My Safari Experience

This morning it’s my final instalment of the South Africa series. I’m finishing off with the best part of the holiday (and as you have seen, that is saying something!) I think the pictures speak for themselves…

After a 3 and a half hour drive from Tsala we turned off onto the road to Shamwari with eyes keenly peeled for wildlife. Our first greeting came from a small tortoise ambling along the roadside, perhaps a reminder to slow down and relax and we continued on, still outside the reserve. From behind the fence we could see what looked like a field of horses then a closer one revealed itself to be nothing other than a zebra. The collective noun for a group of zebra is a ‘dazzle’ and I can see why now. To see them in the wild was pretty spectacular. We drove on through the reserve gates (warning us to beware of lions!) and onto the lodge.

The welcome was warm and we were immediately seated for a lunch which was mouthwatering – I had Impala and Apricot kebabs, while Pete feasted on a gourmet Kudu burger, then were shown to our enormous room. It had indoor and outdoor showers, fully movable glass on 2 sides, that longed for infinity plunge pool and a free standing bath. We didn’t have time to enjoy it though as we were off out on our first game drive.

Before booking, we had worried that the Reserves in the Eastern Cape would be too small to hold enough wildlife that we would spot everything we wanted to. Boy were we wrong. No sooner were we into the reserve than we came across a group of Giraffe’s lazily eating the trees. Graceful despite their size, they are actually quite shy and kept positioning themselves behind trees and large bushes looking quite comical as their neck and heads soared above their hide out, giving them away. As we moved on we saw another ‘dazzle’ of zebra looking almost comical in their monochromatic stripes.

Next we were told we would be getting out of the vehicle, to walk to our next sighting, cheetah brothers. My heart was pounding as our ranger, Jan, prepared his rifle and arranged us in a silent line to walk over. Pretending to ignore them, we walked to about 15m behind of them, all the time discretely alerting them to our presence so they weren’t surprised and squatted down to watch them. They continued to laze in the shade, tail swatting away the flies and we just watched in awe. Not wanting to outstay our welcome, we walked away in single file and my heart slowly returned to a normal rhythm.

Our next spot was a white rhino with her youngster and finally we parked amongst a pride of lions, 2 lionesses with their adolescent male cubs, sporting the rather untidy beginnings of a magnificent mane. I could hardly believe how much we had seen on our very first drive.

Th next morning we were out again, this time in search of elephants. Jan knew the elephants were in the north of the reserve, as they had been for 3-4 months and we headed off on the bumpy roads in the freezing morning air to find them. There were signs everywhere, fresh dung, torn trees but not a single elephant.


How a 5 ton animal can hide itself so well baffled us and it seemed the whole animal kingdom has gone to sleep too as we saw only a few of the most common antelope, several black backed jackals and a group of bat eared foxes. We took to counting warthogs, pitting the UK against our fellow guests the American couple in the car with us and spotted about 35 of the pigs with babies in tow on our drive, but still no elephants.

Not to be deterred, Jan said he would take us straight out again after lunch and we returned to the same spot where we almost immediately spotted a huge bull elephant making his way to the waterhole. We decided to follow him there and as we got close realised he was ‘in musth’ – sexually frutrated and testosterone fueled – meaning we had to give him a wide berth. Unfortunately it was a tight spot and as we shifted position to get a better view he turned caught sight of us and gave chase, in a mock charge. Fortunately, foot to the floor we gained enough ground for him to lay off and return to his business, but it was a stark and terrifying reminder of respecting the animals boundaries. We headed into thick bush instead and found ourselves in the midst of the herd, only 10m or so from 2 mums, several adolescents and babies, all the while hoping the belligerent bull didn’t rejoin the herd behind us. I couldn’t fully relax but the elephants were lovely and we eventually followed 2 more males back down to the watering hole where we watched them drink and cool off.

That afternoon was a contrast to the quiet morning and after seeing more white rhino with their young, we caught sight of a very rare black rhino with her 2 month old baby. Again we kept our distance as she was fiercely protective and we didn’t want to be on the receiving end of another charge.


Next up, a second pride of lions, this time with 8 month old cubs, still with faint spots on their fur for camouflage. Suddenly news came over the radio of a sighting and Jan tore off hoping to show us a Leopard.

Just as we arrived she slunk off the rock and into the trees and we only caught sight of her spots disappearing between the bushes before she was out of sight. I couldn’t help but admire her timing. We waited hoping she would show herself but instead were treated to her chainsaw like calls as darkness fell, an eerie sound in the semi-dusk. We finished with a cocktail stop on the ridge overlooking the vast valley before us as the sun set and painted the sky. A truly amazing day.

Sunday morning dawned, our last full day, warmer than the last and consequently we were spoilt by wildlife to view. We sat amongst a pride of lions with the 8 month cubs again for as long as we wanted, watching the mother chastise an errant cub for becoming too disparate from the pride and the siblings wrestling with each other. They were easily my favourites. Next we heard the only male in the reserve was in view and headed to see him, resplendent on a slight outcrop of a hillside like Mufasa on pride rock. I requested to see some hippos and on our second lookout stop we saw a pod of seven and witnessed some posturing and blaring grunts from the group as a stranger approached. Between each of these we were practically falling over rhino, giraffes, zebra and of course the obligatory warthogs around the reserve.

In the afternoon, now the only two in our vehicle we spent time watching one pride of lions, with the male amongst them ruffling his magnificent mane as the youngsters played. Later we sat amongst the lionesses and their many cubs as darkness fell, mere feet from our rangers favourite young male, benignly undisturbed by us. As we returned to the lodge in the dark I had a strong sense, more than the niggling worry I had had until now, that we would meet an elephant on the narrow single track road back, and lo and behold, minutes from the lodge we rounded the corner to find a large bull dead ahead. Our ranger had warned us about this and we killed the lights and sat waiting for him to move but nothing was encouraging him to go, so Jan started clapping and inching forward to encourage him to continue his amble towards the lodge, expecting him to step off to the side.

We positioned ourselves ready for a quick getaway then scanned the area for more elephants with the spot light – Jan wanted nothing less than to be sandwiched between two of the three that formed a bachelor herd that lived around the lodge. The spot light shone around us and alighted on the rump of another elephant directly behind us, fortunately disappearing in the other direction. We returned to cajoling the elephant in front forwards and after the temporary added stress of him facing another oncoming car which veered off onto a shortcut, eventually he wandered off to the side, in his own sweet time and we got back to the lodge, heart in mouth, glad of the welcome drink to steady our nerves.

The next morning we finally caught a glimpse of a herd of hiding buffalo, camouflaged amongst the bush, occasionally showing a face or failing to hide their behind. Jan had been determined that we would see them, making that 4 out of the big five. I remained secretly proud of the clever leopards who left teasing tracks around the lodge every morning then hid themselves away.

All of our ‘lasts’ were bittersweet. Our last sunset over the Shamwari landscape, our last night viewing the millions of stars in an unpolluted sky, our last sunrise touching giraffes over mist shrouded bush. South Africa and Safari had really captured my heart.

I hope you enjoyed my South Africa posts readers 🙂

Love,
Rebecca
xo

South Africa: The Where to Go

Now I’m back from South Africa I want to share all the details of the holiday with you all. I really want everyone who might not be sure about it as a holiday option (just like I had my reservations) to know how incredible it was. I also hope with your additional comments and recommendations this series of posts will become a great resource for those of you planning future trips. We’ll start with today’s post and then next week is going to be ‘Africa week’ 🙂

I’m going to start this series with a preface. Firstly, this was not a budget holiday… Pete and I had always wanted to do SA and as a result decided to blow the budget. We figured that safari (although probably not the rest of our itinerary) was a pre-children experience, or at least a no-go until they are much older, so our choices are perfect for a push-the boat out holiday or honeymoon, but I have included some alternatives we spotted too and hope readers will chip in with their finds and recommendations.

I’m going to start, as is tradition, with our route and hotels, in case you’re planning a similar trip. Here goes!


View Larger Map

The need to know:
As an aside, we flew with Emirates, Manchester – Dubai – Cape Town, a 20 hour trip but actually very painless. We arrived at Manchester airport at lunch time, ate a normal lunch there and then got the Airbus A380 to Dubai lading at about 10pm our time. We had dinner at Carluccio’s in Dubai airport and then boarded about 1am our time to fly to Cape Town, promptly going to sleep and waking about 8.30am the next day (our time,) and landing 3 hours later due to the time zone being only an hour different.

Secondly, many of these places are booked through Mr & Mrs Smith. We use them because they give excellent customer service, often have offers on, you get freebies in every place you stay (Smith Extras) and collect points, which for us usually equates to a night or two away in the UK yearly. Contrary to popular belief they aren’t more expensive than other agents and will often match a competitor price too.

1. Atlantic House, Camps Bay, Cape Town (3 nights)
We were told Camps Bay had a foodie, younger vibe than Cape Town centre and didn’t want to stay at the touristy V&A Waterfront. In the end there was a storm while we were there which meant the beach was a no-go for the first couple of days of our stay but I still preferred it to inner-city Cape Town. Don’t be fooled though, security is as high and you still can’t walk to restaurants at night. The hotel itself has only a few rooms – more of a luxury house, and we were there with only a couple of other rooms occupied so it felt like having a luxe home to ourselves. There’s an honesty bar, a view of the bay and huge tubs and beds… what more do you need?

Alternative: We also looked at this place in central Cape Town, on Long Street. If you like quirky, this place had it by the bucket load (we stopped by for cocktails) and Airstream caravans on the roof if you fancy it – The Grand Daddy Hotel, Cape Town

2. River Manor, Stellenbosch (2 nights)
Booked through Trailfinders, I was looking forward to this place the least but the photos online didn’t do it justice at all and the staff were fabulous. It had true colonial style, but what made it was the safety of Stellenbosch – if you’re visiting be sure to book somewhere in town and then you will experience the rarity of being able to walk to dinner even in the dark, and back.

3. Schoone Oordt, Swellendam (1 night)
We toyed with making two costal stops at Wilderness and Knysna but Pete’s cousin and his wife had done the same route for a honeymoon and enjoyed Plettenberg Bay, so we opted to go there. On route we thought we would cut inland, for no other reason than that it looked pretty and the M&MS review was great. Our expectations were exceeded. Swellendam is a historic, sleepy town and we basically parked ourselves by the pool for an afternoon. We got an upgrade and loved the hotel – rooms are not in the historic house, but purpose built suites in the grounds so are very private.

4. The Grand Cafe and Rooms, Plettenburg Bay (3 nights)
This was our planned beach time to just unwind from the hectic schedule we had planned before, and recharge prior to early starts on safari. We chose Plettenberg Bay instead of Wilderness and Knysna but in truth there’s not much between the three areas. Plett is a little busier and closer to a lot of the thing to do locally though and from driving through each, I think Plett centre is closer to the coast. A quirky north African inspired hotel, artfully styled with a cool bar/restaurant and bay view, we had the most incredible room (5) with a seating area where we watched a DVD one night, a bath in front of the shuttered window and the beds were so high you needed a step to get into it at night – fantastical and fabulous is the best description. This was the closest we came to a ‘big hotel’ as they have branches in Camps Bay and Cape Town, but cocktails were still only R45 (£3.20) and I’d definitely consider it a boutique bolt hole.

5. Tsala Treetop Lodge, Knysna (1 night)
Who doesn’t want to stay in a tree house? This was a good example of us getting more out of being with M&MS – although bookable elsewhere, we got a better rate, points and free bubbly, so worth using them as the agent. This was 10km inland so although we really wanted to experience it, we also wanted to be by the beach and opted for a single night of tree-top luxe after our beach break. It was a total budget buster but really incredible and I’m so glad we went – I wish we had stayed a second night and the restaurant’s food was also top notch. (Note: We paid almost half the rack rate because we booked closer to the time of staying too so it’s worth hanging on.)

6. Eagles Crag, Shamwari, Eastern Cape. (3 nights)
I’ll expand a bit more on our safari choices in my post on Safari holidays soon, but for now, this choice was also booked through Trailfinders, although not one of their listed properties. It’s worth noting we booked a special offer where we made a negligible donation (about £15 each I think) to the park for conservation projects and accessed a cheaper deal. I found this on their website then got Trailfinders to book it for us. I wanted a full on ‘plunge pool amongst the jungle/savannah’ experience and couldn’t be bothered with malaria tablets for just three nights so we chose the Eastern Cape with it’s malaria-free safari parks instead of Kruger.

We then headed back home via a SA Airways flight from Port Elizabeth, picking up the Emirates route in Jo-Burg, via Dubai then Manchester.

So what do you think readers? Any additions you would have made here or hotels you can recommend?

Love,
Rebecca
xo

PS. It’s worth noting that Hermanus (about 1-1.5h east of Cape Town,) is one of the best land-based spots for whale watching but we didn’t make the trip as the best time is between June/July and November, hence our inland route above.

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