We left the Cape provinces and travelled to Johannesburg with another safari adventure in mind. We met our guide, Gerhard, and drove east through the high veld and the eucalyptus plantations of Mpumalanga province.
Late in the day, we reached Kruger Park, named for Paul Kruger, the last president of the Transvaal. The larger-than-life politician is commemorated with a huge statue at the main gate. Kruger saw the need to preserve the African wildlife and lobbied as early as 1888 for the establishment of a reserve. Ten years later the national park was creatthemoth the Scotsman, James Stevenson Hamilton, as the first park superintendent. Kruger Park is the second oldest national park in the world, second only to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.
KYou might think surely we'd done enough game viewing in Tanzania, but the opportunity to drive in such a famous park for a day and a half appealed to us, and we had many exciting encounters with animals. On our first afternoon, we came across this beautiful leopard who had been treed by a group of Cape buffalo. He was very cranky about the situation and after some minutes, he jumped down with a great growl and disappeared.
Soon after we met an old bull elephant, perhaps 50 years old, just as I was saying that we would love to see a solitary bull. We watched him graze very close to our vehicle. Suddenly he was up beside us on the road, pinning us with his amber stare and filling my camera lens. What a thrill!
White rhino were also on our list of hoped-for sightings in Kruger. We did see three animals. They were huge, but too far away to photograph. We enjoyed watching them through binoculars, at rest under the short trees of the bush savannah. Actually, it was like looking at a small bus parked under the trees! So huge ... and yet so vulnerable. It's barely more than a month into 2012, and already 20 rhinos have been killed by poachers in Kruger. As you likely know, rhino are poached for their horn which is smuggled out of country to China where it is prized as a supposed aphrodiasiac. It is appalling, high-stakes slaughter. Poachers have night-vision goggles and high-power rifles for tracking shooting the animals. Their horns are hacked off and the remains left. We saw horrible pictures.
When the horn of one rhino can fetch as much as $50,000 US, there is huge incentive to hunt in Kruger and the park borders seem hopeless porous. The illegal market market is controlled by powerful cartels; it means that just catching the poachers will not solve the problem. From all that we learned, poaching is clearly the most pressing issue in Kruger Park. We found it deeply disturbing. We were driving in the south of the park where rhino sightings should be frequent, and yet we saw only three animals.
The most startling encounter we had in Kruger was with lions. These two hungry gentlemen were walking on the road, surveying the perimeter of their territory. The first one was pretty battered, the second was younger stronger looking. They walked, eyes front, seemingly oblivious to us riding beside them in the car. Gerhard said no, they took in us and everything else in the scene. They were tall, taller in fact than the hood of our car. And look at those powerful front paws.
If you have read Hemingway, who was a passionate big game hunter, then you might remember his obsession with hunting a trophy kudo bull in his book, The Green Hills of Africa. The kudo is a large antelope with spiral horns. Gerhard told us that it takes 12 years for each turning of the horn to grow. In many of our road stops in South Africa, including shops and hotels, we saw kudo horns mounted on the wall. I wanted very much to see kudos in the wild. As our last hours in Kruger were counting down, we came across a group of kudo bulls. They were beautiful.
And so are the sweet impala that seem to be everywhere in Kruger.
I couldn't leave Kruger without a picture of the unique lobby of our hotel, Protea Kruger Gate. From here it is back to Johannesburg and then on to Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River.