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 🙂


Safari: The Need to Know

Safari was such a big part of our South Africa Trip that I felt it warranted a separate post. It was also the part that I stressed out about the most. There seemed to be so much choice of where to stay and it was so much money that I really wanted to get it right, aside from the fact that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime type activity. I’ve ended up writing 2 posts, this one about all the planning, decisions and tips I have and the second tomorrow with my actual experience. I hope you enjoy them and as always please do get involved and share your thoughts. 🙂

Planning a Safari holiday
When we decided to go on Safari, I had a mental image of what that would entail. Like I said, we planned an all out luxury holiday – who knew when we would have chance to do this again and I wanted our accommodation to reflect that. I also wanted it to feel authentically African – this is a slight misnomer and it’s hard to describe what I mean, but I wanted somewhere with African decor, preferably modern but without loud green and orange prints and a private plunge pool wouldn’t go amiss either. To be honest, a lot of Safari accommodation is expensive, we’re talking ££££ for three or even two nights, but on the plus side it’s all inclusive once you’re there and all game drives are included too.

Location was another factor. We didn’t want to take Malaria tablets for the sake of 4 days Safari. There’s nothing wrong with them of course, but I found out you could Safari in the Eastern Cape, towards the end of the Garden Route and it also meant we didn’t waste much time travelling – it took us 3.5h from Plettenberg Bay to drive there rather than flying north to Kruger.

One brief thing to consider and I’ll touch on this later, is that the drive times (and early starts) depend on the sunrise – so if you’re terrible at early mornings or can think of nothing worse, don’t plan a trip for the middle of the South African Summer – you’ll be up at 4am.

Choosing your accommodation
I narrowed down our choice to three quite different lodges and I have included them here for comparison.

Gorah Elephant Camp in Addo Elephant Reserve.
Closest to Port Elizabeth, this was a real traditional (although still luxe) lodge with colonial, ‘Out of Africa’ style. We were promised the big five there but I’ve been told since that they don’t actually have the big five. Who knows, but it’s a 184 thousand hectare reserve with a lot of elephants obviously.

Gondwana Game Reserve
Next up was Gondwana – a relatively new lodge that I spotted via the team at Rockett St George posting photos on Instagram. This was exactly the style I was looking for and also the best price (I think due to their relative newness to the market) and the location was perfect, 25 minutes inland from Mossell Bay on the Garden Route.

Bayethe, Shamwari Game Reserve
From the Trailfinders selection, we selected Bayethe lodge on Shamwari Reserve. Shamwari had been recommended by a reader, was just a little further on from Addo and has deck plunge pools etc.

In the end we stayed at Eagles Crag – another Shamwari lodge. Bayethe and Gondwana had been booked up and so I had used the Shamwari website to search their other lodges and even scouted out a bit of a discount in exchange for a local wildlife conservation donation of R150 (about £15) each.

Also worth mentioning is that if you’re on a large reserve, try to find out where your lodge is on the reserve. Eagles Crag was actually better in the end as it was centrally located meaning we could travel north or south on the reserve without difficulty to see the animals wherever they were. Those staying in the south however had 3+ hour drives to get to the north area of the reserve.

Don’t despair if you don’t have a huge budget however. If you’re prepared to get up early there are plenty of reserves that allow you to do a self-drive day safari in your own car, and far more budget accommodation, off the reserves. Try Travel Butlers.

What to take with you
You can find a million and one guides on what to do and take on safari, but these are the things I’m glad I did or wish someone had told me.

It’s all about the pictures you want to take home so invest in or borrow a great SLR camera, learn how to use it and make sure you have a zoom lens. We borrowed a lens from a friend and were thrilled with the pictures. You will often get very close to the animals, but some are too skittish or too dangerous to get too close to, so you’ll be grateful for the zoom to get in close. Having 2 batteries is also a plus in case you run one dead and make sure you have a few SD cards, or that you have something to download the pictures onto. I downloaded daily onto my laptop.

Layers. Everyone says you need layers and I did underestimate this, but it’s not the temperature that’s the issue (at least I didn’t think so,) but the fact you’re in an open moving vehicle so the wind really enhances the lower temperatures. Early mornings are worst and coldest, but even dipping into a valley can tap into pockets of freezing air. I just wore multiple jersey layers and the rangers carry blankets but I’d go so far as to say a couple of technical layers would be best – a thermal, a fleece, and a windbreaker. Hat, scarf and gloves take up no space and should cover the rest. You might be asked to walk to see animals from your car, so wear trainers and you might prefer long pants. Ladies, I also can’t emphasize enough, if you have anything more than a modest bust, pack a sports bra – those roads are REALLY bumpy 😉

I imagined Safari would be quite glamourous at night, not loads of bling and make-up but perhaps understated safari chic dresses. In fact everyone is very relaxed. We went straight from a game drive one night to dinner around a fire in the Boma and didn’t change.

Hard-core insect repellent. Even if there aren’t many mosquitoes around the camp you may find yourself stopped by a waterhole at dusk, or if you just get bitten a lot like me, you’ll need it.

I can’t speak for other places but you eat with your Guide and the people in your car – I don’t think this is compulsory but if you all get on it’s great, perhaps not for a honeymoon! Our guide was a 28 year old South African called Jan who was brilliantly enthusiastic about finding the animals and fun to chat to, plus we lucked out with an American couple too in our car. It was a great way of finding out what’s in store (they had been there a couple of days already) and it’s fun too talking to and hearing from the rangers, both about the Animals and life in South Africa.

Bring your brave boots! I had no idea how scared I would be of the animals. I’m not too scared of animals in general and I think my fear came more from a healthy respect. These are wild animals don’t forget and you are on their territory. We had a male elephant mock charge us because he was in season and sexually frustrated, and walked on foot to observe 2 male cheetahs very close. The guides are very good however, they know their stuff, how to read the animals and if all else fails they carry guns. I was told they had only had 1 animal shot to protect the guests in the history of the reserve, thankfully.

I wasn’t expecting much from the food – for no particular reason. I thought there would be plenty, but perhaps not gourmet quality. We hadn’t eaten at many fancy places on our trip so far but we’d had some great food, yet the food at Shamwari was the best and most inventive.

The Schedule is grueling. I’m not good on little sleep, but for three nights of game viewing I was happy to suck it up. Bear in mind that your start time varies according to the time of year and consequent sunrise/sunset times. We went out at 6.30am and 3.30pm (sunset was about 6.20pm) but in the summer (our winter don’t forget) drives could start up to 2 hours earlier and later. There’s plenty of down time in the day to catch up on sleep, but it’s pretty exhausting. Breakfast is after the morning drive, as is dinner, so take snacks if you need them or dependent on the reserve your ranger may bring them along.

That’s it for tips folks – please do leave a coment if you have any questions or if you have any tips to share from your own experiences too. I can’t wait to share my pictures of the animals tomorrow!


#JanuaryJoy – Plan a trip

Last year was Pete’s 30th and as part of that I planned a weekend away at the end of January to The Drawing Room in the Elan Valley (just click the links to read more.) I’ve heard people say in the past that having something to look forward to in January helps you to get through the month and last year it was such a pick me up that we’ve decided to do the same again.

Even if you don’t go away in January, just looking for and planning a trip is fun and helps take your mind off the dreary weather. As we’re heading into mid January now and even I am feeling a trace of the blues, it’s definitely time to start planning and bring back the #JanuaryJoy!

Image credit

I was going to tell you about one of my recent trips today, but thought I would save that for February. Instead I’m going to share my travel plans for the year and who knows, I might be reflecting back on that in another 12 months. This New Year’s eve, Pete pulled out a dog-eared bit of paper he had found on which we had written our travel plans for 2012. We had listed the months and filled in all the things we already had planned, like friends weddings and then pencilled in a few trips we wanted to take. Our plans included the trip we took to The Drawing Room, Yosemite and Vegas, and skiing, all of which we managed. We were dreaming big and also listed trips to Mexico to see the ruins, a South Africa/Safari trip and a mini break in Madrid that didn’t get done. It was fun to look back and see what we did but I also felt a bit disappointed that we hadn’t planned those bigger trips.

So this year we have our annual ski-ing trip planned, and the getaway I mentioned at the end of the month. We have a family trip planned in Cornwall in August and the potential for a trip to Spain in May. That’s three weeks holiday gone already and I’m no closer to planning a life-list trip. Right now I’m all about the trips that children in future may make difficult (if only for the short term.) I’ve been enthralled by Africa on TV this last week and always wanted to see big cats up close, so this year’s goal is to plan a trip to Africa. I want to see South Africa, go on safari and explore what looks like a naturally stunning country. I’d love to hear any tips or recommendations you have?

So, what are your travel plans this year and are you planning any trips right now? Do you have a fail safe January pick-me-up?


PS If you are looking for a recommended weekend break closer to home…

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