The second day of my safari tour in Balule Private Game Reserve marked the first full day I had on safari. The day before was devoted to driving half the day from Johannesburg to the edge of Kruger National Park.
On this second day, I saw tons of wildlife on a 4 hour walk through the bush, spotting some of the deadliest predators in Africa. I even tasted giraffe droppings! A late afternoon game drive proved extremely fruitful when I got to see some of the most quintessential African wildlife all at the same time—elephant, giraffe, and zebra! It was a dream come true!
The day came to a close with an unexpected performance by a local tribe. Then I slept out in the bush under the stars with nothing between me and the predators of the night!
A Breakfast Of “Rusks”
Very early in the morning, we woke up for some coffee, tea, and "rusks."
Rusks are a very hard, dry biscuit that is a quintessential quick "bite" before a morning game drive in Africa. They were available all times of day in a big plastic bins in the dining area of the lodging. They're the perfect snack any time of day!
The guides told us the walk would be 4 hours, so we should get our fill of rusks now. Rusks are surprisingly filling because they are so dense! Usually they are made of buttermilk or flour with raisin and nut or muesli baked in.
Bush Walk Hippo Encounter
We drove through Balule reserve as the sun was beginning to rise. After 20 minutes, we arrived and were told we could get out of the vehicle.
When walking out in the bush, groups walk in a single file line as a safety strategy. We’re also supposed to dress in non-camouflage colors—blue, pink, yellow, and other bright colors can unnecessarily attract the attention of predators.
A couple of people in the group did not follow the color rules, but the guides didn’t seem to care.
We had 2 guides, both were armed just in case something would go wrong. I was a little wary about what this meant in terms of ethical tourism. I am glad they were protecting us as the tourists. But this tells me something about my view of bush walks on safari. We are in the animal’s territory, so, to me, it’s my fault if I screw up and aggravate a lion or a hippo. The lion should not have to die in that scenario. I’m the idiot tourist who accepted that risk (and did something dumb) going in!
Anyway, the guide explained the gun is mostly used as a deterrent. I don’t know how true what he said is, but he explained that if an animal is presenting aggressive behavior, as if it’s going to attack, simply raising the rifle and aiming will often scare the animal away. If not, a single shot in the air will do it.
“Hakuna Matata!” our guide said. Yes, he literally said that all the time. And, yes, the Lion King fan in me was elated every time.
The walk was primarily informational. He showed us elephant dung and how bushmen use it for different purposes. He showed us edible berries and soft leaves that are good for toilet paper.
After seeing termite hills from the road all over Africa, I was excited to get to see one up close. They are huge! We stopped by one with a large hole carved into it. “Warthog,” our guide said.
He explained that you never should investigate holes like this because warthogs make homes inside. If they feel threatened, they’ll burst out and slash you with their tusks.
I think I expected the walk to be an active search for wildlife—like a game drive but on foot. Instead, the walk was a 101 guide on bush survival, as if you might be unlucky enough to get lost out there one there! My mind went immediately to the show Naked and Afraid. No thank you!
We were bound to see wildlife regardless of our survival focus.
Soon we came across a large group of baboons. They were jumping around up in the trees in the distance, warming up in the rising sunlight.
A walk along the river brought us to a bunch of hippos chilling in the water. There was even a little baby hippo! Dawww!
Cute but deadly. Our guide told us the biggest killer of humans in Africa is not any of the big cats—it’s the hippo. He said you definitely don’t want to encounter a hippo at night before it makes its way to the river in the morning.
But usually people go down to do their washing in the river and that’s when they encounter hungry, hungry hippos.
*Chomp!* “Rest in pieces,” our guide joked again.
It was really cool seeing the hippos footprints further away from the river later on. I can’t imagine running into these enormous beasts just walking around out of the water! Yikes!
We stood admiring the hippos for a long time while munching on dried fruit, crackers, and apples packed for us by the guides. They told us about the area and the other animals we might encounter. At one point as we talked, a crocodile’s head poked out of the river’s surface.
Standing 30 feet away from two extremely dangerous species was exhilarating!
On our way back from the river, we stopped to have a giraffe poop spitting contest. Yes, that’s what I said. Giraffe’s drop hard, hollowed-out little acorn-like turds. They taste like cigars and are completely safe to pop in your mouth.
He said young kids will have contests and play games of all types with giraffe droppings. Either our guide was totally bullshitting and just wanted to see a bunch of tourists do this or this is actually a thing! I am inclined to believe it since our guide participated, too!
Only a few of us played. I have to say that I found a new talent. I was a pretty good giraffe turd spitter—mine fell just behind our guide’s excellent landing.
World champion giraffe poop spitter right here.
Before returning to the vehicle, we stopped to make bracelets out of a stringy type of leaf. We braided them and tied them onto each other’s wrists where mine remained until I returned to the USA. It’s a sturdy bracelet that I still have and is a memorable souvenir from the experience!
Afternoon At The Lodge
On the drive back from the walk, we saw our first couple of jackals scampering off into the bush. They were so cool!
We also spotted our first warthog! It ran across the road and our guide, of course, said “Hakuna Matata!”
When we got back to the lodge, a yummy brunch spread was prepared for us. We had poached eggs and “bacon” which is not pig but warthog! I was not surprised to find this out but a little sad to know I ate a lot of Pumbaa on this tour. ☹
The hottest hours of the day are usually spent relaxing at the lodge when on a multi-day safari. Game drives are planned for early morning, late afternoon, and night because that is also when the animals tend to come out of the shade. I took this time to appreciate the grounds of the lodge. The lodge landscaping was really beautiful,
I was also able to see animals right from the lodge! This is when I spotted my first giraffe. I figured it was about time I saw one since I had already put its poo in my mouth that day…
I would see many more giraffes very close up later in the day!
Lunch With Vervet Monkeys
Before heading out for our next game drive, we filled up on a hearty lunch.
I must stop to note that we were very well fed on this tour. I don’t think my tummy was ever rumbling—not once! Buffet-style at every meal will do that to you (and add a few extra pounds to your waistline)!
We were served chocolate cake for dessert at lunch because obviously we hadn’t had enough calories already.
As we were all leaning back in our chairs contemplating how we would fit dessert, in swooped a little monkey. It grabbed and ran away with the piece of chocolate cake that I was debating if I should eat or not. Well, the monkey decided for me!
A huge group of vervet monkeys showed up to our little covered, outdoor buffet area. Apparently, they know what time is lunchtime at the lodge. They’re used to the schedule and make sure to stop by to pick up scraps or steal leftovers.
Again, ethical alarm bells ring for me here. But it’s difficult to keep the monkeys from coming in—they are wild, after all. As it is, the lodge has an electric fence surrounding the place to keep large animals from roaming around.
The monkeys, however, simply climb the trees and hop on over.
They were mischievous little buggers! And so cute! While I wasn’t too happy about them eating people food, I must admit they were very fun to watch. But I quickly cleared away my scraps and left the area when the other tourists began intentionally antagonizing the monkeys. I was particularly disappointed that one of the older men in the group did this. If anyone, he should have been acting like the mature adult.
This annoyed me profusely, so I walked away.
Afternoon Game Drive
At about 2:30 in the afternoon, the American couple took off to a different reserve to spend the night. Meanwhile, I was planning to sleep out in Balule with the Canadian couple that night. So the 3 of us stayed behind and had an awesome afternoon/evening game drive.
Only a few minutes into the drive, we found a herd of elephants. One of them was very close up eating leaves and tearing down branches off trees. After seeing elephants the day before at dusk and in the dark, it was wonderful to see this one so clearly in the daylight.
Elephants are insanely powerful! This elephant was ripping branches down as easily as we break off hunks of broccoli!
We watched this elephant for a while and then the guide started up the truck again.
Turning a corner up ahead, we were amazed once again at what we saw. Several giraffe and a herd of multiple zebra were all hanging out just a few meters away from the elephant herd.
For me, these 3 animals—the elephant, giraffe, and zebra—make up the most quintessential African animals besides the big cats. I felt incredibly fulfilled by the sight of all of them so close together and so close up like this! It was truly awe-inspiring.
I’m not about taking selfies with animals when they are locked in cages or tied to leashes or generally exploited for tourism. But this was a situation where I felt comfortable posing with a free and wild giraffe doing its thing behind me.
For the rest of the drive, we zig-zagged all over the reserve hoping we might catch a glimpse of a big cat like we did the lioness the night before. At one point, the guide found some lion tracks that seemed fresh. Other than that, we didn’t spot any.
Regardless, we had a fun time driving around. The Canadian couple found a little lizard that rode his hat for the entire drive. It was entertaining to check out every now and then to find it still sitting there contentedly.
There was lots of beautiful scenery as we drove. And although there wasn’t much wildlife besides a kudu spotting, I really enjoyed the excitement of searching for wildlife on these drives. Honestly, it was just refreshing to be outside in nature with nothing else on my mind but animals.
I asked the guide to park on top of a hill so we could take some nice photos of the setting sun. I love that African sunset!
An After Dinner Surprise
Back at the lodge, we had another very filling buffet-style meal. This time, we were sharing space with a large group of high school students who had come in the day before. They were a very privileged school from California with lots of students who probably never traveled abroad before. I have to say, it was pretty cool that their teacher organized a trip like this.
This group of high school students come to the lodge every year at the same time of year. Because they come each year, their teacher arranges to have a special performance organized for one of the nights of their stay. It’s a traditional dance put on by one of the local town tribes.
I was immediately very apprehensive about this. I specifically did not incorporate village visits into my safari tour because I feel they can sometimes be exploitative. But this turned out to be very different.
At first, a group of boys and men in traditional dress demonstrated a style of dance that they do as a regular part of the culture in their local village. They were brought in to teach and entertain the students.
The workers at the lodge—many of them were from the same tribe—gathered around to watch and they encouraged our group to watch, too. When I asked how they felt about the exchange, they told me they were excited to have their culture shared with the students.
But the exchange was not just entertainment. Part of the performance required participation from everyone there. Everyone stood in a large circle and did a little jig, sometimes mimicking the style of the performance the boys and men put on beforehand. This included the workers who laughed and encouraged each other to dance, too.
This is what changed things for me. No longer was this just a bunch of mostly-White American kids and tourists consuming the oh-so-cultural tribal dancing of black South Africans. This was now a party! It was a celebration of culture and cultural exchange—people simply coming together to have a good time.
As an educator, it’s so important to me that people do not just passively consume new cultural experiences in exploitative ways but actively engage in and take part in the exchange. It was wonderful to see all those present actively engaging and dancing todether. People laughed and clapped, oooo’ed and ahhhhh’ed, as the drums played out a rhythmic beat.
When it came to my turn (I was among the first in the circle), I busted a move and tried to bring a little extra energy to the mix. It was super fun!
Sleeping Out Under The Stars
After the dancing was over, our guide drove me and the Canadian couple out into the bush where we would sleep for the night. I found out along the way that the guide would be staying out with us for safety reasons and to drive us back early the next morning.
I asked him along the way, “Do you like camping out?” He was honest and said he didn’t. He said it’s too cold and he didn’t usually sleep as well, but he does it because its part of the job when tourists request it.
This made me feel a little bad that I had asked to do this. But the Canadian couple was doing it anyway! I was still up for the experience and there was no going back now anyway!
The Canadian couple said that the night before was thrilling. They heard hyena all around the campsite and at one point they heard a leopard! They even came face to face with a hyena on the path when one of them went to the bathroom! They said there were the sounds of predators hunting prey all night and lots of other activity they couldn’t identify.
I was expecting a similar evening of excitement. We arrived at the site and I finally got to see what camping out actually looks like. It’s much different than what I expected. I thought I would be sleeping directly on the ground in a sleeping bag literally in the middle of the bush.
Instead, we were in the middle of the bush, but it was right where we had dinner the night before. There were toilets and there was also a raised platform to set up the beds. Yes—beds! We each had our own twin mattress laid on top of the wooden platform. We also had sleeping bags and doubled up on wool blankets. It was incredibly comfortable and warm once tucked in.
Before heading to bed, I leaned against the platform railing and peered out into the darkness. I wondered where Simba’s pride was. Would he come around tonight?
Looking up into the sky, I could see as many stars as I remember seeing near Lake Pukaki in New Zealand. This world is so beautiful. Finally lying down, I listened to the wilderness around me…or should I say the lack of wilderness around me. The bush turned out to be quieter than the lodge! I dozed off to sleep quickly and soundly.
The next day was going to be a big day! It would be my first and only full day inside the gates of Kruger National Park. No private game reserve time—this was going to be big time, Big 5 animal sighting opportunity. Stay tuned for my next post all about Day 3 of my 5-day Safari tour!