One-on-one with nature

South African park welcomes self-guided adventurers

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Debbie Hagan
Globe Correspondent / June 6, 2004

Anyone going on a safari with children knows that watching a dung beetle roll a ball of zebra excrement is a thrill that lasts a minute or two. After that, they're bouncing in the seats ready to see something bigger -- with teeth. On a guided tour, your family may fetch glares that could cower a lion. On your own, you slip the SUV into gear and go.

It's that simple. That's the beauty of a self-guided safari. You go where you want. You stay as long (or as short) as you like. You choose where you'll sleep, and whether you'll dine in the camp's restaurant or shop the grocery store and cook on the grill. Better yet, you save a bundle. A five-day guided tour can cost $800 per person and up. Five days, on your own, renting an SUV in Johannesburg and heading to Kruger National Park, can cost as little as $300 per person (plus air fare).

Kruger Park, in eastern South Africa, opened its roads in 1927 to three self-driving tourists. Today, it hosts 700,000 guests a year, many of whom have mapped out their own safaris. As a game reserve, Kruger is about the size of Massachusetts and stretches along Mozambique to the east, and Zimbabwe to the north. Veined throughout the park are paved and gravel roads, all navigable by a sturdy SUV, though many South Africans go in ordinary sedans without incident. More than two dozen fenced-in get-out posts (protected spots to get out of the car and look around) and overnight camps are spaced throughout the park.

Bumping down the dusty trails and over Kruger's rolling hills, tourists discover a wilderness with no power lines, signs, or buildings. An occasional SUV or combi (open-air vehicle) passes. Most move at a crawl, while passengers scan the dense scrub brush, knob-thorn acacia, and sycamore fig trees searching for wildlife.

A cluster of bush willows shakes. You hear the crack of splitting wood. Then, a small tree falls and a full-grown female elephant emerges with a calf scuttling behind. They lumber across the road, mere feet in front of you.

In 1898, when South Africa first banned hunting in Kruger, only a scant 25 elephants roamed the park. Today, the numbers are up to 8,000. Kruger is the only park in all of South Africa that has the entire Big Five: leopards, buffalo, lions, elephants, and rhinos. While these top the list of must-sees, the park teems with animals not to be missed: blue wildebeests, crocodiles, hippos, cheetahs, warthogs, antelopes, zebras, giraffes, hyenas, and more than 500 species of birds.

Each bend in the road opens to a new discovery. On the banks of the Oliphants River, baby hippos play as if they were giant puppies, snapping at one another's rear ends. In the water, crocodiles glide like driftwood, and a great white egret swoops in and perches on the shore. Binoculars and digital cameras keep the youngsters busy, while you soak up the view. Or vice versa. When you start up the engine to go, the children might beg to stay. They want to see if the crocodile will snap up the big bird.

August is a great time to visit Kruger. It's winter, but warm -- around 80 degrees during the day, 60s at night. With leaves off the trees, it's easier to spot animals. As it is the dry season, many stream beds have turned to dust, so animals congregate around the water holes. Dry weather means fewer bugs, too. (Kruger lies in a malaria zone, however, and anti-malarial medication is advisable in the winter and essential in the summer.)

Tips for locating animals are in each rest camp's reception area. Typically, guests end their day by using colored push pins on a huge park map to show which animals they've seen and where. In logbooks, they report more detailed information: ''Wild dogs spotted on the road from Lower Sabi," or ''Hyena cubs seen in the road 10 minutes from Rabelais Dam."

Must-haves for the do-it-yourself safari travelers are Kruger's three guidebooks: ''The Visitor's Map," ''Ecozone Map," and ''Find It" (each sells for about $15 in Kruger's shops). They show roadways, rest stops, and park terrain. In color, they illustrate the most important animal, plant, and tree species, and give habitat information. To prevent elephant-sized squabbles, give each child a ''Find It" guide. This way, it's easier to immerse them in the safari experience, challenging them to look out the windows and check off as many animals as they see.

Cresting a small hill, on a secluded back trail, a herd of buffalo with bony skullcaps and horns that curl into a W graze on yellow thatch. A hundred or more are spread across both sides of the road. Stampede may cross your mind and make you think twice before rolling ahead. But then the dark beasts continue eating, looking at you as unconcerned as if you were part of the landscape.

Park officials say the animals recognize the vehicles by their shape, but don't see them as friend or foe. It's only when tourists hang out of the windows, pop up through the sunroof, or venture out on foot that animals become provoked and flee or attack.

Restrooms are rare, so it's important to begin each day with a carefully planned route. Keep in mind that even if you're in a hurry, you cannot drive over 25 miles per hour on the gravel roads (any faster and you'd miss the animals anyway). Allow time to reach your overnight destination. Camp gates close for the evening between 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Check postings.

Each rest camp is like a little village with one or two stores, a restaurant or two, and rows of thatch-topped huts, known as rondavels. They contain three or four twin beds Alternatively, guests can camp in tents or rent larger bungalows. Generally, accommodations include fresh linens, soap, an air conditioner, and refrigerator.

When darkness falls, most South Africans like to fire up the braai (rhymes with ''eye"), which is a grill outside each hut. It's a favored social and dining activity, and the camp grocery store sells kudu, springbok, ostrich, and impala steaks just for this.

While you could while away the night watching park films in the amphitheater, the most unforgettable evening experience is a night safari. An armed ranger loads as many as 23 guests into a combi, and ventures into the darkest night you've ever experienced. Flickering lights from your vehicle and the constellations overhead provide the only light. Night animals are on the prowl. A rare cheetah, standing by a roadside ditch, appears. When the spotlight hits him, he snarls at the combi. The darkness is filled with lions, hyenas, rhinos, and anonymous creatures whose eyes glow in the dark, but who remain hidden. Night tours are available from both Skukuza and Mopani camps.

As if Kruger doesn't offer enough already, it will be expanding as it evolves into the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Three parks -- Kruger, Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, and Limpopo National Park in Mozambique -- will make up this preserve, which will be about the size of Kentucky. Visitors traveling in the three countries will be able to cruise on lakes, hunt tiger fish, and view wetland tropical birds. At the moment, fences between the parks are being razed and roads built, but the opening is still years away.

For now, touring Kruger provides a personal, close-up adventure. At dawn, antelopes graze on dew-sprinkled grass around your hut. Vervet monkeys sneak over the fence, opening refrigerators and grabbing bananas and anything else they can find. While you're eating lunch in one of Skukuza's open-air, thatched pavilions, two dozen fruit bats hang overhead.

Adult tour groups find another place to dine. But the children jump up with the elation of discovering a lion devouring a zebra. While focusing their binoculars, they utter one word over this glorious find: ''Cool."

Debbie Hagan is a freelance writer in Andover.

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