Hanging out with the lions and elephants at Kruger National Park

Kruger-15Sorry the blog has been quiet the past few weeks. With Ali and Marcus in town visiting we were pretty much on the go non-stop or sitting on a beach where wifi wasn’t exactly easy to come by. Then came a whirlwind last two days in Cape Town and now a brief stint in Istanbul.

I’ll write more on Istanbul, plus some of my final thoughts on South Africa, in a few days. First, let’s talk about the last few weeks in Southern Africa. Playing tour guide in Cape Town was a blast, but I think the highlights of the trip for me were Kruger National Park and Mozambique.

Clearly I’ve long had a soft spot for Southern Africa, but I really fell in love with the region in 2011 when I visited Chobe National Park in Botswana and had a chance to drive through the vast park alongside elephant, giraffes, lions and hippos.

Going into Kruger I was eager to see the last two of the “big five” animals on my list (cheesy, I know, but I’m really into it). For the uninitiated, the big five are: African elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, leopard and lion.



The list apparently was created by hunters because these are the most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. I’ve heard countless arguments that giraffe, hippo, cheetah, etc. should be included. Those animals are all amazing but the list is the list. Although I’m not sure who has a hard time hunting Cape buffalo. They are slow and hang out in giant herds. C’mon.

Leopard and rhino were my outstanding animals and I had a chance to see both. Unlike other parks in the region, Kruger still has both white and black rhino.

The park also has elephants, giraffes, large herds of zebra, hyenas, hippos, wildebeest, caracals, servals, jackals, wild dogs, wild cats, kudu, a gazillion impala … the list goes on and on and on.

A rare wild dog.

A rare wild dog.


One of the joys of Kruger is the fact you can drive yourself around. The park is extremely well-marked with plenty of wildlife near the roads.

You drive slowly with one eye on the road and one eye on the bush. If you’re lucky you’ll spot something on your own. Often, you’ll see a scrum of brake lights ahead then try to inch your way closer to see what everyone else is gawking at.

A hyena

A hyena.


In one particular hilarious moment we pulled into turnoff to survey the banks of a nearby river. We didn’t see any wildlife, but noticed a spider that was the size of an iPhone hanging from the biggest web I’ve ever seen.

We backed up to get a closer view, which attracted the attention of others passing by on the main road. One car soon pulled in behind us, followed shortly by another.

That triggered a chain reaction and soon there were half a dozen or so cars in the turn off.

One guy rolled down his window to ask “what do you see?” His disappointment was palpable when the reply was “a spider.” (But for real, it was an incredible spider.)

We ended up in areas a few times where lions and leopards had been spotted, but didn’t see any cats during our self-drive tours.

As you might expect, we had much better luck during the two drives we did with professional guides. The first was an early morning drive that started about 90 minutes before sunrise.

Well, it was supposed to start 90 minutes before sunrise, but apparently nobody told the guide there were guests that morning so he only showed up when somebody called him 30 minutes after we were supposed to leave.

It was a moot point in the end because we ended up having a very eventful drive. Not long after the start we came across a few hyena, followed a short time later by a rhino couple that was standing about 15-20 meters from the road. I checked rhino off the list.



After driving a few kilometers we saw some stopped trucks ahead. Our guide told us there was a pride of lions alongside the road.

With a few power moves behind the wheel of the Land Cruiser he edged out some self-driving tourists to get us a front-row seat. We first spotted a male away from the pack. He wasn’t full grown, but still sported a decent-sized mane.

He didn’t stick around long, but the handful of mothers and their juvenile offspring didn’t seem bothered by our presence as they sat staring as us and drinking water from the roadside ditch.

The lions were quite close, but there wasn’t any serious danger even though the game drive trucks are open-air and don’t have anything on the sides to protect passengers.



Lions actually have quite poor eyesight and can’t really distinguish you as a human when you’re inside the truck. You basically look like a giant blob or rock – not breakfast. If you make sudden movements or stick your arm out, however, you might end up looking tantalizingly like a tasty impala.

Thanks to the previous rhino sighting, plus earlier elephant and buffalo encounters, all three of us were now sitting at 4/5 on the big five checklist.

The lion sighting in the morning was exciting, but the best sighting game the next night during a sunset drive.

Once the sun went down a few of us in the truck broke out giant spotlights and scanned the bush for glowing eyes. A few times I spotted eyes – including the glowing red eyes that usually come from a big cat – but by the time we stopped and scanned the area again whatever I saw was gone.

Eventually we came upon another truck that found a lion pride sleeping in the road. The female lions hadn’t risen for the evening yet and sleepily looked at us as we parked a few meters away.


Soon they got up to start their night of hunting and walked over to the truck. One of the lions walked right up to the back corner where Marcus was sitting and bushed against the tire. She was maybe a meter away from him.

Good kitty.

Good kitty.


On the night drive we also spotted a wild cat, which is the smallest of the cats in Kruger and the closest ancestor to modern domestic cats.

I’ll have more blogs in the coming week (I promise!), including more about the last weeks in South Africa, Turkey and some of my thoughts about politics and race in South Africa.








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