MIDDLEBURG, South Africa – What would it take to take in South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park?
Days would become weeks and special training might take months just to get a handle on how big and inhabited this stretch of land along the northeast corner of South Africa bordering Mozambique is.
Picture this outing: You head to Allegany State Park, drive around the paved roads in the valley and waterway adjacent to the administration building and then head home. That would approximate a three-day, two-night stay at a camp somewhere in Kruger Park.
And that is what Jean and I did guided by Adolf and Estelle Kleinhans, our guide friends we met a decade ago and with whom we had shared three previous hunt-and-tours trips.
This time, they chose to begin our visit with a wildlife-watching trip to Kruger followed with a Victoria Falls viewing that will include some inland fishing for tiger fish and perhaps other freshwater fish species.
For now, three days of coursing Kruger trails (all roadways) resulted in a log of sightings most hunters would not see in several months of hunts. Consider that the South Africa part of Kruger, once known as the Transvaal or “across the river,” takes in more than three million acres. That comes to an area close to 60 miles wide and more than 200 miles long.
In local terms, Kruger is a park spanning from about Buffalo and Olean eastward to well past Syracuse. Hence, our glorious two and a half days merely covered some 40 miles north and east-to-west to view wild life and open spaces around Kruger, a wildlife preserve named for Paul Kruger, the South Africa Republic president instrumental in setting aside the province once named Transvaal as a preserve.
Adjacent to the South Africa section along the Limpopo River is another preserve area in Mozambique, which measures about one third the preserve area of South Africa. Zaire maintains another wildlife preserve west of the Transvaal, but it does not abut with Kruger Park lands and waterways.
While on three previous hunt trips, Jean and I put three impala (personal) trophy heads on the wall back home. During the first two days at Kruger, we saw more trophy heads and herd numbers than we had viewed during 20-plus days afield on previous South Africa hunts.
We lost count of impala sightings somewhere between two and three thousand antelopes. At this time of year in South Africa, as autumn began on March 1, impala herds often form stag groups. Around many a curve we would come upon a dozen or more trophy racks in a pack of 20 to 30 adult animals. The herds of female and fawn/yearling impalas frequently exceeded 50 beasts calmly feeding along the roadside.
To make these sightings we had to play strictly by Kruger Park rules: Remain in your vehicle at all times, do not feed wildlife, and remain quiet while stopped to view wildlife.
Before we left Middleburg to begin our park journeys, we met up with John Senekal at Adolf’s sister Hettie’s home. Senekal, formerly a hunter, has developed a kinship/bond with Kruger and had recently participated in a training hike. The five-day, four-night program was conducted with two armed guides who accompanied all trainees and provided instruction in sighting and identifying all flora, fauna and fish life seen along the way.
Hence our motored trip, though astounding, was an impressive preview of all this vast African wildlife area has to see and enjoy.
Not counting baboons seen around our base at Skukuza Camp, impala herds offered first sighting each day out.
By design, all animal, bird and fish life that can be seen at Kruger today are species that have been native to these lands for 300 years or more. No nearby or exotic species have been stocked/introduced to the park; one land tract has been set aside as an Exclusion Area to monitor the ecology of lands and waterways not inhabited with migrant wildlife.
The rhinoceros is a threatened species common to the area but not frequently seen along roadways. We had the good fortune to log sightings of eight of these monstrous creatures along our way.
At one site, two huge bulls fed in the background with a mixed herd of blue wildebeests and zebras along with their fawns, and a pack of impalas.
It was on the second day that we came upon our first Nile crocodile. This mid-sized male or female was resting on a dry, slanted sand spit in the middle of the Sabie River. During the ten-plus minutes we watched this immobile reptile, it held its mouth wide open but not ready to attack a prey. Adolf explained they will often keep their mouth open to regulate body heat. On this overcast, low- to mid-80s day, this creature looked cool and contented.
Shortly after that viewing, we came upon river sections with two or more ‘crocs resting with closed mouths. None of the dozen or so we saw showed a hint of movement. If park officials could freely walk along the Sabie River banks, we would think these ‘crocs were set out to amuse the tourists.
Our biggest hippopotamus cluster came at about noon on the second day when seven beasts rested on a sand hump in mid-current and another three or four padded underwater along shore near a public lookout. Finally, after about a half hour, one of these hippo swimmers walked onto a sand landing and gave me a qualified close-up photo opt.
Other plains games species showed in abundance; many stops were to see and count herds of elephants and bunches of baboons. We spotted quite a few bush boks, a couple water boks, many kudu (mainly females), a few giraffes, one red-throated pheasant (native to South Africa), and other colorful bird species, including the most vivid lilac-breasted rollers.
As with previous hunt flights, drives and field spotting, Jean (seated in a back seat) picked out many a fauna afield before Adolf or I seated up front.
Game poaching in South Africa and across the African continent has been a problem for decades. Officials, particularly in South Africa, but also in nearby Mozambique and Zaire, have increased patrols and adopted surveillance gear to bar and arrest poachers.
Adolf Kleinhans noted the immensity of the problem. He said, “Rhino horns now sell on the black market for about $40,000 a pound in China and other Oriental countries. A mature animal could have a horn weighing 10 pounds or more, which is worth at least $400,000 to agents who hire poachers. Area residents who are savvy outdoorsmen who might have a monthly income of about $200 a month are easily enticed into poaching rhinos for elicit foreign trade.”
As a result, poachers will kill an animal, hack or saw off its horn and leave the carcass to rot in the field. As of March 1, the official report of confirmed rhino killings was set at 128, mostly in Kruger Park, with few resulting in arrests of perpetrators.
On the plus side, we saw several marked and unmarked policing vehicles and personnel in areas where we were wildlife watching. International, federal and private agencies provide the public with ways to observe and quickly report suspected poaching practices; previous rhino DNA studies also help in finding criminal activity and proof of crimes. Rhinos, and all other creatures seen at Kruger, deserve this attention.
Next week: Victoria Falls and some fishing surprises.