In the past five years or so, I’ve fallen in love with park service and have spent a considerable amount of time volunteering for parks. When I learned I was coming to South Africa, I was very excited about Kruger National Park and it was at the top of my “must see” list.
I was soon to learn too, that service to Peace Corps in South Africa rotates groups in two different areas: the Northern Cape and Northwest Province (where my group is—in the semi-desert region) and Limpopo and Mpumalanga Provinces (where Kruger is). So, I missed my placement by one rotation! Although I realize “everything happens for a reason,” I would have preferred working and living near Kruger! In fact, one of our “mentors” (a PC Volunteer that arrived in South Africa earlier than my group), who is placed in the Limpopo/Mpumalanga area, “visits Kruger all the time.” In fact, he said, “I’ve been there at least 20 times.” I was very jealous upon hearing this and wanted to pop off his head.
When planning my trip, although I mostly wanted to hang out with the baobab trees in Messina, I thought it would be nice if I could rent a car and visit northern Kruger while I was in the area. My first obstacle to overcome was, Could I rent a car in South Africa on a debit card (instead of a credit card)? Car rental in the States is possible with a debit card, but one must go to a bit of trouble to a) locate a rental car agency willing to rent on a debit card; and b) have a chunk of cash to serve as a deposit to rent the car. (In the States, in the past, this amount was $400.) Could I find a rental car in Messina, willing to rent a car on a US debit card?
Well, finding a rental car agency in Messina was quite a story in itself. You would think that a car rental agency would want to place itself on a main road, in a highly visible area; not so with Avis in Messina: it was located in a hide-away corner in the suburbs! It took me a day to find it! Long story short: yes, they rented me a car on a US debit card.
My second obstacle was: would Kruger have accommodations for me to stay a couple of days? (This is World Cup season and every major tourist attraction in South Africa has been booked for months.) Prior to leaving my site, I had tried to phone Kruger and visit its website in hopes of booking. After many, many rands spent on “hold” I was able to get through at one point, and yes, there were campsites available. Since my trip plans weren’t solid—mostly because I assumed it would be difficult to rent a car—I did not book a campsite prior to my departure. (In hindsight—always 20/20!—I should have booked and then I could have cancelled my reservation had I not been able to rent a car.)
When I realized I could indeed, rent a car, I tried phoning Kruger again, and after a couple of tries spending 20+ minutes on hold, I decided to give up. I asked the rental-car lady if “A one-day trip to Kruger would be worth it?” (In my all-or-nothing thinking, if you couldn’t stay for a few days, you shouldn’t even bother.) She talked me into taking a one-day trip, and I’m glad she did. It was worth it. (Although I would certainly like to go again and spend more time.)
In fact, just the drive from Messina to Kruger’s Pafari gate was worth the effort and expense: driving through South Africa’s Venda region was a lovely way to spend an hour and a half!
So, what about Kruger? What about Kruger? Read a bit from, A Let’s Go Travel Guide: South Africa: with Coverage of Southern Africa (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003):
A vast stretch of wilderness comparable in size to Israel or Taiwan, Kruger National Park is one of the largest and most successful conservation areas in the world. Supporting a staggering variety of plants and animals within 12 different ecosystems, the park also documents the history of human diversity through a number of cultural heritage sites. Balancing flat bushveld and rolling savanna with a meticulously planned network of campsites and roads, Kruger is an accessible and deservedly popular attraction drawing over one million visitors each year. . . .
Today, Kruger protects 2,000 plant species (50 of which are endangered), and 507 bird, 114 reptile, 34 amphibian, 49 freshwater fish, and 147 mammal species, including the endangered wild dog and roan antelope. Successful relocation projects and an aggressive anti-poaching program have stabilized the park’s rhino population, contributing to South Africa’s status as one of the only remaining countries with a significant population of both black and white rhinos. There are roughly 1,300 white and 200 black rhinos in the park today. . . .
An ambitious plan is currently underway to link the northern section of Kruger to protected areas in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, which would create an enormous trans-national park and allow for the reopening of traditional elephant migration routes. (365-66).
So, how about that Kruger, hey? Pretty cool, huh? How can you come to South Africa and not see it? So, I saw it—at least for a day!
When touring Pilanesberg Game Reserve I realized that while it was certainly thrilling to see the wild animals, a part of me died when I realized I wouldn’t be able to get out of the car, as predators reside in the parks and game areas and it isn’t very safe to have people alighting from their vehicles to be potential lunch for lions. So, Kruger has strict rules about staying (and keeping all body parts) inside cars—although you’d be amazed at the kids you see with their full upper torsos hanging out of car windows for better looks.
So, inside the car I stayed for most of the day and wild animals I did see. There are places in Kruger where you are allowed out of the car—at your own risk—and these included, for me, a picnic area and a bridge. There was a bridge spanning the Luvuvhu River where you could alight from your car for viewing/picture taking.
I saw large groups of animals together: impala, zebra, Chacma baboons, vervet monkeys, nyala, and kudu—and these were great fun to sit and watch within feet of my car!--but I had seen none of the “wow factor” animals (lions, buffalo, giraffes, etc.) until, well, until I needed to use the restroom.
After spending a magnificent day in the park I decided I should head back to Messina, but I needed to pee “one more time” so I headed back to the picnic area that I had visited earlier in the day. And boy, am I glad I did—because I was able to spot and watch a herd of elephants taking a dirt bath and then, much to my delight, they crossed the road right in front of my car! What a treat!
While I wouldn’t recommend visiting Kruger for only a day—the park deserves much more time than only a day!--I am glad I went and it is certainly a day I’ll never forget!
PS. The elephant shot is blurry because my hand was shaking! :-)
PSS. More pictures of my Kruger trip are on my Facebook page (You need not be a member of Facebook to view these photos):