Sunset Safari at Kruger Park
No. You’re not going all the way to South Africa to spend all day at a hotel or spa and not going on a safari. And contrary to what most people believe, there are many, many affordable options if you stay away from the pre-packaged lodging + safari combos, which tend to go for exorbitant amounts.
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Johannesburg to Nelspruit, South African Airways Airlink
Sunset Safari, Kruger National Park
All Day Safari, Kruger National Park
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Dallas to Seattle, American Airlines 737 First Class
Like we mentioned in previous posts, we were staying at the Protea Kruger Gate hotel which could not be more appropriately named since you can literally walk from the hotel to the park in about 5 minutes and there is nothing on the way other than locals selling crafts on the side of the road and the occasional wild animal scaring the bejeezus out of you as they jump out of the bushes into your way.
Since the hotel is so close to the park, and actually neighbors it, the viewing deck allows for amazing first row seat into a river bed where you can see many of the big animals, mainly elephants and buffaloes, but the whole point is to see more. So all one has to do is go straight to the park gate and book the tour right there, they have plenty of options and they’re more than happy to go over them for you to choose. The hotel itself does have a tour desk which can do this for you and even make sure they get it reserved in advance in the odd chance they’re booked up on the dates you’re going. They do tack on their booking fees ($10), but they did not seem a ridiculous price to pay for making sure you don’t arrive at the hotel and have absolutely no activities available to you.
We had pre-arranged a night safari, which for February 14 starts at 6pm from Kruger Gate until 9pm. We had been relaxing at the viewing deck for a while, watching a group of elephants and we knew we needed to complete some Park entrance forms before the actual safari, so we decided to visit the Gate earlier. When we mentioned we had the night safari, one of the guides suggested that we swapped from the night safari to the sunset one, as the visibility is clearly better and that is the time of the day when most of the predators are active. He mentioned a pride of lions had previously made a kill and that they would still be working on their dinner by then, so I had already swapped our booking and filled out the forms before he was able to finish making the suggestion. We settled everything and the sunset tour departs the Gate at 5, and it was 4:45pm by then and we had not planned on leaving so we were not carrying our cameras, GoPros, phones, hats, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, sunglasses, cargo pants, and everything we needed to embark on this adventure, so we ran trotted scooted power walked (which is the fastest you can do on 110F/43C degree weather), got all of our stuff together and ran our way back to the gate.
We were late, of course, but much to our surprise, there were only two other tourists on a 12 person open air vehicle waiting for us (plus 2 Park rangers who do the driving and explaining). So, effectively we ‘upgraded’ our tour to a much better experience and ended up getting the bonus of a small group. Once we got started, the guy said: “I have two options for you, drive slow and hope to see something on the way before it gets dark, or drive fast to where I know we’ll see stuff”. We all agreed to the second option, and he stepped on the gas and wouldn’t stop until we got to places where he was sure we’d see something. We had previously discussed that we wouldn’t stop for impalas, kudus, warthogs, birds, etc., but we did stop to see the big animals. We must have stopped to see a few hippopotamuses and buffaloes when he asked us how long we had in the park, and after we all said we’d be there for a few more days, he just agreed that we could skip right to where the lions had made the kill.
We drove pretty fast for quite a stretch of land where most of it was brush and dust (the area has not seen substantial rain for at least 2.5 years now). When we got closer to where he knew the lions would be, he went through the security briefing once again – no jumping out of the vehicle, no heads, arms, legs or any other limbs sticking out, no screaming, shrieking or squealing, etc. We drove no more than a few yards and started smelling the stench of meat that’s been out in 100F degree weather for a while but we still couldn’t see anything for a few minutes.
It was already quite dark though the sun was still setting on the horizon. And that’s when we heard them. Heavy breathing and panting, combined with the noise of bones breaking and flesh being torn off. Still couldn’t see them, but we knew the direction the noises were coming from. The second ranger, who wasn’t driving pulled out a large spot light and pointed it in front of our car. No more than 10 feet in front of us was a dead water buffalo, or rather, two halves of it, and around it there were three lions going at it. All around us we could see and hear vultures sitting in the brushes waiting for their share of it and also could hear hyenas nearby.
I have, for years dreamt of seeing these kinds of things in real life as I’m the kind of person that would binge watch all of BBC’s Life documentaries in one sitting, but this was so much more than I could have hoped for.
We watched them gorge on the buffalo for a good 20 minutes, they would stick their heads up from their meal and look at us from time to time, not really giving too much attention to the audience. It is worth noting that the park shuts down to private tourists at 6 so you MUST be out by then or they will fine you, but since the tour we were on is handled through the park itself, we were the only vehicle allowed at that time. That enabled us to linger as much as we wanted and observe from as close as the lions would allow us to be.
All in all, the park entrance fee plus the tour and tips was 380 rand, which came up to be $25.80 each. Yes, you read that right. TWENTY-FIVE US DOLLARS EIGHTY CENTS EACH. For a 3-hour safari inside Kruger Park where we got to see lions eating a whole buffalo. That is, coincidentally, less than you would pay for the BBC Life documentary on BluRay. For reference, one of the pre-packaged options we had been offered when we planned this trip was for a four-day safari, including all meals and safari activities (and also a grueling 6-hour van ride from Johannesburg to the lodging near Kruger) would have cost 13,450 rand per person, which is $915 per person.