Kruger at Ground Level, Part 1: Animal

A big thank you to travelgurus.co.za and Wilderness Adventures for making this blog post possible.

Last weekend I visited Kruger National Park, the largest park in South Africa. This wasn’t just any old Kruger safari, either. I went to the remotest and most beautiful section of the park — the Pafuri Triangle.

A view of the Limpopo River, just before my plane landed at Pafuri Camp. The Pafuri Triangle is in the far northern corner of the Kruger Park, wedged between the Limpopo and Luvuvu Rivers and the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

(Okay, this was actually my first time in Kruger so I can’t personally attest to the Pafuri Triangle being the most beautiful part of the park. But that’s what everyone tells me and I found no reason to disbelieve it.)

There’s a luxurious tented camp at Pafuri, but I didn’t stay there. Instead, I spent four days tramping through the bush on the Pafuri Walking Trails tour. The vast majority of Kruger’s visitors see the park from inside a vehicle, and can’t set foot on the ground until they’re within the confines of a rest camp or lodge. I was very fortunate to experience Kruger for the first time with my feet planted on the ground.

An elephant enjoys a sundowner on my first evening in the bush. I quickly realized that wild animals look completely different from the ground than they do from the back seat of a 4×4.

About an hour after landing at Pafuri, I gathered with the five other hikers and our two guides — Brian, the head wilderness trails guide, and Chris, his assistant. I had stripped off my winter clothes, donned a tank top and sun hat, and shouldered my camera bag. Brian briefed us on the rules of walking in the bush: walk in single file, stay quiet, don’t run. And most importantly: Follow orders now, ask questions later.

“I’m really excited about today,” said Brian. “This will be my first walk.”

Dead silence from the group. I considered grabbing my suitcase and running back to the airplane.

“Just kidding! I’ve been doing this for 11 years.”

At this point we knew we were in for a fun weekend. We followed Brian and Chris into the wilderness.

♦   ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦

I’ve divided my experiences on the Pafuri Walking Trail into three categories: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Today, I will cover animal.

Our first big game sighting: Frolicking teenage hippos.

When I hear the word safari, I think first of the animal giants — elephants, lions, rhino, etc. But the great thing about a walking safari is that you see and learn about animals of every size and shape. You also get an up-close look at animals tracks, animal remains, and lots and lots of animal poop.

Brian shows us the bottom of a huge dung beetle. We caught this beetle trying to roll a piece of elephant dung the size of a cantaloupe. He eventually gave up and crawled away.

A rock hyrax (kind of like a rock-climbing prairie dog) peaks at us from above. 

While walking on a high ridge, we came upon the remains of a lion cub. The mother must have stashed her cubs up there and one of them didn’t make it. I was strangely fascinated by the tiny bones. You can even see some baby lion fur underneath.

The Pafuri Triangle is a birder’s paradise; some of the rarest birds in Africa live there. We were lucky enough to see one of the rarest and most elusive birds of all.

You have to look hard, but in the center of this photo is a Pel’s Fishing Owl, or PFO, as Brian likes to call them. Hard-core birders will understand the significance of this sighting, and will perhaps hate me for spotting a pair of PFOs on my first trip to Kruger. Joe, a lifelong birder, has never seen a PFO.

The small animals are fun, but let’s face it: Every safari-goer wants to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo). Walking safaris are challenging in this regard, as these animals prefer to avoid humans and they move a lot faster on foot than we do. Still, we saw quite a few, including lions, buffalo, and LOTS of elephants.

A huge herd of elephants crossing the river — drinking, eating, and bathing as they go.

Our most exciting elephant sighting was a bit too close for comfort.

A few of us were goofing off in the back of the line, when we rounded a bend and came upon a bull elephant in full musth. This basically means the elephant was in a very bad mood. He raised his trunk at us and flared his ears. Brian spoke to the elephant very calmly and it seemed to placate him a bit. We backed off slowly and moved to higher ground.

As we stood on top of a small ridge, catching our breath, he decided to come check us out again. Oh, Mr. Elephant, what a big mouth you have!

At this point I was panicking a little. “Can he get up here?” I asked, with a twinge of hysteria in my voice. More dead silence from the group.

A moment later, Mr. Elephant shut his mouth and stalked off. Brian told us later that in 11 years of guiding, he’s never fired a shot at an animal.

In closing, here is a photo of the strangest animals to be found in the Pafuri Triangle.

Brian (left), me, Chris, and Matthew, relaxing in the Luvuvu after a 12-kilometer hike and several near-death experiences. Brian assured us the water was too shallow for crocs. How often does one get to swim in an African River? (Photo courtesy of David Park)

Next up: Vegetable

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32 Comments

  • Reply Bing June 23, 2011 at 8:36 am

    You were right, Heather. We were in the same place but what a different trip from mine! I was scared shitless when we were in a landrover and two elephants charged at us for a good distance. I can’t imagine how scared you must have been with that elephant right in front of you! I don’t know if I will ever have the guts to do a safari on foot. You need to pass on some courage! =)

    • Reply 2summers June 23, 2011 at 8:42 am

      Ha! It was a nice adrenaline rush, to say the least. I felt pretty safe though — our guides were awesome.

  • Reply Julia June 23, 2011 at 9:09 am

    wow these are beautiful! And I love elephants 🙂

    • Reply 2summers June 23, 2011 at 10:12 am

      Then you would certainly love Kruger! Thanks for reading, Julia.

  • Reply Juliane June 23, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Great pictures. I love the running hippo. And very nice sharing it with you and the others. Cheers Juliane

    • Reply 2summers June 23, 2011 at 10:13 am

      Those hippos were so cute.

  • Reply Jeroen June 23, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Lucky you, great story. I visited the area as a regular Kruger visitor a few weeks ago, and can tell you that it’s an amazing place to visit by car as well; the roads along the Luvuvhu river near the confluence with the Limpopo pass beautiful riverine forest with plenty of animal/bird sightings. Visitors can get out at the Pafuri picnic site and at the confluence, Crooks’ Corner. Highly recommended.

    • Reply Jeroen June 23, 2011 at 9:58 am

      Oh, and as for beauty, the area around Olifants restcamp further south is more dramatic for views 🙂

  • Reply Jane Widdop June 23, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Awesome Blog! We were also up there this last holiday. And it is definitely the most interesting part of the park! Oh, and I am very jealous about the Pels Fishing Owl – it is my all time favorite bird!

    • Reply 2summers June 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      I’m not gonna lie — I really only caught a quick glimpse of one of them flying and then the distant sighting shown in the photo above. But it was still pretty cool.

  • Reply eremophila June 23, 2011 at 11:55 am

    Thank you for picturing the dung beetle! Without these marvellous creatures the world would lose its balance from all the dung building up. Cheers for the little creatures of this amazing world:-)

    • Reply 2summers June 23, 2011 at 2:39 pm

      Indeed. This walk through the bush really illustrated the importance of dung beetles. I’ve never seen so much dung. Apparently you don’t see many dung beetles in northern Kruger at this time of year so we were lucky to catch this one.

  • Reply [email protected] June 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Wow, what an amazing adventure – you lucky thing! Looking forward to your other posts.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough June 23, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Truly amazing, Heather! The photos are fabulous and the adventure sounds enormous. Gotta love that dung beetle! But the lion cub bones made me sad. Where did you sleep?
    Can’t wait to read more!
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers June 23, 2011 at 3:18 pm

      Thanks Kathy! My sleeping quarters will be revealed in part 2.

  • Reply cashancountry June 23, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    That’s the way and for sure you had a great trail. The elephants are a treat but lots and lots makes for tense walks, so do buff. Lion cubs have a tough life, high mortality all along the way males have it worst, 1:20 make it to full adulthood in areas of high competition or times of stress. Africa is a tough universe for a small chap! As ever fab pics, well done. Tell us more please..!
    Chris Green

    • Reply 2summers June 23, 2011 at 5:00 pm

      I didn’t get the chance to mention this in the post, but we also had a close encounter with a buffalo, not long after meeting the elephant. I just got a quick glimpse of glinting horn before he ran off.

      I didn’t get any decent pictures, but my favorite animals to encounter were the warthogs! So hilarious and they never hang around long enough to seem threatening.

  • Reply cashancountry June 23, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    ‘running off ‘glinting horns are about right with me.! There is a wonderfully refreshing immediacy about a foot safari, isn’t there?
    chris green

  • Reply Tricia June 23, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    Great elephant photo with the ears flapping. I have a dung beetle video I tried to upload for you, but wasn’t successful. Like……

    • Reply 2summers June 23, 2011 at 10:18 pm

      I wish I had thought to video the dung beetle!

  • Reply Owls June 25, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Heather this is wonderful!!

  • Reply Owls June 25, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    By the way, Owls is me, Drury.

    • Reply 2summers June 25, 2011 at 10:00 pm

      Thanks so much, Drury. I love owls!

  • Reply Anna June 26, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    I love the elephant photo near the top. Fantastic!

    • Reply 2summers June 26, 2011 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks so much, Anna! Hope your travels are going well.

  • Reply Fidel June 29, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Where do you rank the photograph of the elephant drinking among your best photos? I think it is postcard, magazine and poster quality and that’s just skimming the surface. You gotta sell prints of it. I want one! Absolutely beautiful imagery all around!

    • Reply 2summers June 29, 2011 at 3:38 pm

      Aw, Fidel. You made my day with this comment. I hadn’t thought about selling it but maybe you’re right! That elephant sure made it easy for us — he just stood there drinking for several minutes, basking in our attention. I swear he was showing off for us.

      • Reply 2summers June 29, 2011 at 3:41 pm

        PS – This is one of my favorite wildlife pics that I’ve taken, for sure. But I once took a photo of a gorilla in Rwanda, with my old Canon Powershot S3, that I think is better. That was from my pre-blog days but maybe I should pull it out and write a post about it 🙂

      • Reply Fidel June 29, 2011 at 3:51 pm

        Yes please write that post 🙂

  • Reply clouded marbles July 1, 2011 at 6:21 am

    You make me want to go bush-walking – guided, of course 🙂 Love the pictures of the animals – great captures!

  • Reply 75 gallon aquarium April 26, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Wow these are beautiful! I love elephants 🙂

    • Reply 2summers April 26, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks. They are hard not to love 🙂

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