Day 1: Back to the bush
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We arrived at Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg early in the morning, then picked up our hire car and sped off towards the Kruger National Park, about five-and-a-half hours' drive from the airport. Well, we didn't quite speed off because this must be one of the most well-patrolled traffic areas in the world. The road that leads from the airport to Kruger is packed with traffic officers and all too frequently, they get their man (or woman).
The traffic department knows there are countless tourists arriving in Jo'burg, picking up their hire cars, then hotfooting it to Kruger to get there before the gate closes at 5.30pm (the time varies depending on the time of year). Arriving late at the park is a big deal and many tourists find themselves stranded when the guards don't allow them entry. The only option is to find accommodation in Komatiport outside the park, which can be costly and inconvenient. So we stuck at the speed limit, a comfortable 120km/h, and arrived at Crocodile Bridge gate near Komatiport on the SA-Mozambique border at about 2pm, with plenty of time to get to Lower Sabie camp where we were staying.
On the way from Jo'burg to the KNP, we passed through the Lowveld town of Nelspruit (where I attended a few years of high school), then stopped at a few farm stalls selling fresh oranges. We ended up with a sackful of them for our fortnight in Kruger. The Lowveld is renowned for its citrus plantations and after you've driven past a pretty mountainside village called Waterval Boven, the landscape changes dramatically, introducing banana plantations and numerous orchards. The terrain is no longer flat and sparse as it is in Gauteng (where Jo'burg is situated) but instead becomes greener, more mountainous, with pretty riverine bush and, eventually, typical African savanna. The sun was beating down and the sky was blue - exactly the reason I'd chosen to come to Kruger at the end of May. This is South Africa's late autumn season so the weather usually isn't too cold on the Lowveld but is generally sunnier than summer with less rain, cloud and stifling heat.
Before reaching Crocodile Bridge gate we also passed a farm stall where the occupants were selling everything from fruit to African curios. A tree full of beautifully crafted wooden hornbills in their 'nests' caught my eye, and I stopped to enquire. A man approached and told me he'd made them himself. The price wasn't outrageous (ranging from R60-80, depending on size) so we bought one for the atrium outside our kitchen. Although I was exhausted after the night flight from Heathrow, it certainly started to get me into the mood for Kruger.
We'd just passed through the entrance gates to the park when we had our first wildlife sighting. A herd of waterbuck (or rather, a male waterbuck and his 'harem' of females) was crossing the road near the bridge over the Crocodile River. They were nervous and took it in turns to cross one by one, bathed in warm afternoon light. We then signed into the park at the Crocodile Bridge registration office and drove towards Lower Sabie. It is about 40 minutes' drive time, travelling at the park speed limit of 50km/h.
We saw small herds of impala, the ubiquitous, dainty antelope so common in the Kruger. Their Afrikaans name of rooibok is particularly descriptive - it means 'redbuck', and in early morning or late afternoon light, their coats glow a deep, rich red. We also saw a giraffe browsing right next to the road as well as a Lilac-breasted Roller in a tree. It was a promising start.
We arrived at Lower Sabie, signed in to the camp, then went to find our tent. The holiday had officially started.