This was our first trip to Africa and our first safari. As I mentioned yesterday in this post, the aha Makalali has 26000 hectares of bushveld with many free-roaming animals. While it was not precisely Kruger National Park or one of the larger reserves like Timbavati, we felt it was perfect for a safari novice like us.
The one thing we knew about safaris was the Big Five, which includes the elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and the cape buffalo. They are dangerous, and bringing one down would have been quite a feat for trophy-hunters. These days, the goal is to visit them and enjoy watching them in their natural environment.
Game drives happen when the animals are more likely to be out and about foraging for food and water. This meant early mornings and late evenings. Most animals rest during the day to avoid the heat and predators. Our game drives were scheduled for 530 am, and 4 pm every day, each lasting at least three hours. Snacks were provided before each drive at the lodge.
The entire lodge schedule and its staff worked around the game drives. Meal service and entertainment were predicated on the drives. Although 530 am was very early, especially for the kids, they were eager to be up and off. The morning sun would break out as we left on the drive, and the crisp air felt refreshing as we drove. It felt liberating to be out and breathing in gulps of fresh air while watching the animals at work or play.
Each game drive is led by a driver and a tracker, both of whom are certified with many years of experience. Between Sifowso and Samuel, our driver and tracker shared nearly 20 years of experience in the field. Samuel always rode upfront in his tracker seat, only occasionally choosing to sit in the front passenger seat, like near a herd of elephants.
All game drives left at the same time, so each team was in touch with the other through a wireless radio network. Sometimes other guides from nearby reserves also joined in. Once the game was tracked down, the information would be shared, and other teams followed.
The game drives were done in an open Toyota Land Cruiser, which can comfortably seat nine guests, stadium-style, with the driver and tracker in the front. The vehicle requires about 60 to 65 Liters of diesel (about 13 gallons) and can run about six game drives on that. The crew carried water, beverages, some alcoholic drinks, fruits, snacks like jerky, muffins, etc. We ate these in the middle of a game drive. At dusk, the tracker carried a soft spotlight that he sometimes used to focus on any game he thought we should see.
The crew instructed us to remain seated at all times, especially while viewing lions. They apparently see the whole truck as one unit and do not focus on each individual. We were asked to duck to avoid individual trees, either poisonous ones or those with thorns. While the reserve had dirt roads laid out for vehicular access, most of the bush was left untouched. Sifowso told us he would try off-roading (go off the dirt roads directly into the bush) if necessary to locate a particular animal but never to track a black rhino or an elephant. Getting caught in the bush with either animal can be dangerous as they are massive, run fast, and can cause severe bodily injury.
For the game drives, we wore clothes in drab colors like camouflage green, browns, or off whites. We carried our hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm, jackets, water bottles, insect repellents, cameras, and binoculars. The last was especially helpful in locating distant wildlife.
We were assigned to Sifowso and Samuel’s team with two other families. Both were couples from the Johannesburg area and avid safari-goers, with many drives under their belt. Going on the game drives with them was a terrific experience for us. They were so knowledgeable about the wildlife, how to spot them, how to distinguish one from the other, etc. They peppered the team with excellent questions. We already had an experienced crew working for us in Samuel and Sifowso; the others took that experience to the next level. Besides, they gave us tips for our visit to the coast, got us sinus medications when Sonny JJ was bothered by his sinus congestion, and generally added depth to the whole experience. The last two drives, we shared with a couple from France. They were first-time visitors to the area, like us, and had plans to drive to Kruger the following day.
Our first game drive, we saw impala, zebra, kudu, wildebeest, white rhinos, and a pride of lions. Once Sifowso set out, he charted a course to a part of the reserve with recent sightings. From there, everything was dependent on the skill of the team. Once Samuel tracked an animal or a group of them, we would get as close as could safely do and then shut off the engines and watch.
Of course, this being their homes, and since they move often, we were afforded only a glimpse at times and a great view of others. But even in full view of the lions and rhinos, we never felt in danger. Sifowso would keep up a steady commentary on any animals we had seen or were going to see. Or would answer questions patiently, even if had been asked a day prior.
Impalas were scattered all around the reserve and generally ran in herds. Sleek and small of frame, they had two straight horns and thick black lines running down their behind. One impala male has a harem of females and babies with him. The rest of the young males band together, biding their time to challenge him and take over. Impalas have a gestational period of six months. We saw many of them playing in the bush from our room balcony.
The nyala is an antelope found hidden in thicker bush along water. They live alone or in small groups of ten or less, are not territorial. They feed on leaves, flower and fruits. Nyalas have a reddish to brownish coat with white vertical stripes down their torso.
There are two kinds of rhinos, the white and the black. Contrary to popular belief, they are not differentiated by color. Rather, based on their body size, jaw shape, and their choice of vegetation. Black rhinos have a smaller body, have a narrower jaw structure, and eat leaves off trees. They are generally more aggressive than their cousins.
On the other hand, white rhinos have a bigger body and a wider jaw, which makes eating grass much easier. Despite their bulk, rhinos are vegetarians, with a long gestational period of 16 months!! Their horns have been trimmed off to avoid capture by poachers.
The wildebeest, we could only catch a glimpse of that day. We had to wait two more days to get a better look at their herd. But what we did enjoy the most that evening was a pride of lions. There are three prides in Makalali, with two alpha males and a host of females and cubs. Life span is about 15 years for males and about 20 for females, with a gestational period of about three months. Cubs have spots that help to camouflage and wear off as the cubs grow older. The mane of the male helps to show off, attract females, and protect the neck during fights.
Coming across this pride that was resting was both terribly exciting and slightly nerve-wracking. Sifowso took us quite close to where the pride was resting. The male and female were together while the rest of the pride members were scattered nearby. Their slender yet sturdy bodies shook with each deep and rapid breath they took. They had recently finished a hunt and meal and would rest before the next one. After nervously anticipating an attack on us, we settled down, exhilarated to watch these majestic animals from such close quarters. They could not have been more than a dozen feet away! Watching animals on National Geographic is one thing. Watching them play with one another, prowl, yawn, stare deeply into your eyes and then ignore you completely, made one feel, uh, alive!! Soon other teams began to flock to the area, so we bid goodbye to the pride, although not by choice!
The following day, we came across warthogs as we were leaving the lodge. They shot across the road in the morning sunshine, before we could click great photos of them. Like rhinos, warthogs are vegetarians and live together as families and eat grass. Warthogs, like humans, have a single-chambered stomach.
We stopped by a water body where a bloat of hippos were nearly completely submerged in the water. They appeared to be entirely at peace with the world. Like the rhinos, hippos are territorial. They stay in the water by day and wander out at night when it’s cooler. Hippos have a long life and can live to be almost 40 to 50 years of age!!
That morning, Sifowso heard that a herd of buffaloes were grazing in the deeper bush. So, he took us off-roading to try and get close to them. The trucks are so large and robust that they can drive right through slender vegetation and bush. But it was ultimately Samuel’s tracking and Sifowso’s superb driving skills that took us close to them. We could see them, but only their flanks and they were in no mood to pose for us. After the lions, this off-roading adventure ranked high up on this trip. Luckily for us, the following evening, we came across a herd of buffaloes that our team tracked. We stood close and watched these mighty beasts ruminate, defecate, and then slowly make their way past us! It was a thrilling few minutes!!
Further down the road, we came across the graceful giraffes. They were crossing the road ahead of us. Female giraffes are slender with thin horns and tufts of black hair above those horns. Male giraffes have thicker horns.
Zebras were yet another fascinating animal to watch, especially at water holes. We came across a dazzle of zebras drinking water. Sifowso explained that they are black with white furs. Like fingerprints on a human hand, each zebra’s stripes are unique to that animal alone. We watched as they ran about frolicking and loudly passing flatus. That’s a common condition with zebras, passing gas in spurts while running!!
Zebras also have a single-chambered stomach and are vegetarians too. Female zebras have a thick black line running down the anal cleft and are larger. Males are smaller and have thinner black lines on the back.
We saw elephants on the second evening of our stay (third game drive). We saw Samuel and Sifowso talk to each other, and a short distance ahead, Samuel got into the vehicle. It was the first time he did so. Shortly after, we saw a herd of elephants walking across the field to our right. We were thoroughly excited. Although they were at a distance, the animals’ immense size and magnificence kept us rooted in our seats. We saw two adults and young calves of varying ages. Sifowso was hesitant to follow them as one of the females had been agitated at times. So we kept our distance and let them disappear into the woods.
The following day, Sifowso drove us through an area and waited. Soon enough, a giant female elephant came into view along with two younger ones and a baby calf. We quietly sat as they stood in front of us. Our hearts were palpitating, even wilder than when the lions were watching us. The female leader trumpeted a couple of times, and we slowly backed off. I am not exactly sure what happened over the next few minutes. We were following the small herd as it walked alongside our van, but about 15 to 20 feet away. For some reason, the calf felt insecure and kept getting closer to the mother. This behavior triggered a defense mechanism in the female, and she started charging us. At first, she trumpeted more often and loudly. So Sifowso turned the truck around to head to the road. But she followed us at a quick run, trumpeting again and again. It was quite a hair raising few minutes for us, with an enraged, massive African female elephant chasing us at nearly 15 to 20 miles per hour. And though we sped away, she followed us for almost two to three minutes, before giving up. Sifowso notified the other teams of the incident and personally dissuaded groups in the vicinity from pursuing that little herd.
After our hearts calmed from the narrow escape, Sifowso drove us to see a hyena dwelling. Once again, Samuel successfully tracked one for us. A female hyena was watchfully resting when we got there. Hyenas live in burrows, usually one female and several males. Females are larger than males. They are scavengers and hunt in packs. If large enough, such a pack can drive away a pride of lions from their kill.
The wildebeest made their appearance, two days in a row, in the evenings, just before sunset.
Other smaller animals we managed to see were jackals, on two occasions. Waterbucks are antelopes that we found once or twice. These animals are much larger in size, and are distinguished by the white, round ring on their hindquarters. Male dung beetles create round balls out of dung. They then attract a female that lays eggs in them, the male then buries them deep. The larvae survive in the soft inner side of the dung balls, and mature during the rainy season.
This safari was a fantastic experience for our family. The Johannesburg couples who went with us were very appreciative of Sifowso and Samuel and their willingness to give us the best experience possible. Coming from someone so experienced with safaris, that meant a lot.
The other aspect of game drives that I enjoyed was the natural surroundings themselves. The landscape was so beautiful that it was sometimes hard to keep focused on the animals alone. Especially, as the sun went down over the Drakensberg mountains in the distance, it cast such a spell of colors, yellow, golden, red, lavender! There was a tranquility, a serenity to this place that gladdened the heart and enlivened the soul! As life returns to pandemic uncertainty, busy work schedules, these glimmers of memories will find their way to the surface, providing much-needed rejuvenation on a stressful day.
Before our trip, I read a lot of articles about safari on your own versus going with a guide. My thoughts are that guided safaris are the best, at least at the get-go. The information contained in this post was obtained from Samuel and Sifowso. Their unerring ability to hone in on the animals and get the most out of the trip enriched the whole process. Safari game drives are humans visiting animals in their homes. As such, we have to be respectful of our surroundings and the animal’s privacy. Makalali and its staff have been able to create such an environment. We enjoyed this solo safari and hope its the start of many more such trips!