Tag Archives: Kruger National Park

The hyena’s breath

Most of my friends’ eyes begin to glaze over as soon as I mention the Kruger National Park. This is because it’s such a wonderful place that I enthuse about it far more than I should.

I first went to the Kruger, as it is affectionately called in South Africa, when I was a primary school child. The first day there we spent peering into the bush to spot animals through the window of my dad’s 1949 Pontiac Silver Streak. I became so over-excited that I vomited ceaselessly the entire next day and I had to stay behind in the campsite with my mum.

I remember little of my next visit to the Kruger, because on that occasion I floated about the place in a romantic haze. We were only there for two or three days, when I took my fiancée Gill to South Africa to introduce her to my family en route to England, where we were due to get married. My parents, my brother Charel and his wife Marlien took us there to showcase the beauty and variety of their country to the English bride-to-be.

I can only remember a single animal-spotting incident during that visit. We came across a white lion, the rarest of rare beasts in the Kruger. Although a small group of white lions had lived in the Timbavati area for decades, there are so few of them in the Kruger that they are seldom seen. The others were breathless with surprise and excitement. Then Gill, unaware of the momentous significance of the occasion, asked my brother, “Do you think we’ll get to see any normal lions too?”

Many years later, when our children were small, I ran into our orthodontist friend Paul at a social occasion.

“I’ve visited your old country earlier this year,” he told me. “We went to this place called the Kruger National Park.”

“How did you like it?” I enquired.

“You know, Tim, I’ve done a lot of travelling in my time, but I haven’t been that excited over any place since I was a child.” I recalled my own excitement in the Kruger as a child. There and then I decided to visit the Kruger Park with my family.

A few months afterwards we flew to South Africa for a visit to the relatives and to visit the Kruger. I left the traveling arrangements in South Africa to Charel, who picked us up at the Johannesburg airport and took us to his house in Pretoria. He told us to have a quick shower before we set off for the Kruger.

“Today?” I asked in disbelief, having just spent twenty plus hours in an aeroplane.

“Yes,” he said, “and get a move on. The camp gates close at 6 pm”.

We arrived at the camp in time. Charel pitched two tents right next to the perimeter fence, one for him and Marlien and one for our family. Darkness descended in the blink of an eye. He set about barbecuing meat and boerewors (the traditional South African farmer’s sausages) on a grill over the glowing coals.

After we had eaten, looking somewhat furtive, he told us quietly: “We’re not allowed to feed any wild animals here, but I brought along an old T-bone so that we can attract a hyena for your Aussie kids to see.” He took out a huge bone and threw it over the fence.

Hardly a minuted had passed when our son Neil whispered to me, “I think the hyena is here, Dad.”

“Rubbish.” I said dismissively. “He won’t just appear that quickly.”

But Charel passed his torch to Neil and told him to have a look. Neil pointed the torch at the fence, switched it on, and there, not two metres away from us on the other side of the fence, stood a large hyena who proceeded to crush the bone in its mouth as if it were a mere rice cracker. I could see why the hyena is so renowned for its strong bite, proportional to its size.

I rather like hyenas, despite their loping gate and ill-proportioned bodies. They have lovely dog-like eyes, in stark contrast to the icy cold and merciless yellow eyes of lions, which send a shiver down your spine when you see them close to your car.

But my brother is less fond of them. When he told me that a hyena’s breath is one of the foulest-smelling in the animal kingdom he spoke from personal experience. Hyenas are consummate scavengers that will feast on putrid meat with as little effect on its constitution as if you and I were to eat a piece of toast with marmalade.

154 Kruger - Hyena with carcass

When I went back to South Africa last year, Marlien told me about their recent visit to the Kruger. Accompanied by Marlien’s friend Willana, they erected their two tents next to the perimeter fence as usual. After dark they had a braai (barbecue) and drank a fair quantity of wine. When Marlien and Willana decided to call it a day and go bed, Charel, who was quite merry by this stage, decided to stay behind at the fire and have another glass or two of wine.

Close to midnight Marlien and Willana were woken by a series of unearthly howls. As they emerged from their tents in bewilderment they saw Charel lurching about, wildly wiping his shoulder-long hair with his hands, and screaming incoherently. It transpired that he had kept on drinking until he had passed out right next to the fence. He had been brought back to consciousness by the awful smell of rotten flesh and by something tugging at the hair at the back of his head. It was a hyena that had tried to bite his head through the fence.

Marlien ended her account by asking Charel, hands on her hips, as is often her stance when she has a point of importance to make to him: “Now tell us, Charel, what lesson have you learnt from that episode?”

Without missing a beat he responded, “Well, in the Kruger you should never pass out right beside the fence.”

In search of the elusive Panthera pardus pardus

I like the scientific name for the African leopard, Panthera pardus pardus. I have no idea what ‘pardus’ means, but in my imagination ‘pardus pardus’ somehow perfectly represents this elusive animal as it moves stealthily through the bush on padded paws.

My interest in leopards started when I was a little boy. My grandmother had a number of albums containing her black and white photos, taken with a Brownie box camera in the 1930s, mounted on black pages. Underneath the photos she had written her comments in white ink. One of her albums, my favourite one, was devoted entirely to her family’s visits to the Kruger National Park. Amongst its contents there was a photo of my grandfather, the professor, with his back to the camera, urinating into a bush. The comment underneath was “What animal has Ems spotted over there, I wonder?”

My favourite photo in that album was of two leopards right next to the car window and a ball belonging to one of her children that my grandmother had thrown out of the car to see if the two big cats would play with it. Having looked at this photo many times, I reasonably assumed that leopards were a dime a dozen, easily spotted next to one’s car in the Kruger Park. I have been to the Kruger Park many times now, but I have never been close enough to a leopard to take a photo of one. Some would call my search for a wild leopard something of an obsession. I can’t really argue with that.

I did see a leopard up close once, years ago, but that was in a zoo. It was pacing dispiritedly around and around the inside perimeter of its enclosure, its whole demeanour silently crying out its yearning for freedom. The sight of it haunted me for a long time afterwards. I bitterly regretted having seen it.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for leopards. The Baluba people of the Congo in Central Africa have a proverb: “The leopard’s skin is beautiful, but its heart evil.” I certainly would not like to come face to face with one in the open. In the Kruger Park’s Berg-en-Dal camp there is a memorial to a young ranger who had been killed by a leopard. He had taken a group of tourists out on a night drive. Stopping under a bridge, he had stepped out of the vehicle to smoke a cigarette. A leopard had jumped on him and had killed him in front of the horrified tourists.

KNP Memorial, Berg-en-Dal Camp

When you drive along at a leisurely crawl in the Kruger Park looking for animals and you come upon a traffic jam of stationery vehicles, you know that someone has spotted an exciting, less common species of animal, such as a lion or a cheetah or a leopard. You join the traffic jam and ask someone in another vehicle what everyone is looking at. “There is a lion just behind that shrub, to the left of that animal track, about twenty metres past that small rock,” they would explain and we would join the jostling for position as other vehicles moved on, to try and spot the animal. As soon as I see a traffic jam in the Park, I always fervently hope that I would see a leopard up close this time.

184 KNP Leopard jam

 Someone has spotted something exciting (possibly a leopard)

On one trip to the Park, while having a cup of coffee at an outdoor café, we got talking to a young man traveling by himself. I mentioned my leopard obsession to him. “They are around,” he told me. “You just have to keep looking. Look up into the big trees for a dark blob. That’s how you spot them.”

A few days later we accidentally came across the same fellow in one of the campsites. “Have you seen any leopards yet?” he asked me. “I saw two of them this morning, about a kilometre apart, both of them walking across the road right in front of my car,” he added. Had my neck not been so sore from peering fruitlessly into the tree canopies for days on end in search of a leopard, I might well have attempted to do him some physical harm.

The last time I visited the Kruger Park was in 2012. Once again I had scoured the bush and the trees fruitlessly for the sight of a leopard. We saw a group of four cheetahs. They are very impressive felines in their own right, but seeing them did not diminish my obsessive determination to find a leopard in the least. On that trip we spoke to a few people who had actually come across leopards, but our own leopard spotting cupboard remained bare.

Then, on our last day there, I found a leopard right under my nose, in the Skukuza campsite where we were staying overnight. I grabbed my camera, focussed furiously and quickly took a photo of the little toy leopard. It will just have to do for the time being, until my next trip to the Kruger Park in search of the elusive Panthera pardus pardus.

Skukuza - Leopard

 Tim’s one and only leopard photo

Tim/26 April 2013   


In August 2014 I once again visited the Kruger Park to continue my obsessive search for a leopard. One morning we came upon a traffic jam of cars blocking the road. As we approached I looked around and there, in a dead tree not far from the road, it was …

188 KNP Leopard

Photo of Panthera pardus pardus, taken by Tim in August 2014