The alarm went off at 4:30am, today we got an extra 15 minutes of sleep. We snacked on a few left over items in the kitchen and got ready for a long day in Kruger Park.
We met Donald, our guide, at 5:15am at the front gate. He handed us blankets and we started our cold drive towards the park with a quick pickup of another couple.
The truck pulled up to the still closed park gates and a minute later they opened a side gate for guided tours. A line of people had already formed outside the main entrance.
Donald ran into the park office to fill out the required paperwork while we waited outside. The horizon was just starting to brighten when he returned ready to go.
We were in the park before sunrise, the dawn sky was a dark shade of pink. Donald stopped the truck, the air was filled with the calls of various animals. An outline of a giraffe broke through the horizon ahead of us.
As the sun rose the park came alive. A small group of sleeping rhinos where huddled together in the brush.
We came upon a different giraffe who was wandering between the trees looking for an early breakfast. We were told that their lifespans were shorter than other larger animals due to their high blood pressure, little sleep and relatively easy prey.
We were treated to a unique spotting of a jackal in the distance with an impala cautiously watching its movements.
This had all been spotted before the sun had fully rose above the horizon. We sat bundled in the car waiting to see what came next.
A herd of elephants were making their way down the sun-soaked hillside.
A few vultures sat above us in the treetops.
Another herd of elephants were feeding closer to the main road.
Their trunks wrapped around branches, breaking them and bringing them to their mouthes.
A bateleur sat perched in a nearby tree. It's known as the tightrope-walker because it how it rocks its wings during flight as if it's trying to balance itself.
I was excited to see our next spotting, a zebra. We’d seen them before but never in the day light. A handful were spread out across the open field in front of us.
A few minutes later we spotted some waterbuck.
We pulled off the main paved road and were rocking along a bumpy dirt road. Again it would seem that luck was on our side when there in the middle of the road was a mother cheetah and her young cub.
The cub laid in the road for a while before bouncing off into the brush.
The mother sat motionless and fixated on something in the distance.
Eventually she lost interest in whatever she had spotted and joined the cub in the brush. We drove on waiting for our next surprise.
It wasn’t long before we’d stumbled upon another herd of elephants.
The rivers and dry river beds are their main hotspots. Elephants will dig holes in the dry river beds to get down to the ground water.
Digging wasn’t needed so much in this part as the main river was still very much flowing. We came up on a herd that had just taken a quick soak in the river. A few hippos were still bobbing around in the background.
The road twisted and wound back over the river where the banks were dotted with baboons.
The baboons had taken over the concrete bridge while the young ones were jumping up from the riverbed.
They walked the length of the bridge, staring at the occupants in our car. We’re told they’re one of the few animals in the park that recognize humans rather than just seeing a truck.
The babies were the real stars this morning as they clung to their mothers.
We’d seen so much already and it was now just mid morning. We’d arrived at Lower Sabie camp where we’d be stopping for breakfast. On a large open patio we were shown to a table in the sunshine.
We ordered some omelets and breakfast smoothies. The breakfast was shockingly good. I was expecting typical park food but this was turning out to be one of our better meals of the trip.
After loading back into the truck we hit the road. The cold morning air had burned away and now the heat was starting to build. We came to a waterhole where a large crocodile was warming in the sun.
The landscape seemed to be getting prettier the deeper into the park we drove.
By late morning the temperatures had jumped up and slowly we started giving up our blankets and jackets.
As the temperatures increased it seemed like the animal spotting decreased proportionally.
Like always, the impala seemed to be everywhere.
By late morning it was plain hot, while we reached for hats and sunglasses the animals were off finding shade.
We drove to another watering hole where a couple of snapping turtles warmed themselves in the sun.
Above the watering hole on the grassy bank a few waterbuck stood keeping a close eye on us.
As we drove away a car was parked on the side of the road. The driver rolled down her window and pointed out a hyaena hidden in the shade of the brush. I have no idea how she spotted it as it took us a few minutes of waiting just to get a brief glimpse of her head.
By late afternoon we’d reached the furthest point we’d be able to travel to within the park. We were nearly 80km away from the gate we entered. We stopped on top of a large rocky hill at one of the few places you’re allowed to get out of your car.
It was early afternoon and we had yet to stop for lunch. Donald admitted that we’d traveled pretty far from the gate and were in a little bit of a time crunch to make it back before the gates close. We were given 30 minutes for lunch but were back in the truck in 15.
We all agreed that at this point we didn’t need to stop for everything we spotted. It was crunch time and Donald seemed to be wanting to find lions before the end of the day.
We quickly made our way back towards the direction of the main gate. The stops were less frequent and usually around animals in the middle of the road.
He stopped for a huge male kudu which was standing near the road. Its antlers were unreal.
The rivers and hillsides in this part of the park were spectacular and was making for a great afternoon drive.
Some elephants slowed our progress while a large herd with their young took over the road in front of us. The mothers kept their young on the side furthest from our truck. We were told this herd was surprisingly calm, especially considering the number of young they had.
A few cars had stopped on the road, we slowly rolled up and discovered a lion with her cubs hiding in the brush.
The yellow-billed hornbill was impressive enough to warrant a stop. The late afternoon sun was backlighting the bird’s bill and making it glow a bright orange. These birds were entertaining, always hanging out in the road and flying alongside our vehicle as we drove through the park.
We then came upon the coolest animal in the park, this baby zebra.
The baby was bouncing around between the older zebras while they grazed on the grass near the road.
The park gates were closing at 5:30pm and we were already an hour and a half late on our return. There was just a single thing Leslie had hoped to see that had eluded us. We weren’t going to see the endangered southern ground hornbill on this trip. Night was setting in and we were moments from the gate when there on the side of the road on the branches of a dead tree, a pair was perched.
That was it, we’d seen everything we wanted to see in this park. We rolled up to the gate at exactly 5:30pm. We’d been in the truck for over 12 hours. We left the park and were driven back to our place. It truly was a full day safari.
After a couple of drinks and cleaning up it was time for dinner. There was only one restaurant that was open tonight and it was on a neighboring property.
A couple of minutes down the road we passed through their security gate and drove down to the restaurant. We walked into the mostly empty restaurant and were told to order quickly because the kitchen closed in 45 minutes.
Leslie and I ordered pizzas while Joe and Angel got a burger and a pizza. The drink menu wasn’t looking very good and somehow the Bush Tea, their version of a Long Island iced tea, seemed like the safest bet. Leslie and I ordered it and the waiter laughed as he walked away.
Maybe he was laughing because it was a strong drink or maybe he was laughing because it was one of the worst drinks we’ve ever had. The pizza was only slightly better.
We left the empty restaurant and returned to our place. We had one last celebratory round before retiring for some much needed sleep after the long day.
Tomorrow we’d start the 37 hour trip home which includes a 6 hour car drive, an 11 hour flight, an 8 hour layover and another 11 hour flight.