Being born and brought up in India’s remote North Eastern state of Assam does have its advantages, especially when it comes to appreciating concepts like wilderness, mountains, conservation issues etc... I still vividly recall my childhood wildlife holidays spent in some of India’s best known National Parks like Kaziranga, Manas, Pobitora etc..., accompanied by my Dad, who being an Agriculture Scientist had to frequently visit the region’s remote hinterlands. When it comes to viewing wilderness in all its glory, nothing surpasses the excitement and drama that one is assured of in any “African Safari” and it took me a while to zero in on one of the world’s greatest Wildlife Reserves - Kruger National Park and embark on a dream safari. Kruger Park isn’t just stepped in legends, it is also iconic in terms of sheer vastness, incredible landscapes and extravagant African wildlife. The only irritating part, if any was the journey - all 12.5 hours from New Delhi to Johannesburg.
It is always wise to do your pre-departure homework well in advance of your trip since visiting Kruger is once in a lifetime experience for many visitors. After consulting my friends in the Travel/Tourism & Hospitality domain, I choose Singita as they had two top-end lodges in Kruger - Singita Lebombo Lodge and Singita Sweni Lodge. The idea was to experience Kruger from two different wilderness locales that would offer me the most comprehensive views of this truly mesmerising wilderness zone on planet earth.
Much of Kruger is bush land and both the lodges offered me with rare and exclusive entrée to over half a million acres of unspoiled wilderness. Indeed, these days it is hard to come by Wildlife Reserves that can boast of “Big Five” in the same Reserve (Elephant, Lion, Rhino, Leopard and Buffalo). But then, Kruger is an exception! And hopefully it will always be so!
My personalised Naturalist - Ross Couper knew the terrain by the tip of his finger, having spent long years in this part of the wilderness. As our 4/4 vehicle penetrated deep into Kruger’s core wilderness zone, I was informed that the Park is all off 19,485 Sq.Kms and was officially designated as a National Park in the year 1926 by the South African government. As we traversed along the Kruger’s Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO designated “International Man and Biosphere Reserve”, I gave an honest hearing to Ross’s erudite talk on Singita’s story - the genesis in 1925 when Luke Bailes’ grandfather bought a small piece of land which later on would go on and evolve into a “Success Story” in the realms of wildlife conservation.
The park is so vast that if for instance you are travelling from East to West you have to cover 90 kilometres. The north and south of Kruger is blessed with two shimmering rivers - Limpopo and Crocodile, that kind of heightens the wildlife panorama by a further few notches. We decided to take a breather and my wizened Naturalist - Ross, set up the table on the surreal backdrop of Khandzalive hill, which incidentally happens to be the highest point of Kruger.
As a Travel Writer, I have often wondered about the kind of life a Naturalist or a Field Guide lives on a day to day basis in foreign habitats. Back in India, I believe they live a tough life, not just guiding visitors, but also taking on the additional responsibility of guarding the forest and its resources from poachers! And, needless to say, they are poorly paid. I wanted to hear from Ross his life in the African wilderness and this is what he had to say - “Every day, we guides and trackers rely totally on ourselves to find animals. We are equipped only with keen eyesight, tracking skills, and our knowledge of animal movements and habitat preferences. Excitement mounts as we search for any clues that may lead us to find a specific animal. Patience is required as well. When we do find what we set out to look for, the search for animals can end up being extremely rewarding. When we do not find what we were looking for, frustration can creep in. Nevertheless, because the results are unpredictable, the search is inevitably exciting”. That perhaps sums up life in the African wilderness.
But then, in the words of Luke Bailes - easily one of the greatest wildlife conservationist of all time, African wilderness is a “Place of Miracles”(Shangaan) and they strive real hard to conserve and protect these miraculous and incredible places. When I asked Ross, if he is happy with what he does, curt came his reply - “Why not? Is there any job on earth that would pay me just to be in harmonious union with nature”? By the way, are the mandarins of India’s Ministry of Forest & Wildlife listening?
Kruger and if I am not wrong, much of Africa’s wilderness zone to me is an unpredictable place. You never know how your next wildlife drama is going to unfold. Apart from Lions, which definitely is the cynosure of all eyes, the Rhinos too are on the prized list of visitors. But, fortunately or unfortunately, Rhino is passé for me, having been exposed countless times in the Mecca called Kaziranga, where it is much easier to sight them, given the strength of the species in terms of numbers.
The buzzword here in Kruger is “UNPREDICTABLE”. I came here to spend time Lion Watching and would settle for nothing less. One week in the African wildlife is a long time man? And true to the spirit of the jungles, Kruger doesn’t ever disappoint Lion aficionados. My only brush with Lions was at Gir Forest in Gujarat. But then, they were Asiatic Lions and not the prized African ones that the whole world craves for.
So off we went - zip, zap, zoom into the bushy, secluded tracks of Kruger where Lions are known to frequent. My Field Guide Ross was of the opinion that the Lions have off late been very active and so there wasn’t much to be worried about. As Ross went on narrating how the “Mhangene” pride was maturing in terms of numbers, Of the four unique Mhangene lionesses, the sudden disappearance of one lioness and the acceptance of a lioness by the three, our 4/4 vehicle made an abrupt halt, the tyres screeching to a halt almost instantly.
My head experienced a thud as it hit the windscreen. For a moment I saw nothing, complete blackout, although it was dawn and the red molten ball was rising splendidly across Kruger’s magnificent panorama. As I came into my senses, Ross offered me an Energy drink, rubbed my shoulders and clasped my hands warmly, inviting me to disembark from the hardy vehicle and made me gaze to my utter amazement at the sight of a rather large pride of lions, known as the are - “Shishangaan Pride” drinking water from the marshy pond just 500 meters away.
A full 5 minutes passed off. An intense wildlife drama unfolding in front of my naked eyes.... The landscape desolate, unpopulated and the wilderness - WOW one splendid isolation. I emptied my Nikon to the full. The Pride, fully satiated by their early morning drink made one too many growls and the entire Pride disappeared into the surrounding bushy vegetative canopy heaving their manes with pride, as if to convey to us - “WE GIVE A DAMN”.
That’s the essence of being in Kruger National Park. Here it’s all attitude and positivity that reminds me of Swami Vivekananda’s immortal words -“The moment I have realized God sitting in the temple of every living creature, the moment I stand in reverence before every living creature and see God in them - that moment I am free from bondage, everything that binds vanishes and I am free”. And indeed, Kruger sets you free and touches visitors at every level – spiritual, emotional and physical. Memories of Kruger will linger on forever.
Traveller’s Fact File
Singita Lebombo Lodge. This remarkable lodge in Kruger National Park offers 13 grandiose suites and there is also an exclusive private-use villa that offers discerning guests with the very best of African hospitality. The private villa is indeed the most sought after part of Singita Lebombo Lodge. It is nicely tucked away from the from the central lodge and comprises of two 2-bedroom suites, with an exclusive private pool. The villa is close to the river bank and has an in-house open- plan kitchen to pamper to the diverse tastes of the guests.
Singita Sweni Lodge. This lodge is well spread out across 33,000 acres of private concession in Kruger National Park and the shimmering Sweni river offers a truly surreal backdrop for guests to unwind in the very heartland of wild Africa. This lodge is the epitome of harmony - fusion of African architecture with the contemporary. Guests at Singita Sweni Lodge can rest assured of sighting diverse animal species that meander down along the banks of River Sweni to quench their thirst.
Singita offers routine charter flights and all flights land at the Satara airstrip, 45 minutes drive from the lodge. Singita staff transport guests to the lodge in air-conditioned vehicles. Journey time from Johannesburg to Satara is 1.30 hours. The rich and the famous touchdown in their exclusive Private aircrafts pilots and are recommended to broadcast their arrival on 124,8 Mhz frequency. Please note that only a small number of companies have permission to land at the The Satara airstrip by the way is maintained by the National Parks Board. King Air, Cessna and PC12 can land at Satara without any hitches.
• From Johannesburg: approximately 8 hours’ drive (+/- 600km).
• From Hoedspruit: approximately 2-3 hours’ drive (+/- 155km).
• From Skukuza: approximately 2-3 hours’ drive (+/-110km).
• From Hazyview: approximately 3.5 hours’ drive (+/- 156km).
• From Nelspruit: approximately 4 hours’ drive (+/- 216km).