We left the overland group we had been traveling with since Cairo in Mozambique to make our way to Nelspruit in South Africa. The group dropped us off in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, and we caught an Intercape bus across the border. The ride was five hours due to a few stops the bus made in Maputo to pick up passengers and the border crossing in the middle of the drive. South Africa was the second country out of the 13 we had visited in Africa to allow us to enter for free, and the 40 or so passengers on the bus were through customs in about 10 minutes.
When we arrived in Nelspruit it was just after 11pm and we found it hard to grab a taxi and even harder to get into our hostel as the “24 hour reception” wasn’t completely accurate. The next morning we met up with Sissy’s friend from Germany who would be joining us on our trip to Cape Town and we all took a taxi to the small airport in town and picked up our tiny Toyota Etios rental car from Bidvest Car Rental.
We drove directly from the airport to Kruger National Park, the most famous safari park in South Africa. After an hour or so of driving we arrived at the park, paid our roughly $20 each entrance fees which were good for the day of purchase all the way through to the following evening, and headed into the park to self drive in our little rental. Kruger has a reputation among some as being a bit touristy and almost too developed, and since we had already been on over a dozen safaris on our trip we were fine if we saw tons of wildlife or nothing at all.
As we drove in we stopped for Sissy’s friend quite often as it was her first safari experience, which meant impala and some distant animals were still on the list of wildlife to stop for. A little while in we stumbled upon a small group of elephants standing right next to the nice paved road we had been driving on and parked the car for lunch with elephants a few meters away. Kruger has the entire big five, which are elephants, rhinos, lions, cape buffalo, and the elusive leopard, and so far we had seen the two most common, the buffalo and now the elephants.
Shortly down the road a group of giraffes crossed right in front of us and grazed on some acacia trees nearby, allowing us to get a good look at them. As we drove onward down a nice dirt road, a safari truck pulled up next to us, coming from the opposite direction, and told us to hurry on down the road as there was a leopard laying on some rocks. For our four months in Africa we had only seen four leopards so far, with three of them in the same group of trees in the Serengeti, so I stepped hard on the gas pedal and we flew down the road until we saw a couple of trucks parked near a tall rock outcropping.
Peering upward about 8 meters away we noticed a happy large cat laying on its back, belly to the sky, fast asleep. The leopard is so rarely seen that we have multiple friends that live in Africa that have never seen one, however our new travel companion was lucky enough to see one her first day! We drove around for a bit longer before heading toward Pretoriuskop, the camp/lodge where we’d be staying the night. We were talking about the rhinos we had seen back in Zimbabwe and Kenya as we drove when suddenly I saw a huge gray boulder in the road. I stopped the car and slowly realized that the boulder was walking across the road and was in fact a huge white rhino. We came within a few meters of the rhino before it moved off to the side of the road to graze on some nearby grass.
When we pulled into Pretoriouskop we were told the gates would shut for the night at 6:30pm and there was food and a shop onsite. We paid $43 for a chalet that slept three and grabbed dinner at the Wimpy in the camp, which is a big British fast food chain that’s very popular in South Africa. We found Pretoriouskop to be different than any other game lodge we had been to since it had fast food, was a mix of campsites and chalets, and was very affordable. I couldn’t decide if I liked the modern conveniences of paved roads, fast food, and clean accommodation, or if I missed the small dirty tent we had been in for months, the torn up dirt tracks, and the 4×4 vehicles you had to use.
The next morning we left Pretoriouskop at 4:45am to head north to an area we had heard that big cats like, which is near Satara Rest Camp. Minutes after leaving the camp we came across a silver pickup truck parked in the middle of the road. It took a few minutes for us to notice that the truck was stopped due to a few hyenas sitting just underneath their front bumper. The curious creatures were inspecting the truck and scampered off as they started their engine to move on. As they left and we pulled forward, an adult hyena trotted over to our car and started licking the front bumper as baby hyenas surrounded our little Toyota. There were 20 or so hyenas within a few meters of the car and for the first time we actually found them to be kind of cute!
We drove north for a few hours, with some detours down dirt roads, and continued to see a good amount of wildlife on the way. Amid the hundreds of impala, the giraffes running and playing, and the elephants right on the road, we finally saw a big cluster of cars ahead. We pulled up next to them and saw two very large male lions laying nearby under a tree with the remainder of their kill, which appeared to be a cape buffalo. Buffalo aren’t very easy for lions to kill, however these two appeared to be very capable of such a tough feat and the proof lay half eaten beside them.
After such an eventful morning it was time for us to leave Kruger all too soon and head toward a scenic canyon nearby, Blyde River Canyon. The drive took three hours and we stopped at a famous viewpoint to see the Three Rondavels. The canyon was beautiful and looked nothing like anywhere we had been in Africa to that point over the past four months. Looking at it, we felt more like we were back in Europe or the US due to the lush green scenery and dramatic cliffs, however the close encounters with tons of big game earlier in the day reminded us that we were indeed still on the same wild continent.
We stopped at one more scenic overlook on the way to our hostel, which was the Valley View Backpackers in Graskop. The canyon was beautiful, and the valley the the hostel was named for was equally so. The vibe in the hostel was great, feeling more like a home with friends over than a normal dorm might. The owner chatted with us for a very long time about South Africa and his home country of Namibia, and we learned from our fellow travelers that essentially every traveler you meet in the eastern half of South Africa outside of Pretoria and Johannesburg is driving either from Joburg to Cape Town or from Cape Town to Joburg. Everyone gave us great tips on where they had been or planned to go and our trip became a lot more exciting for me since I tend to trust the people I meet more than guidebooks for whatever reason.
The next morning we set off bright and early to go see a few more famous viewpoints, but when we arrived at God’s Window the valley was full of fog and we unfortunately couldn’t see more than a few meters ahead. Most of the viewpoints in the canyon charge 10 rand, or about 70 cents US for entrance, however the attendant at the station advised us that the view wasn’t good enough so we shouldn’t pay and just head on to the nearby waterfalls instead. The nearby Lisbon and Berlin falls were relatively close to each other, so we stopped off at each and admired the nice scenery. The beauty of the country was still catching us off guard since the rest of Africa that we had seen was beautiful, but in a very different way.
After a short hike near the falls we hopped back in our little car and headed toward a change of scenery, the big city of Johannesburg!