The Kruger is to be found nestling in the north-eastern corner of South Africa, bordering Zimbabwe in the north and Mozambique to the east. Forming part of the southern savanna woodland zone of sub-saharan Africa, it varies between tropical and sub-tropical and is commonly known as the 'lowveld'. Nestling is probably not a good word as the park covers over 20,000 square kilometres, larger than Israel and about the same size as Wales. In recent times a contractual extension with bordering private game reserves resulted in fences being removed, which increased its size greatly. The road which runs from north to south is nearly 450 kilometres long.
Although it has grown considerably since, it was President Paul Kruger who originally proclaimed the areas between the Crocodile and Sabie rivers as a game reserve back in 1898.
Major J Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed as the first official head warden in 1902, after the end of the Boer war. It was not too long before one of the park's most enduring tales took place, when Ranger Wolhuter was attacked by lions while riding his horse back from a safari to check the northern sectors. Amazingly, after being dragged off for several hundred feet and badly mauled, he managed to survive by killing the male who had taken him, using the pocket knife that he always carried with him. Then, with the kind of strength that only comes with shock and horror, he somehow hauled himself up a tree before the second of the two lions returned from chasing Wolhuter's horse.
Proclaimed as the First National Park of South Africa in 1926, it was officially opened to the public in 1927. Home to around 150 different types of mammals, more than 500 bird species, 115 reptiles, over 30 amphibians and 50 freshwater fish, the Kruger probably has more wildlife variety than any other area or park in the world. The insects are also abundant with, for example, at least 230 butterflies recorded. Botanically, the Kruger is equally rich and diverse, with nearly 2000 species of plants, over 450 of these being trees and shrubs.
Throughout the park there are various sites of historical interest, including Thulamela, which is the oldest man-made construction in South Africa, having been inhabited between 1240 and 1650, and the Masorini hill dwellers camp with its primitive iron casting pits. Elsewhere, one can find markings from the earliest of missionaries, traders, explorers, hunters, and prospectors. Not far from the Letaba camp is a cross engraved onto an old leadwood tree. Clearly visible, although the original marking has been overgrown with bark, it is said that the mark was to show the earliest of missionaries (15th Century) that it was the best place to cross the river on their way into what is now Mozambique.
Blending into the bush, each with its own style, are 25 camps dotted throughout the park, some of which are simply fenced off areas with ablution blocks for campers. Others are small private camps with a few generic rondavels or huts, and nine of them are larger and more accommodating for the average tourist with a shop and restaurant, with a variety of huts, chalets, lodges and permanent tents to stay in.
For the serious nature lover, he or she who really wants to get away from it all, one of the best available camps is Balule. This can be found situated on the Olifants river, towards the eastern side of the Kruger.
Set back about 50 metres from the river bank, the camp was originally built in 1926 for the builders of the nearby pontoon bridge, and thereafter the occasional visitor to this remote part of the bush. The six whitewashed, circular, African rondavels are exactly as they were back then. With no electricity or power of any sort, Balule provides a perfect opportunity to transport oneself back in time to experience the African bush in all its glory and different facets with barely the touch of the human hand, just as it was in the days of the colonists and indeed the early trekkers.
In the evenings, sitting under a complete blanket of bright and twinkling stars, hundreds and thousands of them, with the aromatic smells and crackling sounds of a leadwood fire burning down slowly, one can only feel truly blessed at being alive. The night sounds of the bush provide testimony to the splendour of it all, cicadas and bullfrogs down by the water providing an operatic accompaniment to the sound of zebras stampeding in the darkness at the onslaught of a pride of lions, finally to hear one brought down with a crash and the death rattle as nature perpetuates herself, is nothing less than a wonder to behold for all the senses.
As the grey light of pre-dawn breaks, a pale mist covers the ground, with the ghostly branches of the trees breaking out above in twisted distortion. Finally, but quickly, a great pink ball glides above the bush and seemingly sitting in the cupped, gnarled fingers of the trees, spirits the mist away to herald a new day, together with the dawn chorus of the lions roaring at the rising sun.
For the visitor to the park, the day will start at varying times, depending on which month you go - the gates at each camp are opened with the beginning of dawn. Whatever time it may be, that is the time to start. Many of the nocturnal animals will still be up and about, and so this might be the best chance you get of seeing them. Many animals will be making their way to water for a drink, either as an early morning 'cuppa' or as a 'nightcap'.
A good plan is to get up half an hour before the gates are open, not only giving you time to wash up but also a chance to hear the bush coming alive again, feeling rather than seeing the transition of darkness into light. Once out of the camp it is probably wise to get to some kind of watering spot, park up and let the bush come to you - rather than trying to chase it around. There is something quite amazing about watching a deserted stretch of water in front of you, turning away to pour some coffee from the flask, looking back and suddenly finding dozens of animals before your eyes. Spooky... but that's the bush for you.
Still and silent in one ear, yet somehow an absolute symphony of sound in the other, you'll be amazed as you suddenly become more aware of the many species of birds, insects and small animals. Awesomely beautiful, almost surreal, enveloped by an incredible serenity that can suddenly, at any time be totally smashed by the sound and sight of a kill.
An impala breaks out of a bush, frothing and lathered... finished, having been run into the ground... to be immediately put upon by a pack of wild dogs... ten of them growling, spitting, barking... the first few bites are of living flesh... somehow the bleating of the ewe rising above the din... the last few bites less than a few minutes later... and the dogs are gone again... so is the impala.
Silence and serenity... stillness. Gruesome, awful, perhaps sickening... but it is not the death of an animal, but the survival of nature.
It is still before 8am and you have been up for three or four hours already... breakfast time.
Dotted around the park there are a few small areas of land that have been partially cleared. One will find an African ranger living there, normally a person who has lived in the area all his life, and knows the area inside out. They will have hot water available, a lit fire to keep away predators and a few gas skottels on hand, perfect for rustling up an English breakfast. There can not be a better place in the world to cook and eat one for those that go prepared. Sitting under a wild fig tree in an 'out of Africa' setting is quite fabulous; for many it will be the highlight of the day, just being there and living it.
Onwards with the safari, maybe taking a drive down the dirt track that runs alongside the riverbed, with its pools of sparkling water, flat rocks, and reeds. Hippos snorting and playing in the shallows, crocs lazing on the banks in the hot sun, a herd of buffalo walking along the sandy bed, feeding on the vegetation growing profusely all along the way. A fish eagle perched in the deadwood tree, brilliant blue and cloudless background, calling out for its mate - for many, the true sound of the bush in daylight; herds of wildebeest, zebra, and different types of antelope making their way down for a midday drink, single file, en masse, kicking up the dust in the ever increasing heat of the day. A couple of giraffes loping down too, keeping watch over the others as they drink.
Elephant... the true king of the jungle!! Where did they come from? huge, towering giants ripping up the foliage, knocking down great trees and eating the top leaves, yet somehow very gentle. Turn your head for a second and they can be gone, like magic, silent on their massive pads, unbelievable that such bulk can so easily disappear.
Round another bend in the river, and there under the thorn tree is the pride of lions... the true terror of the bush, looking for all the world like pussy cats as they laze around and sleep off their kill of the previous night.
That's the bush - the unknown, the unpredictable. You just never know what will happen, or when it will happen, absolutely anything could be around the next corner.