MY TAKE: Nothing could have prepared me for the Kruger National Park

My very first trip to Mpumalanga and my first visit to the world-renowned Kruger National Park came as a result of a media invite by SANParks.

On the day before my departure, I was too excited to eat anything, I could not even sleep, I was like my 15-year-old self going to experience Gold Reef City for the first time. I was beside myself with excitement, about both the journey and the destination. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience.

After a six-hour drive, we were told a few scary stories by the rangers and the locals who have made it a home away from home. But the difference between those who live in the Kruger and the rest of us is that while we may have to flee the danger of a neighbour’s dog, they have to stay clear of hyenas and lions. Fun, right?

On my first night at the Kruger National Park, I was woken by the sound of hyenas at around 3:30 in the morning.

I wish I could say it was a beautiful feeling, but I was scared. It was a huge wake-up call that – it made it very real for me that humans are not the only ones occupying planet Earth.

I had stepped into the territory of wildlife unconfined and unrestricted.

Like many South Africans who have never seen the surreal beauty of the Kruger National Park, my idea of what the reserve would be like was quickly changed after a 90-minute game drive.

So, full disclosure time… I thought the Kruger was one big zoo, but with animals fenced off from people's reach. I had not imagined the concept of animals living uncaged in their natural habitat, that idea did not sink in until the game drive, listening to and seeing elephants and giraffes up close was nothing short of amazing.

There was the constant reminder that I was not in my usual territory, whether it was the growl of lions or the distinct smell of the animal droppings. It was a reminder to always be aware.

Our first official outing was to track wild dogs, which took about half a day riding around in a safari vehicle. We were taken to about three locations before finding a pack of wild dogs.

As the foundation’s Lowveld regional coordinator Grant Beverly explained, I was happy to hear that the Kruger National Park has emerged victorious in its effort to preserve southern Africa’s most endangered carnivore.

The African Wild Dog population in the park has increased from 120 individual animals in 2009 to between 300 and 350 animals currently.

The African Painted Dog is considered a keystone species as it helps define an entire ecosystem.

While the park houses the single largest population in Africa, Beverly said the dogs were still under threat, mostly from human encroachment on their habitat, including snares that are set up by bushmeat poachers.

I was also fascinated to learn about bushfires and how common they were in South Africa, especially between May and October, which is the dry season.

Many may think fires can only bring about devastation, but the Kruger uses controlled fires to ensure safety and a healthier ecosystem within and around the park.

Park abiotic processes scientist Terica Strydom explained that after a fire, animals benefit in many ways from the burnt area, including the mineral-rich ash and the new shoots which have a much higher nutrient content.

The entire trip was such a huge learning curve for me as I was able to experience a little bit of everything the Kruger had to offer.

And I got a chance to cross it off my bucket-list.

This may have been my first trip to the Kruger National Park, but it's definitely not my last.

Dominic Majola is an Eyewitness News intern based in Johannesburg.

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