Lions, hippos and the great wild: Karin Kruger’s fascinating life


My Amazing Story features Karin Kruger, one of the country’s most talented natural artists who grew up in the Kruger National Park.

Speaking to Amy MacIver, Karin Kruger shared more compelling insights into her unconventional upbringing.

Karin Kruger with one of her famous paintings.  Photo: KarinKruger.co.za
Karin Kruger with one of her famous paintings. Photo: KarinKruger.co.za

As one of the country’s most talented wildlife artists, Karin Kruger’s life is nothing short of extraordinary.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle, Kruger grew up in a jungle of a different kind – the legendary Kruger National Park.

As the daughter of a game warden, Kruger was subjected to an unimaginable life of adventure, magic and spiritual experiences in the great outdoors.

She spent the first 14 years of her life with her parents and two sisters in Mahlangeni – a remote game warden station in the northwest of the park.

Simple things that ordinary people take for granted were unusual for this family whose lives were connected to the ecologically rich and diverse wildlife.

Going home meant rowing a boat across the Greater Letaba River, teeming with hippos and crocodiles.

For us, we didn’t know that we were different from others. I moved there when I was two years old and that was just life. We had hyenas eating our shoes and elephants pushing down the fence to get to the vegetable garden. We just made do with what we had.

Karin Kruger, animal artist from South Africa

Until I finally went to school at the age of six, I didn’t realize that there was a world that was very different. We all had adventures and as a kid I was never afraid to live there. I had my father to protect us, but with that he taught us about the park and the animals. It became part of your daily life. You would read the landscape like the newspaper.

Karin Kruger, animal artist from South Africa

In a “normal” household, a furry friend like a dog or cat would normally be the family pet. But for Kruger, she spent her days bonding with her pet lion, Leo, who was orphaned at birth.

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The cub was abandoned by its mother after it was born. Her father and his rangers found him calling for his mother. Leo was discovered with the umbilical cord still attached and the family initially struggled to feed him.

I learned what lions really are like and how they want to please you. They were part of a pack and really form a close bond with our family. Ever since he was a cub it was such an experience to know how much he needed us…he never wanted to be alone.

Karin Kruger, animal artist from South Africa

We also had a honey badger that was so naughty. He would just wreak havoc around the house and if you try to scold it he would look at you “like you’re going to do something about it”. When Leo was naughty, he would come in for a hug and a tummy rub. In this way, the difference between animals became part of our lives.

Karin Kruger, animal artist from South Africa

The way to school was like a scene from an adventure film. While ordinary school kids have the luxury of carpooling or a school bus, Kruger’s was filled with a slew of obstacles that put their lives on the line.

We had this tiny boat with wooden oars and you had to pick up your school clothes and lug your luggage to the boat. They had to make sure there was no elephant standing next to the boat and we had to drive the local wildlife away from the boat. We had to row as fast as we could to get across the river. Then the hippos had to put on a show, opening their mouths wide, squirting and making a big noise.

Karin Kruger, animal artist from South Africa

But sometimes the bull wanted to show he was in charge and aggressively came up to the boat and tried to tip us over. And then there were the crocodiles watching how it all ended. So it was a bit scary.

Karin Kruger, animal artist from South Africa

Eventually we had to keep a rifle on the boat and look for a “v” underwater approaching the boat. We had to shoot in front of it and we all went a bit deaf because of it.

Karin Kruger, animal artist from South Africa

As soon as we got to the other side, we got the car and then we hoped the elephants wouldn’t play a Who Owns the Road game. It was a tiny road with two trucks just for us. The elephants in the north were just a little meaner than those in the south of the park and we often had to reverse most of the way before we got to the school. Most of the time we were late for school.

Karin Kruger, animal artist from South Africa

Scroll up to learn more about this fascinating conversation.

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