There are a couple of different ways you can go about putting together a South Africa photo safari: one way is to plan it out for months and map out your every trek and travel during the “perfect” month for optimal temperatures and the other way is to have the opportunity thrust upon you with a week’s notice. Guess which route I took?
This is hardly a situation of life giving me lemons, that I turned into lemonade, but the challenges of this trip didn’t stop there. Travel to South Africa, from Los Angeles, is a 22 hour trek. I had an 11 hour flight to London (with a scheduled layover of 6 hours that turned into 8 plus an overnight) and then another 11 hours to South Africa. My unplanned overnight in London was due to a “little” engine fire occurring during our takeoff – oopsie! Of course the following evenings flight had another engine issue, but we finally were able to take off. Total travel time to South Africa and back? 4 days. Total time spent on the ground? 3 days. But every second was worth the journey.
We were spending our time at Kruger Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa at 7,523 square miles. It’s also home to the Big 5 (that would be the Big 5 game animals – the lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros) and we got to see all of them. Kruger Park has also been designated, by UNESCO, as an International Man and Biosphere Reserve. There is no legal hunting that goes on in Kruger Park.
So where do you stay when on a photo safari to Kruger Park? Inside the park of course. As you can imagine in a place of this size, there are several camps and private lodges where you can stay in the park. Our safari lodge experience included 2 camps: Skakuza and Lower Sabie. We stayed in what’s called a hut, but it’s not like Gilligan’s Island (as you can see by the picture). If you’re of the more rustic persuasion, you can stay in a tent…I don’t roll like that though. Call me a princess, but the one time I actually camped in a tent was the last time I ever did that. You may be wondering if the safari lodge is actually in this gigantic park, what separates you from the animals. A barbed wire fence.
Can animals get through the fence? Yep. A fence is no match for wiley monkeys and baboons (which you are warned about where and how to store food so that they don’t steal it all from you) and it’s not much of a deterrent for an elephant either. Both of which were in our camp when we were there. They do take some drastic measures against the larger animals coming into camp due to the danger they can cause to themselves and the people in the camp, (and a fabric tent is no match for a moneky, baboon or elephant) but I won’t get into that here.
A typical day, for us, started at 5:00 a.m. to be ready to leave the safari lodge gates at 5:30 a.m. The other morning ritual? Having the breakfast of champions, a beer, while waiting for the gates to open and enter the park. I was not on a tour, but had the great fortune to be riding along with some very well seasoned South Africa safari pros. Two native South Africans and the son of one of them who has spent weeks working in various capacities within the animal parks of South Africa. We spent the next 12 hours driving around Kruger Park looking at and for animals and we saw a bit of everything from a dung beetle rolling his ball of poo to his home to a leopard hanging out in a tree and everything in between.
How hard do you think your adrenaline pumps when you see a full grown elephant walking towards your vehicle and you know that there isn’t anything stopping him from flipping your truck over like it was a Fischer Price toy. Or when you are close enough to a lion, lying right next to your truck door, that you could open the door and reach out and pet him (of course he probably would tear your arm off…so I don’t recommend you do anything but think about doing that). I can’t say that every second of the 12 hour day in the park was some awe inspiring wild animal moment (we took potty breaks, ice cream breaks and took turns napping), but I can say that there were more breath taking sights than not.
Night time was almost as cool as the daylight hours. At night, we would go back to our safari lodge and have a big meat, wine and scotch bbq (aka a braai in South African speak). We’d open up a great bottle of South African wine (if you’ve never had it, you’re really missing out on something great) and get the fire going. While South Africans sometimes eat what we would consider ‘exotic’ meats like kudu, we stuck to the tried and true beef and lamb. If it weren’t for me, the veggies would have only consisted of potatoes and onions (wrapped in foil and tossed on the coals). I whipped up a bit of braai magic on the potatoes and the guys are still begging me for the ‘recipe.’
While sitting around talking about the days sights, the great wines and weather we would occasionally be interruped with the sounds of a roaring lion, the trumpet of an elephant or the baboons getting into some kind of mischief. It was our own National Geographic moment.
If you take a photo safari trip and use the safari lodge guides, you won’t be driving around as much as we did. You’ll also be sitting in a vehicle with about 20 other people crawling all over you trying to get a shot of that wee little birdy up in the tree that you can barely make out as being a living creature and not a stick. So a happy medium would be to hire a driver (well worth the cost). A lot of times this can be worked out with your travel company or with the safari lodge itself.
If you’re looking for something to add to your bucket list, a South Africa safari should be the thing to add to it. With Kruger park being one of the largest of the parks and its vast array of animals I can’t give you a stronger recommendation to visit there.
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