KRUGER NATIONAL PARK — The drive from the Mozambique border to South Africa’s largest game reserve takes about half an hour and our guide has made the journey many times.
In a well rehearsed, monotone voice, he tells us what to expect when we reach Kruger, the massive national park spread over five million acres that is home to hundreds of different animals and bird species.
Actually, we’re only interested in seeing five of those animals — lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos, which are usually referred to as the Big 5 here.
This small organized group tour is really “safari lite” but it does allow us city dwellers a quick drive-thru glance at nature’s mightiest creatures in their natural habitat.
Above: A family of elephants dine out some the thick shrubs that dominate Kruger National Park.
By the time we reach the entrance to Kruger National Park, we need to stretch our legs after the short drive along the surprisingly good coast road that connects Mozambique and South Africa.
Anticipation builds when I look out on Kruger’s vast savannah, where the horizon is dotted with silhouetted mountains.
“It’s time to go,” says the grizzled guide, who slowly drives his dusty 4x4 Toyota through Crocodile Bridge Gate, one of Kruger’s 10 entrances, and past two river-size “moats” that keep the exotic animals corralled.
As we make our way along the well-worn safari route, the guide tells us Kruger is not just an animal sanctuary, it also boasts a number of archaeological sites — some dating back to the Iron Age — and its diversity of trees and flowers makes it a true Garden of Eden.
I’m listening but my eyes are trained on the roadside brush hoping to spot a rare creature. I have my camera at the ready but the undergrowth camouflages the animals very well from prying eyes, not just predators.
“Look up ahead,” shouts my seat mate.
Above: To see the mighty residents of Kruger National Park roam free is one of the most moving experiences on a safari.
My jaw drops and my pulse quickens as I see two massive elephants with a smaller one in tow ambling along the side of the road.
Nothing prepares you for the rush of excitement one feels when coming face-to-face with these magnificent creatures.
“Did you get the picture?” my seat mate asks.
“There’s many more pictures up the road,” the guide reassures us.
In fact, there’s one Kodak moment after another in Kruger National Park.
“I hope my battery doesn’t run out,” I say as a zebra suddenly appears.
The animals offer themselves up as willing models. A buffalo stands erect and motionless as I capture his mighty image in my lens. Giraffe, monkeys, hyena, wildebeest, impala, steenbok and baboons all play to the camera.
The three-hour tour provides us with one exhilarating moment after another and by day’s end we’ve accomplished all we set out to do — spot each of the the Big 5, see some exotic species and enjoy just a small portion of what a safari has to offer.
And just when we think there’s not much else that this tour can provide us, the guide pulls his 4x4 up to a river bank and instructs us to look out on the calm water.
My eyes widen as a herd of mighty rhinos suddenly appears, their arched backs breaking the surface of the lake like a flotilla of small submarines. Another picture-perfect moment in Kruger National Park.