As the world’s oldest National Park, Kruger is a cut above the rest when it comes to wildlife viewing in South Africa. This park is one of the most accessible safari destinations for adventure seekers, in terms of nearby international airports, affordable accommodations, and generally low daily expenses. In fact, I consider South Africa to be one of the best places to travel solo. In 2011, it was my first place that I traveled on my own, Reimagine Solo & Think Safari!
Kruger National Park’s historic charm comes PACKED with a wide abundance of wildlife. Located in the northeastern corner of South Africa, this park lies directly on the border with Zimbabwe. My time spent in Kruger had me based in the center of the park at Skukuza Rest Camp. From this activity hub I was able to enjoy bush walks, morning and afternoon game drives, and even night safaris. It was a lovely first place to go on safari, especially since I was traveling on a tight budget. My favorite memory from the park was definitely during my guided bush walk: Skip the Jeep: Discover a Safari on Foot.
While in Kruger I was treated to its great diversity of wildlife, from the largest bull elephants down to the tiniest little fruit bats. But the strangest of animals are what stand out most from my memories of Kruger. Many of these species do not receive the attention that their iconic safari counterparts soak up.
To level the playing field, here are six of my favorite oddball animals from Kruger National Park.
Klipspringer: Often hidden atop one of Kruger’s many kopjes, the klipspringer is a tiny treasure to discover. At home in the kopje (pronounced ko-pea), these rocky “islands of life” provide shelter for many animals from large mammals like leopards, to the smallest of reptiles. While these tiny antelopes may not stand as tall as their large bodied relatives, they are packed with adaptations to survive their steep habitat. A klipspringer’s most notable characteristic is their little hooves, each only about the diameter of a dime. With amazing grace and agility klipspringers are able to jump and land on ledges the size of a few square inches. They are even capable of jumping up to 12 feet straight into the air to climb the cliffs of the kopjes. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for these pint-sized antelopes from their rocky sanctuaries dotting the Kruger landscape.
Southern Ground Hornbill: Our entire jeep was glued to the every move of a family of southern ground hornbills one afternoon. The four adults were oblivious to our snapping cameras and awestruck stares. These nearly three foot tall birds are very opportunistic, and will eat just about anything. But their preference is for meat, using their sharp bills to stab prey like snakes, lizards, frogs, and even smaller birds. Oftentimes groups of Southern ground hornbills are seen following herds of large mammals like impala and zebra, in an effort to catch prey that are flushed out by the larger animals. Southern ground hornbills are easily recognized for their striking black plumage and brilliant red face and throat wattles. Monogamous pairs will typically mate for life, and are quite devoted parents. In fact, young ground hornbills have been known to stay with their parents for years, and some have been known to stay for their entire lives. If you don’t see the jet black silhouette of the southern ground hornbill listen for their loud booming call. This noise is sometimes mistaken for the roaring of lions. Their calls can range from deep booming to brays, toots, bellows, and cackles.
African Spotted Eagle Owl: African spotted eagle owls are considered the most common species of owl in southern Africa. Having worked closely with this species during my summer internship I was thrilled to finally see a wild individual in its natural habitat. Spotted eagle owls are mostly nocturnal, in fact, my brief sighting occurred near the end of an evening game drive outside of Skukuza Rest Camp. This species is extremely similar in appearance to the great horned owls of North America; both even sport bright yellow eyes. Sadly, many South Africans fear owls and believe that they are bad omens that will bring death, illness or bad luck. These myths have sadly led to countless owl deaths, especially since they are known to live in close proximity to humans in urban areas.
Spotted Hyena: While not an unusual sighting in Kruger, spotted hyenas are the definition of an oddball animal. Simply at first sight their exaggerated features overwhelm you. Spotted hyenas have a massive head with a thick, muscular neck. And of course their powerful jaws that give the hyena the strongest bite of any mammal. Oddly enough, even though hyenas look very dog-like, they are more closely related to cats, civets, and genets. Spotted hyenas are very capable hunters, working together in a complex matriarchal society. The females are larger and more assertive. Lower-ranking males are forced to stay on the outskirts of the clan and are only allowed to join during a hunt or a fight against another clan of hyenas or even lions. Numerous times while walking the grounds of Skukuza Rest Camp I was surprised by the laughing calls of hyenas. Spotted hyenas are considered one of the most vocal mammals in Africa, with over 11 different sounds. The famous giggle is used during times of nervous excitement or submission to a dominant hyena. The “whoop” is a call heard for miles and is used to find cubs, advertise territory, or bring the clan together.
Yellow Hornbill: Made famous by the character of Zazu from The Lion King, southern yellow-billed hornbills are quite the iconic species of Africa. Their distinctive curved yellow beak has earned them the nickname of “flying banana” and are impossible to miss, even in their small size. While not a rare sighting in Kruger National Park, they are still a welcomed sight on any safari. Oddly enough, yellow-billed hornbills have been known to work with dwarf mongooses to gather food! This cooperation benefits both species; the hornbills benefit by catching the insects stirred up by the moving mongooses, and the mongooses gain extra eyes in the sky for danger as they are busy hunting. Like other hornbills, this species nests in tree cavities. Females will seal themselves inside the cavity using a mixture of mud and her own poo, being sure to leave a small hole to the outside world. Her mate will then feed her and the chicks through this peephole until the chicks are ready to fledge after about 45 days. From there the chicks will begin foraging like adults alongside their parents.
Epauletted Fruit Bat: My closest wildlife encounter while in Kruger came from the front porch of my bungalow in Skukuza Rest Camp. Under the covered thatched roof entrance I would find the sweetest little fruit bats hanging upside down. Though I never saw more than a few at a time, not like the massive numbers that I witnessed at Bracken Cave in Texas. These Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bats made themselves right at home roosting on my bungalow’s overhang. This species of bat specialize in eating fruits like fig and guava but only enjoy eating the soft inside; they spit out the skins and seeds. If you look closely you will notice two white ear patches, where they get their name epauletted fruit bat. Though feared by many, these little bats are harmless and should be thanked for their work as expert seed dispersers throughout southern Africa.