When you enter Kruger National Park, there are signs everywhere warning you that whatever you do, DO NOT get out of your car and walk into the bush, except in clearly marked areas. There are lions and lots of other wild animals. They will eat you. So don’t do that.
So what did we do? We spent three days walking in the bush.
In its infinite wisdom, Kruger runs a program that lets you do what it tells you not to do. Go figure.
On a Kruger Wilderness Trail, eight people go out to a remote camp with two rangers and proceed to walk around looking for wild animals, which they almost always find. With any luck at all, they return to their loved ones safe and sound. There are five of these wilderness camps, and on the advice of our friend Francois, we picked the Sweni Trail, which is popular because it’s in lion country. I hope you’re getting a nice full picture of this. We voluntarily walked around hoping to run into lions, although if we came across a rhino or a leopard, well, that would be fine too.
It sounds worse than it is. We were led by two guys with impressive looking guns who seemed to know what they were doing. Mind you, they were not actually Kruger park rangers. They were non-staff rangers pressed into service because Kruger was running its annual ranger training. That’s right, we were being led into the bush by substitute teachers.
Spoiler alert – the fact that I’m writing this post means we lived.
Apparently lots of people survive these wilderness trails. One guy in our group from New York had done this trail thing ten times already and was doing all five trails consecutively this year. At first I was charmed, but in retrospect it should have been a sign that he’d be a tedious, overbearing New Yorker. Sometimes there’s nothing worse than an enthusiast. This fellow was also an obsequious ranger groupie, lugging along extra bottles of wine, mangoes, lychees (!), cheese, and various other goodies and ostentatiously presenting them to the poor rangers at every opportunity. The rest of us got to watch. I’ve seen some world-class ass-kissing in my day, but this took the prize.
These things are called wilderness trails, but I have to confess that we weren’t exactly roughing it. The group packed its stuff into a trailer (including our luggage, extra food, and whatever we wanted to drink) and the rangers drove us about an hour into the bush, where we came upon a rustic but lovely fenced camp with four little a-frame huts, a covered dining area, and a toilet and shower area. There was hot water, a gas-powered fridge, and a cook who prepared our meals. As camping goes, this is pretty good. The camp overlooks a little river (where we watched an elephant take a bath one afternoon) and a wide plain, where we saw herds of zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, and more impalas than you could possibly count. It’s also pretty remote – we had over 100,000 acres of the park to ourselves.
We arrived in late afternoon, had the first of three simple but absolutely smashing dinners, and Janine and I climbed into our little hut to listen to the sounds of the bush at night. We listened to several prides of lions roar all night long. After they were done roaring, they got busy trying to make more lions. We have had some number of affectionate neighbors during this journey, but this was a first. We ended up being serenaded by leonine connubial bliss for hours on end. (I’m pretty sure that it was lions and not any of our campmates, for which I am eternally grateful.)
The rangers woke us each morning at 4 (nope, that’s not a typo) and we set out on a six hour hike through the bush. Not everyone wants to get up at 4 in the morning for a six hour hike with dangerous wild animals, but what the heck? The rules of the hike are pretty straightforward – walk in single file, no talking, and do whatever the freelance substitute teacher rangers tell you to do. In fact, we didn’t just walk in silence. Our guides stopped every few minutes to observe a termite hill, an interesting bird, lion tracks, or all manner of animal doody. I know more than a few people who would have been horrified to watch our trail leader, known as the “first gun” (yep, that’s what they call the trail leader) bend down and pick up a piece of animal poo to explain some important element of the animal’s diet or somesuch.
We learned about more than just poop. We learned that’s there’s no morality in nature. Wild African Dogs don’t bother to kill their prey, they just eat them alive. Spider Wasps don’t just kill the unlucky schmo who happens upon their web – they paralyze the poor sap and then lay their eggs inside them. Now that’s cold. Then we saw the circle of life in all its Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom glory. One afternoon as we were driving for our sundowner (we did long hikes in the morning and short drives in the evening) the rangers spotted a group of circling vultures who were clearly feeding on something. We climbed out of the jeep and tromped into the bush where we found a zebra that had just died. There were no marks on the animal, and it wasn’t very old (our “second gun” bent over and pulled back the creature’s teeth to get a sense of its age – yecch) so our guides speculated that the zebra might have been kicked.
By the way, I should point out that our substitute rangers may be freelancers, but they were amazingly smart, nice, and experienced rangers.
The vultures completely engulfed the animal and were doing what vultures do until we approached, at which point they disbursed while we investigated.
We were returning from our evening drive the following night when we came upon lions feeding on a massive Cape Buffalo. In the background at least a half dozen hyenas skulked about hopefully, waiting for the lions to lose interest, which they never did. We returned the next morning to see what was left of the buffalo, which wasn’t much.
During one of our morning walks, we encountered a massive breeding herd of elephants. There were more than sixty elephants in the group, which our guide said was the largest herd he’d seen in nearly a decade. Later that day, we watched a different herd frolic in a lake, and we were then taunted by the lake’s resident hippo, who was doing his best to scare us off. It wasn’t hard. Nobody wants to deal with an angry hippo.
I suppose it’s the element of danger that makes the wilderness trails so interesting and exciting. We also had a much different perspective on life in the bush than we got from the safety of our bush drives, and there was always the chance that we’d stumble upon something that we’d prefer to see from a distance. Our rangers carried rifles that were always locked and loaded, which was at the same time reassuring and a bit scary. Thus we had three versions of the Kruger experience – a fancy pants lodge, a very laid back guest house, and a fairly primal walk through the bush. Which did I like the best? Beats me. I think it’s a good sign that I’d go back to all three when I return, and I certainly plan to return.
When we finished the trail we spent one more night at the southern border of the park in another guest house run by a very entertaining chap where we watched elephants and hippos from our terrace. For the five hour drive back to Joburg I was at defcon ten, waiting to be pulled over by rogue cops, but I managed to elude them. We also passed through the worst rainstorm I have ever seen. At one point the weather got so bad that all the cars on the freeway came to a stop to wait out the storm. By the time we made it back to the airport I was exhilarated, exhausted, and eager for the trip to mild-mannered New Zealand, where the wildest animal you’ll encounter is an ill-tempered lamb, and where by all accounts the police try to only arrest the guilty.