Memories recollected: A personal Kruger travel diary

Shirli Jade Carswell
Friday, 5 January 2018

Living on the African continent, we have a vast array of ‘Great Parks’ to visit. Those of us with a travel-addiction and passion for wildlife endeavour to visit them all – the Okavango, Maasai Mara and Serengeti to mention just a few. However, we sometimes overlook what we have right on our doorstep, such as the legendary Kruger National Park in South Africa. Some of us have practically grown up with it, building layers upon layers of wonderful and precious memories.

After spending a couple of years visiting other parks, I decided it was time to go back to Kruger and recollect those memories. I booked in the northern area as this would give me access to travel to the central area of the park as well.

The first thing that hit me was how dry everything was. I remember many years ago all the rivers were full and flowing, and now the Shingwedzi and Letaba were dry riverbeds with pools of water here and there. The clouds had been gathering on my arrival and hopefully rain was on the way, nevertheless, the landscapes were still remarkable.

A dry riverbed, Kruger National Park, South Africa

A dry riverbed in Kruger – rain is needed desperately © Shirli Jade Carswell

The magnificent boys

In the Kruger there is a project called the Emerging Tuskers Project that aims to identifying all of the tuskers (elephants with large tusks) in the park. A more in-depth coverage of this project can be found here: Giants of the Future. Due to poaching concerns, specific locations of these tuskers, such as the ones I was extremely lucky to spot, are not revealed.

First there was Nkombo – whom I managed to correctly identify later – and I was able to watch him from a safe distance while he went about his daily activities. His enormous tusks were perfect and as the only vehicle in his presence, I felt truly honoured and in awe.

Elephant with magnificent tusks in the Kruger

Nkombo’s gigantic tusks are a sight to behold © Shirli Jade Carswell

Later on, in a different area, the breathtaking Mandzemba stood in the pale grass, pulling tufts and shaking them briefly before eating. In the stillness of the bush, I could hear his chewing and shifting from one foot to another. His tusks looked as though they would surely plough through the earth if he put his head down. I saw him again some days later, heading for the water as the sun was going down. I could not have wished for a better sundowner.

A large tusker elephant named Mandzemba in Kruger National Park, South Africa

The mighty – yet elegant – tusker, Mandzemba © Shirli Jade Carswell

Because of the dry conditions, the waterholes were a constant hive of activity. In the late afternoon, the breeding herds would arrive from every direction. Appearing through the stunted mopane bush, their pace would pick up when the water was in sight and the younger generation would start running with the matriarchs, aunts and sisters keeping up.

A herd of elephants at a waterhole in Kruger National Park, South Africa

There was constant activity at the waterholes because of the dry conditions © Shirli Jade Carswell

Their arrival, of course, would scatter the rest of the wildlife by the waterholes. The dust filtered through the air and light, giving me some delightful photos.

Zebra and buffalo scatter as an elephant approaches waterhole in Kruger National Park, South Africa

The dominance of the elephant is clearly shown as zebra, wildebeest and buffalo scatter as it approached the waterhole © Shirli Jade Carswell

And once again I found myself falling in love with these special Kruger elephants, wondering why I had stayed away for so long?

Large tusker elephant at a waterhole in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Mandzemba making his way to the waterhole for a much-needed drink © Shirli Jade Carswell


Travelling light

I enjoy camping, it somehow makes me feel more connected to wherever I am. And when it comes to camps: the smaller the better. I enjoy the more rustic wilderness camps like Balule or Tsendze where like-minded people enjoy the peace and quiet.

When camping I sleep in my very own little ‘tent-cot’, which is a bit unusual, but perfect for light packing. It folds out as a lounger would, and getting in and out is an art. At Shingwedzi early one morning, as I slid carefully out of my tiny abode in a half-asleep state, I was faced with about eight people all standing in a circle around my tent discussing what this ‘thing’ could be… it was a slightly awkward encounter and I’m not sure who was more surprised!

A tent-cot, camping table and 4x4 vehicle in Kruger National Park, South Africa

A tent-cot is a real space saver! © Shirli Jade Carswell

black rhinoPart of the pleasure of a park like Kruger is the self-drive aspect and spotting wildlife yourself. The unpredictability of what you may see is exciting and I always recommend that visitors who are coming for the first time take the opportunity of a self-drive after staying at a safari lodge, to experience another perspective.

Cheetahs are just thrilling to see, no matter where you are. While I was in Kruger I happened to come across a mother and her two cubs who were just finishing up their lunch – their interaction was captivating. Besides helping to clean each other in spots they would not otherwise reach, the grooming is important for bonding. Fortunately that wasn’t my last cheetah sighting and I was thrilled to come across a solitary cheetah peering through the gnarled trunks of the mopane.





Left: A solitary cheetah peers through the gnarled trunks of the mopane; Right: A beautiful moment captured of a cheetah mother and her two cubs © Shirli Jade Carswell

I can literally spend hours watching the chacma baboon troops in Kruger. Their relationships can be likened to that of human relationships and the new babies are simply enchanting.

Every time I see a troop I am reminded of my father’s favourite story:

Many years ago, we were driving through the Kruger in our family Pontiac, a classic car now, but then quite standard. My father had, up to that point, endless problems with the one windscreen wiper – no one could seem to get it to sit properly. In those days, the baboons had a habit of jumping on cars to peer through the windows. A big chap jumped onto the Pontiac, grabbed the offending wiper, thus bending it, before jumping off again. Would you believe it? The wiper sat perfectly! My father took great delight in making sure the auto guys knew who had actually fixed the wiper.

Baby chacma baboon with mother in Kruger National Park, South Africa

The chacma baboon is also known as the Cape baboon. Their social behaviour is not too dissimilar to humans in certain aspects © Shirli Jade Carswell

Natural design

As a designer, I am constantly blown away by the shapes, colours and structures of how everything in nature is ‘put together’. Zebras with their graphics, the way the lines move or are caught by the light. The elegant giraffe floating between the treetops in their geometric design and the icon of the national parks. The handsome kudu with sculpted horns and their soft female counterparts.

Giraffe from behind in Kruger National Park, South Africa

A giraffe browses in the Kruger © Shirli Jade Carswell

Overall I found that Kruger’s wildlife looked impressive and healthy, even though it was dry with the park holding its breath for rain. 

Clockwise from left: The stripes on every zebra are unique to the individual – the detail is phenomenal; A herd of zebra provide the opportunity for exquisite photos; The iconic kudu is a delicate, wondrous animal © Shirli Jade Carswell

Hippo love, lunch with a leopard and dagga boys

They may act like ‘blobs’ in the water with a nice yawn every now and then, but hippos can be full of humour. I have seen them playing like puppies and one thing was confirmed for me while in Kruger: those photos you see with the plants on their heads are sometimes on purpose.

There were hardly any plants in the water except for this one floating ‘garland’ and this chap made a point of going underneath it, to have it positioned on his neck, to present to his lady-love. He eventually got it right after a number of attempts and I felt like they were now ‘married’, joined by the floating garland, amidst the cheers of my clapping.

I have always managed to get good sightings of leopards in the Kalahari and other parks, but no such luck with Kruger, having always just missed seeing it, or at such a distance that it is hardly a proper sighting. This particular trip, however, presented me with three beautiful specimens, the last being this little lady (see photo below) who seemed to be waiting for her mother. She sat in the tree, no more than four metres away, mostly just gazing at me. I sat there for hours enjoying her presence.


Left: A breathtaking close up of a leopard; Right: A wonderful capture of two hippos at play © Shirli Jade Carswell

Someone once described the look from a buffalo as, “You owe me money”, a perfect description I thought. In earlier years, I remember watching massive herds stampeding in the dust. Years later on other visits, it seems as though these herds have disappeared. Fortunately luck was on my side and I came across some decent-sized herds on this trip.

A herd of buffalo in Kruger National Park, South Africa

The buffalo is one of South Africa’s Big 5 and they are abundant in the Kruger © Shirli Jade Carswell

From my time spent in Kruger, one thing is for sure: I will definitely be back shortly! I fell totally in love yet again with this gem we have just hours away.

My parents, John and Ann, who taught my sisters and I the love and respect for wildlife, have a memorial bench at Lower Sabie camp. If you ever there, please sit down and have a beer with them. 


Places to stay in Kruger National Park

Umlani Bushcamp is an ethically operated and Fair Trade certified safari camp. Situated in Big 5 territory in the Timbavati section of the Kruger, they offer guests the opportunity to experience the real magic of Africa. Guests are accommodated in traditional African reed and thatch huts as well as an ‘Eco Rondavel’, which all blend naturally with the environment and provide pure comfort.

Senalala Luxury Camp in the Klaserie section of the Greater Kruger is one of Africa’s most sought-after walking safari destinations, with highly skilled guides capable of safely leading enthralling big game encounters. Senalala offers guests world class guiding, accommodation in spacious, air-conditioned chalets, access to pool, gym and conference facilities, and an eclectic mix of local and traditional dining.

Tanda Tula Safari Camp is located in the Big 5 Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger, and features 12 East African-styled luxury tents nestled in riverine forest overlooking the Nhlaralumi riverbed.

Tintswalo Safari Lodge lies in the private Manyeleti Game Reserve situated on the unfenced western boundary of Kruger National Park. The lodge suites are authentically decorated to reflect the intricate luxuries of colonial times and evoke the adventures of 19th century explorers after which they’re named.


Klaserie Sands River Camp is an exclusive safari lodge located on the banks of the Ntsiri River in the spectacular African wilderness of Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. The lodge’s four suites boast air conditioning, overhead fans, mosquito nets and beautiful private decks overlooking the riverbed.

Makanyi Private Game Lodge is a luxury five-star game lodge located deep in the Timbavati Game Reserve, adjacent and open to the Kruger National Park, offering an unparalleled safari experience. The lodge conforms to a classic aesthetic of thatched-roof villas in terracotta tones. This place is relaxed and perfect for people looking for a more intimate bush experience.

Rhino Walking Safaris is located on a Big 5 private concession in the south-western region of the Kruger National Park. It shares a 15 kilometre unfenced boundary with Mala Mala and Sabi Sand reserves. The camp accommodates a maximum of eight people in four African explorer-style tents elegantly decorated with en-suite showers and all the comforts of home.

Xanatensi Private Camp is located within the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. The camp boasts five main bedrooms and a boma area with campfire, perfect for enjoying sundowners or evening drinks around the fire. This thatched beauty exudes the quaint charm of the classic safari experience.

Pondoro Game Lodge is the epitome of the luxurious safari experience. The bespoke, award-winning accommodation ensures unrivalled comfort. Each of the five suites has a private patio, lounge area, an outside shower and Jacuzzi built into the wooden deck in front of the suites facing the river. You will also have the opportunity to feast on delicious local cuisine and even unwind in the world-class spa facility.

Getting there

Airlink offers a direct flight to Kruger National Park as well as multi-destination flight options across southern Africa and a convenient Lodge Link program, direct to popular lodges in the greater Kruger National Park and beyond.

Travel to Kruger with Africa Geographic

Travel in Africa is about knowing when and where to go, and with whom. A few weeks too early or late and a few kilometres off course and you could miss the greatest show on Earth. And wouldn’t that be a pity? Contact an Africa Geographic safari consultant to plan your dream vacation.



Passionate about Africa; Shirli’s energy, life, spirit and career revolve around the continent and its wildlife. Shirli cut her teeth in the world of advertising after art school, realising her forte was in the raw design field – added to this her love for wildlife and travel – she established her own design company called JADEWORKS, which has made a name for itself in the safari and tourism industry.

Photography was a natural evolution, and the more she experimented the more she was captivated by the medium – the collaboration of design, travel and vision was initiated through the name of AFRICAALIVE.

She has travelled extensively in Africa and recently co-authored a photographic coffee table book called Africa’s Ultimate Safaris, in addition to becoming a co-owner and founder of THE WILDSIDE SAFARI COMPANY, an exciting new travel venture.

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  • ReginaHart

    What a lovely celebration of Kruger – your photos are outstanding!

  • Thank you for sharing Shirli’s stories and her journey. It is fascinating and in addition to the flawless photos, her words also paint some pictures in my mind.

  • BK

    Is it a good idea to share location of an endangered species -the big tuskers-their days are numbered as it is? Pictures are great but we need to refrain from divulging what projects to save endangered species are occurring and where, making such information public is a potential threat to their existence.

    • Hi there, as per the article we specifically do not state the actual location of the big boys with this in mind. I however think it is beneficial to mention what projects are out there to make people more aware. More people do need to get involved.

  • Wendy Newhouse

    Thank you …………….. xxxx

  • Lynne Steyn Wilde

    I see all the Author’s recommendations for accommodation are all in the greater KNP. They are all private safari camps, which come with a hefty price tag. I am a wildlife photographer and have taken some of my best shots in Kruger itself, staying in Sanparks accommodation.

    • Hi Lynne, I stayed in the Kruger park itself, camping in the rustic wilderness camps and all the images were taken in the park. However these extra accommodation venues are still part of the Greater Kruger area for those who want to stay in the private lodges.