South Africa Safaris Beckon Visitors

ION Oklahoma, February 25th, 2016

Safari

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South African Safari Beckons Visitors

By Heide Brandes

I was riding in the spotter seat of the safari jeep, located on the hood of the vehicle, giggling wildly and screaming with joy as misty rain pummeled my face and our safari guide Mitchell sped 40 miles an hour down the rough dirt trails.

The eerie yellow fever trees at the Pongola Game Reserve in South Africa seemed to glow in the gloaming of the day, and somewhere in the fever tree forest was a leopard.

Giraffe grazed openly. This park has more than 50 giraffe and 85 elephants, and one never gets tired of seeing them in the wild. Little warthogs darted back and forth across the road, and monkeys performed acrobatics along the limbs of the African trees.

“I like it when you go fast,” I told Mitchell, and he obliged me, laughing when I laughed. I couldn’t remember being this happy in such a simple way.

Any trip to Africa is not complete without a safari, and in 23 days I visited the country of South Africa, I experienced three safaris. South Africa is a surprising land, and when I traveled with the Drifters tour operation, I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

To many of us “Yankees,” Africa is still a dark and mysterious continent. When I chose to visit South Africa for 23 days, I expected the dusty hot plains of the bush, but what I discovered was a land rolling with steep mountains, lush green jungles hidden between those mountains and a land stained with violent and intrepid history.

But no trip is complete without the adventure of safari.

THE DARK CONTINENT

Earlier that same day, at barely 8 a.m., I was in a canoe on the Pongola River watching a white rhino and her pup graze while a black rhino munched branches in the distance. Mammoth crocodiles lounged lazily along the shore, surrounded by green humped mountains and the dark clouds that filled the sky.

Behind us, the calls and grunts of a pod of hippos sounded like angry farting cows, and along the shore, little wild warthogs scattered with frantic delicate hoofs, their little tails straight in the air like flags.

The hippos made me nervous. A few days before, as we hiked along the Sabie River outside of Kruger National Park, we had an unfortunate run-in with a pod of hippos that had taken up residence in a local pond. Dusk was falling, and when the sun sets, the hippos venture out of the water to graze.

Hippos also kill more people in Africa than any other animal and can run 50 miles an hour when motivated. When I and my German tour-mates stumbled upon this group of hippos, they yawned their vast mouths open at us in warning.

When that didn’t do the trick, one charged.

This is Africa — a land that will kill you if you don’t respect her enough.

Mitchell, our handsome young guide, led us to our canoe on a bush walk, pointing out a lone giraffe, millipedes and the markings of rhinos. As we passed the trees, he noticed the rich buttery popcorn smell of leopard spray.

The Pongola Reserve is located along the Pongola River, a broad waterway that meanders through the center for the reserve before entering a massive man-made lake. Safari cruises, canoe adventures, birding and fishing are all popular here, and the area is home to four of the Big Five, minus the lions. Hippos and crocodiles are plentiful, and more than 350 bird species call the Pongola home.

This game reserve was our last safari adventure before heading to the looming and ancient Drakensburg Mountains and the rich indigo of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans along South Africa’s shores.

BALULE GAME RESERVE

Just outside Kruger National Park are hundreds of private reserves, and Balule is one of them. I will always consider Balule my favorite reserve for the simple fact that it was my first. We arrived at dusk, and our accommodations that night were large canvas tents attached to standing bathrooms. The path to the main lodge was dark, and in that dark, lions were lurking and moving through the African bush.

Late at night, awake and tortured by jet lag, I walked from my canvas tent to the main lodge to find coffee. I swung my flashlight back and forth, looking for the gleam of eyes peering at me from that inky black. Those eyes could belong to the delicate and feminine impala or it could be the fierce hunting gaze of an African lion.

Balule is a free-roam game reserve, which means fences do not keep the animals out. They are allowed to roam wherever they wish, and on some mornings, we found fresh elephant dung just outside our sleeping quarters. At some point, elephants strolled inches from where we slept.

In my jet-lagged fueled night wandering at 4 a.m. to find coffee in the main lodge, I was keenly aware that I could come face to face with a rhino, an elephant, any number of antelope… or a hungry lion.

“If you see eyes, don’t run,” Deanne, the Balule lodge manager told our group earlier that night. “Only prey runs.”

Luckily, I made it to the lodge without any run-ins with the myriad of animals that exist in South Africa. The sun began to peak across the horizon at 4:30 a.m., and by 5 p.m., the sky turned rich orange and blood red as the sunrise bathed the land.

Down below Andy’s Camp, our tented-lodge camp situated high above the Balule plains, a single sad watering hole gleamed in the muffled light. A humped figure haunted the edges of the water, but I couldn’t make out what it was at first.

“It’s a hyena,” said Deanne, our bush camp manager, leaning over the concrete wall to get a better look. “See, you can tell by his shape.”

Deanne growled at me when I told her hyenas are among my favorite animals. She looked at me as if I had just confessed that I liked snuggling with cockroaches, but she had a different experience about this animal that scavenges the dead and snatches up baby animals.

“Look over there. There’s a giraffe,” she said, pointing to the trees far beyond the watering hole. In the shadows were the graceful long neck and the careful pose of a male giraffe. In Balule, like many places in South Africa, the animals were waiting for rain. The riverbed below our camp was full of dry rocks and dust, a desert where water used to flow. During the day, the heat became unbearable, and 20-strong herds of elephant trod slowly to the tiny, man-made watering hole to drink up the gallons of water needed to sustain them and to spray warm water over their hot, grey skin.

“It hasn’t rained here since April 2014,” Leanne told me. “If it doesn’t rain this year, the animals are going to die.”

That evening, we loaded up on questionable, but intrepid jeeps to find The Big Five. Deanne drove us through a maze of dusty roads, stopping as we spotted more herds of elephants, skittish zebra, thousands of the lovely impala, giraffe and more.

The highlight, however, were the magnificent rhinos. Four of them — the larger white rhino — grazed undisturbed by our presence mere feet from where we parked.

At night, as the sun once again turned into bloody fire as it set behind the always-present mountains, our safari ended with a night drive under the vast Africa stars.

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

Any trip to South Africa is not complete without a visit to Kruger National Park, the crown jewel of animal sightings.

Kruger National Park is one of the foremost wildlife sanctuaries in the world. At an impressive 18,989 square kilometers, the park is the largest in South Africa, and is home to multiple private reserves in the area, a varied ecosystem and a wider selection of mammal species than anywhere else in Africa.

Situated in the bushveld of the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, the Greater Kruger Park is home to the Big Five — lions, elephants, rhinos, water buffalo and leopards.

Being on vacation in a land where you could very likely be killed by the wildlife is a sobering experience.

While in Africa, I was chased by a hippo, nearly blown off a mountain, navigated the dark in lion territory and came face to face with a great white shark. Yes, Africa is wild, and yes, Africa will kill you if you don’t respect and fear her.

On our game drives, we had close encounters with countless elephant herds and graceful giraffe. We were only yards away white rhinos, which ignored us with the confidence of an animal that knows it can crush you.

While on safari in Kruger, our encounters were not as intimate, but were often. Elephants blocked the road and toured along the banks of the Sabi River. Giraffes lumbered alongside our safari vehicle while lions slept lazily down empty riverbeds.

Kruger National Park has been a haven for wildlife since 1898 and tourists have visited the park since 1927. Because it’s the largest safari destination in South Africa, Kruger has a convenient and extensive road network for safari tours and plentiful accommodation options.

A traditional safari game drive is usually done in a four-wheel drive vehicle or open-air truck with a professional guide who can point out the sometimes elusive creatures that call Kruger home.

Game viewing opportunities are the best in the early morning or late afternoon when temperatures are cooler and animals are more active, and while you can rent a vehicle and drive around the park, it’s easier to hire a professional guide who knows how to spot the animals.

Although South Africa’s game reserves are usually packed with herds of budget-minded tourists, the sin seems excusable. Until you’re face to face with the beleaguered and often-poached rhino or witness the elegance of wild giraffe with groups of prancing impala between their long legs, it’s difficult to describe the awe of being in one of the world’s last wild places.

Even the most cynical tourist must gasp when a family of 30 elephants rumble across your path. Even the bravest traveler will tremble at the ferocious gaze of a lion or the colossal charge of a hippo.

This is South Africa. A safari is waiting for you.

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