Those words were how a friend of ours described our latest trip to the Kruger National Park, aka “The Bush” to us locals. It’s private school holidays here in Jhb and now that the kids are old enough to listen when we say “Don’t go wandering off, you will get eaten.” we invited my daughters BFFs family to join us at our hideaway on the open border of the Kruger. The nine of us, originally intended to stay about 4 days but ended up staying for a week. Everyone had a great time and saw just about everything there was to see. As to it being a zoo, well, maybe it was, but lets face it, the “true wild” is the best kind of zoo there is.
For as long as I have known him, my father-in-law has always had a place in the Bush and my wife and I used to visit about twice a year before marriage and kids. Now that the munch-kins are old enough, we hope to make it a regular holiday destination and barring the heavy floods early last year that cancelled our trip we have so far managed two great outings. 6 hours by car from Jhb does mean that it’s not a quick long-weekend break and it usually takes a day or two to unwind so you have to plan for at least 5 days to really enjoy yourself out there.
The house is in the middle of the bush on a private reserve of about 2500 hectares that forms part of an unfenced ‘border’ with the Kruger National Park and is so isolated that you have to drive a 4×4 to find cell signal at some water tanks on the closest hill or at a large marula tree 2 miles away. If anything should happen or you forgot something critical, you are at least an hours drive from anything vaguely resembling civilisation. There are no fences around the house and other than some glass sliding doors that you could force open with a screwdriver, there is nothing between you and the salivating elephant-bone breaking jaws of a spotted hyena on the veranda. No, I am not making that one up for poetic effect – my wife and I experienced this exact scene when we stayed at the house on our honeymoon a few years ago. Only difference is that we had the door open and a thin mosquito screen closed. Thankfully a pot and spoon drum sequence scared our visitor off pretty quickly and other than a chewed on cow-skin ottoman we were no worse off. I would not have approached the wild beast for a quick scratch behind the ear (that’s the stuff of Darwin Awards) but most animals are not the rabid Cujos that Hollywood would have us believe. People may think that we are mad not having any form of protection (no guns either) around the house but most animals are more scared of us than we are of them and to be honest I feel less afraid in the bush than I do in the city. At least in the bush you are just a potential meal rather than some psychos latest victim. Same end result, subtle difference though.
The Park itself is South Africas largest national park and depending on how you include the open private reserves around it, it’s about the size of New Jersey (US State), Wales or Sweden. It’s home to the Big Five and because we have no fences, we are lucky to sometimes have them visit us on our tiny part of paradise. All you have to do is put in the time and go look for them – and that means: getting up early for a pre-breakfast self driven game drive at 5am and then another at about 4pm just as you begin to nod off for an afternoon snooze.. and don’t forget a late night one at 11pm if you can drag yourself up. The more you go looking the more you spot. Fairly simple truth – just don’t forget to make an offering to Lady Luck before each trip or you could end up naming trees just to alleviate the kids boredom.
As we are regular bush visitors, we are all used to looking at other things to fill in the gaps while we searched for something big and scary. By the time we left, we had 2 pages of birds and animals to list as “seen” – for those of you not used to going to the wild, it’s somewhat of a tradition to fill out a sightings book with everything you saw – I figure it originally had some game ranger administration purpose but for now it just gets subsequent visitors drooling at the things they could possibly see from the doorstep. I am not much of a birder but when you start seeing Martial eagles, Bateleurs, Osprey, falcons, every possible LBJ (little brown job) and Lilac Breasted Roller on every drive then you would have to admit that if you ignored everything else and just watched birds you would be a happy ornithologist.
On the still interesting but still not deadly side we did see plenty of herbivores… A lone hippo has set-up house in the dam at the spot where I proposed to my wife and although we tried to catch him leaving on his nightly feeding we were unable to catch more than a boney rump and nostrils each time we tried to get there for his show. The reserve is flooded with impala and skittish little steenbok and we spotted the occasional warthog (think Pumba) family trotting quickly along, tails like ships masts through the grass.
On one eventful trip back to restock the larder, we were lucky enough to see a leopard sitting below a tree just off the main ‘highway’ and we watched it for about 20 minutes from less than 10m away until it finally wandered off down a dry river bed. It was a bit of a parking lot by the time we left but to give you an idea of how rare a sighting it was, I am nearing the big 40 and I have only seen one leopard in an open conservation area in all that time – the others I have been lucky enough to see have all been in fenced off private reserves where the trackers know each and every one of their animals intimately and could take you to the place an animal farted 10 minutes earlier. On the same trip back we saw a cheetah on a kill – just off the road surrounded by at least 30 to 40 vultures waiting their turn. Again, not something most people would even hope to be able to see – we were first on the scene and barring a slight mishap with a nicely camouflaged drainage ditch that necessitated rescue from a khaki knight, his green chariot and a tow rope, it made for one helluva excursion to buy more grub for the additional days we stayed.
Of the big five we saw Elephant (plenty), Buffalo (huge herds) and obviously the Leopard. We heard Lion every evening (closely serenaded by hyena) but we think that they were on a neighbouring reserve where we do not have traversing rights so we could not find them. Rhino were elusive as ever and although we had high hopes of spotting this majestic creature I am glad that they made it too difficult for us to find them. Why the hell some stupid idiots ( ##@#@#@, insert your own expletive here) think that ground up fingernails (fingernails = keratin = horn) can supposedly solve a limp dick, fever or cancer! Sometimes I wonder at the intelligence of the human race. Go bite your fingernails instead you beeping morons – we are no longer in the dark ages for pity sake!
We all had a great time and I am very privileged to be able to let my kids experience something that future generations could potentially only see on the Discovery Channel and watch animals that most of the world may only ever get to see in a cage.
ps. all photos were taken by us this August.