Visiting the most beautiful place on earth

You might read this expecting me to mention a gorgeous tropical island. Or perhaps a stunning, ice-blue glacier. Or how about the peak of a mountain with endless views over lush green valleys? But the truth is, none of those places, as beautiful as they may be, are my heaven on earth. See, growing up in South Africa, for me the most beautiful place on earth is a reserve, a little larger than Israel, known as the Kruger National Park. The Kruger Park is a game reserve, a place were African wildlife can roam free. It’s what Americans would call “safari” and what I call the finest place in the world to holiday.

(This photo of a leopard is taken directly from the Kruger Park official website)

Imagine hours spent in a car, day after day, driving through the African bush, eyes glued to the sides of the road, staring into the long grass and and trees and bushes, searching every square inch for signs of life. For the twitch of a whisker that signifies the blade of grass you assumed was grass isn’t grass after all. Or the spots of black on the flat land that aren’t smudges of mud as you’d assumed, but dots on a big cat’s fur. Or the flick of a tail on the back of that massive boulder, that tells you the inert rock is actually an elephant or rhino or hippo…

Yep, it may sound dull and boring, but this is an adrenaline rush at its best. A triumph of triumphs after seeing almost nothing for hours, to then realize the foliage you’re staring at is a living, breathing animal.

As a child, I spent countless holidays in the game reserve. Family holidays with my parents and brothers and sister, and later, as I grew older, holidays with my friends and boyfriends. I think it’s fair to say, thanks to my parents, the Kruger Park is in my blood. So you can imagine how much I’ve missed it these last ten years of living in Australia. Driving from Johannesburg to the Park is simple. A six hour car trip and you’re there. Sydney to the Park? Yeah, not so easy. Not easy at all.

But when my mother died, eighteen months ago, leaving us four children parentless, we knew it was time to do something in our parents’ memory. And what better way of remembering them than to take our entire family (their four kids, their sons and daughters-in-law, and all their grandchildren) to the Kruger Park for a “Best Parents In the World Memorial Holiday”?

In July of this year, my entire family met back in South Africa from all over the world, to honor my parents. (And believe me, organizing such a big family to meet in one place at one time is an amazing feat in itself). We went to the Kruger Park. Every one of us. And we did it in style, staying in two luxurious camps that have me dreaming about them months after returning.

Tinga: One of the luxurious lodges where we stayed. (Imagine a herd of elephants walking through the river you see in the photo. That was our view at lunch, every day.)

But as luxurious and as wonderful as those camps were, it wasn’t the accommodation that gave me tingles down my spine. It was standing outside the gate of the park, pre-dawn, waiting for the ranger to open up for the day. To let us take our cars and drive inside. It was the smell of the bush, a scent that took me straight back to my childhood, and the sound of hornbills and doves and hoopoes and fish eagles, calling from their trees as they awoke, that brought tears to my eyes. It was the sun rising over that African bush, lighting the landscape in shades of orange and rust that made me stand and catch my breath at the wonder of an African dawn. I was back. I was about to enter a world I hadn’t seen in ten years. A world I loved.

And what a world. Every square inch teems with life. No, you may not notice that life all the time. You may not see the millions of insects scuttling through the bush, or notice the exquisite birds flying from tree to tree, or focus on the indigenous plants and grasses that make Africa Africa. But it’s all there. Right in front of you, all the time. And spotting that first herd of Impala (which is inevitably the first game you’ll spot in the Kruger) is as breathtaking as that African dawn.

Photo taken from Sabi Sabi website (a luxurious private game reserve that now forms part of the Kruger Park)

You’ll see hundreds of Impala in the park. Possibly even thousands. And each time you see them you’ll wonder at their grace and beauty, and possibly even their abundance. You’ll see heaps of giraffe and zebra as well. Wildebeest too. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll see big cats. Lion are almost a guaranteed spot, but seeing one in the wild, in its natural habitat, perhaps with the blood of the previous night’s kill still fresh on its mouth and paws, will make your heart skip a good beat or two.

We saw impala and zebra and giraffe that first morning. And just as it became too hot, as the noon sun hung in the sky and we figured we wouldn’t see anything else for a while, two leopards (a mother and her cub) sauntered along the road in front of us, meters from our car. And thus began the most wonderful holiday of my life. The return to the Kruger Park.

Leopard by torchlight? Anyone?

These four guys walked beside our vehicle for a while before heading off into the river.

We stopped for sundowners one evening, not 20m away from this rhino. Ever done that? Sipped wine beside a rhinoceros?

We stopped for sundowners one evening, not 20m away from this rhino. Ever done that? Sipped wine beside a rhinoceros?

From this angle, you can’t see the blood on the lioness’s face from her meal the night before. The four cubs with her, her mother and her sister were also covered in blood.

We saw wonderful game that trip. And incredible birds. And we breathed air we hadn’t breathed for years. The kids loved the park as much as we did, which proved to me, the game reserve truly is in our blood. And I for one was thrilled to have passed such a wonderful inheritance on. We got it from our parents, and our kids got it from us.

If ever there was a perfect holiday, designed as a perfect memorial to parents, this was it. The five days in the Kruger passed in a perfect of haze of bliss. I can honestly say that those days, surrounded by my family, in the place on earth I love most, were the best of my life. A holiday of a lifetime. I thank my parents for it. Because even though they couldn’t be there, they gave us the Park. And of all the wonderful amazing things they gave us, this is perhaps my most treasured gift of all.

Jess

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