SAFARI - South Africa Part 2
Hoedspruit in Afrikaans means Hat Creek. It is a small tourism and agriculturally orientated town in the eastern reaches of South Africa. The tiny Hoedspruit airport is the gateway to an abundance of wildlife, either through visiting private game reserves or the world famous Kruger National Park. The Hoedspruit airport was an experience like no other. The plane that flew us in, had single rowed seats and the runway was like a dirt track with no terminal in sight. When we did finally see the terminal, it was basically a room with a few chairs and a toilet. The baggage carousel was a tractor that drove up pulling behind it a trailer that you had to manually unload yourself. We really felt like our adventure had begun.
Thornybush - The River Lodge
Thornybush - The River Lodge is a private nature reserve adjacent to the great Kruger National Park and is approximately a 40min drive from Hoedspruit Airport. It's a luxury lodge that has only four suites which are discreetly positioned to ensure almost complete privacy. It was such an exhilarating experience to make full use of the outside showers, without the risk of prying eyes (well other then the wildlife that is). Each suite was spacious and sophisticated. The highlight was that once you arrived, everything you could possibly want was provided: all meals, snacks, dawn and dusk safari's in open game drive vehicles and drinks, both on the drive and in the fully stocked kitchen. It was truly like an amazing piece of luxury that had been built in the middle of nowhere. Nature was literally right at your doorstep, so much so that you had to be escorted to and from your room by a porter for safety. They all had many stories of encounters while escorting guests. We had to stop asking after a while because we realised we didn't actually want to know.
Thornybush Safari Drive
A typical day on the Thornybush Safari consisted of both dawn and dusk Safaris. The dawn safari starts with an early morning wake up call (5:30am) with tea and coffee in the main house before being taken out with the experienced rangers and trackers. Morning is a great time to look for the animals as they are more active before the temperature starts to heat up. After approximately three hours on the reserve you return for a much needed breakfast and some time to unwind and enjoy the lodge. A late lunch is served before heading out on the reserve again. The dusk safari generally extends into the night-time which provides an additional thrill. The trick to spotting the nocturnal animals is by shining a torch and searching for two eyes staring back at you. We returned to a three course meal at either the Bomba (outside bonfire area) or the main house. Our Safari mission was to see the Big Five: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino. MISSION ACCOMMPLISHED!!! Given the built up number of trees and shrubs, the animals were seen in smaller numbers but were close enough to the car to feel like you could almost touch them.
Gondwana is a private game reserve that is situated in the Garden Route about four hours drive from Cape Town. The difference in location made the terrain, weather and safari experience completely different from Thornybush, so even though it was technically just another game reserve, it's always worth getting a different perspective. Gondwana is a modern and luxurious twist on a Khoi-San Dwelling (the Khoi-San are the lighter skinned indigenous people of South Africa that traditionally lived in beehive shaped huts and use clicks in their language). There are 14 private suites each with 180 degree views over two watering holes. Each suite was spacious with its own fireplace, which was so cozy and inviting, given the cooler weather during our stay.
Gondwana Safari Drive
A typical day at Gondwana was very similar to that of Thornybush. We participated in both dawn and dusk safaris in an open-topped game drive vehicle. During each trip out we were spoiled with mid-drive pit stops where we indulged in coffee and snacks in the mornings, then in the evening the drinks were substituted for the alcoholic variety. We were able to again catch all of the big five excluding the leopard (so were thankful we caught him at Thornybush). Our new focus here was the cheetah, who we spent a full day searching for, to no avail. A new sighting for us and by far a highlight, was the hippo making his trek between watering holes. We were assured this was actually a rare sighting. The animals here were able to be seen in much larger herds due to the openness of the reserve, however they tended to be much further away and thus it was harder to fully appreciate their beauty.
Whenever I thought about going on Safari all I could picture was going on some big adventure and that was definitely true from the moment we boarded the plane from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit. I've never been a bad flyer, but looking at this tiny plane we were about to board made me realise I was about to be tested. Thank God it was smooth sailing. I just couldn't get over the concept of seats that were single file on a plane. I realised this is now my preferred method of travel. You avoid the anxious wait of seeing who will end up in the empty seat next to you. In your head you're always praying its not a huge fat person that takes over half your seat or someone with a BO problem that is so bad it leaves a taste in your mouth; which has happened before.
As soon as we arrived at Thornybush we knew we were in for a treat. We were seated at a table for a lunch of sticky ribs (which is almost my favorite meal) and as our chef placed the food down, over his shoulder we saw a giraffe just doing his thing in the bush. It was a taste of what was to come. The suites were so luxurious and isolated it really felt like you were the only people there. The privacy, the outdoor shower and the bath that overlooked the bush was basically just a big invitation to spend some quality naked time. I became like a character out of a Disney cartoon. As I was singing to myself in the outdoor shower, a deer would approach or a monkey would come down and sit on the ledge. I was one with nature.
Our safaris were lead by our amazingly handsome guide Dan "The Man" (as he became known to us). He was made all the more handsome by his abundant knowledge of the bush and clear passion for what he does. He even told stories of spending his free time going for drives in the bush looking for animals, which is crazy because that's almost the equivalent of me saying, as a midwife, that I deliver babies in my free time. Of course his stories generally included making it a game and the consumption of alcohol. Lawson and I definitely had a soft spot for Dan, from memory when we left I think Lawson even once asked: "do you think Dan misses us?"
The feeling of seeing the animals is the wild is near impossible to explain. Its completely different to seeing them in a zoo. There was almost an emotional connection whenever I found out one of the animals was pregnant. I was so in love with these bush mothers and I would have given anything to see a birth.
Always mid-drive we would stop for a drink and to stretch our legs. This was also the time to make use of the bush toilet. When choosing the right bush I was always torn between protecting my modesty and the fear of not wanting to venture too far from the guides. I was mid squat one time when I could hear the footsteps of an animal getting closer to me. A sense of fear and panic immediately came over me and I started running back to the car while trying to do up my pants at the same time. Of course as I approached the car, I acted as cool as a cucumber as if nothing had happened.
It was sad to leave Thornybush because it was like saying goodbye to family. It was also hard to leave because we had one of the most complicated and arduous trips ahead of us. We were due to arrive in Gondwana the same day we checked out of Thornybush, but annoyingly there is no direct route between the two. Also any connecting flights involved an overnight stay in Johannesburg (which we didn't want to do). Instead we departed at four am and drove six hours to Johannesburg airport. Thank God we had a driver so we could use the time to sleep but also because the fog that morning was so intense we literally couldn't see the front of the car. I was way too tired to be alert enough for that.
Arriving at Gondwana was a shock to the system, climate wise. We had come from sunny 35 degree days to being smacked in the face with such cold it was painful to talk. I had made the rookie assumption when packing that South Africa was going to be hot and had only brought along my summer clothes. I had to re-use the one jumper I brought and then resorted to borrowing Lawson clothes, who had been much smarter with his packing.
Gondwana was beautiful and well worth a look, unfortunately we probably should have come here first. There were new animals that we got to see but at the same time I couldn't help but feel like it was more contained with a zoo-like feel. Like we weren't just stumbling across the animals but more like we would drive to exactly the area that each animal was kept. The reserve is also a lot bigger with more guests, so didn't have the private family like feel. Nonetheless it was still an amazing experience that I'm glad I did. My advise would just be to go to this one first as it makes for a nice introduction to Safari's.
The excitement happened on the final day when we were finishing our last safari. There was a strange noise being played over the car radio. The guide explained it was the recorded sound of a wildebeest struggling and it must have been played to help draw the lion out of hiding. When we drove towards the lions, the huge male was in full display and even let off an almighty roar. But annoyingly we were waved on and indicated by the higher-ups not to stop. There was a heap more cars around that were safari vehicles which only heightened the intrigue. It was only the next day after our guide Ebenezer had reached out to us on facebook, that we had come to learn that one of the female lions had just given birth to three cubs. The other cars had been vets sent to check everything out. I had almost cried when I realised how close I had come to a bush birth.
We boarded one of the smallest commercial planes I have ever been on, where I had to kind of bob my head to stop from hitting it on the roof of the plane. The best way to explain its size was like a bus with wings. We landed at Hoedspruit airport which is as difficult to pronounce as you could imagine. There wasn’t one time during a conversation where we mentioned Hoedspruit that anyone understood where we were talking about on the first go.
As we waited for the tractor to bring our luggage from the plane we were taking in the beauty of the landscape and loving the tiny airfield. Neither of us could contain our excitement for what we were about to experience. As we arrived and made our way up to the River lodge from the front gate we got a pretty good idea of what to expect. On that five minute drive through the bush we saw giraffes, zebras, baboons, warthogs and vultures and we hadn’t even gone on safari yet!
I would have to say that Thornybush was the highlight of the entire South African trip for me. The best way I can describe it is if they had built five star accomodations and then droppd them in the middle of the bush; no fences, no barriers. To get from your room to the main house where all the food and drinks where served you had to get a porter to come and collect you. This was a safety precaution in case any predators were in the area. That is a hard concept to wrap your head around, if you leave your door open it isn’t mosquitos you have to worry about, it's coming to your room and having a leopard on your bed and a baboon in your bathtub.
Over the two nights we stayed at Thornybush we went on four game drives. Our first game drive was myself, Cat, a lovely bloke we got to know named Theo, the tracker and of course our legendary guide Dan "The Man." I was so impressed with Dan the Man (hence his new title) and his knowledge and love for what he does. He genuinely was getting just as excited by the animal sightings as us and you could really see the passion that he had for the animals. When communicating with the tracker and other safari cars over the two-way Dan the Man would speak in a native language so that we wouldn’t be able to hear what animal had been spotted, so it kept that element of surprise which was a really nice touch.
By the time we left Thornybush two days later I was quite sad, I really didn’t want to leave. I felt like I was leaving my bush family. It really did feel like a family. You see the same people every day, being so isolated it's not like they can get different workers each day so you start to build a relationship with everyone who works there and know them by name. The lodge is very intimate and it's something that I enjoyed most about it. I didn’t feel like I was staying at a hotel, I have to take my safari hat off to them for that.
From Thornybush we had a long drive and a short flight to George where we were excited to start our second safari. Our taxi driver from the airport was a real twat. I think it’s a good idea to 1. Be up front about things and 2. Admit when you don’t know something instead of making it up, however this guy never got the memo. As well as pretending he had been into Gondwana before, which became evident that he had not when he almost ran over the guard at the front gate trying to stop him for check-in, we also had another passenger on board who he introduced as his second driver who strangely never drove and never spoke. I think his wife was keeping a close eye on him. When he was questioned at the gate as to why he didn’t stop he said he was merely having a joke with the guy. Yer sure mate!
The Gondwana Reserve made me feel like I was in the Jurassic Park, such a different look to the bush that we had come from. The first thing I noticed was how green it was, clearly they weren’t experiencing a drought like they were at Thornybush.
We were in a safari car with five other guests who had arrived the same day as us. It's good that you don’t change people, cars or guides throughout your stay so that you can start to build relatiuonships and get comfortable with each other in the car. The others in the car were hard nuts to crack and at the beginning were keeping to themselves but slowly Cat and I managed to wear them down, getting us all talking, which made for a more relaxed and fun safari.
A highlight at Gondwana for me was seeing the hippo. It was a rare sighting as he was on his way from one watering hole to the other. For some reason he made me laugh a lot while he walked along, it was hard to grasp the concept that he was one of the most dangerous of all the animals, that kill many humans every year. He had a bunch of reeds on his back that had obviously gotten stuck while he was in the water and it made it look like he was trying to disguise himself, which was a good laugh.
The nights at Gondwana got very cold so it was fun to build a fire and have it ready to go when we got back from dinner. I didn’t want to risk lighting it before we went because I was worried about burning the hut down. I have had this fear of burning down my house instilled in me from my Dad who was paranoid about us burning down the house as children, and rightly so, living with all boys there have been some close calls. I was building such serious fires that on the first night it got so hot the entire chimney was bright red and flames where coming out through the air holes. Not sure if that had something to do with using two entire fire lighter boxes over the two nights we stayed there ... probably not though. I forgot how much fun and satisfying making, having and maintaining a fire can be.
Unfortunately for us our last safari, which we had almost skipped to try and catch up on sleep, was wasted. We dragged ourselves out of bed on the last day not wanting to miss something exciting. Instead our safari car was used to perimeter search for the cheetah because the Vet, who usually lives too far away was on site. This obviously wasn’t told to us but we pieced it together pretty quickly when our safari didn’t consist of seeing any animals, but plenty of perimeters. The cheetah had broken into a very large area of land on the reserve used as conservation to build up numbers of animals on the brink of endangerment. It was the coldest it had been and was intermittently raining, making it that much colder. Being as tired as I was, having driven for almost ¾ of the drive I had realised we weren’t actually seeing any animals, I had my eyes closed trying not to get so down about having left the warmth of my bed for that. Having not seen the cheetah and the morale of the car being pretty flat, things were only made worse when we drove past where we had briefly seen a lion the day before and he was out in the open standing tall and proud. Immediately everyone’s mood changed, that whole wasted drive could have been for nothing but now we were about to get the best view of the King of the Jungle which could make it all worth it. Then a voice came over the two-way telling our car to continue driving and not to stop. Should have stayed in bed.
Apart from that one game drive, our time on safari was incredible and I would highly recommend it to anyone. The feeling of seeing those animals in their own environment is something everyone should experience.