Often likened in size to countries like Israel and Wales, at over 21 000 sq kms the Kruger National Park is a rather substantial piece of wilderness, well-known as the jewel in South Africa’s crown of game reserves.
For visitors who have spent time in southern and East African reserves, the Kruger is a very different experience, separated in chief by a highly sophisticated infrastructure – its network of tar roads and cellphone reception around main camps immediately coming to mind. After having discovered a number of Zambia’s national parks and the relative wild abandon of northern Botswana and Tanzania over the past decade, it was this very ‘developed’ sense that actually kept me away from the Kruger. Until I looked through wiser eyes and rediscovered its delights.
The very fact that the park has been (since its inception at the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902) and remains so well managed is one of its main attractions. The main network of tar roads – north to south with the occasional branch to a main gate into the Park – allows easy access to normal sedans, providing often-superb views of all creatures great and small, from leopards and elephants to the mongoose and badger. Infinitely preferable, I might add, to being one of eight people crammed into a minibus in the Masai Mara, with all trying to poke their heads and cameras out of the sunroof for a view of a bored lion - inevitably surrounded by four similarly packed minibuses that had been driven willy-nilly over the grassland to get a peek.
Poaching in the Kruger is extremely rare, and unlike the Mara, vehicles cannot drive off-road.
The entire structure of camps and roads in the Kruger occupies no more than five per cent of its total surface area, with huge tracts having no roads at all and left quite pristine (wildlife closer to the Park’s eastern boundary, near the Mozambique border, is often less used to vehicles and hence more skittish).
The areas to the side of the tar access roads remain as wild and untouched by human habitation - visitors cannot leave their vehicles or drive off the road - as they have been for at least a century, with the dirt tracks leading off these roads providing that real ‘wilderness’ feel.
It is some of these routes around Olifants camp that we touch on in this month’s issue. If less visited and fewer people is what you want, then the northern half of the Park - from Satara with its usual herds of plains game and attendant predators, up to the Pafuri region and the Limpopo river - is what you are after. Being further from Johannesburg and accessed from the Phalaborwa and Punda Maria Gates (six to eight hour drives, as opposed to the four to get to Berg-en-Dal in the south-east), this part of the park is relatively quiet. Olifants, Letaba, Mopane, Shingwedzi and Punda Maria are the names of the main camps north of Satara; Olifants - perched high above the river of the same name - possibly being the most attractive.
The countryside around Olifants and Letaba is regarded as the land of elephants; these are drawn by the characteristic mopane trees that tend to dominate huge chunks of territory from here north. But as several ecosystems converge here, there is a wide diversity of animal species in the region, including grazers (impala, wildebeest, zebra etc) and browsers (kudu, giraffe). The Olifants and Letaba rivers boast large populations of hippo, with the S44, S93 and S46 (essentially one long road along the Letaba river, linking roads and linking Olifants and Letaba camps) offering fine viewing of these and other creatures.
The Balule road loop (S92, S91 and S89), outside Olifants camp, that takes one toward the Balule bush camp, is known for leopard, while the S39 loop towards Honey Badger Pan often offers prolific plains game in attractive woodland scenery. Although only roughly 45km to the Pan from Olifants, the return trip will ensure that you have had a long morning out by the time of your return.
If moving on south, it is recommended that you stick with the S39 all the way to the H7, the main road linking Orpen gate to Satara. Such trips demand that picnic packs be taken along, as at average game drive speeds of around 20kmph and the frequent anticipated stops for wildlife, the time on the road could be long. Keep this in mind when travelling with children – it could turn into relative hell, for both you and the children!
Situated on the infrequently flowing Letaba River, Letaba is another attractive camp, dominated by magnificent tree specimens - fig, mahogany and apple-leaf among them. In the camp is the elephant museum, home to replicas and the history of the Magnificent Seven, the Kruger’s legendary big tuskers. The recommended drive around Letaba is the loop incorporating the H1-6 and S62.
North of Letaba the landscape is characterized by wide swathes of mopane veld, a belt of vegetation referring to a tree, favoured by elephants, that turns New England red in autumn and winter. From a game-viewing perspective one has to be eagle-eyed in such country, with treasures like the related roan and sable antelope and even the wild dog, to be found if lucky. The bird-life gradually changes, with a greater number of species to be seen...and far fewer people.
Article courtesy of Avis South African Magazine.