We arrived at Balule Parson’s Gate and commenced the achingly slow 12km journey from the gate to Kurhula Wildlife Lodge. On every piece of material that the lodge sent to us they strongly advised that a 4×4 was by far the best vehicle in which to attempt to navigate the park tracks; Jilly was not a 4×4.
It took us about 45 minutes to negotiate the steep rutted tracks but we eventually pulled in to the little haven that is Kurhula Wildlife Lodge. There are just four rooms, a pool and a large “garden” that overlooks the river. This garden doubles as a playground for monkeys, squirrels, impala, warthog and water buck. With the air-conditioned rooms and indoor plumbing, it seemed the polar opposite of where we had been previously and we have to say that we did enjoy the luxury of it. It was also incredibly peaceful and in the downtime between safaris we sat in the pool or on the verandah and watched the animals.
The lodge is run by a mad Dutch couple (whose names we never managed to grasp) and their labrador; they were very friendly and helpful hosts and we enjoyed staying with them. It’s a slightly different experience as they are only able to run game drives in the immediate area, and Mr. Mad Dutch Couple does these himself. He clearly has a passion for the activity although a litle bit more fine-tuning on animal identification is required. Nonetheless, it is a lovely option for one drive, you get a good feel for the terrrain of the park and some nice herbivore viewings. There are predators around occasionally but we didn’t get the sense that they are frequent visitors. For anything beyond this, game drives in to Kruger or a larger part of the Balule conservancy, walking safaris etc., the MDC outsource to other lodges and you simply join their game drives. We found it a bit peculiar at first, but it was pretty straight forward and the MDC do all of the organising for you. The reason to stay at Kurhula therefore is for the home comforts and the glorious view.
As mentioned above, the immediate area, the Parsons concession, is lovely for one drive and we went out with Mr. MDC on our first afternoon. Parsons is a concession with Balule Game Reserve which is part of Greater Kruger and unfenced to Kruger National Park. The lack of fences means that the animals are free to roam wherever they wish within Greater Kruger, humans however, are still restricted to the specific area for which their lodge has permission. An important detail to remember. The terrain within Balule was cpmpletely different to what we had seen in Madikwe; it was far more undulating, rocky and generally more hospitable feeling. It was also bone dry and screaming out for water. It was still beautiful however and we enjoyed a completely different safari experience, peering through the branches for flashes of animals. That being said, our first drive was fairly sparse, perhaps because of the 42 degree heat earlier in the day or the thunderstorm that was slowly building up over Kruger to the east of us. We had some lovely close up viewings of usually skittish kudu and saw jackal and giraffe but it was a rather slow afternoon.
The usual sundowners in the bush were much appreciated in the oven heat.
That evening we had a delicious home cooked meal whilst the lighting flashed and the rain lashed down. We were glad of the rain, it took some heat out of the day and gave a much-needed drink to the parched landscape.
For our remaining three drives, we plumped for spaces in another camp’s vehicle with access to a wider area of Balule. We were dropped at the Isilimela Lodge bright and early and proceeded on our drive. This area of the park seemed greener than the night before, perhaps due to the rain, but it was still very dry in comparison to Madikwe. Also in evidence was the extensive damage caused by the elephants; the decimation of the trees is so widespread that it seemed incredible that there was anything left for the animals to eat at all.
We had some more lovely sightings of elephant, giraffe, zebra, impala, water buck and a puff adder sunning on the road.
Despite the cloud cover providing ideal weather for cats, we didn’t manage to spot any but we did see an excellent collection of birds and had a better than average spot for a morning coffee with views of a sullen sky out over Kruger.
The afternoon drive also did not give us any big cat sightings but again we saw a lot of birds and smaller animals and our first hippos of the trip.
Once darkness fell our guides really came in to their own spotting wildlife including a genet cat skulking among the bushes.
In all honesty, we were undecided about whether we wanted to brave another early start for a final drive on our last morning. We had enjoyed what we had seen so far but felt that maybe we had already had the best out of the park. Fortunately, common sense prevailed, we certainly weren’t going to see anything if we didn’t go, so we headed out with the chaps from Isilimela Lodge again, this time with the vehicle to ourselves. The decision paid off almost immediately as we were rewared with 3 juvenile male lions hiding in the bush.
The sighting was a tough one, we were peering around bushes and through undergrowth but we had been up close and personal with lions already, even getting to them through the thickets was an achievement in this case. A bit later on in the morning we met with an enormous breeding herd of elephants. One adolescent male decided to show us his destructive power, ruthlessly tearing up trees and then doing some delicate trunk work to dig the roots out underneath.
Our guides did try to track down some other cats for us but they weren’t playing ball, this is the wild after all, no sighting is guaranteed and we counted ourselves lucky to have seen the lions. After Madikwe, it was good to be reminded that you aren’t necessarily going to see the big stuff and that you need to take time to appreciate every aspect of a particular park. We thought that it was a lovely safari experience. We probably wouldn’t recommend Balule in isolation, you would want to get it to a more densely populated concession as well, but as part of an overall trip it was brilliant. The terrain was more harsh and rugged than we saw anywhere else. We’d never had such beautiful kudu sightings, never seen a giant kingfisher or a puff adder and never watched an elephant fuss about the roots of a tree in such close quarters. That’s pretty good going.
We have a habit, perhaps one that we have mentioned previously, of writing down a list of everything we see as we go to serve as a reminder. Because it’s so easy to forget once the drive is over and perhaps to think that it wasn’t that abundant, we frequently re-read the list at night and were surprised at how much we had forgotten in the course of the day. Also, we realised how frequently we asked what something was and it went in one ear and out the other, because we had to ask again a couple of minutes later in order to write it down. You are given an enormous amount of information on safari so our top tip would be to try and jot down as much as possible.