Finally, the day had arrived for my first ever African safari tour! In early June of this year, after a week in Namibia and a weekend exploring Pretoria, I was pumped to search for and see the Big Five animals (and more) of Africa.
This first day of the tour involved bonding with others on the drive to the reserve, a sunset game drive with tons of wild animals sightings including elephant and lion, and a BBQ dinner in the African bush.
I honestly could not have asked for a more fulfilling first day. Hopefully, this perfect day wasn't going to spoil me for the remainder of my 5-day tour!
The Morning Pick-Up
I woke up early and excitedly jumped in the hostel shower. Today was the day—the day I had been dreaming of for what felt like my whole life. I was about to embark on my first ever, multi-day African safari tour!
Bag packed, I waited downstairs at the window overlooking De Korte St.
I was told to be ready for pick-up between 8:15am and 9am. I was ready by 8 and by almost 9 I was stressing that I had somehow missed the tour bus. But then it was a van that arrived. Solly, the driver, greeted me.
Sitting next to Solly up front was the first person he had picked up. He was a very talkative English guy named Ray who was taking a few days off from a business trip to go on safari. Next, we drove to Pretoria to pick up an American couple, Rich and Tori, and a young Canadian couple, Aaron and Amy.
At this point, I was kicking myself for not asking to be picked up from Pretoria, too! I had been there all weekend, but I stayed at Once in Joburg the night before because the original tour documents said pickup had to be from Johannesburg. Oh well!
We had a 6 hour drive ahead of us. So I got to know everyone on the ride during the trip. I learned they all had various days planned for their tours. While I had 5 days planned, Ray had 2 days, Aaron and Amy had 4 days, and Rich and Tori were on my same 5-day plan.
They also had different accommodation planned. For example, Aaron and Amy opted to sleep out under the stars for one night. This was something I became interested in and ended up doing on my second night!
I think it's great that everyone had customized trips like this. It kept us from being "cliquey" and I got to learn about all the various opportunities travelers have to "make-their-own safari tour."
The Drive: Joburg to Balule Reserve
As we settled into the drive, I got to know Solly a bit more and learned how much he loves music. He gladly plugged my phone into the car so I could play music that would get us all in the "African mood."
I started off playing Ladysmith Black Mambazo since I was still high from their concert 2 nights earlier. Solly was so happy when he heard the first song play—he was surprised that I knew them. He sang along and noted that his father used to play their albums when he was growing up. He insisted I transfer the playlist over to his phone.
Music is one of the best ways to bond with people from around the world!
The rest of the ride mostly entailed me being the DJ and transferring songs to Solly. I played the original Lion King Broadway soundtrack. Solly wanted all those songs and, of course, Toto's "Africa," too! I happily shared.
As we got about an hour out from the reserve, the landscape turned mountainous. It was stunning in the afternoon light.
On our return trip home, we would have the chance to stop at a nearby canyon for some epic views. For now, we were trying to make it in time for our first sunset game drive.
My First Sunset Game Drive
We arrived around 4:30 in the afternoon and briefly checked into our rooms. I had the chance to wander the grounds a bit.
I was honestly so pleasantly surprised with this lodge. I was surprised that the little I paid for this tour returned such a beautiful place! The landscaping and pool and rooms were gorgeous and all was very comfortable.
Soon, we piled into the back of an open-sided overland truck. It's essentially a pickup truck with rows of benches thrown on the back. There's also a seat up front for a guide to sit with a gun—just in case a wild animal gets, well, wild.
But we didn't have anyone sit there for most of our drives, including this first one.
Almost immediately we stumbled across a small herd of impala. The driver stopped for them but quickly explained that they are one of the most common animals seen in the park. He said we would stop now and only sometimes but eventually we will grow tired of seeing them.
He was right to an extent. They are beautiful animals and I always enjoyed seeing them. But stopping for them became less necessary as seeing the rarer animals became the priority.
Our vehicle bumped and bucked along over rugged dirt roads and paths that cut through the bush.
It was exhilarating searching around from one side of the road to the other. At dusk, it became even harder to see, but I was lucky to spot something pretty significant just 10 minutes into the drive.
The First Big Five Spotting
I thought I saw something move—"There!" I pointed and everyone turned their heads and lifted their cameras. As we went around a bend in the path we saw it. An elephant! We only caught it for a few seconds before it took off deeper into the bush.
Moving along adjacent to where it was headed, we could see that it joined up with a large, moving heard.
Check out the video below of their movement:
This got our adrenaline pumping! We had only just started our tour and we already saw one of the Big Five.
The Big Five game animals include lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and cape buffalo. Why are they called the Big Five and why do people focus on them for safari tours? These five animals were once the most sought after animals for game hunters because they were the most difficult to hunt. As they cannot be freely hunted anymore, they're just really special to see in the wild.
A Rare Animal Sighting
As the sun began to set, the cold settled in, too. African nights at the beginning of winter are freezing! For most of my 5-day safari tour I was bundled up in sweatshirt, jacket, scarf, ear muffs, and gloves every night and even part of the days.
Our guide provided each of us with huge, thick wool blankets. This made the cold completely bearable. I have to admit, without those blankets I would have been way too cold on those drives!
As the drive continued, the guide spotted a bush baby that I could just barely make out between the leaves of a tree.
At one point, we were bumping along a small path when we spotted an aardvark crossing the road ahead of us. It looked like an oversized rabbit with a kangaroo tail and an anteater snout.
Aardvarks are SUPER rare.
Even the guides back at the lodge were shocked. They said it was a once in a lifetime sighting. They are out every night for years and never see one. So that was super special.
But I don't have a photo of it!
Taking photos on safari, at least in the reserves, is extremely difficult. The road is bumpy, making stabilization near impossible. Of course at night there is poor lighting—we have only the headlights and our guide scanning the area with a spotlight. The animals often appear very quickly. You have to have fast reflexes and then hope that you got something in your shot.
Sometimes, photography is just not worth it. You have to put the camera down, pay attention, and enjoy the brief sightings.
Then Boom! There Was A Lion
We were thrilled that we saw the aardvark. I was almost already content with that. But my mind was on what I came to Africa for: Big cats. I was desperately, eagerly waiting for the opportunity to see a leopard or lion. Before long, the wait was over.
We were nearly 2 hours into our drive when all became rather quiet. There was only the hum of the truck motor, the jostling of the truck over potholes, and an occasional excited whisper from one of us when we saw something in the shine of the spotlight.
The guide took a turn down a much narrower, lesser beaten path. He turned around a bend and then suddenly shut off the truck's motor and shined the spotlight indirectly ahead.
What I could see was the vague outline of what my brain was saying was "A LION! A LION!" but my heart was like "PSSSHHHAWW nahhhhhh! Couldn't be one ALREADY!"
But yes. Yes—it was a lioness!!!!
She was our second Big Five spotting in one short evening! She was lying there in the middle of the path ahead. The lioness looked back at us, eyes glowing in the light we had cast in her direction.
She seemed undisturbed by our presence but nonetheless a bit curious.
After a few minutes of gasping and gaping, snapping photos and video, the guide started up the truck again and inched a bit closer. The lioness got the hint and stood up. She was beautiful as she walked away down the path, shoulder blades sliding upwards in rhythm with her steps. With nowhere else to go, we followed for a few minutes until she veered off the path to the right and into the bush to join her pride.
Here’s is video I took from the entire experience seeing the lioness:
Wooo! As we drove ahead, we all let out huge, adrenaline-pumped sighs as if we were collectively holding our breath.
Around the corner from where we saw the lioness, we spotted a bunch of kudu—a very large type of antelope. Clearly, we had disturbed the lioness' hunt!
Seeing that lioness on our first safari drive was an enormous gift. Bucket list item officially ticked! I could now sit back, satisfied already, and simply enjoy the next few days.
More Elephants And A Hyena
From there, we made our way toward a campsite in the center of the reserve. This site was the location of our meal for the night. But before we even made it there, we saw more wild animals!
On our way in, we spotted a huge herd of elephants. There was at least a dozen of them! I spotted the first one. We were speeding along because the guide was trying to get us to dinner on time. But I saw a sudden flash of an elephant shape right next to the road. Sure enough—there it was chewing on some leaves.
I was quickly becoming known to the group as the elephant spotter. Not that they are all that difficult to see—they're the biggest thing out there! :D
We observed these gentle giants for a while and then continued on into the camp.
As we approached the area, a hyena jumped out of the path in front of us. It was the only time I would see a hyena on my entire trip—so I was grateful I caught sight of it even if it was brief. But the reason why I saw it does not feel so good.
Apparently, the hyenas know to come around the camp when humans are there. It means the BBQ is happening and scraps will be left out for them. I didn't know Viva Safaris left scraps behind until the end of the night when I saw them throw hunks of bone and meat into the bush.
I don't feel great about the fact that Viva Safaris leaves scraps behind like this. It's intentional on their part, and it's the start of a complicated animal-dependency on humans. But I don't think they do this every night and it's certainly not enough meat to ruin the hyenas diets terribly.
I suppose I can give them a pass on this one!
A Candlelight Braai BBQ Dinner
For our first meal of the tour, the staff set up a romantic candlelight setting on tables at the campsite. They cooked various types of meat, and even vegetarian options, on an open fire grill. For dessert they had peaches and cream.
The braai was very much like the braai I ate while camping in Namibia. Indeed, they even had pop. I knew to eat pop with my hands, mixing it with the other foods on my plate. The other tourists ate with their forks, but I didn't care that I was the only one, this was about deviating my norm!
It was my opportunity to honor tradition and eat like the locals!
Overall, the food was very good. I'm sure they could have made any food and I would have gladly ate it all. I was super hungry when we finally got to dinner. We stopped in a small town for lunch on the drive up from Joburg, but we had such a long day. Sitting in the back of a truck searching for wild animals works up a serious appetite!
Before we left, we said goodbye to the Canadian couple who were staying behind. They slept out that night under the stars at the campsite. I was excited to hear how their night would go. I figured if they lived to tell the tale, I would join them the next night! ;)
More Sightings On The Return Drive
Even though we technically finished our game drive before dinner, we still had to get from the camp back to the lodge. Inevitably, the guides still stop for animal sightings when traveling between destinations.
We ran into the same elephant herd we saw before dinner. They were even more active now, and a little frustrated by our presence. Some of them weren't sure how to or if they should cross the road with us sitting there. But a few dared to.
It was exhilarating hearing these enormous, yet incredibly quiet, creatures cross the road in the darkness on all sides of us. The guide could shine his light only on one at a time, but we could hear them breathing and stumbling through where we weren't looking. It was awesome!
Check out the video I caught of all the elephant madness:
Along the main road back to the lodge, the spotlight picked up something spotted in the distance. A genet cat! I had forgotten that Kruger Park is not just made up of big cats but many species of smaller cat, too.
I captured this photo and video below, too!
This genet cat up on a tree stalking something in the tall grass below. So cute!
Reflecting On My First Day
Back in my single room at the Lodge, I reflected on my first day of the tour. I knew I was in for an amazing time if this was at all representative of what it was going to be like over the next few days! I didn't want to get ahead of myself—perhaps this was just a really lucky first time.
Nevertheless, I already had an amazing experience that satisfied me beyond my wildest dreams. I could not wait to see more.
On the agenda for the next morning was a safari tour on foot through the reserve. I look forward to sharing with you the wild animal sightings and more from that experience! Stay tuned!