The Day We Arrived in Kruger National Park

By Amber McArdle

Overall, this trip has been full of so many travel days I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve been shuttled between locations. However, the 4+ hour drive from Wits Rural Research Facility to Shingwedzi in Kruger National Park was one of the two most impressionable experiences I’ve had on this adventure. I don’t think anyone expected a simple travel day to turn into an unforgettable experience, having seen nearly every elusive threatened/endangered animal offered this side of Africa in the first 2 hours of entering Kruger National Park.

As a zoology major and aspiring wildlife conservationist with an inextinguishable passion for South Africa, I can honestly say we were spoiled to see what we saw. Initially, we were having challenges getting through the gate, which Melissa handled with poise I wouldn’t have been able to collect, we were behind schedule. Driving behind the first game drive vehicle, we were still able to taste the debris in the air from the first game drive vehicle which seemed miles ahead of us looking out into the distance. Fiddling with my camera to make sure that I had it ready for whatever we were about to see, I looked out into the horizon and was so astonished I barely got the words out.

“Rhi… RHINO!

Immediately Nkosnathi (Nko), our driver, slams on the breaks and everyone’s heads are erect and frantically searching the bush for any sign of life. I only point, as I’m still flabbergasted at the idea that I’m seeing what I’m seeing. I can’t manage to get myself to blink, let alone bother to even look into my lens to capture a decent picture. It doesn’t take long for our entire car to witness a mother rhino, with the most beautiful horn, hurry off with her calf into the bush. I think we were afraid that our breathing would scare them because, because for the first time since the trip began on the 11th, we were completely silent. We found out later that seeing a rhino is about a once in 3-month occurrence, and even that was unlikely. I believe that magical moment signed the beginning of the plethora of creatures we’d manage to see in the next 2 hours.

Not long after we spotted a leopard lying next to the road relaxing in the tall grasses, completely unfazed by the half a dozen cars snapping shots around her — not that any of us knew the gender, as we concluded unanimously the cat was a she. I had such a spiritual moment, I nearly teared up from the joy of her taking my breath away. Her crisp blue eyes (yes, blue) seemingly stared into my soul, which is evident in a few of my photos of her. She was so confident and tranquil; I was absolutely mesmerized. She was so different than the leopards who appear in zoos (rightfully so), rhythmically pacing in a frantic manner. It was this moment I began to understand how preservation of the environment was necessary to keep these animals in the wild.

While there were no other set of animals who topped that climax of bewilderment than that chronological duo, the magic didn’t die-out. We saw a pride of lionesses with cubs, a male lion in the middle of his patrol, an abundance of zebra, wildebeest, impala, giraffes, elephants and so many more. I was in my element, and I can’t begin to fathom how fortunate I am to have these encounters etched into my memory for years to come…

Natalie Miller