Touching down on a half pavement, half dirt air strip, the only thing for miles is a single building. Outside its hot and sticky, with more humidity than any Western Canadian is used to. You unload and like cattle, follow the other passengers to locate your bags. Idling noisily, open top Jeeps await your arrival. Someone calls your name and as you walk over to the vehicles, you wonder, ‘am I actually going to melt here‘? Ahead, a family of Baboons sit staring, and it’s almost as if they are laughing, but you can’t be certain. Welcome to Hoedspruit, the gateway to your safari experience.
The safari has long been the ultimate bucket list adventure in our home. A once in a lifetime trip that needed a truly significant reason to plan. This opportunity came in the form of our honeymoon. Almost exactly a year later there is still nowhere else that we can imagine having chosen. The experience was nothing short of amazing. Africa impressed, enchanted and enthralled before stealing our hearts.
Here is our guide on what you need to know before it steals yours.
National Park versus Private Reserve
Like us, many visitors don’t realize that there is a difference between a national park and a private game reserve. While most oversea travellers will stay at a private game reserve here are the major differences:
National Park (Kruger in South Africa)
The national park is a public area that offers visitors self drive safaris. With designated camp areas, guests are encouraged to explore at their own pace but must return to camp before sunset. Accommodations are basic but also less expensive. Imagine this like a traditional camping trip. Visitors pack and bring everything they need. This is the perfect option for locals and experienced solo excursionists.
Private Game Reserves
Alternatively, private game reserves offer luxury accommodations, meals and services. Daily drives are conducted by a team of professional rangers and trackers. These occur in the early morning and at night in order to see nocturnal wildlife. Visitors also have access to additional amenities such as airport transfers, bush walks, and plunge pools. This option is ideal for international visitors and first time safari goers.
On the Ground or in a Tree
If you are looking for a truly all encompassing experience then a private game reserve is the ideal choice. This does not mean however that you will be trading in the opportunity for an authentic adventure. Whether you dream of sleeping under the stars or have a taste for high end comforts, private reserves offer a variety of different accommodation types. Our own safari experience included a tented tree camp and a luxury lodge, both of which we would recommend in a heartbeat.
Located in the Southern Klaserie, this unique camp is made up of 5 stilted wooden chalets that sit eye level with the trees. Each chalet has solar power and an ensuite. With an attached veranda, guests can enjoy a private view of the surrounding plains. An outdoor lodge provides an additional lounging area, dining room and traditional boma for evening campfires. With room for only 10, the atmosphere is intimate and personal.
In contrast, Elephant Plains is a luxury lodge with all of the amenities of a five star resort. Here, we had the privilege of staying in the honeymoon suite. Boasting almost the same square footage as our first condo, the suite includes a lavish ensuite that adjoins to an outdoor deck. A private pool and exterior day bed completed the accommodation. The main lodge houses a dining room, spa, and cozy lounge. Overlooking a watering hole, elephants are almost a daily sight, hence the name of the lodge.
The Communal Dining Experience
One of the main differences between Nthambo and Elephant Plains is the intimacy of dining. At Elephant Plains, meals take place in a dining room set with individual tables. At Nthambo, when meals are ready, guests gather at a communal table and eat together. This dining experience allows everyone to get to know each other. Swapping beverages and passing plates, you create a safari family.
While the food is excellent at both camps, the opportunity to share our experience with others was invaluable. Sharing how far everyone had travelled, why each group chose a safari and where we were all heading next added cherished memories to our safari adventure.
What a Day on Safari is Really Like
Once you’ve chosen the perfect accommodation, its time to find out what being on safari really means. For Kevin and I this was a dream that we quickly learned we knew nothing about. So, if your like us, here is what an actual day on safari looks like.
The day starts early with a morning wake up call. Rising before the sun you quickly get ready and meet in the main lodge area. Coffee awaits your arrival.
Guides prep the vehicle for departure. It’s beneficial to be an early bird in order to snag a prime spot. The safari jeeps include three rows each seating three and one seat next to the driver. We found that the front row behind the guide provides the best view, the back row is definitely the bumpiest.
Once out on safari, guides will communicate with other vehicles to track and locate wildlife. It is your responsibility to help by watching for movement in the distance. This is certainly the most exciting part of the day. South Africa is well know for the Big 5 (Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard) so your chances of seeing one of each are great. We were lucky and saw all 5 on our first drive.
Mid way through your morning drive, guides will stop at a watering hole for coffee and tea. This is an opportunity to get out and stretch your legs. On one of our stops we met with a group of friendly vervet monkeys.
Breakfast awaits your return to camp. At Nthambo we all gathered together and discussed the mornings activities. At Elephant Plains we watched monkeys sneak bananas from the buffet.
In the afternoon, guests will return to their room, relax in the common areas or enjoy the pool. During this time staff will also inquire if there is any interest in a bush walk. This activity, as its name suggests, involves a guided walk through the bush. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the flora and fauna of the area. On one of our walks we encountered a leopard turtle. These gentle creatures only come out when there are signs of rain and funny enough that evening it rained.
Prior to the evening drive, a late lunch is available. Guests will congregate in the dining area, visiting with the guides and sharing a drink. After eating, everyone returns to their room to get ready for the nights events.
The evening drive provides an opportunity to view nocturnal wildlife. Departing before dusk, temperatures begin to cool and the big cats who have been hiding in the shade all day will come out to hunt. It was during our first evening drive that we found a pride of lions feeding on a buffalo. We also encountered our first leopard as she stealthily tracked a herd of impala.
Similar to the morning drive, mid way through, guides will find a watering hole to stop and enjoy a beverage. Since wildlife generally navigates towards water these locations provide a high chance of sightings. It was here that we watched a wild dog chase an impala into the pond and then circle the area to coax it out. What the impala didn’t realize was that it was sharing the watering hole with two hippos. We stayed to watch one of the hippos emerge but will never know if the impala made it out.
Once the sun has set, jeep head lights and the tracker’s spotlight lead the way. Expertly trained, our guides frequently located venomous tree snakes and shifty rodents in the dark. We also learned the importance of respecting the animals as spotlights do not affect a lion’s eyes but could blind a giraffe permanently.
Exhilarated but now hungry you return to camp for dinner. On cool or rainy evenings, dinner is in the dining room. On warm nights, weather permitting, dinner is around an open campfire. This is where you enjoy the final hours of the day, fireside and surrounded by your new safari family.
Days start early and evenings end late but we promise it is more then worth it. This is an experience like no other. Soak it up and let every moment count.
Have you been on a safari? What is your favourite memory?