South Africa is a country that had been on our radar for a while. Unfortunately it’s not the easiest to stumble over while wandering around the world so we had been keeping an eye on where it might make sense to fly from. It turns out it really isn’t cheap from anywhere, so we decided that we might as well head there from Nepal.
We flew through Mumbai (interesting) and the Seychelles. We spent a few days at the latter – silly not to, right? – and it’s as beautiful as advertised. It was lovely and relaxing and we got some diving in as well. Then we arrived in Johannesburg to begin what we had haphazardly planned a month or so ago while on the road: a 25 day self-drive safari.
The basic idea for safari is you rent an equipped 4×4 and travel around through game preserves and parks across southern Africa, camping as you go. It sounds like normally one plans this well in advance (a year or more) but we preferred the idea of it so much to the alternatives that we winged it with fingers crossed. Now with an itinerary in place but really no idea of how the nuts and bolts of safari travel worked we were in South Africa and ready to roll.
Hand on hip and fingers tapping we waited for the 9AM arrival of our 4×4. We were momentarily pacified by the yard where we stayed the night before. A home converted to rooms run by a retired couple with lovely roses and birdhouses to keep us entertained and speculating during the wait. These weavers make elaborate nests, so elaborate in fact that Gregor and I had a bet where the stakes were dish duty for a week (not a small bet when camping for 25 days) that they were man made or bird made nests. Being perfectly crafted I figured the hosts of our place put them there to attract birds, but come to find out (yes, I have washed a lot of dishes) the males make the nest and the females come and inspect the nest and then proceed to tear it down multiple times and require the male to build a new nest (about 9 times) before they are happy enough to make bird babies. I guess dish duty is not so bad…
So our 4×4 rolls in an hour late and we’re a little stressed becuase we have a 5-6 hour drive to our campsite and also need to get groceries, and when it arrives we find out it’s missing some key components (like the fridge and stove and propane tank!) so we need to get these essential items before we get going. Rather than wait for someone to deliver these items to us, we go to the rental place and get them ourselves. While we were there we met a couple from the Netherlands who had rented from this company 6 times previously and said the 4×4 company had been getting progressively worse. Why they chose to rent with them again we do not know as the last time they had to have major service done to the vehicle and were not reimbursed. Perhaps that is just how it is with these companies, though we hope not…
In any case we somewhat-promptly got our minor glitches ironed out and then it was time to depart. We headed to a close by grocery store and did the Supermarket Sweep of shopping trips and hurled ourselves into the truck around 1PM. The gates at Kruger National Park close promply at 6PM and you need special permission to enter after that time so we were kind of concerned we weren’t going to make it to our campsite that we had already booked. Around 5:30 we gave up on getting to the park and found a campsite not too far away from the park to stay for the night. We were about 10 minutes away from the camp when we were flagged down by traffic enforcement and directed to the side of the road. Gregor was driving and handed over his license.
Traffic Cop: “You can’t cross the white line! That is against the law, we will issue a fine of 2,000 Rand but if you need a receipt we have to take you to the police station to pay.”
Gregor: “Can I see your badge?”
TC: “This is my badge.” [Points to reflective vest that reads TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT]
G: “That’s not a badge, I can buy that for $5.”
TC: “I am a Policeman! See! I wrote all these tickets today! [Shows us pad of paper with what appear to be carbon copies of paid violations]
G: “That doesn’t really prove anything. You don’t have an ID?”
TC: [To another car, arms flailing] “You pull over!” [Car continues past him] “You can’t drive like that in South Africa!”
G: “So I guess we should have kept going and not pulled over?”
TC: “You can go now, but no crossing the white line.”
That was our first introduction to South African police and while I’m sure there are many upstanding officers, the traffic cops are notoriously corrupt.
When we finally arrived at our campsite after a pretty weird first day we were met by a laid-back man who gave me some really helpful information about getting into the park the next day and settled into our campsite to explore how our rooftop tent operated and grill some chicken. (I have become somewhat obsessed with chicken having been denied it so often in Nepal.) Everything went fine thanks to South African wine which is both very cheap and very delicious, wahoo! This is the first time in our travels of 5+ months that we have had access to decent wine 🙂
Our campsite host suggested we get an early start, so we set an alarm for when we thought sunrise would be (6AM) and the next morning were surprised to find out that pretty much everyone had packed up and gone by 6:30! Ah well, first day, we will surely get the hang of this by day 25!
“Something magical happens when you pass through the gates of Kruger,” our camp host said to me the night before. Sure enough, once we checked in at the gate and drove on through it wasn’t five minutes before: giraffe! Elephants! Buffalo! What are those? Quick, check our mammal book! Impala? Wow, take a picture, drive closer!
Totally amazed by the variety and abundance of wildlife we rolled into our first campsite in the park, Skukuza and were amazed to find very nice campsites with power hookups, nice bathrooms with hot water and kitchens with burners and boiling water on demand. We quickly realized that South Africans do not mess around when it comes to this camping thing. Most everyone was outfitted with tow campers complete with welcome mats, accent lights, semi-inflatable camp chairs, tents for shade and pretty much everything else you can think of. They also take it to the next level with the braii, their word for BBQ and even our 4×4 came with a braii grate and a recipe book. The grocery stores are about half meat and the other half is stocked with rubs and sauces. Even the combination gift shop / essentials store in the park had Kudu steaks and Impala jerky. It’s only a little weird to be munching on some wildebeast jerky while watching a herd of them head to the watering hole.
I’m sure I had some vision in my head of what this trip was going to be like, but I can’t seem to remember it now. Whatever my ideas were I am sure that this experience was the best-case scenario. We like camping, but 25 days is kind of a stretch, especially if something like the bed happened to be particularly unpleasant. Writing this at the end of the trip I can safely say this was one of the most amazing and enjoyable experiences ever!
Our best day at Kruger came as a surprise. The previous couple days we had risen early to get the best chance of seeing predators (they understandably like the cooler morning and evening hours to be out and about). This hadn’t panned out – though we had come close to seeing a large pride of lions, they were chased off by a group of elephants (as described enthusiastically by the cars in front of us): we arrived in time to see the elephants in an unusual hurry going the other way. Bummer! Our fourth day in we decided to take it easy, sleep in, and leisurely make our way north towards our next campsite. So of course that would be the morning we would find our first cat: a lioness lounging in the sun probably 20m from the road.
She wasn’t terribly close but we got a nice view through binoculars. Unlike zoo lions one sees, this cat was lean: all muscle, not round and furry. We watched her lounge around for an hour or two before she retired to the shade. We were psyched – our luck hadn’t been great and we were worried about seeing any cats at all. So we carried on happily, reaching a nice picnic spot where I commented that the only thing that might prevent us from reaching our next camp in an hour or so would be if we found a cheetah and cubs. Guess what!
Despite the fact that the six cheetahs were right next to the road – a few meters away – we couldn’t see what the other stopped vehicles were looking at. Is it that bird over there? Then we caught the flick of a tail, and some more movement – not only a gorgeous cheetah, but a big litter of five cubs all gnawing on a recently caught impala. It’s hard to explain how amazing it was to watch the cubs and mother interact over the hours we watched them. They went from sleepy to playful to hungry to observant while mom patiently watched, only occasionally glancing at the wall of onlooking vehicles.
Finally the family wandered off into the bush, leaving the impala remains to the scavengers. We carried on as well, excited and awed by our sighting. We were only a few days into a nearly month-long safari – what did the future have in store for us?