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Since G and I fly standby it’s dern-near impossible to make any travel plans beforehand, other than maybe some lodging with flexible, last minute cancellation policies. Before this trip we only booked a hotel for two nights after we were hoping to get into Johannesburg (and cancelled and rebooked at least three times due to the standby situation), and otherwise winged the whole trip. All we really wanted to do in South Africa was go to Kruger National Park to see its famous wildlife, especially the Big 5- elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, and the elusive leopard
I had emailed a friend’s South African uncle for some advice about Kruger beforehand, which he gave us plenty of, but it was still overwhelming trying to plan a week in a park the size of New Jersey. You can read and read about a place but until you show up you really don’t know what you’re getting into. Greg had been doing his research while I put in four hard days’ work in March (I worked five in February, thank you very much) so he had an idea about car rentals and campervans and camping in the park, etc.
I booked us into the Park Inn in Sandton, a suburb of Johannesburg, for reasons I’ll explain in another post. Mostly because they allowed cancellations up until 6:00p the day of check-in and because we got a ton of bonus points to stay there. After a 15+ hour non-stop flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, we took Jo’Burg’s sleek, modern commuter Gautrain into Sandton. Having just come from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a couple of weeks before, and Greg having only ever been to Egypt, both of us were expecting those kinds of African cities. I was shocked, first at the train, then after getting off the train in Sandton. I told Gregory “This is not Africa”. Not the Africa we were expecting anyway. Sandton is beautiful and clean and modern and full of white people. I’m used to sticking out like a sore thumb in Africa and loving it, but in Sandton they’re everywhere you look! It’s so weird!
The Park Inn offered a free shuttle pick-up from the Gautrain station but no one seemed to know where hotel shuttles picked up from. After waiting awhile in an area where two people had directed us, I asked a man next to us if he knew where the Park Inn shuttle picked up from. He made it super easy for us and got the hotel number from me, called them up, and asked them to come get us. Turned out they were already on their way. We thanked the man and ran outside to see the shuttle already pulling away from the curb, but a bit of running and waving our arms and they came right back for us. Thanks random man! Thanks shuttle driver! I think we were both in bed within seven minutes of checking in, and both of us were wide awake by 02:00.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning we took the free shuttle to Sandton City, a huge shopping mall downtown, to look for a Kruger map (and to eat at McDonald’s because I had already done my research). Once we had the map in hand, which had game drive suggestions and showed the best areas to see specific animals, we got a little itinerary in mind and made it back to bed by 6:00p (only to wake up again at 02:00). After much debate and price comparisons we decided renting a campervan and staying at campgrounds in Kruger would be the best, most flexible option for us (vs. renting a small car and staying in bungalows). Greg found us the cheapest van option and booked it the night before we were meant to pick it up. Had a bit of trouble getting the reservation confirmed with Wicked, the rental company, so after emailing, calling, and trying the internet chat without any response we called the hostel where the vans were located. Rob, the owner of Shoestrings Airport Lodge, turned out to be the kindest, most hospitable, helpful man in South Africa (so far). He couldn’t help us with the confirmation, but gave us the number to Wicked’s main office in Cape Town (still no answer). He told Greg to give him a call the next morning after we got everything sorted and he’d come pick us up at the airport.
The confirmation came after we went to bed so after another hearty breakfast we took the train back to the airport to wait for a pick-up. Once we were at the airport I couldn’t get the wifi to work at the so I couldn’t use Skype to call Rob. Instead I approached another random man and played dumb American with my phone and he just called the hostel for me too. Thanks other random man! Greg always hesitates to ask for help, but I think it’s like digging through my Aunt Dana’s kitchen- you act like you don’t know what you’re doing long enough and she’ll come in and make you a meal. Within ten minutes Rob was there in a campervan with Bob Dylan’s face splayed across it. My last status update before we started on our journey was “We’ve got a campervan and we’re not afraid to use it”. Turns out we should’ve been.
Once we were back at his hostel Rob showed us all the van’s ins and outs, gave us some directions as well as his personal road atlas, lent us a blanket, led us to a gas station, then on to the highway entrance, and sent us on our way. What service! We booked a room with him for our last night in South Africa. He’s the kind of hostel owner we’d like to be if we ever fulfill one of our many life dreams of owning a hostel one day.
Stopped in Nelspruit to stock up on groceries for the week. Note to self: get all your breakfasts, lunches, and sides in advance, then buy fruit and braai wood from roadside stands outside the park, and meat for the braai (barbecue) inside the park. We bought banana bread for first breakfast, and fruit, yogurt, and muesli and oatmeal for second breakfasts. Otherwise we had typical camp fare- pb & j’s, pasta, cous cous, baked beans, popcorn and chips.
After a seven hour drive from Jo’Burg we entered Kruger through its southern-most entrance at Crocodile Bridge. The park was unbelievable from the start. The moment we drove onto the bridge there were elephants, hippos, crocodiles, warthogs, and zebras- just right there. What an introduction! We got into the park about 45 minutes before the gates closed. Entrance gates and gates to all campgrounds close around 6:00p depending on the time of year so no unsupervised night drives by wily tourists. I’m not sure what we were thinking, showing up to a national park with no reservations 45 minutes before they closed for the night. We’ve both worked in national parks- we know how these things work. I blame it on our excitement to get out of the city and into the bush. No, there weren’t any campgrounds available for the night, and furthermore, the more popular camps didn’t have any sites available for the entire month of March. I won’t pretend I handled this well. I went from excited to psycho in two seconds. But good old Greg- he’s the baking soda to my grease fire. After I fizzled out we explained to the park lady what we were hoping to do over the next few days and asked what our options were. Suddenly, miraculously, all the campgrounds we were hoping for opened up and with the exception of that night, we were able to get the itinerary we wanted. Well what the hell was that “no availability in March” talk? Whatever, doesn’t matter. We asked for advice on where to park our wheels for the night but the lady didn’t have any suggestions for us so we drove back out to the closest town and found a caravan park.
A shirtless old man was there to greet us (after yelling at his overweight Chihuahua for a few minutes first). He informed us there was space available but he was having issues with the power so there weren’t any lights or hot water available. I asked if that made things cheaper. It did. $10 for the night. It was actually quite lucky we didn’t get into the park. Greg was just playing around with the propane stove that came with the van and realized the tank was empty. Even luckier, there was a propane refill station just across the road from the caravan park. After sunset I wasn’t willing to venture into the dark bathrooms anymore so I went to pee in the site across from ours. It didn’t take long to find my first snake, as in right where I was going to squat. Gregory hates snakes and I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure it was a black mamba. I went to warn Greg posthaste. And to pee right next to the van. Later I made him go with me to the bathroom and while he was waiting for me Greg spotted another snake slithering up the outside wall of the bathroom. He stood there and stared… it was his only defense. I was lucky to make it out of there alive.
The park entrance and campground gates open at 05:30 this time of year so we were up at 04:30 to get our coffee and join the queue. Buffalo lounging next to the river as we crossed the Crocodile Bridge, so two of the Big 5 within fifty yards of the park border. What a place! We were excited as little school girls on Christmas morning waiting in that line at the entrance gate, ready to explore.
See all our days in Kruger: