I bounced over dirt roads in an open-top jeep, eyes wide open as I searched the forest for animals on an African safari – and I saw them around every turn.
Three cheetah brothers lazed in the shade on the side of the road. Leopards slinked away on the sand of dry creek beds and stared at us from tree branches as their legs dangled below. Rhinos stepped right out of prehistoric times and right into our path. Gangs of hippos floated gracefully in the river.
Four lion cubs pounced on their dinner in the tall grass as mom and dad slept nearby – so nearby in fact, our safari vehicle was in-between the parents and kids. They couldn't have cared less. Giant herds of elephants stomped down to the Chobe River to cool off, little ones splashing behind their mothers and young males acting tough. Warthog piglets played in mud holes as serene Cape buffalo looked on. Zebras and giraffes wandered through the trees, stepped into a magical scene from my childhood dreams.
Baby animals were everywhere: baby giraffes, baby zebras, baby hippos, baby warthogs, baby cheetahs, and baby lions. We saw vervet monkeys with bright blue testicles and more types of antelopes than I knew existed: impalas, nyalas, waterbucks, bushbucks, elands, and wildebeest. Crocodiles slid into the water and baboons raised hell in the road.
Why the African Safari Blew My Mind
I knew we’d see lots of animals on an African safari, but had no idea how many. I was absolutely blown away by the diversity and the sheer number that we encountered. And I was completely unprepared for the immense feeling of wonderment that welled up inside of me upon seeing these amazing, incredible creatures going about their day. We were the visitors in their wild kingdom.
Within the first two hours of our first game drive in Kruger National Park, we had seen the “Big Five” (rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, and Cape buffalo) – along with numerous hippos, giraffes, and zebras. For the most part, the animals were quite unperturbed by our presence. According to our tracker, they have grown familiar with the safari vehicle’s silhouette and have learned that it means no harm. If you stand up in your seat and change the silhouette - now that's a different story.
National Parks or Private Game Reserves?
We visited two national parks (Kruger National Park in South Africa and Chobe National Park in Botswana) and one private game reserve (Karongwe in South Africa). The national parks were chock-full of animals, but also had a lot more people and vehicles. They felt a bit more “packaged.” Had I just visited the national parks, I would have given my experience ten stars and not known the difference.
But the time I spend at the private game reserve, Karongwe, was absolutely the highlight of my trip. The park felt more intimate and relaxed, the animals more chilled out, and the trackers were spot-on. Every game drive was better than the next. We would always stop in the morning for a coffee break and in the evening for a sundowner, all while eating to-die-for cuisine back in our beautiful lodge three times a day.
Planning a Safari Adventure
Planning a safari can be more challenging than other types of trips because of the incredible number of decisions that have to be made. Choosing which region of Africa (east or southern), which countries to visit, and what season of the year to go is just the beginning. There's also an incredible number of safari lodges to choose from, and options are extremely limited in a mid-range budget. It’s mostly lavish luxury lodges and budget camping safaris.
I found it difficult to plan an African safari, and I worked as a travel agent for years. This was my 40th birthday celebration trip and I wanted it to be just right. I researched for several months and also consulted a travel agent, but didn’t like the generic (and expensive) package she presented.
I finally settled on a National Geographic Journeys tour that had middle-of-the-road pricing with a good mix of culture, wildlife, and sightseeing. I added a couple of extra days in the beginning in Cape Town and at the end in Victoria Falls.
The Magic of Africa
When I was a travel agent, I had customers that fell in love with Africa and would go there again and again and again. And I get it now. African safaris have a magic unlike anywhere else I’ve experienced, and I’ve traveled to 50 countries.
Next time, I will either work with a travel agent who is a bonafide African safari specialist or book another small group tour. I was impressed by the quality of service and lodging that Nat Geo offered – although I’m also intrigued by the camping adventures where you pop your tent in the middle of a park with animals. No fences. Just wild nature, you, and the magic of Africa!
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