DUBAI: A 5 a.m. wake-up is far more bearable when there’s a black rhino sighting involved.
Such is the way around the southern tip of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where the game is diverse and the viewing opportunities plentiful. Lions display their tolerance of humans by allowing their cubs to bound around in front of a Land Cruiser full of cooing tourists. Leopard sightings are common. Black rhino wander in front of your lodge during breakfast.
The area in and around Kruger’s south is where you’ll find the big five (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo) without having to look too hard. But the park is a dramatically different place in its wilder and more dramatic northern areas, understandable considering the Kruger covers around 20,000 square kilometers. Our advice? Try and experience both.
South Africa reopened its borders to tourists on November 1 after a strict period of lockdown. While it’s currently trying to ward off a second wave of COVID-19, authorities in popular areas are strict about mask-wearing and social distancing, in an attempt to woo back international tourists.
Across the Kruger, animals have benefited from a diminished human footprint over the course of the pandemic. But they’ve also suffered because of it, with poaching increasing due to a lack of rangers in the bush.
At Lion Sands River Lodge — a five-star offering in Sabi Sands Game Reserve just across the river from the south-eastern corner of the Kruger — animals that were already used to humans due to mass tourism have become even more emboldened in their absence. Aside from the black rhinos wandering around at breakfast time, the walkways are now frequented by baboons, impala, and one rather menacing puff adder.
Sabi Sands covers 650 square kilometers and is known for its plentiful population of big cats. This is where you’ll find lions and leopards unafraid to pass by your car within touching distance. Other big mammal sightings are common too: elephants, zebra, giraffe and huge buffalo herds frequent the grassy plains. Lion Sands offers a luxury but authentic safari; resplendent rooms overlooking a river chock-full of hippos and a pool to cool off in after or between your two daily game drives. And because of the pandemic, stays can now be snagged with steep discounts.
Your journey to the north of the Kruger can also double as a safari, with the option to drive yourself. Elephants, giraffe, baboons and zebra can be taken in from the comfort of your rental car.
At the very north of the park, you’ll find The Outpost, the first lodge built in this remote region.
Its arresting views over the plains and the Luvuvhu River — perhaps some of the most spectacular in the Kruger — are its biggest draw.
Here, unlike the south, animals are still skittish at the sight of vehicles and inquisitive humans. Hushed voices and utter stillness are important during a sighting.
The landscape changes every few kilometers. There’s the fever tree forest, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere; the jagged cliffs of Lanner Gorge; the flood plains; the wide sandy beaches of the empty Limpopo River; the lala palms. You’ll learn about the huge Baobab trees, naturally sanitize your hands with Devil’s Thorn and get up close with velvet mites.
And, of course, there are animals; plenty of them — this area boasts 80 percent of the park’s diversity. The birding is globally renowned. But sightings of the wildlife are much rarer here than in the south. More likely you’ll spot some fresh leopard tracks, so smell some elephant dung than actually see the animals themselves. They’re here, but they don’t want to be found.
All of which makes it all the more rewarding when you do finally see something. Being stalked by a pair of hyenas in the dead of night, or being keenly observed by an elderly female elephant, has never been so thrilling.