Once the ‘business’ part of our South Africa trip was finished, we decided to spend some time wildlife watching in Kruger National Park. This was our chance to see some of Africa’s wild cats in the wild.
Of all the wildlife destinations in Southern Africa, Kruger is the most accessible. There many accommodation options in Kruger National Park but we chose a 4D/5N trip with Viva Safaris, mainly because it included a stay in a tree house.
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Wildlife watching in Kruger
We arrived at Tremisana in the late afternoon and went on an afternoon drive straight away. While we did not see much wildlife on the drive, we managed to spot two animals that we have not seen before: a Grey Duiker and Common Duiker along with a few Giraffes and Impala. After the game drive, we drove to Marc’s Tree House Lodge.
If you don’t mind climbing up and down the tree all day, a tree house is a really fun accommodation option. Our house was fantastic. It was constructed around the tree branch, so we had a massive tree trunk growing through our room.
Our balcony jutted into the treetops above a small creek that was lost somewhere below. At night we would hear hyenas howling somewhere nearby and occasionally we had frogs camping inside the room.
Day 1 – Lions & cheetahs
As fun as staying in a tree house is, the lodge had one major downside – it was outside Kruger NP, lying adjacent to Kapama Reserve. And because the camp was outside the park, we didn’t have the opportunity to go on any night drives at all and missed out on a lot of sightings of nocturnal wildlife.
The daytime we spent in the park, watching wildlife and exploring different parts of Kruger. On the first morning of wildlife watching in Kruger, we spotted a male Lion sleeping concealed in the high grass only a couple of meters from the road.
The rest of the day was rather quiet in terms of wildlife sightings. We saw the usual ungulates and quite a few Waterbucks, but no predators.
However, on our return home, just a few kilometres away from the Orpen gate we spotted the rarest cat of all – the Cheetah. It was a female with a sub-adult cub feeding on the kill in the tall grass. According to the official census, there are 200 cheetahs in Kruger, but they are rarely seen, judging by the fact that all sightings are marked on the map at the park’s headquarters.
The cheetahs were quite far away from the road, hence the poor images, but watching them through the binoculars, I could see every whisker on their beautiful faces. Even though many African mammals are quite large, a good pair of binoculars is a must for wildlife watching. Here is an excellent guide on choosing the best binoculars for safari.
Cheetahs are amazing cats to see in the wild, but if you are looking for a more up-close-and-personal introduction, check out this ethical cheetah encounter in Zimbabwe.
Day 2 – Marc’s Tree House and Afternoon drive
It’s been raining all day and we had a free morning so we decided to explore the area around our guest house. We used the time to watch some very tame Nyalas that were living on the property, but otherwise, are very rare in the wild. We also did some bird watching and spotted an African Paradise Flycatcher and a Yellow-Breasted Apalis.
In the afternoon we took a drive on the guest house property, but the only notable wildlife we saw was a Black Rhino with a calf, elephants and a small group of giraffes. The rest of our wildlife watching for the day was concentrated on frogs around the campsite, of which there were plenty of. In just over an hour we spotted five species: Banded Rubber Frog, Bubbling Kassina, Foam Nest Frog, Snoring Puddle Frog and Guttural Toad. The toad I found in our tree house!
Day 3 – Wild dogs and White lions
Practically as soon as we drove through the gate this morning, we spotted a Leopard. Unfortunately, it was completely concealed in the grass by the time we arrived, so it wasn’t a particularly good sighting.
We spent 8 hours driving around the park but didn’t see any new mammal species. We did, however, amassed quite a bird list including Grey-headed Parrot, Saddle-billed Stork and Kori Bustard.
It was on the way home again, that we saw the most amazing animals of the day. A few kilometres from the Orpen Gate we spotted a young Leopard hiding in tall grass.
As soon as we drove through the Orpen Gate we saw a pack of Wild Dogs running across the road and disappearing into the thick undergrowth.
And just as we thought that it couldn’t bet any better, our driver spotted White Lions behind the fence on the Timbavati Reserve side. The male disappeared practically as soon as we arrived, but the three females were happy to lounge in front of us for quite some time.
The rare white lions of Timbavati are world famous for their unique coat color. Wild white lions are rarely seen anywhere else, suggesting that the ‘white gene’ pool is almost completely unique to this area.
If there is one cat rarer than a cheetah in Kruger it is definitely the White Lion. Our guide has not seen them for 12 years.
Day 4 – Last Day in Kruger
On our last day, we were treated to watching a pack of 17 Wild Dogs lounging on the road right in front of our car and then going on a half-hearted chase after the herd of impala. The dogs didn’t catch any of the impalas, and it didn’t look like they really meant the chase – most of the dogs I saw had full round bellies.
Wild dogs get a bad rap for their hunting style. Like in most social canid species that hunt in packs, their strategy is to run the prey down, biting it repeatedly during the chase, so it would bleed out and slow down. It does sound cruel in comparison to the cat’s style of ambushing its prey and killing it quickly by either dislocating its neck vertebrae or suffocating it. But nature IS cruel. All animal life has to kill in order to survive.
Wild dogs are actually very towards their pack members. Only the strong and healthy adults go on hunts. The young, the old and the sick stay at their camp waiting for the hunting party to return and feed them by regurgitating part of their own meals. The ‘stay at home’ mob compete against each other in their whining skills. The saddest sounding contender gets a meal first. Which means that the young usually eat well.
The rest of the day continued as a variation on the “large groups of animals” theme. We saw a huge herd of African Buffalo – probably close to 100 individuals, a huge herd of Impala and a large herd of Zebra.
Even Elephants came in large numbers. The most amazing site of the day, however, was of a single animal – a male Leopard spilling over a tree branch. It must’ve had a fight with another leopard or had an unsuccessful hunt that resulted in a large would on its thigh. We watched it rest on the tree branch, panting heavily and as it was climbing down, we noticed the injury. Life is tough on the African Savannah, even for the large predators.
As we were driving around the park later in the day we saw another Leopard that crossed the road right in front of our car.
Other interesting animals we saw were White Rhino, Nile Crocodile and a Dwarf Mongoose. And of course an impressive amount of birds, including Black-shouldered Kite, African Fish-Eagle, Martial Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Brown Snake Eagle, Booted Eagle and Jacobin Cuckoo.
Day 5 – Back to Johannesburg via Blyde River Canyon
The Blyde River Canyon is a spectacular spot. We drove past it four times during our travels in South Africa and we never had a chance to stop for some exploration. The wildlife is hard to spot from the lookout points, but we managed to find two species of lizards: Spotted Rock Lizard and Pungwe Flat Lizard
Overall, despite staying outside of the park and missing out on the night drives we managed to see a great variety of wild cats. Plenty of lion sightings, at least three leopards, a cheetah family and a rare treat – the white lions. Together with the African wildcat in Kapama, the trip turned up 4 wild cat species, which is pretty good going as far as cats go.