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Finding comfort with the creatures of South Africa's savannah

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  • CNN.com's Jarrett Bellini is traveling in South Africa
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By Jarrett Bellini
CNN
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Editor's note: We asked readers to weigh in on CNN.com Live producer Jarrett Bellini's vacation destination, and you chose South Africa. Check back for updates on his trip.

Elephants roam the savannah in the South African park.

Giraffes are a common sight in Kruger National Park.

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa (CNN) -- I spent two nights sleeping under a full-moon sky, nestled in my trusty hammock at Kruger National Park. Our guides provided us with tents, but I figured I wouldn't have too many opportunities in my life to slumber in the open bush on the African continent.

Thus, I rested more or less exposed throughout the night, hoping that a lion wouldn't figure that he wouldn't have too many opportunities in his life to maul a sleeping American tourist in the open bush on the African continent.

Needless to say, I survived, and it was magnificent. Visually speaking, I wasn't sure what, exactly, to expect from a South African safari, for my complete mental database of safari images spanned a wide variety of distinct landscapes, and most were cartoonishly obstructed by rich, middle-aged tourists covered head to toe in unnecessary beige safari gear.

However, Kruger National Park seemed to fit, quite perfectly, my idea of the African savannah. Arid and brown from the winter dry season, it was a forever-long expanse of low trees and dusty earth, the kind that somehow allows the early sun to reflect that perfect glow of stunning reds and oranges. Video See the animals »

Our guide was a self-proclaimed African bushman named Elson, who seemed to have an amazing one-ness with both the land and the animals. We'd be driving down one of the many nondescript dirt roads at a fairly fast pace, only to have him hit the brakes of our jeep, slam into reverse and point out a leopard 200 yards away. It would take the rest of us a fair bit of time to finally see what he noticed at a mere passing glance.

He knew the land, and he knew the animals -- a talent that proved helpful for finding the less common residents in the savannah. The other creatures carelessly came into view as though the roads and cars were just a natural part of their habitat, a mild annoyance at worst. iReport.com: Share your South Africa experiences and suggestions

Kruger National Park is roughly the same size as Israel, and here, many animals roamed right along the roadside, gnawing on whatever vegetation remained until the rainy season would flourish the plants anew. Seemingly endless miles of terrain, and there they were just feet away from us.

If you didn't know you were in a national park, you might think you were in a zoo. That's how close the animals came to our jeep. Only, here, they weren't in separate enclosures, wandering aimlessly within an artificial terrain. This was truly their home, and we were only passing guests.

Giraffes tore away at high branches. Elephants walked fearlessly, one-by-one across the road. Rhinos ... well, the rhinos pretty much just sat there looking stupid. But the zebras frolicked. The hippos splashed in the water. And the baboons stopped at nothing to make me laugh.

Of course, the rare lions and leopards pretty much just shaded themselves under distant trees, and the crocs swam silently through the bog. But they were there. And we were there. And it was beautiful.

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And just as soon as it began, our time in the South African bush was over. A couple of giraffes and elephants met us by the roadside to bid our group farewell as we drove out of the park.

The preserve faded silently behind us, and the road ahead paved my way to Swaziland for a short stopover before continuing to the second part of this South African journey.

All About Travel and TourismKruger National ParkSouth Africa

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