Three weeks ago I sat at home considering what to pack for my first foray into Africa (minus a couple of jaunts around Morocco). I was setting off on a two week trip which would take in Cape Town, The Winelands and a voyage along the Garden Route before six nights in the bush.
“But surely it’s not necessary to dress yourself up like Steve Irwin when you´ll be sitting in a Land Rover the whole time?” remarked my girlfriend Isabelle. “It´s not like there´s a dress code for safaris… Is there?”
That was just it, I didn’t really know. I´d spent my life listening to David Attenborough narrating his way from the Kalahari to the Kruger, I´d been working in luxury travel for almost 10 years and had a good knowledge of the properties we were off to see but I had no real clue about how a safari worked and what to expect when I got there. Did I need smart shoes for dinner in the evening? Did I need a hunting knife? Lasso?
So I set off, borrowed fleece (I know… who doesn’t own a fleece) and a selection of my most beige and swampiest colored shirts.
The first part of the trip passed in a haze of sea food, amazing wines and absolutely stunning scenery. I have never been anywhere in the world that struck me as quite so beautiful and diverse as the scenery we passed on the drives we did from Franschhoek into Hermanus and from there to Plettenberg Bay. One moment you could have been in the Scottish Highlands, the next the American Midwest.
The amazing scenery at Delaire Graff Estate in Stellenbosch.
The one overall feeling that I was left with in the end was what a perfect destination the Cape is for a family vacation. Great fun, loads of amazing things to do and some awesome family properties. Grootbos Private Nature Reserve really stood out for its incredible location amidst the rolling Fynbos for which the Cape is so famous. From its prime position you can see down to the Atlantic below and to Gansbaai the Great White Shark capital of the world. Grootbos is home to some fantastic experiences and was a real stand out property from the first part of our trip. Not somewhere that instantly jumps out at you as a must stay hotel but it really did impress.
“Strawberry fields” on Flower Safari at Grootbos.
We arrived into Hoedspruit Airport with four days of solid safari ahead of us. Greeted by a Jackal and a Warthog as our plane touched down on the runway there was no doubting where we were. Even the pilot wishing everyone good luck in seeing The Big Five didn’t break the bubble for a moment.
The Kruger National Park is huge, our time there was to begin in a private game reserve to the north known as the Timbervati. We got to our lodge Ngala Tented Camp just in time for lunch but I couldn’t focus on the food instead being mesmerized by the surroundings. Sitting on the huge deck looking out over the dry river bed in front speckled with myriad animal tracks and listening to bush buck nibbling away at the grassy verges I knew at last I’d made it to the Africa of my childhood dreams. After a light lunch of freshwater trout from the nearby Drakensberg Mountains we were introduced to our ranger Leanne over an iced coffee and banana bread which the kitchen bakes daily for tea time. The &Beyond service was fantastic and I’d get to know the perfect iced coffee well after my time at their properties in the Sabi Sands Exeter River Lodge and Leadwood.
The main deck at Ngala Tented Lodge.
Leanne took us through the basics, no standing up in the vehicle, watch out for low branches, don’t get out etc etc. We were then on our way, the four of us together in the back of the open top Land Cruiser. You make your progress down dirt tracks carved through the bush like a series of veins stretching across the land. With the sun shining and the wind whistling past as you bump your way through river beds, hills and open planes the feeling is exhilarating. Then all of a sudden you remember why you’re out there. “We’re on the trail of some Wild Dogs whose tracks we picked up the reserve yesterday” says Leanne. I wasn’t aware but in the world of safari Wild Dogs are a big deal. Almost impossible to locate as their territories are so vast, they never stop moving and often circle erratically making them incredibly difficult to track. On the front of the Cruiser is a tiny seat perched above the left headlight and on it sits Adam. Adam is our tracker, an expert in the bush, knower of all things and general animal oracle. Adam is …The Dude. He hops off the front of the car and examines the road in front of us. “They went that way a couple of hours ago” he says quietly to Leanne. So you actually have to find the animals on a safari I think to myself.
Earlier over tea Leanne had explained that there is a huge pride of 20 Lions on the reserve that had brought down a buffalo that morning. She assures us that we will pay a visit to see how they are getting on with the carcass but first wants to follow up with the dogs. I loved the way we were brought into the drive, asked what we thought and explained why we were doing what we were. We shoot off again along the road in search of the dogs, passing a lone male buffalo on the river bed that stares menacingly across at us. We speed past various antelopes, warthogs, zebras and another couple of jackals all of which are pointed out and their behavior and place in the eco-system explained fascinatingly by Leanne.
Again Adam jumps off the front as we reach a crossroads with tracks seemingly heading in every direction. Without a word he heads into the grass as we continue on our way. “Is he going to be ok?” says Martha, our Brazilian companion sat with her husband Roberto in front. “Yeah, he´s totally at home in the bush” says Leanne “and anyway if he is surprised he can handle himself… Adam out sprinted a charging black rhino last year”.
We circle across to check the far planes for signs of the dogs. Everyone is on hand eyes peeled, looking for any movement. Then Adam is on the radio, he´s got fresh tracks crossing ours about 200 meters back down the road. It’s like the dogs are teasing us. We arrive back to find Adam standing, hands on hips looking a little peeved. “We just missed them” Leanne explains and points across to the deep bush to our right. “They’ve crossed East, there´ll be no catching them now”. If there is any disappointment in her voice it isn’t matched by the four beaming smiles in the back of the vehicle. We´re just thrilled to be here. Leanne then drives us across to a clearing where we park up and a table is set up for us with biltong and pistachios, “its G&T time” says Pete my colleague an Africa expert and long-time safari goer and so we watch the sun come down to the sound of ice cubes clinking in glasses.
Following our refreshments we head off for one final game drive to see the Lions…. We arrive in the dark bumping our way off road, through bushes and under trees to find the spot where the buffalo had been brought down. We switch off the headlights and switch to a red light that doesn’t disturb the feeding lions.
As we settle in for our dinner of Kudu loin and a large glass of Stellenbosch Shiraz I realize that I didn’t think about changing into my khaki and am still in my jeans and sweatshirt. “It’s not about the outfit then?” I say to Pete. “No you big girl it’s about the animals, no one gives a monkey’s what you’re dressed in…”