Would she survive a trip among dangerous animals? Would the malaria medication make her feel sick? Was all the expense worth it? Dutch student Sanne Welman reflects on her first visit to the Kruger National Park.

It was during my second week in Cape Town that the words Kruger Park started being bandied about in our group of Dutch students. Did we want to go on a trip to this world-famous game park? When I was in the Netherlands I was asked several times whether I would be going to Kruger during my stay in South Africa. I even got the question when I went for my travel vaccinations. Yet every time my answer was “no”.

To begin with, I was put off by the medication one has to take against malaria. I’d heard the anti-malaria tablets can make you feel sick. I also thought it was an expensive trip just to spot some animals. My first thought was that I could see these animals at the zoo.

Fast forward five weeks. Along with the other Dutch students, I was expectantly waiting to embark on an adventure: four days in the Kruger National Park. How had I changed my mind so completely?

A beautiful sunset in the early evening. Photo by Sanne Dorssers

Saying yes to adventure

When I arrived in Cape Town, my mindset was changed almost immediately. South Africa is such a beautiful country and I was very curious to see what the country’s most famous game park looked like. I decided to say yes to adventure. After all, if you’ve traveled all the way to South Africa, you can’t miss out on Kruger.

Just before leaving I read all the ins and outs about the Kruger National Park, such as that it has a surface area of almost 20,000km². This number told me relatively little in the beginning until I realized that Kruger is half the size of the Netherlands. How was it possible? A game park half the size of my home country? It was already clear to me that I wouldn’t be going to a zoo.

An early-morning flight brought our group to Johannesburg, from where we traveled by truck to Kruger’s Numbi Gate. The whole way there I sat thinking about the Big Five. In Europe, we are used to visiting the zoo with family or friends. But this time the animals wouldn’t be behind bars. I could suddenly come face to face with an elephant or lion.

The entrance to the Numbi Gate. Photo by Sanne Welman

Seeing animals in the wild

On our first night in Kruger, I had the chance to find out as we set off in an open vehicle for a sunset game drive. In the beginning, I thought it would be pretty scary to sit in an open vehicle, but nothing could be further from the truth. You get the maximum experience in a safari vehicle. Our ranger explained that we would be safe as long as we stayed inside the vehicle and didn’t hang out or stand up.

A game drive is not just about enjoying sightings but also learning about nature. The most special moment for me was when our ranger demonstrated just how well zebra can see. Zebra don’t have eyes in the front of their head, but on the side, which gives them a wide field of vision. The ranger predicted exactly when the zebra would be able to see us out of the corner of its eye and he was absolutely right… We moved slowly forward and at the predicted spot, the zebra looked at us directly.

The zebra that saw us. Photo by Sanne Welman

 

Looking for the Lion King

To get the maximum wild experience, we slept in safari tents at the edge of the Kruger Park. There was something really special about waking up in the morning to the sounds of wild animals and birds. Not something I have ever experienced in the Netherlands.

I come face to face with my favourite animal. Photo by Sanne Dorssers

Every morning at half-past four the alarm went off. It is best to get up as early as possible because that’s when you have the best chance of seeing wildlife. Our early starts paid off. We saw an elephant, rhino, hyena, giraffe, lion, crocodile, warthog, impala, zebra, buffalo and the most beautiful birds.

During our game drives, we took on the challenge of spotting the Lion King animals. Before the trip, we had watched the film and were keen to see these animals in real life. As we scanned the bush for Simba the lion, Pumbaa the warthog and Zazu the hornbill, we became convinced that the film was based on the Kruger National Park. Even though our ranger told us this was not the case, we still thought it was obvious.

After a long search, we spotted Zazu from the Lion King. Photo by Sanne Welman

A walk on the wild side

For me personally it was a dream to see the Big Five. It was not clear to me at first why they were known by this name. I always thought it was because they were the most dangerous animals in the bush. However, during a bushwalk, I discovered that these animals were the most difficult to hunt on foot. Luckily, these days visitors shoot only with their cameras.

Buffalo, one of the Big Five. Photo by Sanne Welman

While it is wonderful to observe animals from a game drive, a bush walk comes highly recommended if you enjoy a bit more adventure. To begin with, you see so much more on foot and you get to places you would normally never go by car.

On your walk, you will be accompanied by two rangers who will show you a completely different side of the Kruger National Park.

I found this activity extremely exciting because you walk through the territory of wild animals. The rangers are armed with rifles, so you don’t have to be afraid. With its emphasis on tracks and signs, as well as smaller creatures, a bush walk gives an extra dimension to your visit to Kruger.

An early morning bushwalk through the Kruger National Park. Photo by Sanne Welman

What I learned in Kruger

I was astounded to learn that a tree can protect itself by giving its leaves a bad taste so that a giraffe doesn’t eat it bare. And I was surprised to see that the dung pellets of a giraffe are rather small for an animal that size. It was interesting to see the rangers investigate various dung and scat droppings. By looking at how fresh an elephant’s dung was, they could tell it must be quite close!

Having visited Kruger, I think it is a very special experience every international visitor should seek out. In this, South Africa has something to offer that we don’t have in Europe.

Now that I have experienced the ‘wildlife’ for four days, I will not be visiting a zoo somewhere in Europe anymore. It is so special to see how the animals live in Africa and how nature goes its own way. The best moment of my entire trip came at the end. I was relaxing in the lounge of our lodge when I heard “Elephant!”. There, just 10 meters away, was an elephant feeding peacefully. For the next hour, I watched this magnificent creature. What a privilege.

The magnificent elephant that I spotted very close to our lodge. Photo by Sanne Welman