You may not see the big five on a walking tour of Kruger National Park, but LYNETTE EYB says it’s the perfect way to get close to the heart of the park.
We’re all squatting down, poking our fingers in giant imprints in the dry river bed. My hand fits perfectly inside the footprint – five times over. These are the tracks left by an elephant just this morning. Nearby are similar marks left by rhino, giraffe and impala. This thoroughfare, says Marius Renke, will lead us to water.
Renke is one of three guides based at Satara, the second largest public camp in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. He is on the ground every day, getting to know it that little bit better. He studies its nuances and listens to its noises.
“If you only come to Kruger once in your lifetime, it’s a good idea to walk,” he says. “An afternoon walk is not a game drive, it’s an experience. If we see a lion, we will stop for a short while and watch, but then we will move on. If you become obsessed with the big animals, you really do miss out on Kruger.”
Everyone who comes here wants to see the Big Five, but the true heart of the park, he says, lies on the ground and in the trees, among the thousands of other birds and animals that call this part of Africa home.
Here, on an afternoon walk in the park, we are following snake trails, exploring areas where rhino have ‘mowed’ their way to the water and learning the difference between wart hog and waterbuck dung. Through the trees, we hear the sound of a male impala darting across the grasslands to scare a young pretender away from his posse of female friends. These are the sights and sounds you simply will not hear if you spend all your time in Kruger perched up the front of a 4×4.
Renke can – and does – name each and every bird we see, he knows more than I ever thought there was to know about giraffe feet and can identify each strange plant which we see emerging from dry earth and dead tree stump.
He picks up a bizarre-looking spikey fruit and cuts it open. Inside there are seeds; it is the colour of cucumber. Inedible,” he says immediately. “Don’t touch it. As a general rule, if you cut something open and it looks like tomato or cucumber, don’t eat it.”
This and other acquired knowledge plays a large part in preserving the park for future generations. “We (the guides and rangers) learn from each other each day,” he says. “We attend workshops and lectures, and learn about diseases affecting the animals so that we can report them.”
Each walking tour is led by two guides, both armed to protect tourists against the unexpected. Four weeks prior to our visit, Marius had been charged by a lioness while leading a nature walk. His colleague ushered the tourists to safety while he kept an eye on the animal, minimising the threat with his body language. The lion, he says, was more scared of him than he was of her. In four years in Kruger, he’s never raised his rifle let alone fired a shot. I ask if this latest encounter got his adrenaline pumping. He answers simply: “Yes, I enjoyed that.”
When I ask what else he enjoys about Kruger, he recounts the story of a recent staff football match outside the camp gates. Play was stopped when a few uninvited guests wondered across the pitch: “Who’s ever heard of a soccer game being stopped by an elephant?” he says. “It’s a special place, a very special place.”
There is no need to be stuck in a 4×4 during your entire visit to Kruger – there are loads of great things to see and do on foot or bike.
Morning (from 5.15am; R220) and afternoon walks (from 3.15pm; R175) take place most days at Satara, and at other camps across Kruger. Bookings can be taken at camp receptions, though it is advisable to book prior to arrival during busy times (especially for morning walks).
For the more adventurous – or those with more time – Kruger also has seven guided wilderness trails which take three nights/four days to walk. Accommodation is provided in wilderness camps.Cyclists can use full and half-day mountain bike trails at Olifants Camp. Details on walks and other activities is at www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger.
For more general information on South Africa’s wildlife, see TNT‘s online guide at www.tntmagazine.com/uk/guides
Kruger National Park
South Africa’s flagship national park covers some two million hectares of land. It was established in 1898 to protect the wildlife of the South African lowveld, and has since become a world leader in environmental management techniques and policies. It is home to 336 species of trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 different mammals.
Kruger has 12 main rest camps, five bushveld camps, two bush lodges and four satellite camps which all offer accommodation of varying cost and quality.
The far north of the park is the most difficult area to access, making it less popular with tourists. The largest animal populations are concentrated in the south, with the area around the Lower Sabie and Satara camps ideal for wildlife watching.”