It was with some excitement that we woke up on this particular morning. It was early. Well before dawn actually, but as soon as the alarm beeped, we were wide awake. Feeling remarkably fresh, we quickly got out of bed, hurried through our morning routine and got out of the door.
It was time to go on an adventure!
On the porch, the coals were still hot from our braai the evening before. We had sat around the fire for too long, sipping Amarula long into the night. The taste of the fermented fruit of the Elephant tree still lingered in the back of our throats, and later today we might very well pay the price. But in this moment, close to 6 am, we were full of energy.
We were not the only ones up early. In the small huts all around the fenced compound, lights were starting to turn on and soon headlight beams of a dozen cars or more were all pointed in the same direction. Towards the main gate. All the early birds were queuing up in their 4x4s, eager to get their day started. For a while, the clock seemed to stand still at a few minutes to opening time, but eventually, the gatekeeper let us all out into the wild.
Luckily, we were in one of the few places on Earth, where the wild features wide tarmac roads. There had been a bit of a traffic jam at the gate, but the many cars quickly scattered in all directions into the vastness of Kruger National Park. Eventually, all we had for company was the two beams of light right in front of us, and the emerging morning colours of the rising sun to the east. We drove in silence. It was still proper dark, but ever so slowly, silhouettes of trees started to appear far out on the savannah at both sides of the road. This was good news. It meant we could begin scouting the landscape, hoping to spot the first great beasts of the day. It wouldn’t be long before we did.
The sunrise was spectacular, as is always the case on this continent. And with the emergence of the great African sun, came the great African wildlife. We passed by resting water buffalos, countless photogenic zebras, a tower of giraffe, showing off their always awe-inspiring long necks, as well as big herds of elephants. We had seen all these creatures many times before, yet never ceased to be amazed. By 8 am, we must have taken a thousand photos. We had already made good progress south through the park and seen more than expected. That meant we had time. We weren’t in a hurry, and there was no need to reach the next camp until lunchtime.
Maybe it was time for a detour? Perhaps we should venture off the tarmac road? Allow ourselves to get a little lost? The vote passed through the car, and the decision was a unanimous YES!
Moments later, we pulled off the main road. We found ourselves driving on a narrow gravel track, leading us deep into the bush. We had no idea what we would find, if anything, but we were psyched. The hunt was on, and we were feeling the thrill of the chase. Of course, we didn’t hunt by rifle, but with cameras and long lenses.
We had been in situations previously where one might feel safer if in possession of a firearm. However, it would be nothing more than an illusion. False safety. Like that time where our car was completely surrounded by a giant herd of up to 50 elephants. What good would a rifle do us, if they decided to tip us over and stomp us? None, and we knew this. We were content with our cameras, whose sharpshooting had already been supplying us with proof of memories that would surely last a lifetime. Taking portraits of zebras had shown us how surprisingly photogenic those beautiful creatures are and the shots of the two majestic rhinos in front of the burning red sun at sunset felt like they could have come right out of a page in the National Geographic magazine.
What would be the next great beast to be seen through our zoom lens? The next target in the aim? We would soon find out.
The gravel road was tough going for our small car. While technically a 4×4, it wasn’t built for this. It had already suffered a puncture once before, and we really didn’t hope for that to happen here deep in the bush. We wouldn’t be able to fix it ourselves, as we were not allowed to leave the car. It would mean hours of waiting on a park ranger, provided we were lucky enough to have a phone signal. We would be completely without food and with only a limited supply of water. Not to mention the lack of toilet facilities. But that’s exactly why we love adventures. We love the excitement. We love the uncertainty. Heck, we even love being uncomfortable.
However, the journey down the pot-hole infested gravel road went without drama. The extent of our wildlife encounters here were a few impalas. They jumped out from the bushes, seemingly unaware of how dangerous cars can be and the fate that befalls so many of their distant deer relatives back home in Northern Europe. They, like most of the animals in Kruger, are not at all afraid of moving vehicles. They have become so accustomed to tourists on four wheels that they barely glance at you. The theory is, however, that if you leave the metal box in which you are seated, their behaviour will change drastically. The predators will simply begin to see you as the prey you really are. We didn’t need a reminder, but that’s one more reason to always stay in the car.
We had chosen this little road for ourselves, our minds full of adventure, but we were starting to doubt our choice. Where was it even leading us? The game seemed less plentiful than on the main road, and because of the tall bushes, you couldn’t see much. It would be extremely hard to spot an elusive animal. Right there on the other side of the branches, a leopard might be feasting on impala meat. We wouldn’t have a clue. The fear of missing out started creeping up on us, and honestly, we were contemplating turning around. Thinking about giving up on our little excursion. Maybe the reason why we saw absolutely no other cars here was that they knew there would be nothing to see?
We decided to give the gravel road ten more minutes. If there was no sign of anything, we would turn around. Or try to. It would probably require a 20-point turn to change the direction of the car here. Luckily that never became necessary, because this was when things suddenly became interesting.
We emerged from the trees and bushes out into a forest glade of sorts. It was the scene of a large watering hole, one where you would expect plenty of animals to be hydrating themselves and taking shelter from the scorching sun above. But there was no life. Not even a sound. The watering hole and its surroundings appeared completely desolate. We pulled the car up as close to the water as possible to get a better look. Surely, some animal would turn up sooner or later.
We rolled down the windows and turned off the engine. And this is when we saw it…
We noticed exactly why there were no signs of life here. Somehow we had overlooked it at the first, second and third glance. Out there in the middle of the watering hole, was a small, elevated rock. On that rock, sat the ruler of this little oasis. The reason, in flesh and blood, why no other animals dared take a sip from the water.
“Isn’t that…” I said and hesitated… “A freaking CHEETAH?”
It was. What a majestic sight. A lean, mean, beast of a cat, which looked so menacing, that we immediately tried to roll up our windows. The engine was turned off, of course, so the effort was futile. Getting ready to turn it back on, we managed to stop ourselves in our tracks. There was no need to be afraid. Better get out the camera and a pair of binoculars instead!
We sat there at the abandoned watering hole, not another car, person or animal in the vicinity, just us and the big cat. It was hard to stay quiet, such was our enthusiasm. We had never seen a wild cheetah before, and we hadn’t expected to stumble upon one randomly by ourselves. But that’s exactly what had happened. There was nothing else to do than count our lucky stars and enjoy the experience.
And we did. We must have sat there for hours. It was fantastic. Utterly delightful!
The cheetah had selected its spot well, counting on animals to come to the watering hole to drink. From its elevated position, it would be able to use its excellent eyesight well and crouch down to hide from approaching prey. It did just that when a small impala, nervously, moved closer. It was hesitant as if it sensed the danger in the air. Still, the cat moved so graciously, and so silently, we were certain the impala was done for. Watching this raw scene of nature played out right in front of us felt like such a privilege. We couldn’t believe it was all happening right here, right now and that we were watching from front row seats and in the comfort of our own car!
Eventually, the impala escaped to live another day, and later it was time for us to move on as well. But we had gotten all we came for. A real African safari adventure. Over the coming days and weeks, we would get many, many more of those. Today wasn’t anywhere near done either. But on this morning, Kruger National Park had checked in, for real. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet, and we had already seen much more than we dared hope for. Not the worst start to a day in our opinion.
As we started the car and drove off towards more adventures, we wondered in great anticipation about what we would see and experience next.
Right there we were in such a happy place, and today, whenever we think back on our cheetah encounter, we feel a strong surge of travel inspiration. As you’ve been reading this, we hope you might have received just a shred of that as well.
Hungry for more? Check out this video from our self drive safari around Kruger National Park!