On my second day in South Africa, I woke up at 4:15 in the morning. I’m not even sure I would have been in bed yet if I was still at home. Regardless, the reason for an otherwise unreasonable wake-up call was a good one: a day of game driving in Kruger National Park.

Kruger National Park is immense, almost beyond belief. At two million hectares, Kruger is one of the largest national parks in the world and a Big 5 park, where you could see lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhinoceroses, among scores of other animals.

To get the most out of our Kruger game drive, we hit the gate at opening, 5:30 am, to maximize the possibility of seeing animals roaming around being animals before they snooze away in the afternoon sun. We were fifth in line at the Orpen gate, drove through, fueled up and set out to “catch” the Big 5 – with our cameras.

Game drives are all about about low expectation, high anticipation. There are no guarantees. Imagine our surprise, when 500 metres inside of the gate, we had our first sighting.

Kruger National Park elephant South Africa

The weather wasn’t terribly cooperative. It started out cloudy and dim, with intermittent showers and a couple of downpours. There were still plenty of elephants roaming around, including this a-little-too-close encounter which had us all perched on the edge of our seats, waiting to see how it would turn out.

Kruger National Park elephant and car South Africa

In this case, it turned out fine, but almost every animal encounter in the park reminded us that these are not zoo animals, they are in their natural habitat and they still have many of their natural instincts. A couple of weeks after my visit, an elephant didn’t like the look of a small tourist car, so it pierced it with its tusk, picked it up and flipped it over. I’m quite happy to keep my distance.

As the morning wore on, the drizzle made it cold (relatively speaking), and a lot of animals were hunkered down. This was why our sightings were mainly large or brightly coloured animals. Not that I minded, it was still exciting to see any animals at all. Even if they were hiding, like this guy:

Kruger National Park elephant hiding South Africa

When the rain was pouring, it was easy to see the biggest, darkest animals. Like these African buffalo. I’m told they’re quite dangerous, but we encountered them later in the day at a pretty close distance, and they seemed pleasant enough. Like moose in Canada.

Kruger National Park African buffalo South Africa

We stopped to pick up some lunch at a rest camp and to get caught up on the day’s sightings in order to plan our afternoon. Radio communication among vehicles is either prohibited or strongly discouraged, but these boards located within the park give game drivers the opportunity to check in and see which animals are most visible on a particular day.

Kruger National Park sightings map South Africa

Heading back out, the skies had brighten up a little and our afternoon yielded a wider range of animals. Normally, we’d see one species at a time, so it was seriously amazing for me to see two of my favourite animals together, just hanging out in a glade.

Kruger National Park giraffes and zebras South Africa

We took up a position at the biggest water hole in the area, along with a number of other vehicles, to see who was hanging out that day. Sure enough, a group of surly hippopotamuses popped up (also called a crash of hippos). Man, hippos are mean. I learned a veritable ton of new hippo facts and they are mean. They are also one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. Remain vigilant.

Kruger National Park hippos water hole South Africa

With the improved weather, but still-nice temperatures, the animals hung around more than we were expecting. At the time, finding this large herd of impalas was pretty remarkable. From this point on, however, we started seeing them absolutely everywhere.

Kruger National Park impalas South Africa

We also started seeing lots of zebras. Fun fact: one of the names for a group of zebras is a dazzle. Another is a zeal. How perfect are those names? Look at this guy. I don’t know if he thinks he’s hiding, but he’s not.

Kruger National Park zebras dazzle South Africa

Hot on the trail of a rumoured cheetah sighting, we found another herd of impalas. This time, it was pretty entertaining, with these little birds taking up position on the back of this female.

Kruger National Park impala birds South Africa

We were also amused the this rather large group of baboons that were literally playing in the road. They are also incredibly mean and have been known to steal things out of vehicles. Remain vigilant.

Kruger National Park baboons South Africa

And, on day two of my trip, I found the animal I wanted to take home. The tiny steenbok is the smallest of the antelopes around, and it’s positively adorable. They run very fast, but their major defensive tactic is lying low in dense vegetation. When I say they’re teeny, I mean it – they stand 45 cm to 60 cm. That’s house pet size. Absolutely no one is as enamoured of them as I am.

Kruger National Park steenbok South Africa

One of the highlights was actually on our way out of the park, where we encountered a large herd of elephants, with a baby and juvenile in tow. Watching the wee one stick close to his or her mama brought out the “EEEEEEE! Baby elephant!” in all of us.

Despite the gloomy weather, I was still impressed by the number of animals we managed to see – three of the Big Five (elephant, rhinoceros* and buffalo). The weather meant all of the cats were in hiding, and the smaller animals are tougher to find in all of the fresh, green vegetation in the spring. I’m told winter is ideal for seeing a lot of animals because there’s less vegetation, fewer visitors and everyone comes out of hiding to drink at water holes. Of course, I was also told January/February is ideal because there are loads of baby animals around, so ultimately, deciding when to visit depends on whether you want to see all of the animals, or just the cutest ones.

In the end, I was delighted by my first game drive, and the excitement and anticipation that fuels the day. I also enjoyed the sense of accomplishing something when a new animal would cross our path. Before entering the park, I picked up a guide for R80 with a delightful illustrated checklist. It definitely appealed to both my inner data nerd and eight-year old self.

Kruger sighting checklist South Africa

Exhausted, we headed back to our lodge for a brief break before heading out on a night drive, more on that to come!

*We saw white rhinoceroses, which aren’t technically part of the Big 5. We’ll get back to this.

Update: in case your interested, this is the guide book I purchased with the checklist – happy viewing!

Kruger book with animal checklist

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