The reward for a wicked early-morning flight from Cape Town was landing in Phalaborwa, a small city just outside of Kruger National Park, by mid-afternoon. Adél took a “save the best for last” approach in planning the itinerary, and South Africa’s premier tourist destination—the home of its lions and tigers and elephants, oh my—was going to be my last impression of South Africa.
Kruger is roughly the size of Maryland or Massachusetts and it has a very unique management story. The park exists thanks to tremendous cooperation between the South African government and adjacent private land owners, and between South Africa and adjacent countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique. These stakeholders have pooled their resources in order to protect the entire wildlife ecosystem, and this benefits them all by ensuring healthy wildlife populations, which is the main draw for tourists from all over the world. (The landscape is not as appealing—it’s mostly flat and covered by scrub trees and brush.) An example from the Lower 48 that serves in stark contrast to this effort is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (that is, Yellowstone Park, surrounding wilderness areas like Absaroka/Beartooth and Teton, and adjacent tracts of private ranchland), where private landowners have helped to undermine the survival of wildlife (particularly wolves and grizzly bears) by allowing hunting, oil & gas extraction, and real estate development on their lands.
I generally despise driving, but our 3-hour drive through the park was thoroughly enjoyable. On countless occasions Adél slammed on the brakes after one of us spotted roadside giraffes, elephants, zebras, etc. The wildlife viewing was almost too easy—and too good. We spent the night in a bird blind that was perched above a slow-moving river and that was surrounded with hippo droppings. We soon realized why, as throaty grunts began emanating from rock-like bulges in the river less than 20 yards away. Assisted by too much rum and tonic, my eyes grew heavy and my mind slowed, and I went to sleep thinking that the hippo noises might be the coolest thing I’ve slept to—probably even better than the bugling of horny bull elk, the yipping of hungry coyote pups, the lonesome howl of a wolf, or the crashing of Pacific Ocean waves on the Olympic Coast.