Safari in South Africa: Fact, Fiction and Photos

Kruger National Park, South Africa

There they stood in the lobby of the lodge; dressed in khaki and British pith helmets. I imagined that in a few hours they would be taking tea in the savannah while being attended to by their man-servants. I caught a my reflection in a passing door and wondered if I was from a different time, a dystopian future without pith helmets or even Earl Grey Tea. I had on jeans and a New York Yankees t-shirt covered up by a black hoodie. Around my neck hung cameras and a water bottle was strapped to my backpack. Not a seersucker or pleat in sight, yet I was just as prepared as my neocolonial friends for the adventure of a lifetime. But at that moment as I felt slightly out of place a singular concept struck me; that most people probably don’t know what to expect on a safari in South Africa, they only know what they’ve seen on TV and in the movies. So I thought I’d put together a post detailing what the experience is really like, why the trip is more attainable than you think and why everyone absolutely must experience the wildlife of South Africa at least once in their lives.

I’m not a safari expert, I’ve only been a few times and only once in South Africa. Before that I had joined game drives in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, but the process is pretty much the same across the board.

 

Where You Stay

I don’t know about you, but before my first safari I had a notion about what the entire experience was like. And it was wrong. For some reason I thought all safaris were done in rugged settings, tents and fires and stories shared around evening meals. Even for the more luxury minded like me I expected a glamping adventure of sorts. While this is certainly possible and many people do experience the African bush in this way, it’s not how most people go on safari. The easiest way to get back to nature in South Africa is by staying at one of the many (and I do mean many) game lodges around the country.

The lodges themselves are usually high quality, 4 or 5 star, and are generally known for a commitment to service, quality and luxury. At most, but not all, a flat fee nightly fee is paid that includes accommodations, food and a couple of game drives a day. Don’t worry though, even though I’m making this sound somewhat run of the mill the lodges do an amazing job of making you feel special, fully realizing that this is a trip of a lifetime for many.

I stayed at the Lukimbi Safari Lodge in Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest game reserves. Lukimbi is a five-star facility featuring private villas each with amazing views of the bush and situated to ensure total privacy. As at many lodges, the rates include three meals a day, tea and coffee, two game drives a day and a safari walk. But what struck me the most is how I felt when I first arrived.

Even though the lodge sees thousands of visitors a year, they’ve perfected the art of making everyone feel special. That combined with luxurious surroundings, great food and of course the wilderness, it really was a remarkable experience. Since I haven’t stayed at every game lodge in South Africa I can’t say that this occurs across the board, but I bet it’s a fairly common set of standards employed around the country. This is a special trip and the staff at the lodges do their best to make you feel like royalty.

 

What You Need

My friends who looked like they were extras in “Out of Africa” weren’t alone. Many people passing through South Africa dress as if they are conforming to a set of stereotypical standards, which of course they are. They imagine Teddy Roosevelt riding through the tall grasses of the Heart of Darkness, searching for the Big Five and adventures to share. You can wear whatever you want of course, but times have changed and the Africa of our imaginations isn’t the Africa of today.

Game drives typically occur in the early morning and at sunset, ensuring the best opportunities to view wildlife. Nights in Africa can get cold, variable based on time of year, so dressing in layers is essential. I wore my hoodie that day for a reason. I knew I would need it as the sun dropped below the horizon and the night chills began to set in. A fancy hat I did not need. If you’re doing a truck based safari (I’ll get to that in a moment) then types of shoes and hats aren’t as important. Dressing in layers is though, so be ready for temperature fluctuations that can happen quickly and dramatically.

You’re on safari, so gear is important. Make sure you have a good pair of sunglasses and a pair of binoculars if you don’t want to use your camera. As far as cameras go I’m a firm believer in the maxim, “The best camera you have is the one in your hands.” If you have a DSLR get a lens that can accommodate both close up and telephoto shots without having to change out lenses. I use a Tamron AF 18-270mm lens and I love it because it can do everything I need it to. Things can happen fast on a game drive and you want to be able to take a photo quickly and you can’t do that if you’re fumbling with lenses.

You also need to bring an open mind, flexible spirit and leave your expectations at home. I’ll discuss more in a second, but this is an unpredictable experience, which is what makes it so special. But if you get cranky because  “the elephant isn’t cooperating,” then this won’t be a good experience for you.

 

What You Do

There is no one way to experience the amazing wildlife of South Africa. Kruger is a national park, so it is possible to take your car and just drive around hoping to see animals from the road. You can also hire private and freelance guides to do everything from guided Jeep tours to walking safaris and even overnight camping experiences. Many people though experience safari the way I did, by staying at a lodge and depending on their capable staff to show you around.

There are two game drives a day, one very early in the morning and one at sunset. Passengers load up into tiered Jeeps or Range Rovers that have open sides and a covered top. There really isn’t a bad seat in these vehicles and while the drive may be bumpy at times, they’re absolutely comfortable.

The guides are professionals and they not only know how to navigate the bush, they know what to look for. They want their guests to have an amazing experience and so they do everything they can to ensure this. Following lion tracks, monitoring the freshness of elephant spoor and even the smells of the bush all tell them what animals are around. The drives usually last a couple of hours and at least once there is typically a stop to enjoy some refreshments and stretch your legs. This style of safari definitely isn’t taxing and is a lot of fun, as long as you keep your expectations in check.

What You See

You are not in Disney World. You are guaranteed nothing except that you will spend a couple of hours in a Jeep looking for animals. Last year I remember chatting with a guide and asked him what his biggest concern was. He said guests who expect too much. Everyone wants to see the Big Five, they want to find a lion on a kill, they want to see baby elephants being cute, they want to see a leopard doing a jig. They want it all, but this is nature. It is unpredictable at best and there is nothing anyone can do about that. That is why it’s key to keep those expectations at home and instead just sit back and enjoy the adventure. You will see what you will see and there’s no changing that. Maybe you’ll be lucky and see a diverse group of animals, but maybe you won’t. But you know what? You’re in Africa. On safari. This is a remarkable experience so just go with the flow.

You also need to be smart and to trust in the guides. On our last game drive in the morning we turned a corner and a white rhino charged the Jeep. Our quick witted guide scared him away, but at that moment it hit me just how real an experience safari is. Even though every precaution is taken, it is wild and with that comes risks. So don’t be stupid. Do everything your guides says and don’t try to reenact moments from Roosevelt’s life on your own. It won’t end well.

 

Safari is an amazing experience and as an animal lover one that I hope to enjoy many more times. I just wanted to take this opportunity to share with you the realities of the experience so that you’re prepared when you finally make it to South Africa for that amazing adventure. In the mean time, here are some more photos of the stunning wildlife and landscapes on display in Kruger National Park.

 

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

19 Responses

  1. Anita

    Wow, I love your lion pictures – they are great!

    Reply
  2. Jordi Casinos

    Matt, I take my salacot off at your ability to grasp the essence of detail. I myself am writing a series of posts with suggestions and recommendations for our traveling clients and you pretty much summarise them all on your post. Albeit in Spanish, I also wrote this morning about not necessarily having to look like an extra from “Out of Africa”.

    Great post, even better advice and job at the difficult task of levelling expectations on safari for a better experience!

    Jordi

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Jordi, wow thank you so much! That means a lot coming from an expert such as yourself.

      Reply
  3. Lynne Nieman

    Awesome advice and some stunning images. Your lion images are really great.

    Reply
  4. Megan

    Beautiful photos! That’s really scary about the rhino charging your truck! When I was on safari, I was lucky that none of that kind of stuff happened, but seeing the tracker with a gun and a quick hand made it all very real to me that we weren’t in a park where things were more controlled.

    Also, with regards to the clothing, our safari guides advised us to wear more neutral colors to blend in with the surroundings so we didn’t spook any of the animals. Interesting that your safari guides didn’t say that–wonder how much it really matters.

    Reply
    • Jordi Casinos

      Megan, colors in safari are important for several reasons:

      – Classic safari colors (khaki, stone) are best to blend with the environment while on bush or safari walks. As your guide correctly advised you, that way you won’t spook animals.
      – White colors will attract the attention of predators and show dust and dirt faster.
      – Black and blue will attract tsetse flies (Matt, you were safe with your black hoodie, no tsetse flies in Southern Africa, but keep it mind when you travel in Eastern Africa)
      – Camouflage pasterns are still a no no in Africa, as people associate them with the military and it won’t make you man friends. Don´t be a fashion victim!

      Reply
      • Jordi Casinos

        Mmm, I forgot mentioning that this color rules are mostly useful on bush walks and safari on foot…

  5. AlteCocker

    A safari is a dream trip. Perhaps if I get a home exchange in South Africa. I have tried.

    Reply
  6. Paula C. Wilkes

    Two thumbs up for the great photos and the whole thing about your blog. I am very fascinated by Africa so I really love your post.

    Reply
  7. Clare Appleyard

    You were so lucky to get up close to those lions! After 30 years in SA, we still haven’t ever gotten that close….except in the staged facility of the Lion Park :-)

    What you’ve said about not knowing what to wear on safari is so true. With the American tour groups I deal with, they’re told to wear khaki and muted olive and brown colours because bright colours would “scare the animals off”. Oh. Dear. God. So many misconceptions to correct, so little time :-)

    Great pictures Matt, great article – great to have seen you back in South Africa!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Really Clare? I had no idea we were so lucky with the lions – they were definitely beautiful. And thank you for the kind words, I appreciate them and can’t wait to be back in SA!

      Reply
  8. Linda Sherman Gordon (@LindaSherman)

    These are such great photos Matt! No surprise that last night when I asked about travel bloggers at #BlogChat last night, you were at the top of the list. Great to see you again!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Very kind of you to say Linda, thank you!

      Reply
  9. lalibela

    Nice pictures and fantastic place to go for South Africa safari. I am very interested in safari I went to eastern cape lodge that was really a fantastic place and I spent really there a nice time around a lot of animals like elephant, lion, leopard and other. That was one of the great moment of my life when I was very close to them.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      It’s an amazing feeling to be so close to them, isn’t it?

      Reply
  10. kirsten

    Love this! We spent time in Chobe (Botswana), Vic falls, the Kruger and cape town last year. Your article is spot on. I’m now pregnant with our little guy (our first) and I cant wait to go back and share Africa with him once he is old enough!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      That’s awesome and I love that you feel that way. I think travel is so very important for kids, especially when they’re young.

      Reply

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