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.