A Big 5 Safari in Kruger National Park

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We rounded a corner and there in the road essentially right in front of us were the painted forms of a pack of wild dogs. Their Mickey Mouse ears swiveled as our safari truck sputtered to a stop, and one or two got up, the fluffy white tips of their tails fluttering in the light wind.

“I’ve been on safari more than a dozen times,” my friend David said in front of me, “and I have never been lucky enough to see these guys before.”

Wild dogs in Kruger National Park

Going on safari in Africa is a dream for many people; it’s that quintessentially bucket-list-worthy experience that basically everyone dreams of doing.

And what I learned from my own time spent on safari in Africa is that it is 100% worth the hype – because no two safari experiences will ever be the same.

Safari in Kruger National Park

Lions in Kruger National Park

Safari in Kruger National Park

My safari experience began with arrival at the Skukuza airport from Johannesburg. Formerly a private-plane-only airport, you can now get to Skukuza via AirLink flights on South African Airways. The airport is tiny – just one runway – with a thatched roof and an open-air design that oozes Africa.

We were met by Lazarus, our ranger from the Jock Safari Lodge where we’d be staying, and ushered into a waiting safari truck. Safari trucks in South Africa are built with optimal wildlife viewing in mind, with open sides and stadium-style seating, and by the time we got to the lodge, we’d already been treated to an encounter with some giraffes.

Giraffe in Kruger National Park

Giraffe in Kruger National Park

And it would only get better from there.

The Big 5

Traditionally, the “Big 5” were the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot in Africa: the buffalo, elephant, rhino, lion, and leopard. And, while hunting is still legal in many African nations, the majority of the “shooting” these days is done with cameras.

The Big 5 today represents the top five animals that people hope to see on safari – and we were lucky to see them all.

In fact, we saw the Big 5 on our very first game drive into Jock’s private section of Kruger National Park. Lazarus was incredibly talented at spotting animals in the bush (you wouldn’t think that something like a rhino or giraffe could hide very well, but they can!), and also seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Buffalo

You may not look at a cape buffalo and automatically assume it’s dangerous. But buffalo (and especially the lone males) can be incredibly unpredictable, often giving no warning before they charge at you.

Cape buffalo in Kruger National Park

We saw plenty of buffalo in Kruger – huge herds, in fact. They aren’t the prettiest animals, but I enjoyed watching the birds hopping all over them.

Elephant

Elephants are some of my favorite animals on earth. I’m always amazed by how graceful and quiet they are despite their size, and never tire of watching their interactions with one another. Elephants have personalities that can rival the ones that we humans have!

Elephant in Kruger National Park

We saw quite a few elephants in Kruger: there were a few that ambled through the dried-up riverbed right in front of our lodge, a handful munching trees along the side of the road, and one particularly adorable family group that was playing and drinking in the riverbed.

Baby elephants playing in Kruger

Elephants in Kruger National Park

This family group had three fairly young babies, and we all were incredibly amused when they all decided to “charge” our safari truck. Cuteness overload.

Rhino

Before going to Africa, I was aware of the plight of the rhino there. These animals are becoming critically endangered thanks to poachers killing them for their horns. Knowing this, I didn’t really expect to see many in the wild. But guess what? There are still a LOT of white rhinos in Kruger!

Mama and baby white rhino

We saw close to a dozen on our first game drive, including a mama and young baby that grazed right alongside our truck for a while.

Mama and baby white rhino in Kruger

Rhinos in Kruger National Park

They baby – complete with adorable baby rhino rolls – was a treat to see. It gives me hope that perhaps we can still save these beautiful animals.

Lion

We probably had the most luck with seeing lions – in fact, we saw them on 3 of our 4 games drives.

Lions in Kruger National Park in South Africa

The first encounter was after dark on the first night, when we witnessed two male lions calling/challenging each other on one of the paved roads (you can listen to this in my video). The lions stalked down the road towards each other in a territorial dispute, and we nearly saw a real cat fight!

On the second day, we became voyeurs to a pair of lions mating (fun fact: lion sex only lasts for a handful of seconds, but when they are mating they do it every 10-15 minutes for days on end!).

Lions in Kruger National Park

Mating lions in Kruger National Park

We also came across a group of four young males napping in the shade right alongside the road.

Male lion in Kruger National Park

And, lastly, we met with a whole pride of young lions atop a rocky hill at sunset that evening.

Pride of lions in Kruger National Park

The teenagers were fascinated by the wheels on our safari truck, and one even “stalked” us for a while as we drove away!

Leopard

Of all the Big 5, the leopard is definitely the most elusive. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to never get a glimpse of one on safari. This is because leopards are largely nocturnal and they are also quite shy – spotting them isn’t easy!

At the end of our very first game drive in Kruger, we were just returning to the lodge to get ready for dinner when Lazarus came running back inside to tell us that there had been a leopard sighted just a few minutes away. So we piled back into the safari truck and went off-roading into the bush. We ended up spotting not just one but TWO leopards – a mating pair that were slinking through the bush together.

Leopard in Kruger National Park

We held out hope that we’d be able to see one of the spotted cats during the day, but we didn’t get to see them again in Kruger.

Other animals

Even though it’s the Big 5 that most people focus on while on safari, there are SO many other animals to see in Africa, too. We also spotted more giraffes, a few zebra, tons of antelope, baboons, warthogs, wildebeest, hyenas, and wild dogs.

Giraffe in Kruger National Park

Giraffe

Zebra in Kruger National Park

Zebra

Wildebeest in Kruger National Park

Wildebeest

Baboon family in Kruger National Park

Baboons

Hyena in Kruger National Park in South Africa

Hyena

Kudu in Kruger National Park

Male kudu

On our last game drive, we witnessed a playful pack of wild dogs chase and then taunt a small group of hyenas – even though neither were animals on our Big 5 list, this was one of the most exciting things we witnessed, mostly because the dogs are so rare. Even Lazarus was cackling like a gleeful little kid as we followed the dogs on their mission.

Wild dogs vs. hyenas in Kruger

I expected to love being on safari – but the experience far exceeded my expectations.

It’s one thing to see lions and elephants on TV or at the zoo, but it’s another entirely to see them in the wild, with no fences or anything else stopping them from… well, just being wild! On more than one occasion, my dad and I would meet gazes across the safari truck and acknowledge just how special it was to be there, seeing it all with our own eyes.

This is one bucket-list item that is absolutely worthy of a top spot.

Where we stayed

There are lots of options for safari lodging within Kruger National Park. The Sabi Sands area is incredibly popular, but I stayed at a smaller lodge fairly far away from any others. The Jock Safari Lodge blew me away with its luxurious rooms, great food, and friendly staff.

Jock Safari Lodge in Kruger National Park

Jock Safari Lodge in Kruger National Park

We stayed at Jock for two nights and went on four separate game drives (two in the morning, and two in the evening). We also had the option to go on a walking safari with head ranger Lazarus, which gives you an entirely different perspective on the wild African bush.

Walking safari in Kruger National Park

And, of course, you could also just relax on the daybed overlooking the riverbed and be almost guaranteed to see things like antelope and elephants!

Elephant in Kruger National Park

Elephant spotted from our outdoor daybed

If you’re looking for a relaxing safari experience in a beautiful setting, I can highly recommend the Jock Safari Lodge (and no, I didn’t get paid to promote them or even get any discounts – I just legit LOVED my time there!).

Is going on a safari on YOUR bucket list? If so, which animal would you be most excited to see in the wild?

 

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I still buy loads of postcards and miss not receiving any. The children are all on Facetime these days, so no email even!! Great compilation of then and now Lucy 😉

  2. I must have that beard.
    .-= Jonny | thelifething.com´s last blog ..Writing The Perfect Blog Post: Heart, Skeleton, Flesh, Skin and Polish Your Elephant =-.

  3. I just found your blog by chance and have read a couple of your posts. First being the one on Thailand (because I am considering ESL teaching abroad opportunities) and then your Mexico cost post (because I can’t help but feel terrified by the financial side of things). I think it’s amazing what you have accomplished and I feel very much like I need to mirror some of your international experiences. I am 22 and almost finished with my undergrad. I can’t decide between graduate school (likely MFA in creative writing) or trying my shot at abroad for a while. I guess I am writing for your opinion, based on the fact you are one of the few “qualified” to advise in these realms. Did you finish an undergrad and grad school before making these abroad choices? Or how would you do it again if you were your pre-abroad self at 22 trying to make these huge decisions. Thank you for your time and consideration.
    I hope all is well,
    -Brenden (from St.pete, Florida)

  4. Hi Earl,
    I’m a bit late to the party here so hope you see this comment! I’m totally drawn into your site, I love it. I’ve wanted to travel to Syria and most of the Middle East for years. What’s your perception of how women–especially foreign women–are treated?

    Thanks! Looking forward to reading through your archives.
    ~ellis

  5. Hi Earl

    Its not blown out of proportion the violence in Mexico is covered up…… Approx. 125000 people have fell victim to violence in Mexico in the past 7 yeas. Not to mention 30000 -70000 plus missing and morgues full and 30000 unidentified dead
    I have toured mexico by land for years and seen the change in the climate/crime there. There really is not enough coverage by the media. And we are not talking San Miguel de Allende. , Puerta Vallarta, or any other tourist cities. Acapulco has had approx. 700 taxi drivers killed in 3 years. U.S. marine currently missing in Mexico. Read about Carl Wiegands story or Don Plemmons (native American) missing in Mexico. Popular tourism focuses more on air travel than travel through San Fernando Tamps. Home of the San Fernando Massacre. The atmosphere up there is not margaritas and music like Oaxaca or downtown Puebla. 198 clandestine graves found this year in Mexico with 466 cadavers found. The souper/El Pozolero dissolved 300 humans in acid in Mexico. What a nice place to take a vacation. Inform yourself and others.

    http://www.lapoliciaca.com/blogdelnarco/

    http://edition.cnn.com/2013/02/05/world/americas/mexico-tourists-raped

    http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2012/07/15/mexico-youth-camp-attacked-by-gunmen-leaving-7-raped/

    http://edition.cnn.com/2012/05/13/world/americas/mexico-remains

    http://aristeguinoticias.com/0405/mexico/nuevo-laredo-hoy-9-colgados-en-puente-14-decapitados-en-camioneta/

    Only in Mexico …. I traveled it many times all the way to Nicaragua and El Salvador since the 1980’s during the war and Mexico is more violent than what I saw in El Salvador. And El Salvador got more media coverage. I became a victim of violence in Mexico two years ago just north of Mexico City . Just want other people to be informed.
    Peace and thanks for your articles.

    “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
    ― Martin Luther King Jr.

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