Going on safari has always been a dream of mine and this week I got to experience it. From Johannesburg, I flew north into the bush near Kruger National Park. I was so excited but admittedly, a little nervous. What if I contracted malaria or worse, got attacked by one of The Big Five? As you will see, this trip was filled with surprises: an encounter with a cheetah, an elephant-back safari and a hot air balloon safari. If you are up for some adventure South African-style, then grab your passport, your bug repellent and your binoculars. We're going on safari.
Last week when we left off, I was contemplating my dilemma: whether or not to take malaria medication. Well, to pick up the story, when I got back to my room, I chose to pop the Malarone pill. I don't know if my reaction was merely psychosomatic but let me tell you, I was feeling queasy. And trust me -- that's not how you want to feel when you're in a foreign country, about to board a small plane and head out into the South African bush. So I took the advice of more than half of the locals I interviewed and stopped taking the medication. People I spoke to said that since I was traveling to a low-risk area and traveling during a low-risk time (i.e. before the rainy season), the pills were not worth the side effects. But they did stress that I visit a doctor immediately at the first sign of flu symptoms and request a test for malaria. Malaria is only dangerous if you wait -- even a few days. The good news is that if doctors catch it early, malaria can be treated with a single pill. The bad news? It can stay in your blood for up to one year so if you get sick a lot, you have to keep going for tests. One way around this is to go to a South African pharmacy and purchase malaria self-tests and the pills to cure it (it's pretty cheap). TIP: If you get sick in South Africa, go to a private hospital even though the cost is more. The better healthcare there is worth the extra money.
How to Prevent Malaria
One of the reasons I was convinced to stop taking the meds was this; I learned that even when you are taking malaria medication, you're still not 100% protected. And as the old saying goes: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So my goal was to focus on prevention. Malaria is transmitted through mosquito bites so you need to wear bug repellent, long pants, socks, long-sleeved shirts and a hat. Don't go out at dawn or dusk, when mosquitoes are at their biting peak, which, incidentally, is the same time for your best viewing of game life. One local told me that the particular mosquito that carries malaria is only out between midnight and 4am. I don't know if I believe that but you can bet your bottom dollar that I was locked in my room by the stroke of midnight each night. No matter what, the idea of contracting malaria is downright scary and I'm still not sure if I made the right decision.
NOTE: According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention: "Higher concentrations of DEET may have a longer repellent effect; however, concentrations over 50% provide no added protection." I wish I had read this before I applied the 98% DEET all over my naked body.
I arrived at the modern and bright OR Tambo Airport 90 minutes prior to my South African Express flight. Check-in was smooth. It took less than two minutes. I passed my time in the plush South African Airways (SAA) domestic lounge. It has an African motif, free food, drinks and newspapers. Wireless Internet is also available and I paid 30 Rand (US$4.36) for 30 minutes. It's a good deal since you can log on and off for up to a month.
Johannesburg to Hoedspruit
The security line was short and moved quickly, mostly because passengers don't need to remove their shoes. We took a shuttle bus out to the 50-seater Dash 8-300 series plane. Since my stomach was a bit queasy, I couldn't have been happier when I discovered that the only empty seat on the tight turboprop was the one next to me. Score. The flight was bumpy at first and when the girl behind me screamed as the plane dropped a few feet ascending through the thunderhead clouds, I reached for the dreaded white bag... just in case. But fortunately, the skies cleared and it was a smooth one-hour flight. FYI: The pilot later came on the PA and apologized for the bump. He told us that the best time to fly around South Africa is in the morning because afternoons are usually plagued with thunderstorms. When there weren't any more thunderheads for me to cast my evil stare upon, I re-read my safari book and flipped through the in-flight magazine. Wow. It must have been a slow month for advertisers because every other page was a house ad for SAA.
Here Comes the Rain
Just as we touched down it began to pour. Just my luck. The rainy season was beginning the day I arrived. As I sat there, staring out the raindrop-dotted window, all I could imagine was how happy the mosquitoes must be. The sound of the rain and the smell of wet pavement probably woke them from their sweet spring slumber. After a few yawns and some high-fives, I could just see them as they warmed up their wings and stingers and flew the coop. With that image in my mind, I ran like hell to the terminal, a 100-yard dash, like Olympian Al Joyner, the whole time yelling, "Why did I wear shorts? Why did I wear shorts?"
The open-air airport made me feel like I was in a remote part of the country. There were a slew of tour operators, all lined up with their safari vehicles outside, waiting to collect their guests. They and the airport folks were very nice as they handed out free ponchos and calmed my nerves about malaria. When my luggage arrived, I found myself wishing that they'd put a poncho around it because it was soaked. A smart packer would have packed their clothes in a plastic garbage bag first.
Although it felt remote at first, Hoedspruit wasn't what I pictured. I imagined landing on a dirt road out in the bush, not a paved airport strip with a huge air force base attached. I also wasn't expecting a town with a strip mall. Hoedspruit is in the Limpopo province of South Africa at the foot of the Drakensberg (Dragon) Mountains. It's become quite popular with the influx of private game reserves that are all to the west of Kruger National Park. Part of me was relieved that I wasn't alone out in the wilderness, while a much smaller but bolder part of me was a bit disappointed.
I grabbed my belongings and jumped in the van for the 30-minute drive to the lodge. I had no idea what the lodge was going to be like but secretly, I was hoping it would be one of those incredible safari lodges you read about and see pictures of in magazines. But when we pulled into the driveway, it was apparent I was stayin' at a motel. Don't get me wrong. The River Lodge is perfect for what it is ... a budget lodging for those doing self-drive safaris. Besides the price (325 Rand per person or 700 Rand for couples), the best part about it is that it's a great representation of the new South Africa. Connie and her husband are black owners, which until a few years ago, would have been unheard of in this country. The young couple couldn't have been nicer and for the most part, the staff reflected their hospitality, too. They were eager to help, the rooms were a good size and the food was decent. One night, they even had a fire pit BBQ down by the river and served traditional food like freshly baked maize bread, kudu and wild spinach with crushed peanuts.
A lot of French people stay at the River Lodge but the only person I met was a South African who now lives in San Diego. BTW: He thought I was crazy for not taking the malaria pills, which was not at all comforting. What I didn't like about the River Lodge was its location. To get to any of the game reserves was a good 30-minute drive. I also didn't like the fact that they had the windows wide open without screens so naturally, there were lots of dead bugs in my room. Why they didn't just put on the air conditioning, I don't know. The rooms have a TV with four channels; each night I turned it on, my options were soccer or Oprah. The tiled bathroom needed some help and the shower wasn't exactly up to par but then again -- I'm spoiled.
Mosquito Paranoia Will Destroy You
During the day, I covered my body with OFF's Deep Woods Sportsmen Insect Repellent that contains 98% DEET. Before bed each night, I showered to wash it off so when I woke up, I would still have all my skin. Ninety-eight percent DEET is scary but then again, so is malaria. My fear of contracting the disease was so great that I would take a shower in the dark; I didn't want to attract the thirsty bloodsuckers. I would quickly dry myself off and run as fast as I could to my bedroom. FYI: Each night, before taking my shower and turning off the lights, I would get everything all set up: I'd turn the TV on, put my BlackBerry under my pillow (when I wasn't emailing, I used it as a flashlight), lay out my Chapstick, bottle of water and of course, fix the bed's mosquito netting, wrapping it tightly around the corners and leaving just a little opening for me to dive into. And I literally dove straight through that hole like Superman. Of course, the last night, I missed the opening in the netting entirely and the whole dang thing came crashing down, right on my head like a heavy chandelier. Ugh. Explaining that one to the staff was not easy, nor was sleeping with the net pressed up against my face.
1. The best time to go on a safari in South Africa is in the dry winter months: June through October (especially October).
2. Lions and elephants are the only two animals likely to attack a vehicle or people in a vehicle.
3. Hippopotamuses are the most dangerous animal as they kill more humans than any other in Africa. Tip: If the Hungry Hippo yawns, you better get your butt outta there because he ain't tired -- he's pissed.
4. When on a safari, don't make sounds, don't stand up, don't smoke, speak softly and listen to your driver and guide. And don't use a lot of body fragrance. I wonder if DEET counts?
The Big Five
Throughout my trip I kept hearing the term "The Big Five." Before I arrived in Africa, I had no idea what The Big Five actually were until I read about them: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino. Hunters considered these animals the most dangerous so naturally, they were the most sought after. These days, they're still the most popular, but for a different kind of safari -- a photo safari.
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is in the Limpopo province and is arguably one of the most spectacular and diverse conservation areas on the planet. There are over 147 different species of mammals, over 500 species of birds, over 100 species of reptiles, 49 species of African indigenous fish, 34 types of amphibians and over 300 different species of trees. Now that's wildlife. In and around Kruger, there are plenty of safari and tour operators, as well as game reserves to choose from.
I took a game drive with Siyabona Africa. This company offers something for everyone's budget, from camping facilities and plush bungalows to game drives. I met the young South African guide in a game reserve right next door to Kruger National Park, a chained link fence separating us.
In Search of the Big Five
It was so cool to see the tan-colored, open-air Nissan truck with three rows of seats (each row holds three adults) just waiting for me to jump into it. According to the guidebook, the best seat is right behind the driver so that you can hear him, so that's the one I chose. My group hopped in and the driver said, "Now be sure to put your seatbelt on." When I looked up, after finding nothing to grab, he smiled and said, "There's no seat belt, silly. We're in Africa!" Ha. Not funny. It was thrilling cruising down the dirt road with a tracker sitting in a seat on the hood of the truck (with a seat belt, I might add). Now the trackers seem to have some kind of sixth sense when it comes to, well, tracking wildlife. Sure enough, after traveling about 500 yards, our guide Johan held up his right arm and pointed over a small lake. And there they were -- a herd of giraffes and zebras and a wildebeest just milling around near them. I felt like I was in The Lion King and wanted to sing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". Fortunately, I didn't break into song, remembering that we needed to stay quiet. The driver stopped the car, turned off the engine and whispered information about these amazing animals. Did you know that giraffes have one of the shortest sleep requirements of any mammal? They only need between 10 minutes and two hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, and average just 1.9 hours per day. I've seen giraffes in zoos more times than I can count but seeing them out in the wild, chomping off leaves at the tops of trees is truly unforgettable. It was so peaceful. How could anyone shoot these majestic creatures?
After 10 minutes of seeing giraffes and zebras it was time to continue our journey in search of more of The Big Five. We drove just a few feet when Johan held up his hand to stop and jumped off the vehicle in a hurry. He yelled something in Afrikaans. "No way!" the driver shot back in English. It turns out that while we were watching the giraffes, a friggin' poisonous snake had climbed into the hood of the car and was under the spotter's seat. They eventually got him out but you know I was watching the ground very carefully when we stopped and checking under my seat to make sure that we hadn't picked up any other hitchhiker snakes. Incidentally, the driver said it was the first time this had ever happened to him.
Wild Animal Park
The game drive lasted a few hours and we encountered many more giraffes, zebras and other wild animals; warthogs, impala, springbok, kudu, a hyena and a turtle. But we didn't see any of The Big Five. Although game reserves are fenced in (I know. I was bummed when I learned that, too!), there were still hundreds of thousands of acres to cover. So even if another driver who's out there with a group radios your driver with the locations of other animals, they move so fast it's still hit or miss what you might see. One of the passengers in the car saw seven lions the day before so I suppose you never know.
NOTE: The upside about fenced-in game reserves is that the animals are protected from poachers. Can you believe that people still do this? The downside? It kind of feels like San Diego's wild animal park, though on a much larger scale. However, unlike the San Diego park, these park rangers don't feed the animals.
The next morning I drove about 45 minutes from the River Lodge to Camp Jabulani. Now this five-star camp is exactly what I was imagining and here, they offer charter flights that land on a desolate dirt road. They have just six incredibly luxurious suites for a maximum of 12 guests and they have 70 staff members. Crazy, huh? No wonder so many celebrities have stayed here, including John Cusack, Brooke Shields and Uma Thurman.
My jaw dropped when I took a tour and had breakfast on the outdoor patio along the bank of a seasonal stream, in the shade of leadwood trees. The open-air lobby is exquisite. It's not really a lobby but a dining and living room. Now this is the place to go if you want to splurge on a romantic getaway. They even have an open-air gym and spa (massages cost $45). Everything is first rate, but what makes this camp unique is its back story and its offerings.
The camp was created to support and sustain 13 elephants from Zimbabwe. It all began with one orphaned elephant named Jabulani, which means 'happy'. By a stroke of fate, wildlife visionary Lente Roode took them into custody. Lente is an amazing woman and has committed her life's work to the conservation and preservation of animal species. That's why she founded the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (we'll visit it shortly) and brought the 13 elephants here. Click here to read the full heartwarming story.
Camp Jabulani is not cheap. It costs 6,000 Rand (that's US$871) a night per person. But this includes food, beverages, laundry, transfers and daily activities like game drives in open safari vehicles and guided bush walks all accompanied by game rangers. On top of this, guests can take an elephant back safari in the early morning or late afternoon. And during the day, guests can watch the elephants roam free or swim with their groomers, who were brought from Zimbabwe as well. The 18,000 hectare (44,479 acre) camp is part of the Kapama Game Reserve and they have The Big Five. When asked if they exploit the elephants the GM said that if they didn't rescue them, they would be dead, in the circus or doing nonstop elephant back rides throughout the day. The elephants seem happy here and so do the groomers. But to pay for the operation, they have to earn their keep by doing two safaris a day. Camp Jabulani, Tel.: +27 (0) 15 793 1265.
FYI: I hear you can't go wrong with any five-star camp in South Africa.
Elephant Back Safari
If you can't afford to stay at Camp Jabulani, you can still make a reservation to do one of the coolest things ever; an elephant back safari. I had no idea what it was going to be like. How many people would fit on each elephant? Would there be a platform and a chair? I learned that each one has a saddle that holds three adults including the groomer. I was on Somapani, a 22-year-old male who weighed a whopping 3,400 kgs (7,496 lbs) and was the most intelligent of the 13 with exceptional tracking capabilities.
And We're Off
Once all the guests were loaded, the elephants began their slow trek. Walking in front and sometimes beside, were a tracker and a guide holding a shotgun ... just in case any animals attacked but they said they've never had to fire. I was paired with a really cool young groomer named Sam from Zimbabwe. I asked Sam every question in the book and it was apparent he loves South Africa and working at Camp Jabulani. He also got a kick out of many of my pathetic questions like: What if the elephant sees a mouse? Will he get spooked? What if I fall off? What if a lion jumps up and takes me out? He assured me that none of this would ever happen and once again, I learned that fear is a shackle.
These elephants can tear down a good-sized tree with their trunk like it's a toothpick. Speaking of trees, they eat a lot of them. Elephants are herbivores and they can eat up to 500 pounds of vegetation in a single day. And, they can drink as much as 40 gallons of water at one time. You should see these guys pee. The fire department should hire them. Whoa, Nelly!
On the two-hour safari we saw plenty of giraffes, zebras, monkeys, birds, millipedes and even a crocodile. What's amazing is that it was one of the most relaxing and peaceful things I have ever done. The ride was smooth (unlike riding a camel) and I could have fallen asleep if I wanted to. At the end, they sell a video of your excursion for 300 Rand. I bought one because the proceeds go to a good cause, supporting the elephants. But the pictures and video clips I took with my camera were much better than theirs. Elephant Back Safaris cost 900 Rand ($130USD) per person and children under the age of 12 are not allowed.
Hoedspruit Cheetah Project
Lente, who owns Camp Jabulani, also owns and runs the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre. It's a 15-minute drive down the road. The 32,123 acre reserve focuses on the conservation of rare, vulnerable or endangered animals. Cheetahs are her passion; she's involved in the release and establishment of captive-bred cheetahs back into the wild. Visitors can go on a safari-like drive around the property but it's not that exciting. The best part is seeing 'the vulture restaurant' (they are an endangered species here; that's why they feed them), which is a spectacle. Same goes for the African Dog. I got a bonus treat when Lente took me out on one of her feedings so I not only got to pet a cheetah but feed it with my bare hand, too. I just kept saying, "Good kitty. Nice kitty. And please God, don't let me be front page news tomorrow." Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre. Entrance fee is 100 Rand per adult, 40 Rand for children under 12.
Shangaan Cultural Village
For dinner, I drove an hour and 45 minutes to the Shangaan Cultural Village. It would have been fine if it was nearby it is definitely not worth the almost two-hour drive. The Shangaan Cultural Village offers day, lunch and evening tours but after visiting a village in Fiji, I found this to be like Disneyland. I don't want to rag on it because all the guests (mainly Europeans) really seemed to enjoy it, especially the older and younger folks. It's also helping to keep the kids who work there off the streets.
In case you aren't familiar with the Shangaans (who is?), they are a group of people who live in the area mainly between Kruger National Park and the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa's Mpumalanga and Northern Province. The village celebrates the cultural heritage of all their people. Chief Soshangana and his family host the evening festival, where choirs, actors and dancers gather to tell the story of the Shangaan people. The music, dancing and setting are cool and the food was surprisingly good. It's served in iron pots, clay bowls and grass baskets. The menu offered up a wide range of traditional dishes like: pot-roast of beef stew, honey-glazed sweet potatoes, baked butternut squash, traditional mieliepap and samp with sugar beans. Shangaan Cultural Village.
A Magical Balloon Safari
I ended my stay in Hoedspruit in style by going on a hot air balloon safari. I was a bit nervous about going since I have a fear of heights. It helped that I had gone up in my first hot air balloon last April in Albuquerque. That was a huge step for me and I enjoyed it immensely, especially when we stayed close to the ground. But I hated when we went up 1,750 feet. So before getting into this 18-person basket, I asked the pilot if we were going to go really high. He said, "No, stupid. It's a balloon safari. The lower we are the better visibility we have of the game." OK, he didn't call me 'stupid' otherwise I would've knocked him out but you get the point. Sure enough, we didn't go higher than about 300 feet and most of the time, we hovered just above the treetops. In Albuquerque, we saw a coyote running below us, which was a huge thrill so you can imagine what it was like to spot herds of giraffes, zebras, impalas, monkeys, warthogs and buffalos out in the wild. It was magical to watch them run from this unique view. We even spotted a badger, which our pilot said was a score since he had only ever seen one once before.
The ride was so smooth and peaceful. Our pilot said that at times we were going 25 knots but it sure didn't feel like it. We flew over private game reserves and traveled about 15 kilometers (9 miles) on the hour-long ride. Not once did we hit turbulence and I didn't feel unsafe at all... until we landed. Just before we were ready to touch down, the wind picked up so we needed to land immediately. If the conditions had been like this in the beginning, we never would have set sail, so we got lucky. I quickly learned that it's difficult to fly a balloon in South Africa because there aren't a lot of open spaces to land. There are so many trees and bushes and of course, you also have to worry about wildlife.
We went in between a few trees and the pilot told us to take our brace position (ducking low in the basket). We touched down in an area so remote that our chase crew couldn't get to us. So the three guys (moi included) had to jump out and push the basket and grab the rope to make sure the balloon envelope (I guess it's called the envelope because the pilot kept yelling, "Pull the envelope!") didn't go into the trees. I gotta tell ya: running down the sand embankment, high-stepping like Deon Sanders to avoid any poisonous snakes, made me feel like l was in an action thriller. It was a combination of Indiana Jones, Planet of the Apes and The Apocalypse. I was just waiting for an ape or one (if not all) of The Big Five to jump out of the bushes and make a quick breakfast out of me. But we saved the balloon envelope from ripping and 20 minutes later, the chase crew showed up, bubbly in hand, and rescued us. We celebrated, proudly holding our flight certificates and making the traditional balloon toast. It was an incredible experience just like everything else on this trip to the Hoedspruit area. Otters Den River Lodge; 2,100 Rand per person, children under 45kg (99 lbs) in weight are half price.
Note:This trip was sponsored by the South Africa Tourism board.
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