If you have not experienced a South African Safari, I envy you. You have much to look forward to on your bucket list. This adventure was more amazing than I could have ever imagined. I promise this: in such a place, you will not know a morning where you don’t wake up happy, and not a day will go by that doesn’t leave you astounded.
As I researched the best ways to Safari, I became overwhelmed with options. South African safari options are plentiful, providing tons of different ways to experience wildlife. In the national parks, there are all-encompassing resorts, small hotels, tour companies and more.. all with different types of trips. There are even small reserves close to Cape Town that provide a taste of the wild without the need to venture far.
With hopes of more than a ‘taste’ and dreams of being immersed in bush-life, my research lead me to Kruger National Park, one of the largest and wildest Game Reserves in South Africa.
Our planning wasn’t over once I selected the main destination for our Safari – the options within Kruger Park are also wide-ranging. This is indeed, a “you get what you pay for” adventure. Many Safari’s within Kruger are done by tours, with rangers in closed-top vehicles, limited to the roads. These (more cost effective) Safaris can be wonderful, but I’d recommend binoculars and a longer stay if you want a chance to see the ‘Big Five’ (originally a hunting term describing the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. The term has been adopted by Safaris as the top five animals to see; Elephant, Lion, Buffalo, Leopard & the ever rarer Rhinoceros).
Years of dreaming lead us to one of the best travel-decisions made to-date. We splurged a bit, staying at a Private Game Reserve near Kruger, boasting a dense population of wildlife. Our reserve provided a chance to not only see the ‘Big Five’ but the rare ‘Magnificent Seven’, including the Cheetah and African Wild Dog (Painted Wolf). Private reserves offer open-top vehicles, expert rangers and trackers, and the ability to go ‘off-roading’ when there’s something worth seeing. We would literally drive through thorny bushes and over trees for heart pounding, up-close encounters! My love of leopards drew me specifically to Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve, known for frequent sightings of these beautiful creatures.
Within Sabi Sands, there are a number of lodges to choose from. This was an adventure we wanted to fully experience, and after additional research, we opted for a luxurious adventure at Sir Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Safari Lodge. We stayed high above the bush, in the Rock Cliff suites, enjoying panoramic views teeming with wildlife.
Ulusaba was an unparalleled experience. The accommodations were inviting and elegant, with attention to detail throughout every facet of the experience. Our time here was truly special.
Ulusaba enjoys delighting with an element of surprise. We never knew exactly what was planned, or even what we were having for dinner, until just before.
Upon arrival, and without notice, we ate and danced under the stars at a traditional Boma dinner (group Barbecue around an open fire).
We stopped for drinks and snacks during evening drives; watching herds of elephants crossing the river at sunset. Is this real life?
We were taken on a private picnic, provided a basket filled with a selection of our favorite libations and treats. We were spoiled.
Despite 5AM wake-up calls for morning drives, not a day went by when I didn’t wake up excited to see what was in store.
The highlight of our experience were the game drives. It’s nice to enjoy pampering at the lodge, but nothing compares to time chasing wildlife. For us, anything in between was just a relaxing way to wait for our next drive.
Sabi Sands Rangers and Trackers are the best of the best. We saw everything, and from just a few feet away! Our Ranger, Matt, constantly amazed us with his knowledge of the bush, where he grew up. We were enthralled by his stories of playing with lion cubs and riding his pet elephant. His ability to track was also superb! “Matt, I’d like to see a Rhinoceros today!” I’d say – and not a day went by where we didn’t complete our mission. Our tracker, Anos, was the oldest Ulusaba employee. He grew up in the area surrounding the lodge. I’m pretty sure that he has literally evolved hawk-like vision and animal-like senses. I’ll put it this way: he was able to spot no less than five chameleons, hanging like leaves from the trees, during our drive home…. at night! I would say ‘we were lucky’ to have seen the Magnificent 7, but it was simply a matter of skill that provided us with this rare opportunity!
Seeing fascinating creatures in the wild brings up many questions from curious minds! I learned so many interesting facts on our trip, like how Hippos aren’t actually good swimmers but bob up and down or walk around the bottom of a pond…
That an African elephant waves his big ears to cool down, that the leopard is the only big cat that regularly climb trees (a good spot to drag their prey to feast), that the Impala are like McDonalds for predators (on every corner – an easy fix if you’re hungry) and that if an animal is ever approaching you, you should move towards them (not away) to show dominance, because the only thing that runs in Africa, is food.
I also became more mindful of the severity that poaching is having on many species, with some ridiculous beliefs leading to extinctions. Seeing this Rhinoceros in person was even more powerful with the understanding that it may no longer exist in a mere five years. Such an incredibly unique, dinosaur! What a sad shame 🙁
On our last Safari drive, we followed a leopard (our second sighting in 3 days!) hunting for food before we slowly made our way back to the lodge through herds of Zebra, Impala and Giraffe all hanging as a group (an Animal party!). Our trip was perfect from start to finish – a sad-but-sweet finish, when we were given a cocktail and homemade brownies for the road.
As most of you know, we are consistently transient. We are always saying hello to new places, making new friends, then saying goodbye. In this situation, Goodbye is not an option. I left a piece of my heart at Ulusaba, and at some point I must return to find it.