We knew our trip to Africa wouldn’t be complete without a view of the local wildlife, and since we didn’t want to do a self-drive tour, we instead decided to book a room at a game lodge on the edge of Kruger National Park. So, after leaving Namibia, we flew back through Johannesburg, then over to Hoedspruit, a tiny airport near Kruger. As our plane approached the runway, we got our first glimpse of this wildlife — a giraffe walking down a dirt road through the brush below. This was the beginning of four great days of wildlife viewing, selections of which you’ll see sprinkled throughout this post.
Upon arrival at the Hoedspruit airport, we were greeted by a driver who took us to the main lodge at Thornybush where we awaited a transfer to our lodge, Serondella, which is another lodge in the same reserve. While waiting for our transfer, we saw warthogs on their knees munching on the courtyard grass, nyala (a small deer-like animal) wandering around, and even a group of unwelcome baboons running around the dining area. After taking a short drive to Serondella, we saw that things were no different there, though the baboons seemed slightly better disciplined. Animals were all around on the lodge grounds, though the elephants were kept away by an electric fence.
At Serondella, we quickly fell into the daily routine:
5:30 – wake-up knock on the door
5:30 – 6:00 – coffee
6:00 – 9:00 – morning game drive
9:30 – large brunch
3:30 – 4:00 – coffee, tea, snacks
4:00 – 7:00 – evening drive including sundowner
7:30 – dinner
Our private hut was great. It included a large bathtub, huge bed, and lounge area with a view of the water hole, where many of the reserve’s animals come to take a drink. We spent much of our afternoon free time relaxing and reading in the hut, taking occasional notice of the giraffes, warthogs, and baboons right outside the window.
However, while the lodge rooms and food were both great, the real highlight was the game drives. Our ranger and tracker took us and the other guests out twice a day to drive around the reserve looking for animals. All lodges on the reserve used the exact same type of vehicle, a green Land Rover with three benches of open-air seating. Our ranger explained that the animals are used to seeing these, and that they view the car and people as a single large animal that they will not attack. While the ranger had a large shotgun in the car, he said he has never had to use it, and it became clear that most of the animals were at relative ease with a car full of guests in front of them. For example, the mother cheetah we saw had no concern about us sitting right in front of her and her three cubs.
Each drive lasted about three hours and included a stop for drinks — coffee in the morning, and a sundowner in the evening. The rangers of the ten or so lodges on the reserve communicate via radio, sharing animal sightings and coordinating viewing times. The reserve has a policy of not allowing more than two Land Rovers to view an animal at a time, and since it is private, there are no other vehicles around. Because of this, the chances of seeing “big five” animals up close in their native environment is very high (though of course not guaranteed). Within three drives, Abby and I had seen all five.
The “Big Five” animals are: the Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino, and Buffalo. While these animals are very impressive and well worth going out of your way to see, Abby and I also enjoyed the runner-ups in the animal popularity contest, specifically the Giraffe, Cheetah, Baboon, Impala, Nyala, Steenbok, and Kudu. The most interesting sight we saw a performance by a “Suicide Bird”, who, in a rarely seen act, impresses its mates by flying high into the air, then closing its wings and tumbling in a free-fall until it’s very close the ground, and finally re-opening its wings right before impact and flying out unharmed. We were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and to have a skilled ranger who recognized its call.
As you can see, we had an amazing time during this segment of our trip! It far surpassed our expectations.