Almost the first thing you see on arrival at the Kruger National Park is impala. This little antelope is everywhere, hopping about happily. They’re one of the most beautiful mammals in the park with their soft, buff-coloured fur. The sad thing is that they’re so common that sightings of them lead to a bored drone of ‘impala’ as the jeep judders by. But they are far from defenceless, as we shall see.
Many of the other antelope in the park are bigger and feistier than the little impala. The shaggy nyala is mostly seen alone or with a mate. This is a male at dusk. The females look completely different, much smaller and more delicate, like a stripy sort of muntjac. It’s easy to mistake the male and female for two different species.
Even grander than the nyala is the kudu. This antelope’s name is onomatopoeic. It supposedly represents the sound that their hooves make on landing after a mighty leap: ku-du. The male’s horns twist every three years, making them pretty easy to age. This one is about nine years old, which is pretty good going when you think that the park is full of predators.
What everyone really wants to see is the legendary ‘big five’, an old hunting term now adopted by the tourism industry. These are the cape buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard and rhino.
The black rhino was almost impossible to spot. We only ever saw their droppings by the side of the road. They are in extreme peril even inside the park, owing to illegal poaching. In the camp where we stayed there was a board where you could mark the animal sightings of the day as well as the day before, but it was forbidden to mark sightings of black rhino to protect them from this threat.
Encouragingly, white rhinos were relatively common, and although they seem docile, when they run, it’s like a tank hammering towards you. We were there in the dry season so many animals were forced to get whatever water they could from tiny water holes like this.
Giraffes were plentiful and much more beautiful in real life than you would expect from photos. Despite their towering stature, they were actually quite tricky to spot. Sometimes we would be watching one of them for five minutes without realising that another was nearby.
Fragile as they seem with their spindly legs and long necks, predators have to pause for thought before attempting to hunt one down. A giraffe can kill a lion with one kick.
Elephants were abundant in the park. Their numbers are growing all the time and there already several thousand more in the Kruger than it was thought the park would be able to support. We saw a huge herd with several calves among them, one or two only a week old with lovely tufty hair. However, you do not want to get near a mother elephant when she has a baby in tow.
Nor do you want to mess with this boy. This bull elephant was on the road off to the side of the main herd. He faced us down and we had to reverse, slooooowly as he strode straight towards us. Never taking his eyes off us, he placed footstep after footstep, coming ever closer. He left us under no illusions that the road belonged to him.
No photo can do justice to the size of this animal. This elephant was as big as a house. It could have torn our jeep apart with those two-meter tusks, if our guide hadn’t decided that it was time to get out of there.
It was only after that encounter that I read the little flyer they give you on arrival in the park. The paper includes guidelines of how to behave around the elephants in particular, but no specific hints about any other animals. In the case of lions, the guidance would be pretty obvious in any case: stay in your car!
Used to visitors, the lions paid us little heed as they lay chilling in the road. You come right up close to them. They could, if they wanted, jump up and seize anyone in the vehicle. Yet, they don’t, and you can have some astonishing sightings. I’ll never forget the hush that came upon our jeep on the first morning when our guide stopped the car and pointed out lion tracks in the sand, long before we discovered them.
Which brings us back to those impala. One day just after sunrise, we saw lions hunting: two males and a female. Our jeep followed them and I think the lions were using the noise of the vehicles to mask their approach. After padding along the path for about two hundred metres, they suddenly stopped and the female peeled off into the bush. The lioness is the better hunter, so usually in these situations, the males just watch and wait.
Nobody spoke. We were all waiting for a kill. It was sure to happen.
Then suddenly, a tiny impala with little Satyr-like horns dashed out of the bushes, dipped and wove between the waiting cars and shot off into the undergrowth. Not even three lions could lay a claw on him.
Pretty as they are, the impala can hold their own against the big cats. When that one is getting long in the horn and a bit doddery on his hooves, he’ll be able to tell his great-great-great-great grandchildren (they breed pretty fast) about the day when he took on three lions, and lived to tell the tale!