquility for the return to the relative bustle of the big camps. Leaving Letaba camp we drove south, usually leaving camp at sunrise and arriving at our next camp late morning when we would check in have a quick rest and do another game drive in the late afternoon. This allowed us to stay at four different camps and see the wildlife that congregates in different zones in Kruger. It was a wonderful 10 days, we saw the Big Five (leopards, rhinos, Cape buffalo, lions and elephants) and many more animals in their natural habitat. We watched a troop of baboons taunting a pack of hyenas, we saw lions stalking impala, and elephants spraying their young with water in the river. The magic of Kruger is watching the true nature of these magnificent animals. In addition to game parks, South Africa has river-carved gorges such as the Blyde River Canyon on the way to Kruger, fantastic hiking along escarpments in the Drakensberg Mountains, world-class wine country around historic Cape town with commanding views from cloud-draped Table Mountain and the 5,000-year-old cave paintings in brilliant red sandstone arches of the Cedarberg mountains.