Berenice Meintjes interviews children about their love of the Kruger National Park for Rhino Post Safari Lodge (Isibindi Africa Lodges). In doing so, she chances upon her own not-quite-forgotten happiness of a child.
There are few things more fun than introducing a child to the experience of a safari in Africa. My game reserve of choice for the little people is the famous Kruger National Park because there is so much for children to see and do in this vast space. Their open-eyed wonder and appreciation of every aspect of the holiday is simply marvellous to witness, though this is Serious Business too. Children have a great love of ritual and rules, and when introducing them to the Ways of the Kruger National Park we are fierce and enthusiastic about the daily rhythms and joys of the Park.
We wake extremely early so that we are in the back of the high game vehicle or car, bundled in PJs and blankies, as the camp gates open. When waking sleepy Catherine, who had just travelled on a long flight from the UK, her parents said “It really is OK if you want to sleep in.” Her eyes were instantly wide open and she said “No! I want to go out early to see the animals.” That’s the spirit, we thought, and our indoctrination was clearly already having impact.
Says Cara from Johannesburg “I like getting up early and being first at the camp gate and driving out in the dark and eating rusks and drinking hot chocolate.”
The daily ritual involves having a big outdoor fry-up at a picnic site where children can run freely and appreciate the naughty monkeys and cheeky birds looking for scraps of food. Hot days include lengthy swims at the local pool, and eating ice creams fast as they melt in the hot sun. The children are quick to remind us if we forget any important ritual of the day. We head out again in the later afternoons to enjoy snacks at a waterhole as the sun sets. The eating of biltong was mentioned by Cara as another of her favourite aspects of a holiday in the Kruger National Park.
“Eyes on the bush everyone” we say to keep them focused and alert and they take their role very seriously. Anna, Cara’s older sister, says “I like trying to spot all of the Big Five and I like seeing baby animals, like the hyena family we saw.” She adds wisely “I like that the game rangers don’t interfere with the animals – they just let them live their lives.” Astute Alex, from the UK, says “The only annoying thing about Kruger is that there are so many rocks that pretend to be animals.” “Yes” agrees his twin sister, “they wake up early and dress up to trick us.”
Jonathan from KwaZulu-Natal is 17 and has a more contemplative approach to being in the bush, saying “I don’t even mind if we don’t see anything big. I just love the smells and sounds of the bush.” A keen photographer, he has progressed to being appointed Chief Photographer with the more serious camera equipment. He says as soon as he gets his driver’s license he plans to come to Kruger for as long as he can. When thanking us for the last trip, he kindly texted us “Thank you for the wonderful trip. I hope to be able to take you to the park too someday.” We reply that he is obliged to smuggle us out of our old age homes one day when we are too old to go to The Park independently.
We try to encourage in the children an interest in birds and plants, not just the popular animal sightings. Dylan, from Pietermaritzburg, had done a school project on the African Goshawk and was able to identify and show it to us as it swooped over a herd of grumpy elephant. He has been documenting our annual visits since 2013, using a complex code of colours and symbols to tick off our sightings in the Kruger Park’s excellent illustrated map book. He has been mapping sightings of mammals, birds and reptiles. Rare bird sightings are his favourite.
Another good way to encourage an appreciation of the full spectrum of flora, insects, birds and other little wonders of Kruger is getting out of the car to visit interesting spots. There are viewpoints, picnic sights and hides along most routes. “You have to be very quiet when you walk into the bird-watching hide” explains Alex. Him and Catherin have their own set of binoculars each, and show me how they can read the poster in the bird hide, as well as the crocodile on the far bank, perfectly clearly, by adjusting the focus. If you turn the binoculars around, shows Alex, the images become very, very small as if they are very far away. Alex’s favourite animals are monkeys and Catherine’s favourite animals are elephants. She has loved them since she was tiny and even has elephant curtains in her bedroom at home. She explains that she is one third Scottish and one third African. We never quite get from her what the other third is, perhaps ancient elephant. Shanay and Alyson from Cape Town love zebra and giraffe for their unusual, patterned pajamas and their eyes widen each time they see one up close in the Park. We say goodnight to each animal and the setting sun as we drive back to camp.
In the evenings we cook on an open fire, which the children help to make. Some like to sing songs while others play board games. Braaing marshmallows on the fire signals the end of the day and we all head to bed early, exhausted, and fall asleep easily.
And what of the adults? The daily rhythm is containing and calming for adults alike, and takes one’s mind completely off the everyday stresses of so-called ‘normal’ life. Somehow being in this vast and beautiful natural space allows us the opportunity to be the best versions of ourselves too.
At one point in the trip I hear little Catherine whisper to herself in awe “I am sitting here, in South Africa, watching an elephant walking across the road”. As I hear this and the moment becomes real for me too, I feel as happy as happy can be, the type of happiness usually reserved for a child.
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