For most people, myself very much included, the opportunity to go on safari is not one that presents itself regularly (or, you know, ever). Imagine my excitement then, when I was invited to go on a safari trip to South Africa with my boyfriend and his family. I was as happy as George Michael in the Club Tropicana video.
After an 11 hour overnight flight, we waited for our connecting fight in a tiny plane from Johannesburg to airport called Skukuza in Kruger National Park, close to the borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It was, and I expect will remain, the smallest airport I have ever visited in my life.
Where we stayed
We were taken on a short and bumpy ride in a safari vehicle to Lions Sands River Lodge where we would be staying. The rooms were absolutely stunning and very far from my original idea of tents for bedrooms and holes in the ground for toilets! My fears of being eaten by a lion in my sleep evaporated; that is, until we were warned that general wildlife was very much a part of the scenery. The night before we arrived, a herd of elephants had walked right through the lodge. That would be why they were repairing the floorboards then.
The lodge itself was incredible too, with pools, a gym, a spa and even an outside massage room! The terrace where we ate most of our meals looked out over a dried up river bed and we spotted a lot of different wildlife whilst eating including monkeys, elephants and hippos.
Just before our first game drive, we met our ranger, Bianca, an energetic lady with a shock of dark brown curls and tanned, skinny legs dangling from her safari shorts like pieces of string. She was incredibly friendly and full of laughter and stories. After our first drive, she joined us for dinner and marshmallow toasting around the bonfire and explained to us how the days would be arranged: we’d have 2 game drives every day, each 3 hours long, with time for meals in between. It sounded like a lot of animal-watching and a lot of eating – my kind of holiday.
On our first game we met our ‘tracker’, Andries, who would ride on the front of the safari vehicle while Bianca drove. They were both so knowledgeable; Andries must’ve had crazy x-ray vision that could see and identify any kind of wildlife over a mile away and through solid rock, and Bianca could answer any question we threw at her in great detail. Our safari vehicle didn’t have any top or windows, so we were out in the open. It was quite cold at 6.30am in the morning when we left for the first drives of the day, so we had blankets and hot water bottles to keep us warm, and we always stopped a couple of hours into the drive for drinks and snacks.
Does going on safari disturb the animals?
I had always been a bit wary of the idea of a safari, not least because of the horror stories you hear about people being dragged from their cars and mauled by lions, but also because I wasn’t convinced that the presence of tourists wouldn’t be detrimental to the animals. I have since changed my tune; the rangers do not touch, feed, bribe, shout at or in any other way provoke the animals. They do not tag them or help them if they’re sick or injured. I was impressed by the rules about how many cars could be on a drive in an area at any time, and the rangers were constantly in communication with each other via radio so that there were never too many vehicles watching the same animal so as not to disturb them. They are completely wild animals, which is why freak accidents can sometimes happen. Having said that, I was hugely surprised by how close we could get to them without them batting an eyelid – almost close enough to touch. Bianca said that this was because the animals were so used to the shape and sound vehicles that they knew we didn’t represent a threat (or an opportunity for food). Some of the baby animals seemed interested or wary of us, but as their mothers didn’t pay us any attention at all, Bianca told us they’d soon learn to copy this behaviour and start to completely ignore the cars.
Animals we spotted
We had what I’m told is an insane amount of luck on our game drives. It had been impressed on me before we left that there was a chance we wouldn’t see anything at all in the whole three days that we were there. But we ended up seeing the big five (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo) in our first drive! Our luck didn’t stop there: over the course of our 6 game drives we also saw giraffes, zebras, hyenas, crocodiles, hippos, loads of impala and nyala, monkeys, baboons, a bushbaby, three honey badgers and a whole host of birds. For me, the best moments were running into a herd of elephants with a 2-day old calf, a lioness with her two adorable cubs and watching a leopard eat its kill. Of course, I took waaaaaaay too many photos, so I’ve added a slideshow here for you to look at as many or as few of them as you fancy.
Would I go back?
I’d recommend safari strongly to anyone (even people who don’t think safari is for them) and I’d go back in a heartbeat if I got the chance. I had so much fun and it was such a fantastic experience; I have renewed respect for safari lodges and the people who run them and am completely in awe of the majestic wildlife I had the honour of witnessing. One of the main reasons I’m writing this blog post is because everyone around me is getting less and less willing to listen to me ramble on about it at every available second. At least it makes a change from my year abroad, I suppose.
After six game drives, we headed back to the airport to continue on our journey, stopping just briefly as a black cobra slithered out of the front doors and to go through ‘security’.