South African Safari

When many Americans think of Africa, what comes to mind is a foreign ecosystem stretching from desert to jungle with lions and monkeys abounding and tragically in recent months, they probably think of the ebola crisis, kidnappings and terrorist activities as well. Yet in the midst of all these new fears about Africa is a much more peaceful yet exciting aspect of the continent, South Africa. In South Africa, you get a feeling of calm that other areas can’t muster right now.

It may be easy for people to misunderstand as Americans especially don’t have a great sense of geography in reference to the African continent. For example, Africa is almost twice as far from North to South as the United States, or about 3,000 miles. The country of South Africa is about 470,000 square miles or almost as big as what we would call the Northeast of the United States and has a population of about 54 million. Now this isn’t a story about geography, but it is intended to give a sense of scale for the continent and to show how far away from troubled areas the country of South Africa is.

South African Safari
Photo by Storm Signal Flickr.com

When flying into Johannesburg one is struck by its size. It is a sprawling metropolis of about 15 million people. It is modern to the point of looking a lot like a large southern California city, such as San Diego, complete with McDonalds and KFC. One big difference is that you drive on the lefthand side of the road like in Britain. This takes a little getting used to. Do remember to look right before entering an intersection!

Hit the ground running on the first day there as it helps fight the jet lag. One of the best animal oriented venues in Johannesburg is the Lion Park. This is a drive through park that will give you very close up views of lions and many other species of African wildlife. After the drive, stop and do the walking zoo. One of the biggest attractions of the park is its lion cub interaction. How often does anyone get to play with a lion cub?

South African Safari

Throughout the country, you will find private game reserves. A term used by some to mean a private zoo, the truth is that it’s closer to a wildlife protection zone. Many varying sizes of preserve are available with differing levels of accommodations. Some are very expensive 5 star rated hotels while others have more moderate hotels and others yet are “tent” sites. Now for a backpacker, what they call a “tent” accommodation is a far cry from what we would call it. They have queen sized beds, showers and a lanai. They are tented roofs within a fenced area, but they do have some wild animals that roam through the tent area such as zebra, impala and nyala. It is quite an experience to wake up to a zebra in your front yard.

South African Safari
Photo by Club Med UK Flickr.com

The accommodations where we stayed were on the Zulu Nyala Game Preserve. The resort hotel had great rooms, a pool, restaurant and bar. The staff is wonderful, happy and accommodating to all your needs. One can even get a massage after a long day riding in a covered, but open, truck on dirt roads searching for elusive game. This preserve is about 4,000 acres and has many of the animals that everyone wants to see including elephants, cheetahs, cape buffalo, wildebeest, impala, warthogs and many more. This particular preserve isn’t big enough to have lions, as it requires more acreage for a territory for the big cats. However, other neighboring preserves and national parks in the area do have lions to observe in their completely natural state. Do make the effort to see some of the national parks, it is well worth the cost and time.

Traveling through the national park at Hluhluwe/Umfolozi was an unbelievable experience all in itself. There were three different prides of lions encountered. One of them made a kill of a cape buffalo while we were there and, in another, all of the youngest members of a pride attacked a different herd of buffalo actually getting down a calf right in front of us. In this instance, the young lions were too inexperienced to make the kill, so the calf got away with a lesson on staying in the middle of the herd, not at the front!

South African Safari

Seasons in South Africa are opposite to ours, so in our winter, it is summer there. This trip was right on the cusp of their summer, so the weather was cool to cold in the mornings and very comfortable in the afternoons. After dark it gets cool again. It is also the season when they do their ecological burns. Those who manage the areas burn off all the areas to allow for the next wave of fresh new vegetation to emerge. This also allows for better wildlife viewing as the grasses, which grow to 4’ height, are removed. It is quite a sight to see these massive burns going on, but it also puts a lot of smoke in the air.

South African Safari

While in the park, we came across a group of elephants wanting to cross the road. The matriarch of the group had at least 3 younger calves with her. She was very cautious about crossing with them and even confronted us showing her huge ears and grasping large rocks to intimidate us to move away. Elephants are known to throw rocks and branches at vehicles to scare them off. This particular elephant had lost both tusks, but was none the less very intimidating.

South African Safari

From a high road overlooking a river, you can sometimes see very large groups of animals clustered to get water. In one location, there were over 40 elephants in clusters of 10-15 or so. Just a short distance away was a small herd of buffalo getting a cool drink in the late afternoon. This is what Africa has looked like for eons and will hopefully continue to for many more to come.

We’ve all heard about elephants being killed for their tusks of ivory and now rhinos are being killed for their horns. It is a huge problem for all parts of Africa where these animals exist. The disparity in income for poor tribesmen versus greedy middlemen is causing the decimation of many of the few remaining animals. Even on smaller game reserves, there is often poaching occurring on a regular basis. We saw the carcass of a full grown female rhino killed by poachers, just for a horn made of material similar to our fingernails. This is a material with no real value to anyone except for the rhino. There are even stories of veterinarians forming poaching groups to tranquilize them to cut off the horns.

South African Safari

One of the most interesting animals in Africa is the cheetah. It is also endangered, but for an entirely different reason: there has been so much inbreeding of the species that many of the cats are now infertile. As many as 25% of the big cats are unable to breed. While at Zulu Nyala, we visited a cheetah rehabilitation center. While it may seem just like another zoo to the public, much work goes on behind the scenes to find and breed cats from different areas to expand the gene pool. Other cats that have been bought by people as kittens, which become too large for them to care for, are kept and also bred with more wild cats. The tame ones are on display to the public and can even be handled. These tours help support all the efforts to care for and perpetuate the species.

There are so many stories to tell from such an amazing experience as a South African safari. It can truly be the adventure of a lifetime, without exaggeration. For those of adventurous spirit and the time and means, a trip to South Africa should be on your bucket list.

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