Mark Meredith breaks down in Kruger National Park.
The Land Rover's prop shaft has snapped and you've broken down in the wilderness of the Klaserie Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park. Sunset's upon you and the sky is already laced with wispy strands of pink signifying the onset of dusk. Noises in the bush increase your sense of isolation and vulnerability as the darkness, when predators go about their work, approaches.
Luckily, you've got Harry to mix you some drinks and put you at ease.
That's the beauty of staying in a private game lodge: having a ranger such as Harry and a tracker like Nyeti to look after you in your hour of need and dish out sundowners.
Drinks during a sunset game drive are a feature of Gomo Gomo Game Lodge's daily schedule. What made this sundowner memorable for us was awaiting rescue as Nyeti volunteered to walk into the darkness already closing around us, unarmed, to get help.
Had we broken down a few days earlier during our self-drive safari in the Kruger National Park in our tiny VW Polo rental, who knows what a long and scary night that may have proved to be. It's not as though we'd grown up in the bush as Nyeti had and could get out of our vehicle and walk down the road for help.
The rule in the Kruger National Park is to never alight from your vehicle, unless you fancy becoming the attraction for camera-toting tourists looking to capture lions and hyenas tear a kill apart. You can get out at official picnic or lookout spots "at your own risk", say the signs.
So if you want to go on safari, which should you do, private lodge or self-drive? That was the question that taxed me when planning this wishlist trip.
If you have the means, you can spend silly sums at private lodges with their four-poster beds, personal butlers and haute cuisine. On the other hand, you can have the most fantastic experience doing a self-drive safari, staying in the government-run SANParks rest camps, which are extremely good value and offer self-catering.
Both types of safari offer different experiences, and that was the reason, after much research, that I plumped for both: four days' self-driving in the Kruger, followed by three days at Gomo Gomo Game Lodge in the Klaserie Private Reserve.
The Kruger National Park (KNP) covers two million hectares, or 19,485sq km, where you drive upon sealed and unsealed roads. Along the western border of the KNP are a series of privately run reserves that form the Greater Kruger National Park. These large reserves, such as Klaserie, Timbavati, Balule and the expensive Sabi Sands all share unfenced borders with the KNP and each other. This means the animals can roam over an enormous area. Wherever you choose to stay, you'll see a fantastic array of wildlife.
The Kruger rest camps shut their gates at 6pm or 5.30pm, depending on the time of year.
"Have we got enough time to get to Lower Sabie rest camp this afternoon?" I asked the park entrance guard at the Numbi Gate.
"No, not really," he said. "Just drive. Absolutely no stopping for any game viewing."
"What happens if we don't get there in time?" I asked.
"You have to get there," he emphasised.
The speed limit in the Kruger is 50km/h, and there are speed cameras and warning signs.
Google told us we would make it to Sabie with 15 minutes to spare.
Within half an hour we found our way blocked by a coach and many haphazardly parked cars, drivers gawping at grazing elephants. "Let us through," we called out of the window. "We need to get through!"
We pushed our way past and sped along to Lower Sabie at 50km/h. On the way we saw an overload of game: elephants, rhinos, zebras, giraffes and the ubiquitous impala. I was desperate to stop for photos; the light was fantastic.
Lower Sabie, like the other rest camps we stayed at (Satara and Olifants) is fenced and offers a range of accommodation, including camping. The twin-bed bungalow with bathroom and basic kitchen, which we had at each camp, cost about $130 per night. Each camp has a well-stocked shop where you can buy food to cook, as well as barbecue facilities and restaurants. The restaurant at Lower Sabie sits in a spectacular position just above the Sabie River. Hippos serenaded us with grunts throughout our dinner.
All SANpark camps offer sunset and sunrise game drives. These last for three hours and the big open-sided trucks hold up to 25 people. They cost us $25 each. The advantages of these excursions are that the rangers take you along dirt roads that are otherwise closed to the public, and provide commentary. As sunset turns to night, and before light in the morning, some passengers are tasked with holding powerful torches to scan the bush for reflected eyes: green for antelope, yellow for cats.
For $50 you can do a four-hour sunrise walk through the bush with two armed rangers. I did this on my first morning at Lower Sabie. It was a fantastic experience, being on foot in the dawn light, tramping through thorny thickets from behind which you feel anything might pounce. It takes being on safari to a different plane.
For first-time safari adventurers like my wife and I, driving from camp to camp in the Kruger, trying out bone-shaking dirt-road loop tracks in search of game, was the most fun I've ever had driving. I had an excuse to stop whenever I wanted for photos. And that happened constantly, so much was there to see.
Of all the animals we saw, none were more impressive and majestic than the elephant. Twice we found ourselves trapped while a large herd passed around us, breaking and chewing vegetation as they went, huge bulls lumbering past. In our tiny car we felt as vulnerable as those kids in Jurassic Park with the T. rex.
The terrain we covered changed considerably — from the lush, tree-lined river area of Sabie to the grasslands of Satara, where herds of impala, zebra and wildebeest roam, preyed upon by lions. In the hilly area of the Olifants River, where Olifants rest camp sits on a hill affording wonderful views of the river and endless African bush, the terrain is rocky, the vegetation dense. In early April the Kruger was very green, coming at the end of the summer rainy season and before the drought of approaching winter; a lovely time to see the park.
As we drove into Gomo Gomo Game Lodge in the Klaserie, a ranger came out to welcome us, a woman proffered fruit juice cocktails, and we were seated for a late lunch before being shown our luxurious chalet overlooking the camp's waterhole. Clearly, this private game lodge lark was on a whole new level. At night we had to be escorted by a member of staff to and from the cabin as hyenas, wild dogs and even leopard have been known to wander through the camp's grounds.
Gomo Gomo is set around a waterhole where animals come to drink and wallow, although they didn't while we were there. There's a swimming pool overlooking the water, and a bar and restaurant. At dinner all the guests (fewer than 20) sat outside in a circle around a fire in what they call a boma, eating African style. It was a very convivial way of eating and meeting our interesting variety of fellow guests.
The private game lodge experience gave us time to relax by the pool, to feel a little pampered, while being fed generously three times a day. Also included in the price were the game drives, with coffee breaks and sundowners (you pay for alcohol), as well as a morning bush walk outside the camp. Gomo Gomo was very good value.
The game drives at Gomo Gomo were the highlight of our private lodge adventure. Unlike the organised drives in the main Kruger Park, these were small, intimate affairs (just four passengers in our truck) in open-sided, tiered-seat Land Rovers. Our tracker, Nyeti, sat on a seat above the bonnet so he could scan the sand roads for tracks, giving hand signals to our ranger Harry indicating the direction he should take.
The thrill of driving down obscure, barely discernible sand tracks, through dry riverbeds and bushy thickets in search of leopards or rhinos, never knowing what we might find, was thrilling. And when we did find our lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo (the "big five"), we were able to get really close up. Our trucks, and others traversing the Klaserie, communicated by radio as the guides relayed locations of particular sightings; co-operation that works really well.
And our breakdown? As we sipped our sundowners, the sun disappeared and insects danced around us in the light of the lantern on the truck. Out there, somewhere, perhaps not too far, animals were on the prowl. Above the vast wilderness of the Kruger, the familiar stars of the Southern Hemisphere shone in the night sky with an intense brilliance I'd not seen before.
As we laughed and joked with Harry, a light appeared in the distance, growing ever brighter — there was Nyeti in another truck, with a broad grin on his face as he came to rescue us.
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You can take a one-hour flight from Johannesburg to Kruger Park, or drive in about five to six hours.
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