The first thing foreigners seem to ask us about South Africa is how to “go on safari”; right after they (immigration officers included) are astounded at the fact that our white skin is paler than they expected for Africans; and where were we really born (yes, in South Africa!).
We’re so used to it that we barely seem to notice anymore that a good old family game drive is glamorously being referred to as a “safari” and that the rugged game park is casually confused with being a big zoo.
So, to clear things up, here are 10 simple ways that us local South Africans like to go on safari (a game drive!) in the wild (a game reserve that is wild and free!).
1. Choosing the Game Reserve
Every school holiday, there are bound to be a bunch of South African families heading over to one of a vast number game reserves to be found all over the country.
There are a few huge National Parks (run by SANPARKS) like the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape or the Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape.
There are also plenty of smaller reserves to choose from (both national and private).
2. Scoping Out the Landscape
A land of contrasts, South Africa boasts arid deserts, lush forests, sprawling hi-veld and low-veld, lofty mountain ranges, sandy beaches lined with tropical vegetation, sparse Karoo bush and Cape fynbos, scenic winelands and bustling cities, too. Choosing a park includes understanding the landscape and what it has on offer.
The Mountain Zebra National Park, for example, will give you glimpse of the endangered Cape mountain zebra, cheetahs and Cape buffalo, whereas the arid Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park offers views of gemsbok, bat-eared foxes and springbok herds that may be next to impossible to see further south.
3. Planning Around the Weather
South Africa’s gorgeous subtropical climate boasts four seasons (for instance, summer from December to February is hot and humid on the east coast with impressive thunder showers to cool us down on most afternoons and clear evenings). The weather differs slightly around the country depending on the landscape and the altitude.
It is best to take all of these factors into account when choosing the park, the month to visit, the packing list and the mode of transport. For example, the Western Cape winters are brutal (wet and cold) so if you’re visiting in June, then it is a great time to go up north and enjoy the cooler months there; with thirsty game heading to the shrinking waterholes and less long grass for them to hide behind along the way.
4. Mode of Transport
The locals generally choose to drive their own vehicle around the game reserves to save on costs and to have the freedom to explore at their own pace. Parks may require 4×4 access (four-wheel drive capabilities) or higher-clearance vehicles to cope with the roads and provide a quality viewing experience.
Most popular national parks provide tarred roads (on main routes) that allow smaller vehicles easy access, however, it is best to research this beforehand in case. Bear in mind that in places with long grass (especially in summer), higher vehicles generally provide a much better view of the wildlife.
5. Camping, “Glamping” or Luxury?
There are a range of choices for accommodation, depending on which park you visit. Camping is popular for most South Africans (or one of my personal favourites, “glamping” like at the amazing Nselweni Bush Camp in iMfolozi-Hluhluwe Park). All camps are generally self-catering except for a few hotels and luxury bush lodges at the private reserves; but there are usually restaurants or tea rooms nearby for emergencies.
The type of accommodation does not affect insect-related precautions and one can expect to encounter all manner of creepy-crawlies in the wild – be brave and please don’t kill anything (rather remove or relocate things, or call a trusty game ranger to assist you).
6. Making the Most of Your Time
After settling into the camp and unloading all items from the car, hop in and head out to catch the last rays of the afternoon sun. Sunset in any park is a sight to behold, but the desert parks are especially amazing. The long rays bounce off the sand dunes and the whole world shimmers in golds and reds, silhouetting the impala grazing and the frenzied little birds catching their dinner for the evening.
Midday is generally the quietest and hottest time of the day so make sure you’re parked in a shady spot with a book or a pillow on hand (and only leave the vehicle in designated zones, being vigilant of roaming animals who ignore the signs pay no attention at all to demarcated tourist areas).
7. Dawn to Dusk
A highly debated question among die-hard game reserve veterans is whether it is better to leave camp at sunrise or to leave camp in the dark and line up at the gate (which opens around sunrise). It shows true commitment to quality game viewing if you line up at the gate (and a thousand points to the first car out because they might just be the first to spot that leopard returning from his nightly prowling as he lazily saunters down the road in front of you).
We take a skottel (gas grill), breakfast ingredients, a packed lunch, snacks, biltong, fruit and water with us to keep us going through the day so that not one minute of potential game viewing time is wasted. What would you do if you spot a cheetah stalking its prey and you don’t have any lunch to sit through the three or so hours it may take for him to take it down? Rather be prepared.
Also, make sure you’re back in camp before the gate closes at sunset if you want to avoid fines from the dedicated game rangers. This is a problematic conundrum for most of us as dusk is often the best time to spot big cats and nocturnal creatures coming out to play; but we have to leave them in the dust as we rush (under the speed limit) back to camp before the gates close.
8. Spotting the Big Five
The Big Five – a revered phrase for South African game viewers and hunters – depicts the most rare and spectacular five animals to spot (and hunt on foot) in the wild: elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo and leopard. These are the most difficult to spot (especially the leopard and the black rhino), the rarest and by far the most majestic of all the big animals in South Africa.
Joy abounds on any sighting of the Big Five, whether it be a glimpse of a leopard’s tail as it disappears around the dry river bend, sitting for hours enjoying the frolicking herd of forty or more elephants at the waterhole or keeping watch over the pride of lions hidden under that bush over there, in case they decide to jump at an early hunting opportunity with the nearby herd of zebra. (Can you tell this is the most exciting part of any safari? Well, it certainly is! It is all about the search.)
9. Encountering Giants
One of the most important skills for do-it-yourself game drivers is to understand and respect that wild animals can be unpredictable, territorial and faster than they look from faraway. As a general rule, keep a healthy distance away from large animals such as elephants, rhinos, hippos (at night) and giraffe and don’t switch off the car at close range (in case you need to reverse in a hurry). For monkeys and baboons, keep the windows closed (trust me), especially if you have food inside the car (which seems inevitable).
Most game reserves impose a hefty fine on tourists (for the safety of tourists and future visitors) if they are seen hanging out of windows (including putting arms or heads out). Respect this rule at all times (even when you ONLY want to take that photo of the lion behind the tall grass because the lioness right hiding in the bush right behind you will take advantage of the situation!).
10. Being Responsible Tourists
The signs posted around the parks are there for a reason. For example, feeding animals and birds is dangerous for humans, but more so for the precious creatures themselves. It teaches the animals and birds to seek food from humans (in cars, picnic sites, tents and chalets) and overcome their natural (healthy) fear of us.
This often leads to innocent animals having to be shot or relocated (a sad and costly exercise for all involved) and is by no means fair to the wildlife whose natural habitat has been so harshly encroached upon.
Stay hydrated, avoid alcohol when driving and keep all your rubbish with you until you can dispose of it correctly. Littering and destroying any natural plants are terrible crimes against the environment.
One more thing to remember is that the majestic beauty of South Africa’s wildlife is incredibly special and a privilege to see.
Every time you break a park rule, you compromise the delicate ecosystem and hinder the people working hard to protect it.
Supporting the national parks ensures a wild, free place preserved for future generations.
Stop greedy rhino poaching, careless littering, toxic dumping and the unsustainable destruction of natural habitats. Your children are counting on it.