Eish! Our week exploring St. Lucia and Kruger was jam-packed, with plenty of early mornings, late nights and in your face wildlife. We kicked things off with a sunset river cruise down the St. Lucia Estuary, the biggest estuarine system in the whole of Africa. Famous for its abundance of crocodiles and hippopotamuses, we were not disappointed. Our boat got within a few feet of several different floating pods of hippos and creepy crocs, in addition to spotting plenty of zebra, waterbuck and bird life on the shoreline.
Hippos are my favorite kind of ugly cute. They always seem to have a peaceful smile on their faces, sleeping all together in giant cuddle puddles. We got close enough to hear them blowing bubbles and inspect their teeth as they yawned, waking up slowly for their night of grazing. Every once in awhile they would let out these deep, booming belly-laughs in unison, and I would join in. It’s hard to believe they are the most feared animal in South Africa, responsible for killing more people than any other creature.
Our second day was spent just outside of St. Lucia at Cape Vidal, part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Sight. Only a hundred cars a day are permitted to enter the reserve, allowing us to have the picturesque white sand beach practically all to ourselves. We snorkeled in the Indian Ocean and strolled down the coast, debating if we should keep walking all the way to Mozambique. Shifts were divvied out to defend our possessions from vervet monkeys, much cuter than seagulls, but also much more clever.
Eventually we’d had enough of the sun and the monkeys, leaving for our first mini self-drive safari. Cruising around the reserve we spotted plenty of wildebeest, kudu, zebra, waterbuck, elephant and all manner of birds, excitedly rolling down the windows for a closer glimpse with binoculars. That night we were having what felt like our thousandth braai when a hippo casually wandered into the yard next door. He munched on some grass, did a loop, then marched wearily away down the middle of the road.
The early wake up for our long drive to Kruger National Park was made even more challenging by the strangely vivid nightmares I’d had thanks to starting my new anti-malarials. (Gary had it the worst, dreaming he was vomiting maggots. Fun!) The journey took twelve long hours across pot-holed roads, dodging cattle and pedestrians, while packed into a tiny, rattling car surrounded by bags. We broke up the day at a very beautiful but very empty hotel and casino in the middle of the recently renamed Eswatini, although the entrance stamp in my passport still read Swaziland. Rachel and I each sunk 100 rand into the slots, and won big! Just kidding, we might as well have flushed that money down the toilet.
The last part of the day was a two hour drive through Kruger, racing to get to the camp before the gates closed at six. I thought you’d enter the park and need to really search for wildlife, but it’s pretty immediately everywhere. Within thirty seconds we saw hippos, and another minute later, a leopard. The rest of the drive we couldn’t afford to stop, but made a quick exception for one of my favorite sightings of the entire trip, a chameleon crossing the road, turning from black to green as he left the asphalt. As we were checking in to our safari tent at Skukuza Camp, a family of warthogs busily trotted past, close enough to touch.
The rest of our three days in Kruger pretty much went as follows: wake up early and caffeinate. Drive around in our little tin can on paved or well-graded roads, stopping whenever someone spots wildlife. Play highly competitive homemade wildlife bingo, with points given for spotting an animal, as well as if that animal is on your grid. You’re never allowed to step foot out of your vehicle, or even really extend more than an arm. (After seeing my first lion and realizing just how big they actually are, I was definitely not leaving the safety of our car!) If you have to pee there are occasional designated rest spots, otherwise you pee in the corner of the door and the car, with everyone else on high alert. At the end of the day we would check the sightings map at camp to see what we spotted and what we missed, and then drink a craft beer with the animal of the day on it while eagerly looking through photos. Shower, sleep, repeat. I loved it, although I’ve never felt more touristy, wearing a safari hat and giant pair of binoculars around my neck as I craned my neck for a better view or snapped photos.
We rang in the new year (and new decade!) under the stars next to the river with a glass of champagne. Just as we were counting down to midnight, a porcupine scuttled out of the bushes down the boardwalk, casting a spooky, elongated, spiked shadow behind him as he walked towards the group. Out for his nightly constitutional, he startled us just as much as I’m sure we startled him. A little later, as I was brushing my teeth, I heard what I thought were distant sounds of other revelers. Eventually I realized it was actually hyenas, hooting and cackling during their own celebration.
Despite this being a busy holiday season, the park never felt crowded. We were lucky enough to see the big five in the first 24 hours, and actually had our first leopard, rhino and lion sighting all to ourselves. I got the spot points when I found a pair of rhinos napping in the shade under a tree, and after seeing them I can’t imagine thinking it would be a nice idea to murder them and grind their horn to make boner pills. I haven’t fact-checked, but I was told Kruger lost 400 rhinos last year to poachers. They cross over from Mozambique where the border is less regulated, and can earn up to $100,000 per kilogram of rhino horn, thanks to its popularity as a remedy for impotence in traditional Chinese medicine. To disincentivize them, many parks now cut their rhino’s horns. They are made of keratin like our nails, so the process is believed to be completely painless, and it does grow back, but even the stump is so valuable that rhinos still get killed in order to gouge out what’s left. So completely absurd and infuriating.
After two nights at the well-infrastructured village of Skukuza we moved to Orpen Camp, which I much preferred. To me Orpen was perfect, nothing more than eight little stand alone cabins, a swimming pool and a grove of trees, all situated alongside a lively little watering hole. I spent one morning in the pool watching zebra, wildebeest and impala come and go in their own mysterious rhythm, separated only by a humming electric fence. By the end of the trip my eyes were starting to hurt from days of scanning for life, and it was a welcome break to read in hammock in the shade.
On the last day we paid for a morning drive with an actual guide. The 3:30am wake up was brutal, but shortly after leaving camp we saw a pride of lions sleeping on road, making the early start worth it. Gary and I were the only people who had signed up for the drive, so we had them all to ourselves for an hour before they opened the camp gates and other cars arrived. It was amazing to watch them wake up with the rising sun, stretching before sauntering off one by one.
And so ended our bucket list trip of a lifetime! Or at least this first part. Now it’s off to climb for a week, and explore a little more on our own. Can’t wait for the next adventure!