An African safari is common entry on a lot of people’s bucket lists. It was certainly on mine until March of 2009 when I visited the Timbavati & Klaserie Reserves in the Northeastern corner of South Africa, which is just to the west of Kruger National Park. Now that I’ve gotten through all the points on the compass with that last sentence, allow me to share my insights on what to expect when on a game drive—the staple element of any safari vacation.
If you’re on safari, then it’s probably safe to assume you want to see some animals. If you’re not on safari, and just wandering around the African bush, then the opposite is most likely true, but I’ll move forward on the premise that the whole reason you came is to encounter animals in the wild. If so, then good for you. With the exception of diving with sharks (also an animal encounter) there’s nothing I’ve ever experienced more exhilarating than seeing apex predators in their natural habitat, unencumbered by fences, cages, or leashes and doing so well within pouncing and/or trampling range. Sound scary? It should be—at least a little bit. One thing I noticed about all the wild animals I saw was that they were…well, wild. That fact commands respect, so in the interests of preserving your life and increasing your enjoyment, please note that everything taking place around you is for real, and the danger, while very low, can jump dramatically if you’re careless or just plain stupid. Got it? Good. So here’s how it works.
Chances are you will be roused from sleep by your guide somewhere between very and ‘are you kidding me?’ early. This is not because they particularly enjoy early mornings, but rather because they know that animals are most active during the margins of the day (dawn and dusk) and that since you’re on vacation you’re going to want some coffee and breakfast—which will be provided. Considering the steep price tag on a safari vacation, you’d want some food too to go along with your adrenaline rush.
Once breakfast is out of the way, you’ll be loaded into an all-terrain vehicle—usually with open sides and top—and whisked off into the surrounding bush, which depending on where in Africa you are, can be grassland, brush, forest or savanna. Generally, you will be with a guide and possibly even a tracker. This is a guy who sits in the front of the vehicle, hops out to check on how recently an animal passed by just by looking at the tracks and pointing out things that an untrained eye wouldn’t think to look for. In my case, our tracker also did us the favor of knocking down the resilient Golden Orb Spiders’ webs and their harmless but enormous residents as we drove through them, saving us all the trouble of screaming like little girls.
Depending on the lodge that serves as your base of operations, the animals may or may not be undisturbed by your intrusion. Usually the guides will have some familiarity with the prides, herds and packs that roam their neighborhood, and direct their search accordingly.
While a stay of only a few days will likely result in your seeing much, bear in mind that this is not a zoo, and there is no way to predict which animals will reveal themselves or when. A common goal on a safari is to see the so-called Big 5—lion, rhino, leopard, elephant and Cape Buffalo. This is not a reference to physical size (giraffes and hippos are bigger than all except elephants) but a throwback to the days of the Great White Hunters, who considered these five species as the hardest to kill. While the only shooting you should partake in should be with your camera, seeing these magnificent animals up close is worth the tedium of driving around for hours and sometimes not seeing much of note.
Most outfits will break up the 3 hours or so of the morning drive with a coffee & tea break, often accompanied by muffins or scones. You can stretch your legs, chat with your fellow riders and prepare for the second act—just don’t wander too far. You are still well within the borders of the animal realm, and carelessness or overconfidence can be dangerous.
Upon return to your lodge there will be an opportunity to rest and have lunch—both of which are quite welcome at this point. At times a guide will lead a nature walk on foot—allowing you the chance to pay attention to all the small stuff you either drove by or over earlier. Naturally, they try to keep away from the big game at times like this, and the little stuff—unique trees, huge termite mounds, delicate flowers and colorful and/or terrifying insects—are certainly worth paying attention to and allow for a well-rounded experience.
In the late afternoon it’s time to hop back in the vehicle for your second drive. At this time of day the animals are waking from their naps and shaking their lethargy from the midday sun. Once again patience is a virtue. Yes, it is frustrating, even exhausting trying to be on constant alert, scanning the landscape for movement or a familiar silhouette. But when you do find something, the payoff in excitement and jealousy-inducing photo opportunities is so worth it. Allow me to relate my own experience.
I remember it was about three days into my trip, and I was anxious because I only had two more days of game drives and I had yet to see an elephant. I was told that just a day before I arrived a herd of twenty were drinking from our water hole, but so far they had eluded me. I had seen some lions, a few giraffe and some ornery Cape Buffalo, but as one of my favorite animals, I couldn’t bear the thought of going all the way to South Africa and not seeing one. That morning it was overcast and a little cool, and my enthusiasm waned. Then without any notice, we were suddenly in the midst of a large herd of elephants. I couldn’t believe how quietly they had approached and watched with glee as they passed by, grazing all the while. We saw the immense mothers step forward in front of their adorable babies, and enjoyed the posturing of the young males who were showing off (apparently this is a trait of all young males regardless of species). Just like that a boring, fruitless drive through the bush soared to one of my most memorable life experiences. That’s the upside of being patient. You just don’t know what amazing scene is coming up around the bend.
With the approach of sunset, you will likely pause for what may be the British’s greatest contribution to the African continent: the sundowner. The custom involves taking a moment to have a drink—usually alcoholic in nature—and watch the amazing African sunset. This prepares you well for your return to camp and the (weather-permitting) open air dinner around a boma (fire pit). Sitting under the stars, bathed in soft firelight and the glow of kerosene lanterns, while listening to the noise of a million insects was among my favorite memories and always left me feeling rather content and reflective.
At this point you can sit around and talk about your animal encounters, pump your guides for dramatic stories, or continue drinking. You can also return to your tent/cabin/chalet to wash off the wilderness. And as you lay down after an exciting day, don’t be surprised to find yourself mentally reliving the amazing experiences of the day’s activities and feeling excited about what the next has in store. Just don’t think too much. You guide will be waking you up shortly.
Have you been on safari? If so leave a comment and keep the conversation going. Is a safari on your bucket list as well? Tell us why. And if you haven’t already done so, follow Trip Accomplice on Instagram for a different travel pic each day at #tripaccomplice