It is difficult, when you first drive through one of its nine gates, to have an immediate appreciation of just how large Kruger National Park is. Pinned into the north-east corner of South Africa (so closely that it rubs shoulders with Mozambique, and the adjacent wildlife zone of Limpopo National Park, over the border), this vast expanse of grassland and savannah is all but a country within a country.
In fact, if it were a country, it would rank as the 151st biggest on the planet – its 7,523 square miles making it just smaller than Slovenia, but bigger than each of Fiji, Kuwait and Montenegro. It is also bigger than Eswatini (the former Swaziland) – the country that sits (almost) on its southern boundary.
But this does not mean that it is impossible to get a taste of Kruger in a couple of days. True, it would take a week, maybe a fortnight, to explore it fully – but you can still take its temperature in a visit of just 24 or 48 hours. This is because – as home to a wealth of animals of various spots, stripes and shapes – the park offers a constant swirl of wildlife encounters. Even the shortest of game drives is a certain feast for the camera. If you want to see (as the old saying goes) “nature red in tooth and claw”, Kruger will not disappoint.
For many visitors, this means the “Big Five” – the quintet of key beasts that crops up on so many travel bucket lists. Kruger has them all – some 2,000 lions, more than 500 black rhinoceros, around 17,000 elephants, close to 40,000 cape buffalo, somewhere near 1,000 leopards. The latter tend to be hardest to see, as they hunt at night, spending the daytime sleeping off their endeavours and dinners on the high branches of trees. But even so, you can expect to catch a glimpse during a sunset drive – and guides are trained to spot them.
Of course, there is more to Kruger’s wildlife line-up than the Big Five. Other significant residents of the park include zebras, impalas, giraffes, warthogs and antelopes. Cheetahs – a glorious sight when they are running at full pace – sprint across clearings hard on the tail of their prey. Hyenas stalk in once the kill is made, determined to plunder the carcass. Some predators are less obvious in their hunter-gathering tactics – kudu dip their heads warily when they go to take a drink on the bank of the Crocodile River (which forms the southern boundary of the park) – for reasons that should be wholly obvious from the name. Other creatures are more elusive still. You may be fortunate enough to see the African wild dog – a scruffy species that, although sadly endangered, is present at Kruger.
But whatever you see, the Kruger experience is much the same as day’s end nears – a drink clutched in your hand as the sunset bathes the park in a soft glow. A kind of magic.