5 Game Drives, 4 Days: What I Learned on Safari in South Africa
I never thought I’d be happy to hear the words “I’m going to turn this vehicle around” come out of somebody’s mouth. I guess it’s because my only association with that phrase, up to this point, has been its inevitable appearance during long car rides, following the threat, “If you don’t stop fighting with your brother…”
But now that I was in South Africa, listening to those words come from Franz, our soft-spoken yet affable guide at a private game reserve in South Africa, they meant something entirely different. Now that we were sitting in a jungle green Jeep Land Rover, hoping to see one of the Big Five game animals (buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant, lion or leopard) in person, those words became exciting again. They meant that we might see something we’d all been waiting for.
How We Got There
Last month, I visited South Africa with my husband so we could go on a safari. It was a bucket-list item for us, and we’d been unsure whether it would happen on our round-the-world trip because of the high cost.
We got lucky, though—my parents decided they wanted to join us on our travels for a week, starting in Cape Town. They offered to book us onto a group tour together, and we gratefully agreed to split the costs. (Side note: travelling with your parents is an adventure unto itself; read Bianca’s article here on how to survive it!)
Still, I was initially wary of going on a group tour, as it would be my first. I had originally imagined that we’d be independent and visit a place like Kruger National Park for our wildlife viewing experience. Instead, we ended up visiting two private game reserves, where everything was already planned and scheduled for us.
Over the course of four days, we ended up going on five different game drives. They weren’t quite what I expected, but in the end, I enjoyed them more than I thought I would.
Here are three things I learned from that experience.
1. It’s Technically Called A Game Drive, Not a Safari
In South Africa, you call the experience of heading out in a vehicle to spot animals a game drive, not a safari. I was completely ignorant about this for much longer than I’d like to admit. However, I’d like to think there’s a reason for this: marketers know that people are more likely to Google the term “South Africa safari” than “South Africa game drive”.
I learned that calling it a safari in South Africa rather antiquated. Though “safari” is a Swahili word that means “journey”, its use conjures up colonial times when men used to head out into the bush to hunt animals as trophies. Since we no longer wish to harm these beautiful creatures, we’re all better off calling the experience a game drive. A small distinction, perhaps, but an important one nonetheless. Now I know the difference.
2. Private Game Reserves vs. National Parks: What’s the Difference?
Like I mentioned, I originally thought we’d end up visiting a place like Kruger National Park together. Kruger is one of Africa’s largest game reserves and is open to the public. I had visions of us sleeping in tent camps, hopping behind the wheel of a rented Jeep, maps and cameras in hand, and setting out on our own schedule to look for wildlife as we pleased.
However, our experience was completely different—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A Little Luxury Never Hurts
One reason is because private game reserves in South Africa were much more of a luxury experience than I expected. I learned that they definitely cater to a higher-end crowd than my usual “Southeast Asia backpacker” price range. But, it was well worth it to have the extra comfort. Not just because we were travelling with my parents, but even I’ll begrudgingly admit that it’s nice to have nice things.
Both Aquila Private Game Reserve and Mabula Game Lodge had beautiful facilities and provided high quality service. They gave us complimentary wine and beer as welcome drinks, which felt classy. We also stopped for “happy hour” during the game drives—a total treat! When it got cold and rainy at Mabula Lodge, there were soft brown blankets and warm rain ponchos for everybody.
Is it just because I’m getting older? Does the “you get what you pay for” cliché actually hold up? In any case, I really enjoyed not roughing it for once.
Benefits of a Guided Drive
The other part that surprised me? How much I liked going on game drives with an expert, instead of self-driving. At the end of our very last game drive, I hung around and chatted with our guide, Franz. When I asked him what he wished more people knew about his job, he had quite a thoughtful response.
First and foremost, he hoped that guests could appreciate the years he spent learning and refining his guiding skills—a year of practical and theoretical coursework plus an apprenticeship, he said. Franz sincerely felt he could really make a difference because he was able to track animals, understand their behaviour, and share information about them, all while keeping us safe.
Contrast this to the experience of self-driving though a national park, he pointed out. Your average Joe doesn’t always know what he or she is doing (my words, not his). Average Joe doesn’t know what signs to look for when tracking animals. Average Joe needs to have a guidebook to know what exactly he’s seeing. And most importantly, Average Joe is at risk of getting himself into a dangerous situations with wild animals just because he’s inexperienced.
I really respected Franz’s answer because it changed my perspective on the situation. What would our experience have been like if we were doing it all by ourselves? During our game drives at Mabula, I would marvel at how Franz juggled so many tasks at once. He’d drive, communicate with other guides over his walkie-talkie, track animals, and answer even our most random of questions. Whereas I spent my time squinting into the distance, staring at a rock that I hoped was an animal, Franz could actually tell whether which way animals were going, just by identifying their footprints. Considering that I still use a GPS to navigate the city where I lived for the past six years, that was a pretty impressive skill set to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there is an unmistakable kind of thrill when you come across wildlife while self-driving on a game reserve. However, this experience certainly gave me a new-found appreciation for guided drives and everything I learned from them.
3. Not All Game Reserves are Created Equal
We left Aquila Private Game Reserve and Mabula Game Lodge feeling like they were two pretty distinct experiences. Each had its own pros and cons, but ultimately I preferred our time at Mabula. Here’s why.
Our Experience at Aquila
We visited South Africa in December, during their summer. With Aquila Private Game Reserve being in the Western Cape, it was hot, sunny, and dry. The landscape was different shades of brown as far as our eyes could see. The dirt roads were rocky and uneven (“enjoy your African massage”, our first guide had joked).
The whole experience was efficient and went according to plan. Once we saw one of the animals in the distance, we’d drive close to it, and it usually stayed put. It was surprisingly easy to drive around to see Big Five there (with the exception of the leopard, which is nocturnal). But that was part of the problem for us, in the end.
Perhaps it’s because we visited in the middle of the day, when many animals are lethargic due to the heat. As I write this, I’m thinking about this particular group of lions pictured below:
I know now that lions sleep most of the day anyhow, but I was still surprised that they were so unbothered by our 20-person group peering down at them from our vehicle. There was a lot of anticipation leading up to visiting them—a separate enclosure with an electric gate, talk of keeping all your limbs in the vehicle to be safe and whatnot—but ultimately, when we got to them and they were dozing like house cats, it felt… artificial, if you know what I mean. (However, it’s also important to note that these lions are not wild. Aquila Reserve rescued them from being bred for hunting purposes, so their habits are different.)
Later, my family and I debriefed over the experience. The overall consensus was that while it was great to have more of a “guarantee” of seeing the animals, we almost could have gone to a zoo back home instead.
Our Experience at Mabula
Our time at Mabula Game Reserve felt completely different. In contrast to Aquila, Mabula is in the northeastern part of South Africa. It’s a three hour drive from Johannesburg, in Limpopo Province. It was cold, rainy, and wet there, and this made the whole game reserve much more green and lush. The landscape had way more variation and I understood why you call it “the bush”.
At Mabula, we spent at least four of our ten hours driving around looking for lions (and that’s a conservative estimate). We went on two game drives daily, one at the very early hour of 5:30am and the other at the more respectable time of 4:30pm, because animals are more likely to be active then. Animals seemed to be on the move, more often than not, meaning we usually caught a glimpse of their rear ends.
And even though we never actually saw the lions at Mabula, I actually preferred the process of looking for them there. It turns out that not finding them actually ended up making our very last game drive of the weekend especially memorable.
Here’s how it all went down:
We were all tired from the night before, when it was rainy and cold, and we didn’t see anything new. We kept driving around the lion enclosure, but had no luck: it seemed like we were just not meant to see them. After an hour or more, Franz seemed like he’d had enough. He drove us back out and over to another area, where we hadn’t spent much time yet.
“There,” he suddenly pointed out. “You see?” I nodded but was uncertain. “There,” he repeated. Apparently, Franz had identified elephant prints on the dirt road.
We spent the next 15 minutes driving at a snail’s pace. Franz peered over the Jeep’s side with a concerned look on his face, trying to discern whether the elephants had crossed into one area or another. Each time, it seemed like we were close, but they were nowhere to be seen.
After two missed attempts, Franz’s walkie-talkie started to crackle with the muffled voice of one of his colleagues. Franz looked at us with wide eyes: “Ah, they crossed over! We must have missed them!”
He gunned the Land Rover and said the magic words: “I’m going to turn this vehicle around”.
A Memory of Elephants
When we arrived, our entire Jeep went from “ooh”s of amazement to almost complete silence as we absorbed what was happening in front of us. It turns out that missing the elephants so many times had actually given us an advantage. Though we were the last of the vehicles to arrive, we got to look right at them when they decided to come our way.
As the elephants slowly clambered toward our vehicle, it felt completely surreal. The two leaders of the herd ambled our way, getting closer and closer. They casually started tearing off tree branches to eat and seemed to watch us just as closely as we watched them.
“See their tails?” Franz whispered. “Since they’re swinging, they’re not aggressive,” he told us. This was important to know, since by then the herd had backed us into a dead-end road. Every few minutes, Franz calmly backed the vehicle up to keep a safe distance.
Eventually, the elephants spread out enough again for us to squeeze by and return to the main road. Franz drove us to our morning coffee stop with the other vehicles, where everyone rushed out to gush over what just happened. Hands down, it had been one of the best moments of the entire trip, we agreed. The wait was totally worth it.
Going on these “luxury” game drives taught me that organised group tours aren’t so bad after all. Instead of trying to DIY everything to save money, like I usually do, this experience helped me realise that there are times where it’s completely worth it to upgrade for the expertise of a guide.
Still, the differences in our experiences at the game reserves were a good reminder to me that the most delightful part of travel is when there are not so many guarantees. I’d much rather put in the time and the work to have an experience that is real and imperfect, rather than something easy and quick for the sake of checking off an item on a list.
Lastly, leading up to this whole trip, I kept thinking of “going on a safari” as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But now I realise (and hope!) that this will be just the first—and certainly not the last—of more to come. Getting to go on five game drives, and sharing the experience with my parents, is something that I’ll always be grateful for.
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