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