My dad and I have been talking about going on a safari for over twenty years. When I was little, he used to save newspaper articles for me to read about lion sanctuaries in South Africa and bush elephants in Botswana. He would leave the paper on the table before leaving for work, and I would eat my breakfast, staring at the beautiful animals that I knew one day, we would go to see in the wild.
It was always a bucket list item pushed off into the far future. Safaris are expensive, and it’s virtually impossible to score a deal on airfare to Africa. So we continued to watch Nat Geo and Planet Earth and speak hypothetically about when we go on our safari… And then last year, my dad pulled the plug and decided 2018 was the year. He said that he and my mom weren’t getting any younger, and that 17+ hour flight wasn’t going to get any easier on them.
And so a few weeks ago, I went on the trip of my lifetime. This is honestly the most uniquely wonderful experience that I’ve ever had. I got no exercise whatsoever, slept an average of 4 hours a night, got sick halfway through and convinced myself that I had Malaria, imagined how I would meet my untimely end every time I had to pee during a drive: pants down, my skull clasped firmly in the jaws of a leopard. But oh my god. It was amazing. I saw the Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhino) within the first few days. I met lovely people from all over the world. I fell asleep to the sounds of monkeys on the roof of my cabin, and was woken up by hippo grunts every morning at 5 AM.
To see my full packing list and my experience in Cape Town, check out part one of this post here.
If you’re considering a safari, here are some of my recommendations on what to pack during your drives – particularly if you’re heading out in the winter months. Summer is another story – ditch the mittens and beanie, and double up on the SPF and water. The Buff was a life saver – you can use it as a scarf, especially during cold nights, as well as a protective layer against sun and dust in the daytime. Ditto on using a handkerchief. It can easily be hand washed and hung up to dry outside before your next drive.
Another thing to consider is bringing a pair of binoculars. I used my zoom lens instead, as I didn’t want to deal with going back and forth between another viewfinder. I kept it all in my backpack, next to my feet during our drives to avoid losing anything.
We landed at the Hoedspruit airport in the late afternoon. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I couldn’t wipe the grin off of my face. We were in the middle of nowhere, having landed on a tiny airstrip next to a small brick building (the airport), with wilderness as far as the eye could see.
A driver from the lodge met us near the luggage (baggage claim was a trailer attached to a jeep, stuffed with everyone’s bags, manually thrown out of the trailer). As soon as we turned off the the airport road, I noticed what looked like a giraffe off in the distance. I asked the driver if that was an airport statue – you know, to say, “welcome to the bush” or something? He laughed, and said, “No, we don’t have any statues here.”
We drove for about an hour through on on a dirt road along the borders of Kruger National Park, counting how many wild animals we could see. We saw hyena walking along the road, impala running through the grass, zebras grazing – I lost count about fifteen minutes in. We finally arrived at our lodge in the private nature reserve, Makanyi Lodge, unloaded our luggage, and took a brief tour.
We had about ten minutes to “wash up” if we wanted to make the second half of the that evening’s drive. I ran to my cabin, changed into my hiking boots, grabbed my puffer jacket, my camera, a beanie, my mittens, and walked back to the main lodge to meet our guide, Carl, and the game tracker, Rondy, and hop on the Land Rover.
The lodge offers two game drives a day: one at sunrise (6:30-9:30 AM), and one at sundown (3:30-6:30 PM). This was a pretty lucky night to start out the trip: we managed to see a herd of African Buffalo, a herd of Wildebeest, a pride of lions (with cubs!!!!), some elephants, hippo, and a White Rhino.
It was pitch black by the time we returned and climbed out of the vehicle, stiff and dusty. We were escorted back to our cabins by a security staff member, as guests are not permitted to walk to their cabins alone at night, due to the lack of fencing along the property.
We ate dinner together with our guides and the other guests – three couples from various parts of the States. We ate a hearty meal, got to know one another, I drank too much wine, then went to bed.
Wake up calls for the morning drive start at 6:00 AM. You can head to the main lodge for coffee and muffins before taking the drive at 6:30 AM. I slept like shit (the wine), and was still adjusting to the time change, despite having been in South Africa for six days now.
But the cold wind from the drive whips you awake pretty quickly. After following a herd of African Elephants for about an hour, we stopped to stretch our legs and have tea, coffee, and snacks in a clearing in the bush.
We learned all about elephants being the bulldozing bullies of the bush – crushing trees and intimidating other animals that get in their way. All of the animals were completely unfazed by the presence of the vehicle. But as soon as you get out of it, that’s when they see you as a threat. The elephants were so graceful, even bulldozing through trees. I could have stared at them all day long.
We returned to the lodge to change and unwind for a few hours before lunch at one and high tea at two. I sent out my laundry to be washed, took a nap, and awoke to clean clothes – something I had been dreaming of since arriving in Cape Town.
I changed into safari gear, and went back to the Land Rover at 3:30 for the night drive. The previous guests had left, and we were joined on our drive by another couple from South Africa.
The night drives are very different than the morning drives. It’s pitch black, with the exception of the headlights and the tracker’s flashlight. You’re constantly looking at shadows and saying, “Wait! Over there!” And there’s never anything there. I eventually gave up trying to “help”, and left it to the professionals, who were able to locate owls, hippo, rhino, elephants, etc. in the complete darkness.
After the drive, we met back at the lodge for drinks (I had water) and dinner. We talked a bit with the other guests about life in South Africa vs. the States, ate some delicious food, and eventually headed back to our cabins.
Day 2, I was ready for you. My beloved hippos woke me up around 3 AM. Instead of forcing sleep on myself, I made some coffee and took my time waking up. By 6:00 AM, I was out the door.
Part II of the drive continued as Rondy tracked a female leopard that had just attacked an impala (how do they find these animals just by looking at the marks in the ground?!). We caught a glimpse as the leopard dashed away, leaving her kill unclaimed. Later, we found a new pride of female lions sleeping quietly in the bush, so camouflaged that you could easily walk right into them.
During dinner that night, we were joined by a lovely family of six from the island of Jersey. These group dinners were becoming one of my favorite parts of the trip: the opportunity to sit down and learn about life in other parts of the world.
Feeling under the weather, and too easily influenced by my Web MD Self-Diagnosis, I decided to sleep in instead of taking the morning drive. I was miraculously cured by mid-afternoon, thanks to the power of sleep and my mom’s stash of pills for every imagined ailment. Thank god for moms and the things they keep in their purse.
Tonight was our last night at the lodge, and I had no intention of missing out on anything else.
We drove to see two male lions who had recently been in a pretty rough fight with males from another pride. I wanted to hop out of the vehicle and cuddle with these poor, beaten babies so hard, but I didn’t. Cause, teeth.
Around sunset, Carl drove us out into a clearing, where we and the other family vehicle were surprised with a beautiful spread of drinks and hors d’oeuvres. I was so excited that I forgot I don’t like gin and downed two glittery purple concoctions, listening to a herd of elephants about two hundred yards away.
We finished up the drive with a bit of stargazing before ending back up at the lodge. There, we took advantage of the warmer weather and had an outdoor cookout to round off the last evening.
On our last morning, I tried my best to soak it all in. I finally took advantage of the outdoor shower around 4:30 AM, standing in the pitch black and looking up at the full moon. It was incredible, in a hand-me-a-white-chariot-and-call-me-Selene way.
We took our morning drive, and watched another herd of elephants eating branches, while the babies practiced using their trunks correctly. I took about a million photos of birds after realizing that I had neglected them thus far. BTW, those Zazu birds are intense little creatures.
Then it was time to pack up, say farewell to the wonderful staff members, and drive back to the airport. The only traffic that we encountered was a ten-minute stop due to a stampede of impala crossing the road, which I felt was an appropriate ending.
I know I already said it, but this was such an amazing experience, and I feel like this blog post just doesn’t do it justice. I am so grateful that I was able to go on this trip with my fabulous parents.
Things I learned:
- Luxury safari lodges are actually less expensive than camping safaris. Go figure.
- Teenage boy elephants are fond of flapping their ears, slow-charging at the vehicle, then losing their nerve and hiding behind their moms.
- Baby rhinos (not pictured, but Google it) are the cutest things you’ve ever seen.
- Safaris do not require fashionable outfits. I forced myself to wear every damn thing that I packed at least once (for the principle of the thing), but it was highly unnecessary. Bring a puffer, hoodie, t-shirts, jeans, and boots and call it a day.
- You quickly run out of things to say when seeing certain animals. “Wow” was said in our vehicle no less than 18 times over the course of one drive.
- There are no statues of animals at the Hoedspruit airport.
Any safari or packing related questions? Let me know below.