Birds and Wildlife of Kruger National Park
Text and photos by Canadian wildlife photographers M.-F. and D. Rivard
South Africa offers unique opportunities for photography with its abundant and much different wildlife as well as interesting landscapes. While a number of safari tours are available through travel agencies, it is relatively easy to organize your own visit to parks and reserves and either go on safari on your own or join outings organized by the parks. In the fall of 2014, we had the opportunity to visit Kruger National Park, on the east coast of South Africa, where wildlife was varied and relatively easy to see and to photograph. In Kruger National Park, you can do self-drives from any of the camps and return at night to enjoy the security and comfort they offer.
We stayed at the Olifants and Skukuza rest camps. As a general rule, you must remain in your vehicle during self-drives unless you are in a designated area and have to get back to camp before the posted gate times. While many visit Africa to see the “Big Fives” (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo), we were impressed by the variety of birds we could observe and photograph. The bee-eater, chat, roller, weaver, helmet-shrike, hornbill, francolin, and guineafowl are a few examples. Birds of prey, like the bateleur and the fish eagle, were also abundant.
In comparison to other places we visited, the birds in Africa were generally easier to observe and photograph. This is due in part to their environment, with lots of open spaces offering isolated perches for birds to land on. The climate is mostly dry, which translates into trees and bushes being more dispersed. While driving in the park, your vehicle essentially serves as a blind. Early morning strolls while at camp were also very productive.
In South Africa, you quickly realize that access to water is key to survival for wildlife and their daily “routine” is set around having access to water. In Kruger National Park, our campsites were alongside rivers, with spectacular views of the river banks where we often saw elephants cooling off and drinking at sunset.
There are many different species of antelopes in the park, including waterbuck, kudu, steenbok, impala, and bushbuck. We also saw other mammals, including bush pigs, jackals, spotted hyena, hippopotamus and, of course, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, numerous elephants, and lions.
At all times, you have to remain aware of the presence of wildlife and particularly of baboons and monkeys who are known to take advantage of any opportunity provided by visitors in camps and picnic areas. You learn quickly that it is important at picnic tables to sit with your partner across the table from you so that each can scan the environment for intruders. Similarly, you do not leave the door, window or trunk of the car open, even when you remain nearby, as it does not take long for an intruder to sneak into your vehicle. One day, Denis was taking out some material from the trunk of the car when he sensed a presence nearby. As he turned his head, he saw a large baboon right beside him stretching his head to investigate the content of the trunk. As Denis raised his arms to close the lid of the trunk, the baboon quickly reached in and snatched a small bag before retreating to the nearest picnic table. We eventually managed to get the bag back, with the help of a bystander, after the baboon realized the content of the bag was not interesting. Similar stories about baboons are quite common and, while this experience ended well both for us and for the baboon, it is a reminder that you always need to be extra cautious in the presence of wildlife. We also understood better why outdoor refrigerators at the camp were locked, with the door facing a wall rather than easily accessible…
The best way to visit the Kruger National Park is to stay in the accommodations available in the park as driving distances within the park can be huge. However, to be able to stay in the park, reservations must be made well in advance as places are limited and the demand can be high. With the assistance of friends who were familiar to the process, we reserved a year ahead of our trip. From Canada, the plane ride to Johannesburg is itself an adventure and, for us, required a daytime nap in London, between 2 overnight flights. We rented a car at Johannesburg’s Airport and drove directly to Kruger National Park with a stop in the town of Dullstroom for a much needed rest overnight. While our small car was adequate for most of our safaris, we would have enjoyed a 4WD vehicle on some of the more rocky trails and for a higher perspective for photography.
For the identification of birds, we used the field guide entitled ‘Birds of Southern Africa’ by Ian Sinclair et al. For mammals and other wildlife, we simply used the Guide and Map of the Kruger National Park, available in many languages, which you can purchase at the entrance of the park.