life and death in Kruger

Rhinos in Kruger National Park

I haven’t quite finished dismantling the mess of mittens and Sorels from our Thanksgiving trip to the Canadian Rockies and now it’s time to pack again for much warmer weather in Kigali, Rwanda. This will be my second time to Africa.

My first time was just last year – to South Africa – which I’m sure many people would not consider to be an accurate representation of the continent (if any one country could ever be). South Africa was (erroneously) never on the top of my list but the opportunity was too perfect to pass up. For months, I had been planning a trip across 15+ countries with two people I had never met for dozens of people who I had also never met. It sounds strange, I know. The point is, there was finally an opportunity to meet one of my fellow tour planners because he was the local guide for the South Africa leg of the tour.

We packed a lot into eight days but this post is about the middle three days, which was spent on safari in Kruger National Park. At over 7500 square miles, it’s about half the size of Switzerland, making Kruger one of the largest game reserves in Africa.

It was June, the beginning of winter in South Africa and the perfect time to spot wildlife, since much of the vegetation that animals normally use for camouflage had died. It didn’t take long for us to spot the big five (lion, buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, leopard).


Despite both being big cats, lions and leopards behave in completely different ways. The lions were all herded together, having a lazy nap in the sun after they devoured what remained of a days-old buffalo carcass. Our vehicle was so close to them that I could almost reach down and pet their heads. They weren’t bothered. Our guide told us that lions don’t recognize cars as living creatures so they were neither irritated by nor interested in us.

We only saw one lonely leopard and it kept its distance. I don’t know whether it recognized us as living or not but either way, it wasn’t going to take any chances and bolted into the bush soon after.

You might have heard that seeing a kill is desirable while on safari. It makes sense. Whether it’s at hockey games or in the wild, displays of aggression must satisfy some reptilian part of our brains. Well, we were too late for the kill. That buffalo the lions were snacking on probably met its demise before our luggage made it off the carousel.

But we saw something even better.

There was a giraffe less than 30 feet from the path slowly pacing back and forth. It was pregnant and in the process of soon becoming not pregnant. So we missed the death part of the circle of life but we were right on time to see a birth.

A giraffe’s gestation period is almost 15 months. Considering the average life expectancy of a giraffe in the wild is about 25 years, 15 months is a hefty investment. That’s why it’s especially tragic if a baby giraffe breaks its neck during the 6-foot drop from the womb to the ground. Our guide said that this was not an uncommon occurrence in the wild.

This poor giraffe had an audience of about 40 people watching her go through labor. Even our guide was fascinated – he had never seen this before. We sat in our vehicle for an hour and a half, alternating between cheering her on and wishing someone had brought a deck of cards. It was an interesting bonding experience.

Finally, the baby giraffe’s ears and head popped out and it was smooth sailing from there. It came out like a collapsible tripod with its neck folded parallel to its front legs. After it dropped to the ground, we all sort of held our breath. It wasn’t moving.

Did mama giraffe just waste the last 15 months of her life?

Nope. Baby was fine. An hour later, the calf took its first steps. Five minutes after that, I took this photo.

Giraffe and her newborn calf in Kruger National Park

I think that was my most memorable travel experience. I left out some of the less picturesque aspects in the retelling but every grotesque detail is seared into my brain. It was the best thing ever.

If you’re wondering where we stayed and who we did our safari with, it was Honeyguide Tented Safari Camps. Everything from the food to the accommodations to the game drives was great.

life and death in Kruger