When talking about a safari in South Africa, the first thing that comes to mind is the wildlife. Indeed, being near wild animals renowned by their ferocity, speed, and strength is mind-blowing. However, being in that corner of the globe goes beyond that. It means not only being face-to-face with savage creatures, but also getting to know local people and their customs, getting in touch with nature, and being mesmerized by the spectacular scenary. It was one of the most delightful adventures we’ve ever had!
A driver was waiting for us when we landed in Nelspruit. We drove for two and half hours to the Elephant Plains Game Lodge, located in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, an estimated 100,000-acre preserve, adjacent to the Kruger National Park. After passing the town of Hazyview, the ride became quite bumpy, and we still had another hour to the reserve. An “African massage” according to our driver. Definitely a funny man! Along the way, there were big plantations of banana and macadamia, as well as mango, avocado, eucalyptus, and oranges.
Like most African wildlife lodges, the Elephant Plains Game Lodge includes accommodations, all meals, game drives, and bush walks. However, the staff went above and beyond that. From the moment we arrived until the time we left, we found exceptionally friendly and helpful folks. I must say that it was one of the best hotel experiences of our lives.
The lodge itself is a lovely place. Our room was unbelievably gorgeous: large, with a good-sized bathroom, indoor/outdoor shower, and a private deck overlooking a waterhole where animals would come to quench their thirst. At one point we saw a herd of eighteen elephants drinking from the waterhole just outside our porch. We also saw lions, wildebeests, and hundreds of impalas. It was an Africa-only special gift.
Some lodges do not welcome children on safaris. At Elephant Plains Game Lodge, our daughter was welcomed on the game drives, but not to the bush walk since she is under 16. Instead, a ranger would take her on a walk around the property. She learned a lot about different plants, but she was a bit disappointed because she couldn’t come with us.
When it came to meal time, they provided excellent quality and wonderful choices (breakfast and lunch were buffet style). In the morning, we could have warm dishes from the kitchen, if requested. The restaurant had an open view to a balcony and trees where monkeys would be waiting for a chance to steal our food if we left it unwatched. Every night, the Boma-style plated dinners (chosen from two options) were a treat, especially with the chance to roast some marshmallows on the campfire in the center of the area. It also gave us the opportunity to chat with other guests.
Every aspect of our three-day stay left absolutely nothing to be desired. The staff were genuinely friendly. We had a chance to chat with some of them during our stay and heard that many of them have been with Elephant Plains for many years.
The Game drives
When we arrived, they gave us the choice to relax and have a meal, or join the afternoon game drive. The group had already left, but we quickly threw our things down, grabbed some fresh fruits that they packed for us, and joined the afternoon safari. An employee drove us to meet the group. Dawie, our ranger for the next three days, welcomed us with a big smile. We jumped out of our car and joined the other guests in the 4×4 safari jeep.
We had two game drives a day, one in the early morning and one in the late afternoon. The hardest part of the safari was to get up at 5:15 am in cold weather, but the wakeup calls were always on time, and we made sure we made every one. Yes, it was cold (around 30° F), but they took good care of us. Prior to our departure, we would get coffee and a small bite, just to hold us until our return and have a full breakfast. As soon as we got in the jeep, they would give us hot thermal bags and blankets for our comfort. Although we thought we came prepared, we had to buy winter hats in the gift shop located in the lobby of the hotel.
The jeep holds eleven guests, plus the ranger and tracker. As the ranger drove around, the tracker sat in an elevated chair on the front-left corner of the car, where he would have a better angle to spot any animal in the bush. We were not allowed to stand up in the car or put our hands out. Also, when close to the animals, it was recommended that we keep our voice low and not make any abrupt move. Our experienced tracker and ranger made us feel totally safe all the time, but still very adventurous. Dawie was capable of reading Africa’s wild animal movements and behavior, and back up the jeep if necessary. He was able to find an animal just by looking at the fresh tracks on the road. We couldn’t count on what we would see, but they did maximize every sighting. They did an amazing job.
Each day after breakfast we had a bush walk. The bush walk was focused on flora and small creatures more than the larger animals. However, we learned how to track an animal on foot just by checking its footprint. We saw a hippo in a pond, some warthogs, and of course, more impalas – they were everywhere.
Five animals are classified as the Big Five, meaning the five most difficult African species to track and hunt on foot: lions, leopards, elephants, black rhinoceros, and African cape buffaloes. On our first game drive, we saw three: elephants, black rhinos, and cape buffalos. The next morning, we saw the other two: lions and a male leopard. The three male lions walked so close to our vehicle that if we had stretched our arms out, we could have touched them. It blew our minds! An hour later we saw a female leopard who got bumped off a tree by a male leopard for her prey, an impala. The male leopard eventually came down from the tree and we got a few good photos of him. Very impressive.
We noticed that some guests, who were there only for a day, seemed to be very stressed to see the “Big Five,” while those who were there longer seemed more relaxed. We were very lucky to see all of them in less than 24 hours. Yet, I would recommend staying for at least three days to fully experience the wildness of Africa and its beauty without tension.
During the next two days, the schedule was the same. Sometimes the game drives were very exciting, with many animals sighted. Once, we saw a group of ten lions with their cubs after the sun went down. We also saw hyenas, giraffes, wildebeests, hippos, baboons, dik-dik, kudus, many birds, warthogs, and hundreds of impalas.
We had slow game drives as well – after all, it is the wild and there is no schedule when animals will show up. When it happened, we made a stop for a quick drink along the way, coffee in the morning, and a glass of wine in the afternoon – my husband would have a whiskey – enjoying the sunset in the African horizon. Fantastic!
Our daughter was fascinated by watching wild animals roaming freely in the bush, when all she knew previously were those same creatures behind zoo bars. She was extremely engaged in the game drives. We got her a pair of binoculars, which was helpful. During the drives, she was searching for animals in the bushes, and happily pointing them out to our ranger.
We hit the jackpot on our last morning in the reserve. After seeing more animals that we had already seen before, including another leopard (only creature of the Big Five that we had seen only once), we saw a big group of wild dogs fighting some hyenas. According to Dawie, our ranger, only 300 wild dogs exist in the 7,500 square mile Kruger National Park (about the size of New Jersey). Thus, they are extremely rare to see! All others we saw multiple times. Sadly, we didn’t get to see any zebra.
Every afternoon, once the sun went down, the temperature quickly dropped. Returning to the hotel, we would clean up and go to the bar for a drink, where we had a chance to talk with other guests about the day. Later, a small bell would ring to tell us dinner is ready; along with other visitors, we would meander over to nicely set tables around the campfire.
A nice ending was watching six lions drinking from the waterhole just outside of the hotel. We were checking out when an employee ran to tell us about them. What a great send off!
There is no doubt that our modern life style brings a number of advantages: easy travel to the other side of the world, machines to do things for us, advanced science to cure diseases, and so on. At the same time, we live in big cities, technology demands more from us, heavy traffic becomes normal, and desk jobs stress us out.
By all means, a safari in South Africa brings one to a different world. The only hurry is to get up on the first ring of the wakeup call to not miss a game drive. Instead of a quick breakfast, have a pleasant meal overlooking a quiet, green field. No traffic jams, except for wild dogs and elephants crossing the dirt road. Outside of the lodge, no headlights or streetlights, but shining stars above our heads. And above all, meters away from our jeep, savage animals rested, drank, fought, and killed. It was the wild! It was Africa!