October 11-15, 2008

Spot The Leopard

Pnina and I just spent a few days at Kruger National Park. And since the park is all about spotting animals in the wild, I thought it would be fun to open this post with a test. Below is a photo we took in the park. Somewhere in this photo there’s a leopard. Can you see it?

Scroll down the the bottom of this post for the answer.

About Kruger

Kruger is a giant national park in the northeast corner of South Africa, along the border with Mozambique. Our Lonely Planet says that the park is the size of Israel.

There was a famous video on YouTube not long ago called Battle at Kruger. As the name suggests it was shot at Kruger National Park, though I don’t know exactly where. Whoever shot that video is incredibly lucky – you don’t often see action like that in the wild. Mostly you see more mundane things like giraffs eating leaves or lions napping. But it’s still pretty cool.

Animals We Saw

Before I go into our experience at Kruger, let’s jump right into the photos. Here are some of the best shots Pnina and I got of animals in the wild…

There are five animals in particular (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, water buffalo) that together are called the “Big Five”.  They got this name because in the olden days, back when people were allowed to hunt more freely, these were considered the five hardest animals to hunt.  Today it’s considered a privilege if you manage to see all of them in a single day or at least in a single visit to Kruger.  We managed to see all of them, luckily, but it took a few days until we got a good view of every single one.  The leopard was particularly tough to find.  On the other hand there were some animals that were so common that you practically tripped over them — impalas and other antelope types.  When we first entered the park we would stop to photograph each one.  After some time we didn’t bother stopping.  And after more time we didn’t even bother pointing them out.

Our guide, JJ, said that the impalas are called the McDonald’s of Kruger National Park.  Care to guess why?

Experiencing Kruger

Since there are so many predators in the park, the main way to experience it is from the road. Visitors are not allowed to step out of the car except in campsites or in a few other designated areas like bridges (and even in those areas you see big signs saying “alight at your own risk”). All the pecaution is partly to keep from disturbing the animals and partly to keep visistors safe. We heard about a couple of Chinese tourists who stepped out of their car to get a better look at a lion. They were eaten. It’s no joke. The strict rules at Kruger mean that you can’t even step out of the car to switch drivers. If you get a flat tire, you’re screwed. We heard about one situation where a visitor got a flat tire while gazing at a cheetah perched on a nearby tree. Even the park rangers were not willing to step out of their Range Rovers to put on the spare; instead they somehow pulled the vehicle to a different location, away from the Cheetah, before swapping out the wheel.

Since the park is so big, it helps to stay a few days. That’s where the campsites come in. First off, they offer protection. The campsites are all surrounded by big fences (usually with electrical wire) and there are guards at all the entrances. There are signs warning guests against feeding animals across the fence because they can become dangerous beggars, especially the hyennas. And if these animals start to endanger visitors, they are euthenized. One of the signs said “you feed them, we shoot them”. In one of the campsites we saw a hyenna walk right along the fence, maybe 10 meters from us. Somebody must have fed it.

Visitors generally wake up very early to head out and see the park before it gets too hot (the gates open at 5:30 PM). In the afternoon it gets too hot to bother — it’s no fun driving around in the heat (our Kia’s AC just couldn’t pump out enough cool air) and anyhow most of the animals like to rest in the shade so there’s not much to see. So, in the afternoon you’re best off staying in the campsite, chilling by the pool (yes, these campsites are very well equipped) or sitting under the shade in one of the decks overlooking the nature around the campsite. Around 4 PM it cools a little so people generaly try to head out for one more drive, but you have to hurry back by 6 PM because that’s when the gates close for the night.

Pnina and I spent one night in the Pretoriuskiup camp (southwest of park) and then a couple other nights in Letaba up north. We also visited a few other camps. The best ones, IMO, are Mopani and Olifants – they had really great observation decks.

Guided Tours versus Going it Alone

If you have a rental car you can head into Kruger on your own. Alternately you can book a package tour which includes a ride on their 4×4, a guide, your lodging in a campsite, and food. We ended up doing a package tour for the first day and then going it alone for the next 2-3 days. The tour was pretty expensive: $180 each for about 1.5 days. And this (Funky Safaris), booked from our Nelspruit-based Funky Monkey Hostel) was the cheapest option we could find. So was it worth it? It’s a close call but I think so. When you go on the guided 4×4 ride you have a few advantages. First off, you’re sitting higher up and you’re not busy driving so you can focus on spotting animals. You also have the guide with you, and these guides are pretty amazing at spotting animals. And on top of that you have a few other people in the truck with you (we had 9 altogether) and more people = more eyeballs = better chances of spotting animals. All this meant that within the first 24 hours we saw basically all the animals at least once. As a result, when we went off on our own we didn’t stress out about trying to see animal X before our time ran out. We just relaxed and drove around at our leisure. In the end we had a few really good sightings on our own (e.g. a better lion, a better leopard, etc.). But I’m still glad we did a mix. By the way, the Battle at Kruger video was shot by a person who was doing a Thompsons tour. We looked into them and we heard good things about them from the kiwis who were on our Soweto tour, but they were just too expensive.Another thing about a guided tour is that you get to meet random people from around the world and trade stories with them. On our tour we had…
Julie and Patrick, a couple from Montreal. Julie works as a French-English interpreter for Avon. Patrick is an engineer with Bell helicopters. As they say, they both work for American companies in Canada. From Patrick I learned that when building a helicopter it’s important to get the balance just right because the whole cabin is basically hanging by a single pivot. He often goes up on balance-check flights. He said that his company was once approached by a Japanese sumo team asking whether the balance would work out if they had a lightweight pilot and a few 400 lb wrestlers, and the answer was “no”. From Julie, though this has little to do with Avon, I learned that Canada does in fact have a single multiple listing service that covers all homes for sale across the country (whereas in America we often have many different MLS’s in a single metro area). This national CA-MLS covers both agent-listed homes and owner-listed homes (FSBO’s). The only homes it doesn’t include are ones that people post on Craigslist or other similar sites (they don’t call these FSBO’s). Julie said that she side-stepped the MLS when she sold and bought recently, and the benefit was that she didn’t pay the few hundred dollars it takes to get into the MLS. She also said that in her case neither the buyer nor the seller had an agent, and they picked up the template purchase agreement from a local store. Canada’s real estate industry is so far ahead of the United States!Donovan, a 24 year old from Ontario, also an Engineer. He and Julie and Patrick already knew each other because they both happened to come from Swaziland just before arriving in Kruger. Donovan was hillarious. Whenever we spotted an animal he whipped out his camera and shot a video while narrating in a Crocodile-Hunter-like voice. Donovan was obsessed with finding hippos, not sure why, and unfortunately the only ones we ever saw were in the water, with just their eyes, ears and nose sticking out (Pnina and I did see some hippos fully out of the water on our last day, when it was overcast and a little cooler). He also was a little oblivious sometimes. At one point when we stopped to look at a vulture up on a tree, another car pulled up next to us and asked what we were looking at, and he said “I don’t know, some bird or something”. That became our little catch phrase for the rest of the trip.

Anat & Aviva. Two flight attendants working for El Al in Israel. Yes, they get awesome discounts on flights.

Simon. An English seaman. He spends 6 months working on passenger ferries that go from England to various other ports (Spain, Amsterdam, etc.), and then he gets 6 months to do whatever he wants, including travel. Not bad. Also, since his work is in international waters, he doesn’t pay income tax. And yes, he gets free rides on the ferries. We got into an interesting discussion about politics with Simon and learned that things in England are more rooted in tradition than we imagined. Their upper house, the House of Lords, only has about 20% of its members elected by the public. Of the rest, some get their position in a hand-me-down manner (all those Lords and Dukes and Earls still retain some amount of power), and the remaining seats are automatically divi’ed up among the two major parties and one minor party.Melanie, a Swiss gal. She was already at Kruger and she joined us for her second day.

Driving Manual

Pnina gave me driving lessons and now I can drive a stick! 🙂 I first attempted it in a rest area on the way from Jo’burg to Nelspruit, but after I stalled the car a dozen times we decided to let Pnina keep driving. I gave it another go once we were in the park because we figured what’s the worst I could do – hit an elephant? Well, we were almost right. On our third day in the park I drove us along a gravel road. In the distance we saw what at first appeared to be a burned log. When we got closer this log turned out to be a heard of water buffalo. Now, they may appear like common steer, but our guide said “I’d rather cross paths with a lion than with a water buffalo”, so I didn’t want to mess around, especially because they had some young buffalos with them. We played a little game. I drove closer. They approached me. I backed off. They backed off. But they never got off the damn road. So eventually we decided to turn around and give up the road to the buffalos. That’s right, the buffalos won. On our way back another driver coming the opposite direction waved us to a stop. He said that up ahead there’s a great spot to watch a few lions, but before that point there are a few elephants on the road, and they have a young elephant, and they’re not happy about all the cars driving by. So naturally I stalled the car right as we were only a few feet from the elephants. They started making noise and turning towards us and I started freaking out, because we saw evidence of what elephants can do:

But I pulled it together enough to get the car started once again and to pull away. Crisis averted.

Spot The Leopard – The Answer

Here’s the same photo with the leopard circled…

Still hard to see? Here’s the same area zoomed in as much as our camera would allow.

As you can see, the leopard dragged its kill (an impala) up the tree, then ate it, then took a nap (the remainder of the impala are hanging on the same branch). The only reason we noticed this leopard is that we saw 4-5 cars stopped on the road looking in the same direction.


4 responses to “Kruger

  1. Great pictures! Glad you guys had a good time at Kruger. We had a little of both experiences (guided tour in Kruger, driving ourselves in Masai Mara) and I agree that it’s nice to have done both.

  2. Interesting info about international park…thanks for sharing

  3. Interesting Read! Very detailed blog,thanks for sharing

  4. Pingback: Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater « Honeysun

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s