3rd June, 2017
For the last time on our trip, we woke up to such a gorgeous view of the Indian Ocean, visible right from our bed. We had our bags packed up the previous night as we had to catch an early morning flight departing at 11:00 a.m. from George airport to Skukuza (Kruger).
Post a quick breakfast, we bid farewell to the Alexander (27th February, 2017) and the wonderful town of Knysna. The management of the Alexander was very kind to pack some muffins for us for our 1.5 hour journey from Knysna to George Airport.
The town of George is central to South African Garden Route in the Western Cape Province and is the sixth oldest town in South Africa. It has an extremely sophisticated infrastructure with banks, conference facilities, businesses, major shopping chains, transport and sporting facilities, yet retaining its small town and country atmosphere of peace and tranquility. It also has many historical landmarks to be visited like The Slave Tree, an ancient English Oak planted by Landdrost van Kervel.
We started from the Alexander at approx. 7:00 a.m. and reached George Airport at 8:30 a.m. Today was also the last day of our self-drive experience in South Africa. Hence, we had to hand over the car back to the Bidvest Rental Agency. It was amazing that in 7 days, we had driven more than 1500 kms. So seamless was the driving experience there, that rarely we felt fatigued or tiredness of driving the car.
MIRINDA fun facts – The car handover process was quite simple – they checked the car for any signs of damages, made sure that the fuel tank is full, carried out some paperwork and informed us that within 2 weeks the deposit will be credited back to our credit card account. (10 mins and we were done with the rental car handover!)
The airport at George, although smaller than Cape Town, was sophisticated and well managed. We had to pay a small excess baggage fee, after which we were on-board the Skukuza flight, via Johannesburg.
MIRINDA fun facts (Flying from Knysna to Kruger) – As Knysna does not have an airport, flights can be boarded from George or Plettenberg airports (which are the nearest airports to Knysna). However, even from George/ Plettenberg, there is no direct flight to Kruger. All flights are routed through Johannesburg airport. From Johannesburg airport, direct flights are available to Skukuza and Nelspruit Airports. So depending on the distance of your stay/game reserve from the particular airports, flights should be selected accordingly. The other option is self-driving/taxi from Johannesburg to Kruger. While self-driving / taxi would be cheaper options as compared to flights, time factor also needs to be considered. Direct flights from Johannesburg to Kruger would take approx. 1.5 hours, whereas driving down would take approx. 6 hours.
After changing the flight at Johannesburg, we landed in Skukuza at around 2:00 p.m.
Selecting the ideal destination in Kruger
Before going to Kruger, we had done a lot of internet research and also consulted a lot of people about the best place to stay in Kruger. This was a huge and very important question as (without offense to Cape Town or Knysna) the Safari was after all the highlight of trip. However, the Kruger Safari experience does not come cheap. Depending on where and in which lodge one stays, the expense varies. Plus, there was also a question of whether to stay in Kruger National Park or in a Private game reserve. While staying in the Kruger National park would be much cheaper as compared to staying at a private game reserve inside the park, there are big differences in terms of the game viewing experience.
Kruger National Park vs Private Game Reserve
Kruger National Park – The public rest camps at Kruger national park offer less expensive and less luxurious accommodation, and generally most visitors arrive in their own car and drive themselves (unless they have booked through a tour operator who will include game drives on an open safari vehicle). Vehicles have to stay on the road at all times and need to be back in camp by sunset. There are no limit on the number of vehicles per sighting so you can sometimes encounter traffic jams (especially when the big cats have been sighted).
Private Game Reserves (Sabi Sand, Timbavati, Manyeleti, etc) – The private game lodges in the greater Kruger Park and the private reserves surrounding the park share an unfenced boundary with Kruger offer more expensive accommodation with all meals and game drives included. In addition to the greater level of service and luxury (including things like spas and private plunge pools), there are several key differences from a game-viewing standpoint:
- Game drives are conducted by teams of professional rangers and trackers in open Land Rovers (in Kruger, operators that use open safari vehicles also use professional guides but no trackers).
- Vehicles can drive off-road while tracking animals, so it is possible to track down the “Big 5” and get great close-up sightings of leopard and lion, for example. In some reserves like the Sabi Sand, your chances of seeing a leopard up close are much better at a private game lodge.
- Some of the more expensive lodges limit the number of people per vehicle to 6 so everyone gets an outside seat for optimal viewing.
- Night drives enable you to see nocturnal species and offer the best chance of seeing the big cats on the hunt
- Sightings are generally limited to 3 vehicles at any time. The upside of this is that you won’t have a crowded sighting. The downside is that other vehicles may be waiting just around the corner to enter the sighting, so your viewing time at the sighting may be limited to 15 or 20 minutes (or you may be in the vehicle around the corner, waiting to enter the sighting which can also be frustrating).
After much debate and head scratching we decided on not to compromise on the experience and booked “Kirkman’s Kamp” managed by &Beyond at Sabi Sands Private Game reserve.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve
Known as the ultimate South African safari destination – Sabi Sands is the most famous private game reserve of all. Sabi Sands Game Reserve is located adjacent to Kruger National Park and there are no fences between Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands Game Reserve, so wildlife can roam freely in huge national environment. It is the largest Private Game Reserve in South Africa. It is a 65,000 hectare reserve known for its amazing leopard sightings. Besides the BIG 5, other game species are found in great numbers along with more than 300 species of birds.
Sabi Sands is considered to be the best destination for wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and birdwatchers alike.
&Beyond Kirksman’s Kamp
A 1920s colonial style safari lodge is known for its incredible view of the Sabie River. With all guest cottages having private verandah, fireplace and en-suite bathroom. Their motto is to make sure that every guest has the most special, fun packed, tranquil time.
Skukuza Airport was located right next to the Sabi Sands Game reserve.
A small Airport, with one air strip right inside the Jungle provides air connections by Airlink and Lion sands to major cities like Johannesburg, George, and Plettenberg Bay. Maximum 20 passenger flights are allowed to Skukuza Airport. The physical design of the airport’s building structures blends with the forest around it creating limited intrusive visual impact on the surroundings.
We were received by our trekker “Robert” at the airport in our game drive vehicle “Land Rover”. He helped us with our bags and we were finally enroute our Game Reserve destination in Sabi Sands i.e. Kirksman Camp. During our 20 minute ride from the airport to Kirksman Camp, we got a first glimpse of what the next 3 days had in store for us.
We had a brief sighting of a variety of animals on our way to the hotel. Just as we entered the Sabi Sands reserve, we saw the first of the big 5 – the “African Elephant” feeding on the Marula fruit from the trees. As we moved closer, the elephant shook his head and our trekker immediately drove away from that spot. It is supposedly a warning sign from the elephant that he does not want us to come any closer. That was exciting! Slowly as we moved on, and we saw the Zebras, the Impalas, and some Giraffes, hanging around together, grazing on the lush landscape. It was a beautiful sight. It was also there, we spotted the Yellow Hornbill, the famous “lion king bird”.
The whole setting was like a scene from the Lion King movie. And now we couldn’t wait to spot Simba and Mufasa!!!!
After a 20 minute drive (which was nothing less than a game drive), we made it to the Kirksman Camp at around 3:00 pm. As we entered the camp, we could see the hotel staff waving at us – a unique style of Kirksman Camp to welcome their guests every time they return back to the hotel, whether from a game drive or otherwise. After brief introductions, we were quickly taken to the restaurant as the lunch time was just about to conclude. At Kirksman Camp, life was full of luxury. We were dedicated a private butler “Moses”, trekker “Robert” and ranger “Joel” throughout our stay… We were asked for our food preferences, our palette etc and the butler made sure that the food was upto the mark and as per our choices.
MIRINDA fun facts – Most lodges in the private game reserves in Kruger are on an “All-inclusive basis”, which means that the price is inclusive of game drives, breakfast, lunch, dinner and selected alcoholic spirits.
The manager explained to us how the itinerary would work during the stay.
Wake up call: 5 am
Tea/Coffee at the restaurant: 5 30 am
Morning game drive: 6 am onwards
Breakfast: 10 am
Hi-tea: 4 pm
Evening Game Drive: 4:30 pm
Evening drinks followed by dinner: 8 pm onwards
Whoa, that sounded like a pretty hectic schedule!! Waking up at 5 am just struck on or heads. We were excited but also wondering whether we could cope up with such tight timelines. Post a nice lunch, we freshened up in our room and were ready for our first evening game drive.
MIRINDA suggests- Incase you are planning to visit Kirkman’s Kamp please book Room 13 and 14 as it overlooks the Sabie River. They have proven to be good spotting sights as animals have often been found wandering near the river. We had insisted the room 13 at the time of our booking and we were lucky enough to get it.
We reached the restaurant area sharp at 4 pm as suggested by the hotel staff, where our ranger “Joel”, was waiting for us. After a very warm introduction, we were asked about what we would like to see in the park and we said hopefully all the Big 5. We were told about a few guidelines which should be strictly followed in the park. Not standing up inside the vehicle, not to get down from the vehicle without the ranger’s permissions, doing always what the ranger tell us to do etc. However, the most important one was that at night, we were not supposed to walk back to our rooms without any escort. Animals including lions and leopards have been known to frequent the camp. So proper safety measures were installed by the management. Infact, the same morning, a herd of elephants had invited themselves over for the lunch at restaurant. They were feeding on the trees near the restaurant. The entire lunch had to be abandoned and the guests were properly escorted to their rooms.
We then met our fellow guests who were a diverse mix from all over the world. Apart from us, there were a two more couples who had come for their honeymoon. With us in the car, was a local South African couple, who had come to Kirksman Camp to celebrate the wife’s birthday. Post some coffee and snacks, we were off to our first game drive in Kruger.
Our First Afternoon Game Drive
We sat at the top bunk of the Land Rover with the DSLR and the binoculars in place, scouting like hawks all over the park for the sight of animals. It had just rained a few days ago, so the forest was quite green with small puddles of water everywhere.
MIRINDA suggests – Carefully check the weather forecast before you end up going to Kruger National Park. In rains, sightings are tough as water is available to animals in abundance. In dryer seasons, sightings are easy as animals often visit the limited water bodies in the forest. One big advantage of choosing a private game reserves is that even if it is pouring, the management tries to conduct game drives by handing over ponchos to the guests. While inside the Kruger National Park, safaris are not allowed during rains.
However, we had brought with us great luck all the way from India! We saw huge herds of impalas, zebras, kudus and giraffes hanging around in the bush, grazing peacefully on the lush green grass – which meant that there is no predator in the nearby vicinity. Just few moments later, we saw a family of 4 elephants – two parents and two kids. The parents were teaching the kids how to pluck the Marula fruit from the trees. Such a cute sight it was!! Actually the young one even said hello to us with its trunk. Complementing the giant animals were the small colorful birds. To name a few we saw the Tawny Eagle, Red Headed weaver, Black-bellied bustard, Red Billed Oxpecker, etc.. What a lovely sight it was!
The best part of the safari though was the entire process of observing the tracks of the animals, listening to alarm calls, and then actually spotting the animal. We were just amazed with how much knowledgeable our ranger and trekker were. They would know everything about the animal including its diet, weight, speed, life expectancy, mating patterns, behaviour etc. Our rangers and trekkers actually have had full exhaustive training sessions which lasted over 1 – 1.5 years, where they were supposed to walk the entire bush all by themselves.
Even for a small creature like Dung Beetle, we could just sense that passion in their voice when they are explaining the animals characteristics. And that passion spread to us – making us inquisitive about every small detail in the forest. It just made us realize the importance of having knowledgeable and passionate rangers & trekkers around us. Further, the rangers were constantly connected to the camp and other rangers by radio; so any sighting was quickly informed to the other rangers, which proved beneficial to the guests.
MIRINDA suggests- We strongly suggest that you do a good research about the rangers and trekkers in whatever lodge you choose to stay in Kruger. Having knowledgeable and wildlife enthusiasts around you will take the safari experience to a different level.
During mid-way of our safari, we had an extremely rare sighting of the entire pack of African Wild Dogs also known as Cape Hunting Dogs. With only 6,500 odd wild dogs remaining in the wild, their status has been listed as endangered by IUCN. They were on their evening hunt, chasing a herd of impalas. One important part of their hunting behaviour was highlighted by our ranger – In high bushes where they have low visibility given their short height, the hunting members lift their white tails up during the chase; this works are signal points to the other members of the pack and they follow the directions. They are extremely effective hunters and are known for starting to feed even while the prey is alive. Similar to our domestic dogs, they are very social and loyal creatures.
It was only when the other couple in our car told us that they haven’t been able to spot the wild dogs in the last 22 years of their regular safari experiences, we learnt that how lucky we have been on our first game drive in Kruger.
On our way back to the lodge, we saw our first sighting of the African Male Leopard with its kill, resting on a tree. On close observance, we found that there were actually two kills made by the leopard, both lying safely on two adjacent trees. As per our ranger, the leopard was probably stuffed for the day and would be saving the kill for tomorrow. Its eyes were shining in the twilight of the day; and as moved closer towards it, it took a big yawn and stretched its body; as if it showing off after a successful kill. We were little scared being so close to such a ferocious predator but our ranger assured us that if he finds any signs of threat, he will turn the vehicle behind. We were in complete awe!!! We had seen more than what we had hoped for in our first game drive.
We were in complete awe!!! We had seen more than what we had hoped for in our first game drive.
At around, 6.30 pm, just around sunset time, the ranger stopped the car for a sundowner in the jungle. He conducted a small recce to spot any signs of danger and finally found a safe spot. Wow we said!!! Drinks in the middle of jungle isn’t something we do every day. A big herd of zebras and giraffes were just few meters away from us and here we drinking ‘Amarula on the rocks’. It was a pure bucket list experience.
At around 7:30 pm, we were back at the camp. We straight away made it to the bar for some drinks before dinner. It was socializing time with other guests and rangers who shared their game drive experiences. They also had a point system, which was used as bragging rights by the ranger who scored the most. The atmosphere was very chilled and relaxed. It was just our first evening and we were completely sunk in the whole wild-life mood.
After a few drinks, we made our way to dinner. Today we had a group dinner set up known as the “Boma Dinner” where the Ranger sits along with the guests for dinner. So, Joel sat with us for dinner and shared his Jungle experience stories. Our butler Mosses never stopped serving us spectacular food and drinks- We even tried a Springbok (a game meat) for dinner. We were in complete awe of the setting, there was a camp fire in the middle, candle light on our table, wine in our hands, wonderful people around us and beautiful open sky. At the end of the dinner, the staff danced around the campfire, sang old African tunes and we joined them in the dance as well!!
MIRINDA suggests- Although most lodges offer their in-house mosquito repellant, we would advise you to carry “Tabard” mosquito repellant. It is very effective and the odor is also not that bad.
Finally, after an exhaustive but a super duper adventurous day, we (accompanied by an escort) went back to our rooms and called it a day.
Day 09 – South African Safari experience day 2 coming up next…
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