We were worried that three days wouldn’t be enough time for a safari at South Africa’s Kruger National Park. We were concerned we wouldn’t see enough wildlife, get to experience enough accommodations, or get to meet enough people.
We were wrong.
The style by which most guided safari schedules are run, or at least those of the three- or four-day variety, is fairly intense and somewhat demanding. (Not demanding in a physical sense — you’re largely going to be sitting on your fat ass and eating and feeling your ass get fatter.) Safaris have an early start, at approximately 5am or so, and you often won’t return to your accommodations until sometime around sunset. In between, your eyes are fixed on and constantly scanning the bush for signs of life as your van zips along, your eyes strained to the point of vision becoming blurry, far-off objects becoming undefined.
Our itinerary had us moving through different parts of the park, which is nearly 20,000 square kilometers in size, and staying in different places every night. By 8pm you’re absolutely knackered and ready to pass out; hopefully you can do so comfortably and not have to squirm for a few hours, worried about getting bitten and contracting a heinous illness or, you know, death from the prelapsarian bugs you spotted crawling in your sheets. (It only happened once, and in case you’re wondering, I didn’t die.)
It’s an obscenely long day, particularly if you’ve just hopped off a long flight and are cruising through the park just a day or two later. Of course, in all likelihood you will be handsomely rewarded; do not mistake these facts of safari life as a spoiled-rotten complaint. My rewards included but were not limited to:
+ Watching a pack of chacma baboons, running at least 75 deep, feeding on the side of the road within a few feet of where I sat. There were signs everywhere warning you not to feed the baboons and describing how dangerous they can be; we later would see the same type of monkeys in the Cape Peninsula, though the signs there simply read “Baboons!”
+ Looking on as male impalas, battling for the dominant position of the pack, ramming heads and locking horns as three or four others watched with mild interest, like Sunday gamblers with a small stake on the over/under casually watching a boring, meaningless NFL mid-December football game at the bar.
(The winning impala, by the way, then mates with as many as 50 of the herd’s female impala, and he’s often later challenged again by a sly fellow who knows he’s probably a bit tired from all the action between the bushes. Lions follow somewhat of a similar pecking order pattern, though in their case the new head of the pack doesn’t just abundantly sow his seeds, he also goes back and kills the offspring of his predecessor to put a final stamp on his victory and make sure all know he means business. The defeated lion is then basically cast off to wander alone and wallow in his defeat until he eventually dies.)
+ Seeing one, then two, then a third and then a whole herd of giraffe amble out of the bush and across the road, stopping to lazily munch on acacia trees, always visibly attentive of their surroundings, strategically grouped around the trees to maximize views of potentially approaching predators.
+ Spotting a leopard bouncing from one rock to another in a riverbed surrounded by long, wispy brown grass.
+ Tromping through the bush on foot — this is one of the few instances where you’ll actually burn a few calories — with a local guide, listening to stories about animal encounters, poachers, and politics while on the trail of elephants and rhinos and decoding their sizable piles of dung.
+ Meeting the general manager of Masgobe Private Game Reserve, a big, jolly, round block of a man I can easily picture in lederhosen, puffing on a tuba in an oompah band, but who was usually dressed in head-to-toe camoflauge. At one point he stopped our open-air jeep tour of the property, hopped out and picked a long piece of grass, squeezed it in his fist, and in the thickest Afrikaner accent I heard anywhere in South Africa grunted “Here, wanna watch my grass grow?! Har! Har! Har!” And it did “grow,” as he clenched and reclenched his fist. And you probably had to be there to really appreciate the surrealism of the moment. But I’ll never forget it.
+ Eating an authentic home-cooked meal, at one of the park’s campgrounds and under an impossibly star-filled sky, prepared by our wise-cracking tour guide who in a previous life was a cop who experienced the Soweto Uprising of 1976 in ways he probably wishes he didn’t. We provided the cans of beer, he provided a feast of kudu curry (he told the other two members of our group it was beef so that they’d eat it), fresh bread for the South African specialty bunny chow, a bean salad, a spinach and cheese mixture made from a family recipe, and fresh fruit and cream for dessert.
In hindsight it almost seems like a make-believe experience. The funny thing is, while you’re in the midst of it, when you’re watching lions stalk giraffes, and shooting the shit with a former Soweto cop, and walking through the bush in the same spot a rhino had walked just a few minutes earlier, your only protection from the elements some dude with a loaded shotgun, it all just seems so… so… alarmingly natural. Travel is weird like that, isn’t it? And wonderful like that. No matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, the setting and the situation becomes the everyday, and I don’t mean that in a bad way whatsoever.
Yes, three days in Kruger is enough. Three days is plenty.