Wild Nights

Sleeping in Kruger National Park is an adventure unto itself

By: David Swanson

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Cheetah with a kill,
Sabi Sabi Game Reserve
We had already come across the cheetah tearing into the remains of a waterbuck. Later, a big ornery rhino circled us, close enough so that Elliot Mgiba, guide for an afternoon game drive on the edge of Kruger National Park, opted to start the Land Rover and give the testy animal a wide berth. We weren’t hungry for more. But Elliot was headed some place specific, tipped off by another guide who reported a sighting on the radio in hushed tones.

Elliot’s lips were sealed. A game driver is not in control of many aspects of what transpires in wild Africa. Better to let the show unfold on its own terms.

Maneuvering our open-top vehicle carefully, Elliott veered away from the sand road toward the setting sun, brush scraping against the carriage. Rounding a bend, the place Elliot had in mind announced itself with all the subtlety of a Stephen King movie. Suspended from the limb of a marula tree was the backlit carcass of a full-grown impala, his lifeless eyes pointed straight to the ground.

My jaw agape, my vision transfixed what was responsible for this carnage? When I could finally shift my eyes from the horror show, I surveyed the brush around us. Over my left shoulder my eyes paused and focused on knee-high grass, 12 feet away.

Through the grass there was fur, spots and then a tail lashed the air. Supremely confident, a leopard is subtle only when it suits his purposes.

“Do not move,” Elliot whispered.

A game guide’s foremost responsibility is ensuring the safety of his guests. He evaluated the scene and deduced that the leopard had stashed his kill in the tree, true to his traits, away from lions or pesky scavengers. Having had his meal the cat was resting now, unperturbed by the presence of a vehicle that looked and smelled little of food or threat. The leopard licked his paws and stroked his face to remove the smears of blood.

This show takes place with different scenery, different characters and different plot lines every day throughout Kruger National Park. Established in 1898, South Africa’s greatest wildlife park is 7,700 square miles almost the size of New Jersey. One of the most easily accessed parks in Africa, Kruger is a five- to six-hour drive from Johannesburg on excellent roads, or an hour by small plane to one of several airports.

In addition to an estimated 1,000 leopard, the park is known for its healthy populations of lion, cheetah, elephant and giraffe in fact Kruger encompasses possibly the greatest diversity of animal life of any park in Africa, with a range of ecosystems. Knowledge of the park’s range of lodging possibilities helps guide clients to their ideal safari experience.

There is an extensive network of camps within Kruger’s boundaries, each offering varied sleeping arrangements ranging from bare camp sites with shared bathroom facilities ($17 a night), to permanent canvas tents ($39-$71), to bungalows and cottages with private bath and kitchen facilities, sleeping two to six people ($77-$267). A car is recommended for independent travelers (the road system is well maintained), though game drives and walks handled by park rangers are available a la carte for $16-$35 per person.

In addition, there are nine private concessions within the park, each with lodges that lay on the creature comforts. I visited Jock Safari Lodge, which occupies a 15,000-acre private concession within the park near the southwest corner and is part of the Mantis Collection of boutique hotels.

Located 90 minutes from the Nelspruit Airport, Jock sits at the confluence of two rivers a factor in its frequent animal visits. Though one of the original Kruger concessions, the lodge was extensively renovated in 2003.

Today, 12 bungalows boast a pleasing mix of antiques from the gold-prospecting era and modern amenities including air conditioning, claw-foot tubs and outdoor showers. Each suite also has a private plunge pool, large deck and a covered terrace overlooking the river, where animals roam freely. Other amenities include a spa and Internet room. Per-person rates at Jock start at $421 including meals, game drives and local beverages.

The Kruger experience is not strictly confined within the park boundaries. There are superb accommodations on private reserves that abut the park’s western border. These reserves are generally open on their eastern sides, allowing the park’s wildlife to wander through.

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A staff member pours a
welcome drink at Camp Jabulani.
The 35,000-acre Kapama Game Reserve, located just east of Hoedspruit, is shared by four lodges, including Camp Jabulani, which opened in 2003. The six chalets here are regal, blending raw materials of Africa walls of mud and hay, lighting recessed within leadwood branches with opulent trappings, including bathtub for two, fireplace and air conditioning. Each unit is utterly private, and the immediate camp is surrounded by an electric fence, allowing guests to wander safely alone (most safari lodges require guests to be escorted at night). Crystal stemware and silver settings are used in the dining room, and meals are lavish.

Beyond morning and evening game drives, what distinguishes Camp Jabulani is its elephants it was named after an orphaned elephant who was near death and rescued at the age of four months. Building the camp was a way to support Jabulani and 11 other elephants, rescued from Zimbabwe where they had been tagged for meat. Elephant-back safaris through the reserve are a special lure.

Rates at Camp Jabulani start at $500 per person including meals, game drives and transfers from the Hoedspruit Airport; elephant-back safaris are additional (the “fully inclusive” rate starts at $857).

Located northeast of Nelspruit and with its own private air strip, the Sabi Sabi Reserve is a collection of four lodges, billed as “yesterday, today and tomorrow.” I stayed at Selati Camp, which represents yesteryear with references to the railway line that was built on the property when gold prospecting was at its peak. Selati tributes the history with lanterns, railway iconography and colonial style, while eight suites lay on the amenities, including air conditioning and al fresco showers.

Also at Sabi Sabi, the 25-suite Bush Lodge and its sibling, six-suite Little Bush Camp nearby have more contemporary settings. The Earth Lodge is futuristic, with 13 suites built into a berm, carefully landscaped so as to disappear into the environment. Suites at Little Bush Camp start at $514; Bush Lodge at $586; Selati Camp at $600; Earth Lodge at $928 per person rates include meals, local beverages, game drives and transfers from the Sabi Sabi airstrip.

But as with most African safaris, it was not memories of modern conviences that I carried home, but the wildlife: a pair of baby elephants at Camp Jabulani, wrestling like oversized kittens; the rhino that scratched around under my terrace at Jock; and the splendid leopard at Sabi Sabi.


All prices based on $1 = 7 South Africa rand.
Accommodations inside Kruger can be booked at www.sanparks.org.

Camp Jabulani

Jock Safari Lodge

Sabi Sabi Reserve