We flew from Dubai to Johannesburg, South Africa. Our friends Nathan and Rachel flew in from Portland to meet us, and it was the first time we had seen people from home in over two months. Needless to say we were overjoyed to see them and share the experience together.
An African safari has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. I never thought it would become a reality, especially on our current adventure. This post isn’t about my husband but he seriously makes all my dreams come true (he did not give me permission to write this)! He figured out how we could affordably do a safari, and it definitely was not by staying on a luxurious private game reserve in Africa. To do the safari at a manageable cost we decided to drive ourselves around Kruger National Park and stay in the government run rest camps. The park is on the east side of South Africa and comparable in size to Israel, meaning you have a lot of ground available to explore and track down animals. We became acquainted with the term “Big Five”, which describes the five main animals you should expect to find on safari. The Big Five are: rhinos, lions, leopards, elephants and buffalo, and the Kruger is home to all of these plus more wildlife.
The four of us drove from Johannesburg to the Kruger and the trip took about seven hours. Once we entered the park through the Malelane gate we saw hippos and crocodiles hanging out in the Crocodile River below us. As we drove to our first rest camp we spotted more wildlife than we expected to encounter during our first hour. Giraffes, wart hogs, and elephants were grazing in various areas beside the road, a rhino crossed in front of the car, and we saw a leopard’s tail swinging around a tree branch. It was a productive first hour but we were mistaken to think the entire safari would be that action packed every hour of the day. We had arrived just before dusk and throughout our time in the park found it true that the animals are more active at dawn and dusk.
Accommodation in the Park
Kruger has many “rest camps” and they are spread throughout the park. We stayed in Skukuza, Letaba and Orpen. It is ideal to move around and stay in different camps in order to cover more ground and see a larger variety of animals. The lodging is very basic and ranges from campsites to cottages. We stayed in small cottages and bungalows which had everything we needed, including a kitchen. We prepared a lot of meals and snacks on our own but the larger rest camps all have a restaurant serving cheap and good food.
Here are some photos of the bungalows and cottages:
I noticed the bedding in all of our cottages was tucked very, very tightly underneath the mattress. One night we walked from the camp restaurant in Letaba back to our bungalow and found ginormous black scorpions on the front porch and along the outside perimeter of the bungalow. This was basically the scene from my worst nightmare, and it quickly made sense why the housekeepers secured the bedding in such a fashion—they were trying to prevent scorpions from sneaking into our bed. Eek! I do not have a photo of the scorpions because I was too busy running inside and having a meltdown. Also, there is absolutely no way I would intentionally get that close to one to take a photo. I can barely type this without feeling squeamish. I could write an entire post on the creepy crawlies of Africa like the dung beetles the size of golf balls but it’s honestly too graphic to describe.
A safari involves a lot of time in the car driving, and then more driving. It is important to have people in the car you actually like :). Some days we began driving at 430am and did not stop until sunset around 6pm (you are not allowed to drive during dark for animal safety reasons). Kruger has paved main roads which you are required to stay on. This means you really only get a good view of the animals when they are crossing the road or hanging out next to the road. We had a few pairs of binoculars which were essential to spot animals further off in the distance.
The most fun sightings occurred when the animals were obstructing the road providing us with a closeup of their behavior.
We were here in November, the beginning of rainy season and summer in the Kruger. The foliage was in abundance making it easier for the animals to stay camouflaged but harder for us to see them. It is more ideal to be on a safari during the dry months when the bush is not covered in greenery. Another negative (for us) was more rain meant the animals were spread out and did not need to congregate to the same watering holes. However, the biggest benefit to being there in November was the bush babies! They are born in the summer and we couldn’t get enough of the cuties.
You have to continuously scan the bush for animal sightings. Having four sets of “safari eyes” was crucial and S and I would have missed out on a lot if it had only been the two of us.
Many of the blogs I read mentioned the animals do not pay much attention to the cars but we did not find this to be true for every animal. Some of them definitely were curious when they saw us, like the buffalo below. In another event a mama elephant got separated from her baby after she crossed the road and suddenly she became very interested in our car, making us think she wanted to trample us out of her distress.
Because you are not allowed to drive during the dark, signing up for a guided night drive through the camp is an option to continue the safari. Yes we were exhausted after being awake at 430am but we were all getting addicted to the thrill of finding the animals. We saw a pack of wild dogs and witnessed them getting into an altercation with a hyena.
Okay, okay. You are probably wondering by now, where are the lions? I regret to inform you out of the Big Five, lions were the only thing we did not spot. It pains me to this day because they are my favorite animal and I wanted to see them more than anything. The rain disperses animals and with the overgrown foliage sightings are more challenging in the summer months. One of the redeeming parts of the safari was spotting a cheetah that turned out to be THREE cheetahs hanging out in the grass. They were far away and hard to photograph but we sat for an hour looking at the three amigos through our binoculars. The cats of Africa are elusive animals, making any sighting of them feel beyond rewarding.
As I mentioned earlier, the animals are most active during dawn and dusk. It was not uncommon to go hours without seeing wildlife during the middle of the day but it didn’t ruin our time because it was incredible just to look at the diverse landscapes of South Africa.
I think we all felt like we became professional animal trackers by the end of the five days. The safari was without a doubt the coolest thing I have ever done in my life, and nothing compares to the exhilaration I felt each time we spotted an animal. I’m ready to go back and “feel the rhythm of the bush” one more time.