animal tongues, Kruger National Park, leopard in tree, Letaba Camp, lion kill, Phalaborwa Gate, Pilanesberg National Park, safari vacation, Satara Camp, savannah in rain, Skukuza Camp, South Africa, travel, trip planning
Do a quick Google search of ‘safari vacation’ and you’ll get an incredible number and variety of resorts – child-friendly, luxury, multi-week, honeymoon… It’s all there for the taking. One thing that doesn’t come up much is ‘self-drive’ – perhaps because you have to be slightly crazy to attempt it all by yourself. However, I now have a very complete travel itinerary should any of you wish to plan a South African safari vacation. 🙂
The whole purpose of planning this trip was so that Rich and I could re-visit Kruger National Park and the results of that portion of the trip are what the images attached to this post is all about (feel free to skip past my dithering and get straight to the good stuff).
On our first trip to SA, when he was asked if he would like to go on safari, Rich said, “I don’t mind, really… I’ve been to a safari park and it’s kind of the same thing.” Famous last words. Within minutes of driving through the gate on the first morning, he was clearly hooked and I knew we’d be returning one day.
On that first trip, we only had 1.5 days in Kruger and then we spent a further 2 days in Pilanesberg National Park, which was risky – little time in the park means less opportunity for game viewing and definitely less time to spend becoming familiar with animal behaviour. Close friends and family are still regaled with tales from this now infamous experience – getting caught in (and surrounded by) a herd of 25+ elephant, making eye contact with a lion that then growled at me from 10 feet away, a ridiculous number of sightings before 9am… It was a trip to write home about (and I did!).
On this trip, we knew we wanted more time; Rich’s goal was to drive the park from north to south and that can’t really be done in less than 10 days. Given the fact that we recruited four members of my family to make the trip financially feasible, we had some time restrictions that meant covering the whole park was no longer possible, but we still aimed to cover a fair bit of ground. We ended up opting to start at Letaba and finish at Pretoriuskop, staying at every main camp in between.
I spent a few months excitedly researching the details – tracking airfare, checking maps, looking at camps, finding affordable car rental options, planning our route, creating an estimated budget so we could lure some unsuspecting victims, er, travel partners into the group – which was impressive given that Rich and I normally tend to just land and see what happens (as you’ll notice when I start blogging while travelling in January). But you can’t do that when you’re dealing with limited accommodation and low vacancies; our route faced challenges when parks started being fully booked for September accommodation as early as April.
In order to get from OR Tambo to Phalaborwa Gate, you’d better allow for the possibility of construction delays, be out of the city by 10am and not need to make many stops en route (and certainly not run into any police) if you want to make it there and on to camp by the time the camp gates shut at 6pm. Fortunately for me, I married someone who dreams that he is Mario Andretti, and Dad had no choice but to keep up or get lost, so we made it there on time – and, as we drove to camp, we got the bonus of a count down that could rival Dick Clark’s. A rockin’ eve, indeed… The reality of this trip was that there was a phenomenal amount of time spent in the car. The park said to allow an average speed of 20 km/hr; with 6 of us all trying to get enough of a view at each sighting to satisfy our sense of wonder, our average speed was closer to 10 km/hr. When you have 90 km to travel on your biggest day to your next camp…. that’s a long day. Oh, and did I mention that travelling for long periods in a car with a pregnant woman when you’re in a rush means that you get to create all sorts of new speed laws? Fortunately for all of us, Al did a darn good job of hanging in there!
There were early starts – perhaps a bit earlier than needed, as Dad learned that being ready at 5:25am isn’t quite necessary; and early nights – our part of camp was usually pretty darn quiet by 8:30 or 9pm. Makeshift cooking plans were eased by the fact that we did a large grocery shopping trip before entering the park to make sure we could get a decent variety of foods, plus we packed our own utensils, a few homemade spice mixes and other little culinary niceties, but cooking pasta for 6 people in one little pot was more exciting than my tired brain really wanted to cope with some days… 🙂
Some things I was grateful for:
-Tea, rusks, and my travel mug – you don’t find rusks in many places and they were one of the things I was disproportionately excited about having access to during the trip. What can be better than a hot cup of chai rooibos and an ever-so-slightly sweet buttermilk rusk at 6am?
-A fearless driver – it’s not often that I applaud Rich’s absolutely INSANE driving habits, but on this trip, his take-no-prisoners approach behind the wheel got us to camps on time on multiple occasions and got us some awesome angles for multiple incredible sightings (including a pack of dogs chasing a steenbok that could’ve been a relative of the original bat out of hell).
-My chef’s knife – there are only so many things I’m willing to go without, so I packed one of my favourites. This girl can cope with a shower every three days with no problems, but trying to slice onions with a blunt knife puts me over the edge.
-A headlamp. There are snakes. It’s not a phobia of mine, but they’re there and they’re poisonous. I don’t know if they’re in the camps and I certainly didn’t see any, but I’d prefer to keep it that way when I’m stumbling across the dirt to the bathroom at 2 in the morning.
-A steak the size of my torso. Was it high on the priority list? Nope. But it was there and it fed us for three days. 🙂
-My freaking amazing camera. Some of the images below were actually taken quite some distance away. I have a 28-300mm lens; more than enough for most situations that I’m presented with in my everyday work, but some animals are exceptionally good at choosing to hang out at distances not best served by a 300mm lens. The image quality of the camera made up for the distance my lens couldn’t cover.
-Other people doing the dishes. Rich and I cooked most nights and were happy to do so. I LOATHE doing dishes. So having everyone else chip in for this part was amazing!
-Kola tonic. Just because it’s amazing.
Some things you should know if you’re planning a trip to a SANParks destination:
-It’s not really roughing it, unless you’re planning to bring your own tent; accommodation is comfortable at a bare minimum, luxurious if you’re willing to splash out
-Bringing your own cutlery, plates, and a few Tupperwares means you can prep food and eat on the road, making your schedule much more fluid
-Because our time constraints didn’t quite mesh with our desired route, we stayed at 6 camps in 8 nights; I can’t say I’d recommend this option to most people. If you have the time, plan to stay at 2 or 3 camps for at least 2 nights each.
-Try looking for a secondhand satnav card on eBay or Amazon that is compatible with your GPS unit; if you bring your own GPS with you, it’ll save you hassle and money
-You have to be at the park gates with enough time to allow for you to get to your camp before the gates close. Speed limits in the park are low and you’re going to want to stop when you see something interesting (and you WILL see something interesting, especially if you’re running late – Murphy will make sure of it!). We entered at Phalaborwa at 5:08pm; our camp was 51km away – it’s a miracle that they let us in the park that night, and even more of a miracle that we made it to camp in time.
-Most importantly, unless it’s clearly marked on a sign in front of you… Stay in your car!
The sightings, as you now can tell, were interesting, often amusing and plentiful. Our long stay in the park meant we had enough time to be able to sit and watch the animals for a while when we wanted to, without needing to rush off because we had too much ground to cover or were in a rush to try to take in as much as we could in a short space of time. That being said, we seemed to have awesome luck at stumbling across amazing sightings (getting caught in a herd of 150+ buffalo; a leopard guarding the bushbuck it had dragged up a tree; huge pride of lionesses) at 5:30, with camp easily 20 minutes away and the gates closing in 30.
It was an incredible trip, and I’m pretty sure Rich is already mentally planning our next one…