Some people travel for the expedition. The Kruger National Park offers you that kind of trip. It’s a world where visitors stop for a car parked randomly at the side of the road. By Ben Coley
A seven-hour drive lay before me as my engine spluttered to life in conjunction with the sun’s first appearance of the day. My destination was Makuleke in the remote north of the Kruger. The route would take me to the Phalaborwa gate and then a further 300km north through the park.
A ribbon of tarmac snaked its way northward through the lush bush, the vegetation revelling in the recent rains. With not another road user in sight I set off with that familiar feeling of the anticipation of what would be around the next bend. Perhaps 50 km from Phalaborwa I met a car by the side of the road, its occupants beaming and pointing eagerly at a majestic jackalberry tree close by. They beckoned for me join them.
Road users in the Kruger are usually only too happy to share their encounters. I pulled in behind them and saw what had them so excited. A leopard, 40 metres into the bush, lay draped over a branch in the dappled light. It looked like a piece of gold and black velvet as its muscular body hugged the contours of the limb. Its lazy eyes watched us without concern for a few minutes before deciding that more solace could be found elsewhere, rose, stretched and gracefully dismounted from its perch. Within seconds its sleek form vanished into the undergrowth and I was left with only a few photos as evidence that the encounter ever happened.
This was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip but for the next five hours I bumbled through the heart of the Kruger. Occasionally I stopped to share in the delight of frolicking impala lambs and revel in the splendour of a European bee-eater as it scanned the roadside for an easy meal.
The mopane trees in the area had attracted a multitude of elephants and I was graced with multiple sightings of these gentle giants pruning the roadside vegetation, as well as a 400 strong herd of buffalo, meandering its way to a waterhole to quench their thirst. Perched atop one of these bush battering rams was a rare yellow-billed oxpecker.
What lay ahead was 23,000 hectares of pristine wilderness and a week of walking. During the next week I spent close to 50 hours on foot in nature’s playground. I viewed both elephant and buffalo, swam in natural springs and fell asleep to the haunting whoop of nearby hyenas under a blanket of twinkling stars, the likes of which city-folk will never experience.
What an honour to be able to travel to and from ‘work’ along such adventurous paths. The destination was magnificent, but the road to get there was just as pleasurable. We are graced to live alongside such areas of natural beauty where every moment spent within it is precious.
Ben Coley is an instructor at EcoTraining’s Karongwe Game Reserve, which lies to the south-west of the Kruger National Park. He is also a writer and photographer.