I often exhort folks on "my" forums to write a trip report as a give-back for the advice they received, so I guess it's my turn to practice what I preach.
I just got back from my first safari. A lifelong animal lover, it was something I'd dreamed of doing for many years. I realized while researching and planning that this would be one of those trips-of-a-lifetime, and so decided that a self-drive, budget type of Kruger trip would not suit me. I contacted several agencies with all my questions, dreams, budget, and travel style, and Tanya Kotze of Africa Direct was the only one who really paid attention. Instead of sending me PDFs of packages like the other companies, she put together an itinerary that sent me to three distinct ecosystems, with topnotch guides and facilities and flawlessly executed transfers. She answered emails promptly and thoroughly and handled an airline snafu for me. And she made sure cheetahs--my one must-see--would be a distinct possibility. I'm already plotting a trip to Botswana and will definitely ask her to design my next adventure.
The trip began badly with Ethiopian Airlines nearly bumping me; a heart-stopping hour later, though, I was finally handed a boarding pass and was relieved to land in Johannesburg, which was surprisingly chilly. Early the next morning I flew to Richard’s Bay, where I was met by a driver from Zuka Lodge, part of the &Beyond group in the Phinda reserve. Their Mountain Lodge was taken over by a large corporate group for a retreat, so I was bumped to Zuka (see review). What luck; it only has four bungalows, and there was just one couple staying there already and we were joined a few times by some weekend visitors. The air was quite cool during the morning and afternoon drives, and I was glad to have a fleece jacket with me.
My dream sighting was to see cheetahs, and the amazing tracker Simi found three the first morning from a long way off--he must have binoculars for eyes. The first were a sub-adult brother and sister; in the valley below, much to their concern, was the dominant male patrolling his kingdom. This practice continued for the three nights I was there; Simi could spot anything no matter how obscured. This was when I realized that there is no reason not to tip a good tracker the same as a ranger, which is what I did at all the lodges. In some respects, the tracker makes the ranger look good, although most of the time they really work as a team.
Next, I was driven to the northern part of the reserve for a three-night stay at Forest Lodge (see review). Wow, was it ever different–enormous trees, sandy soil (I wore hiking shoes instead of sandals here because of the sand). This was probably my favorite of the three lodges. Each cabin sits in a little forest clearing of its own, and you can hardly discern any others. The walls of the cabins were floor-to-ceiling windows. At night, I opened the shades, the doors, and the windows and closed the screens to let in the very cool night air and the nightly songs of various creatures. The food here was better than at Zuka, and I appreciated the salads that were served at lunch instead of overly filling sandwiches and such.
The game drives with ranger Martin and tracker Abel were longer here. After a couple of days I was really tiring of spending six to eight hours a day on a truck, then eating breakfast and lunch within three hours of each other, and getting no exercise. I started skipping the big post-drive breakfast and having coffee and shortbread or rusks in the field. I was really hoping for some bush walks or alternative activities but it seemed once you were assigned a truck group, you were stuck with all doing the same thing. Martin accommodated me with a short walk back to the lodge while the others rode back in the truck. He is a real talker and I learned more about the AIDS problem in KwaZulu Natal than about the ecosystem.
We saw more cheetahs here, these a pair of brothers; one had a leg injury and was quite thinner than the other. I was completely entranced by the bond between these two. Of course by now I'd seen the Big Five a number of times. You cannot be blase about yet another elephant or lion--every game drive, even when it seemed "quiet," revealed a new species, a different behavior, or a different interaction. Throughout the trip we saw such wonders as adorably kittenish lion cubs, got charged by a black rhino, observed lions mating, watched a flock of geese tease some hippos and incite them to charge, and discovered a Ground Hornbill's nesting tree.
A much-needed respite from the demands of game viewing was needed at this point, and I was fortunate to spend a night between camps at Abangane Lodge in Hazyview (see review). Unfortunately, there were tons of birds in the garden which I felt compelled to identify, so the "game viewing" continued. A tremendous storm came up while I was eating dinner outside in town, flinging glasses off the tables and driving everyone inside. The lights went out but the restaurant staff didn't miss a beat, lighting candles and managing to bring out everyone's order. The town suffered quite a bit of damage from fallen trees and pieces of tin roofs strewn about; Abangane looked a mess but Klaus and Ridwaan seemed to take it in stride, and the efficient staff began tidying the place up early the next morning; they even found one of my socks which I had put out to dry and which had been blown away.
My final destination was Kirkman's Kamp, a private reserve outside of Kruger. This had a more traditional, old-school game lodge atmosphere, though still with quite a bit of luxury. I had booked four nights originally (a "book three nights, get a fourth night free" deal), but Ethiopian Air once again conspired to ruin my trip by canceling my flight home; after some scrambling by me and Tanya we managed to salvage three nights there and still get me home.
It was very pleasant but not nearly as chilly on the morning and afternoon drives, and quite warm during the day. Though mosquitos were never a problem, the evening drives were buggy and I would recommend clear wraparound biker shades to protect your eyes.
I was lucky to be guided by ranger Jason, who attended to my desire to i.d. lots of bird species, and the quiet and confident tracker Jerry. They combined all the best qualities of those from the other camps--vast knowledge, humor, patience, and a real passion for what they were doing, and none of the annoying ones–ignoring the birds, making sound effects, and creating “dialogues” for the animals. There were just three other guests on the truck, and we hit it off right away and became quite a compatible group, usually the first to leave in the morning (and to get positioned for the best sightings). It became a daily joke that the ranger would "cue the leopard" or another species we wanted to see, and, remarkably, we would see it.
Knowing my desire for a bush walk, Jason arranged for me to spend an early morning walk with another ranger instead of going on a game drive. This, with the knowledgeable Ralph, was much longer and more productive than a walk done after a drive. I was impressed with how things are magnified while on foot--the hippo tracks, the kudu who watched us, the variety of wild flowers, the amount of marula fruit in the elephant dung.
I hated leaving Kirkman's, where everything just sort of jelled. Several short hops on a charter plane later, I was back in the confusion of Johannesburg, feeling really out of place. A fellow DE says of the Galapagos Islands that it is a mind journey as much as a physical one, and I would say that as well about a safari. The sights, sounds, and even the smells were all part of the experience, and being in the bush night after night reinforced my love of nature, its unpredictability, and an appreciation for all the big and small dramas around me.