The first time anyone ventures out on safari is a magical experience. It turns wildlife documentary and glossy National Geographic images into electrifying reality. Wild animals stalking the African plains against a backdrop of dry desert grassland, or camouflaged amongst the wetlands.
My first African safari
It’s something hard to explain but it unleashes a feeling so immense and as cliché as it sounds, it’s hard to put into words. Whenever I experience something so vivid and primeval it makes me reflect on being in London only days earlier. Comparison of such contrasting environments a mere few days in is something I’ve always done and it never fails to amaze me.
South Africa’s Kruger National Park was my first safari destination. Not my first choice however as I was flying onwards to Mozambique to dive with manta rays and whale sharks it was just closer. Plus I figured that with places like the Serengeti, it was better to see the more controlled National Parks first before venturing into the wilds of Tanzania.
Landing in Johannesburg and picking up our rental we spent days hitting highlights amongst South Africa’s many, finishing in the town of Hoedspruit.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
From here we were picked up and drove for approximately 1hour to our lodge for the next 5 nights called Gomo Gomo Lodge www.gomogomo.co.za. It is a private and intimate camp situated in the prestigious Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, giving you best traverse viewing. The Klaserie now forms part of the Greater Kruger National Park with a common unfenced boundary. The reason we chose the lodge was due to it being relatively small, moderate budget, and offering a more tailored and personal experience. Literally as soon as we hit the dirt paths long-necked giraffe and impala dotted the roadside.
It can’t be compared to the larger resorts where there is a high saturation of people, they have more trucks on the ground tracking wildlife and radioing everyone in the vicinity, but actually pursuing and tracking animals organically is more of a challenge and ultimately, more rewarding.
Upon reaching the lodge, we were shown to our private bungalow (2 rooms, bathroom), put our bags down and sat on the wooden balcony overlooking a natural lake around which the safari bungalows were darted. Then it happened – a safari virgin’s wet-dream. A herd of approximately 30 elephants turned up to drink and bathe in the lake right in front of our eyes. With a fiercely proud family pack mentality, these majestic animals capable of uprooting trees, gracefully splashed in the water, teaching their young how to drink and bathe. We sat mesmerised, glued to the wildlife documentary unfolding before us and shooting-off picture after picture to the sound of ooh and aahh’s. Keep in mind reader, this happened 10 minutes after arriving so you can imagine the surprise and magnitude of what was happening.
The lodge ran like a well-oiled family run machine. Qualified and experienced field rangers and trackers gave expert information and guided early morning, late afternoon and evening game drives in open-air 4×4 Land Rovers which bumped along the dirt tracks with a quiet chaos. With the head spotter glued to his pilot seat at the front of the bonnet, he hand gestured and signalled at movements in the bushes, rushes of zebra stripes, blended lions in dry golden bushes and grazing rhino. He had a keen eye, to the point where he spotted a green lizard up a tree on one of the nocturnal night drives, in pitch black with only his torch fixed for gleaming eyes. He had grown up in the bush so this gift came easily to him much to our amazement. On one particular night drive we stalked a cheetah which ran around our vehicle screeching into the night aggressively. I suspect everyone in the open-air vehicle expected the cheetah to launch onto us any minute and being pitch dark, there was no way to know exactly what would happen – it felt dangerous and primitive, yet heightened the experience like an electrical charge.
Each afternoon an optional guided bush walk opened up the fascinating world of some of South Africa’s intricate ecosystems with its varied fauna and flora. This included my personal favourite being termite mounds, but also the smaller side of the environment around us. It can be easy to disregard the smaller life not easily apparent when looking for larger game.
Night times we retired to the ‘boma’ for dinner, a circular area enclosed by wattle fencing, lit by paraffin flame lamps and candles. The guides recounted the day’s events, wildlife spotted, told stories and at times played local music (can I just say local music cultural shows are really not my thing). It was downtime to chat, make new friends, and tuck into a wonderful meal of stodge – I really never knew there were so many ways to serve potatoes. My favourite words to hear at dinner were, “And tonight for starch we have….”, the chef then proceeded to list all the stodgy elements of the meal… potatoes, sour dough bread, rice.
It was an epic 5 days at both the Gomo Gomo Lodge and my first African safari. Everything was well catered for, incredibly well organised and information was given with an informative accuracy. We saw a veritable assortment of animals for the first time in my life (I don’t visit zoo’s) including black and white rhino, lions, zebra, elephants, cheetah, lizards, snakes, and an in-depth view into the ecosystems of South Africa. It was enough inspiration for me to return a few years later to the Serengeti and Okavango Delta in Botswana
The one thing I would say about the Kruger National Park is you have to really hunt for the wildlife, whereas it can be easier to spot them en-mass in other destinations. Having said this, I saw all I needed and truly believe the harder to find the animals, the greater the reward but worth keeping in mind.
• Sitting in the jeep in utter silence so as not to scare black rhino as they grazed within meters of us
• Relaxing in a deck chair in the sun overlooking the lake, as warthogs and giraffe drank in the water. I was memorised as the elephants allowed the babies to drink first whilst the adults formed a protective barrier around them
• Being convinced by the tracker that I would be able to know which animal it was by tasting its poo – just for the record you can’t but it does give the tracker a good laugh
• Sundowners – Drinking a cool gin and tonic whilst watching the African sun set over the plains
• Picking up skulls on the jungle walks to determine which animal it was, and following wildlife tracks in the dirt and hearing who created them and how old they were
• Smelling that sweet dusty African air, like a fusion of freshly cut grass and blood red dirt
• But perhaps my favourite was leaving city life behind and entering the animal kingdom – feeling humbled in an environment where wildlife fight and protect the hierarchy system ferociously, yet also with majestic pride
My advice : take a 300mm zoom lens – beg, borrow or steal but for the best images that’s what you need. Take binoculars for the birdlife otherwise they all look the same and finally, take a bottle of something to sip on the balcony at night under a star-studded Africa sky.