A couple of months ago, I was sitting at work looking at my roster for the next few weeks when it dawned on me that with a little bit of manoeuvring, I could have seven days off. After spending three years doing every long weekend in Asia possible from Hong Kong, my husband and I wanted to take the opportunity to go further afield. We were looking at Iceland, Italy, Greece, America and everything in between, but for some reason couldn't settle on any of the options. Time was closing in and I was nearly at the point of giving in and retreating to Thailand, when I stumbled upon that enormous beautiful continent of Africa.
I hadn't even initially considered Africa for this trip, as I didn't think it would be possible to experience the best of the continent in such a short period of time… but once it was on the list, everywhere else simply faded away. We ended up booking that night and five days later, we were off! There is so much to see in Africa that we had to narrow it down and focus on just one thing – and for us, it had to be seeing wildlife on safari at Kruger National Park in South Africa.
It wasn't the easiest place to get to, but we knew it would be worth it! We flew via Ethiopia and Johannesburg to Mpumalanga International Airport, which is one of three airports that service Kruger National Park. From there, we hired a car so that we could do some exploring on our own and drove the 90-minute trip to our lodge. If I had to do it again, I would just fly into Johannesburg and drive the four hours straight to the park entrance; this would have saved us the transit waiting time at Johannesburg Airport and once there, we realised that the roads are actually very well maintained and the scenery stunning.
We stayed at the lovely Crocodile Kruger Lodge, which is located on the edge of Kruger but in Marloth Park itself. Although it is a game park, they don't keep any dangerous animals there so we could freely wander around the grounds without worrying about being ripped apart! The lodge was exactly what we wanted – big open rooms, amazing views, traditional wood furniture, and everyone treated us like family. Breakfast and dinner were included in our stay, which meant we were fed amazing home-cooked local dishes. We arrived just in time for dinner, which was a local barbeque complete with a worm-eating ceremony that my husband took part in (a little too enthusiastically perhaps!); he now proudly displays his worm-eating certificate at home. However, I was happy to stick with the toasted marshmallows around the fire!
Even though we were tired after our long trip, nothing could stop us from signing up for the 6am game drive the next morning, so it was an early night for us. Getting up well before dawn, we realised that it was much colder than we had anticipated; we were heading out in the safari vehicle with three other guests and were very grateful for the blankets that were piled high inside. The sun was just beginning to rise during the 20-minute drive Kruger's gate and with it, came the promise of a glorious day – we were so excited, we even forgot about the fact that we were freezing!
The game drive was from 6am to 4pm, with stops for breakfast and lunch. The driver was our spotter and as the day progressed, we were lucky enough to see four of the "Big Five" wildlife species, with only the shy leopard eluding us. We were fascinated by the boisterous bellowing hippos whilst the crocodiles lazed around nearby; the cheetahs looked just like playful housecats and baboons cheekily claimed whole sections of the road to themselves. Giraffes swayed gracefully along the road as rhinoceros calmly chewed through the underbrush… Every National Geographic documentary that we had ever seen was unfolding right in front of us! It was a long day but worth every mile that we had travelled to be there.
We decided to have a bit of a lie-in on day two and do some exploring ourselves. The main target for the day was Jane Goodall's Chimp Eden. We had heard of this through the Animal Planet series; although I was a bit torn about visiting knowing that I would be upset about the chimps' tragic histories, I still wanted to see it for myself, meet some of the characters from the show and learn more about the facility. It was a beautiful drive back towards the airport to get to the enclosure, driving through rolling hill country with lots of small local stalls and towns on the side of the roads.
Although chimps aren't native to South Africa, Chimp Eden was fascinating. There are three enclosures in total, but only two of them are accessible to the public because the chimps in the third enclosure have been too damaged by their past interactions with people. On first looking into the enclosure, we saw an older-looking female chimp sitting so still upon a high platform that I initially thought she was a statue. Moments later, the other chimps bounded into sight and she erupted in a cacophony of sounds and gestures… Definitely not a statue! I could have sat all day watching these wonderful animals interact with one other; there were naughty teenagers, grumpy old men, cocky young adults – just about every subset of my own society was represented it was glorious. I was so glad that we visited and would definitely recommend it to everyone. The stories of the individual chimps are so sad but they are stories that need to be told and retold in the hopes of preventing similar tragedies.
The next day, we were up before dawn to head off on safari once again. We were the only people on the safari that day, so the guide knew that we were hoping to finally spot some leopards! After a couple of hours, one of the other safari vehicles drove past and told our guide that he thought that there might be a leopard up ahead… so off we went in hot pursuit. In fact, we ended up seeing not only a leopard in a tree with a fresh kill but also one walking around on the ground. That wasn't all though – a pride of lions with multiple cubs walked so close to the vehicle that I could have reached out and touched them, a gigantic black hippo stood on the side of the road hundreds of metres from the river, and elephants paraded across the road at their leisure. Our memory cards and hearts were happily full of Africa by the end of that day!
On our last full day, we decided to explore some of the towns we had driven through earlier; everyone that we met along the way was so friendly and polite, and we really enjoyed the drive. We could have done a full day's sightseeing of the Panoramic Route and God's Window view point, or even done a day trip to Swaziland or Botswana – but honestly, we were pretty content with all that we had seen and done so far!
This was our first taste of Africa and now that we know that it doesn't have to be experienced in one epic trip, we will definitely enjoy planning many more trips there in the future.
By Belinda Rothwell