Let's Talk About My Vacation Part Oh God Shut Up Already: On Safari Near Kruger National Park

am recapping, excruciatingly slowly, the two-week trip we took to South Africa last year. Here is part one, about our layover in Paris; here is part two, about Cape Town; here is part three, about Cape Point and the penguins of Boulders Beach; here is part four, about wine tasting and stroking a baby cheetah in Stellenbosch; here is part five about shark-diving in Gansbaai; and here is part six about the train from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Expect me to be finished with this sometime in 2014.

I know, I know: this is getting silly. We went to South Africa in November, and now it's the following August, and I still haven't finished telling you about it, and trust me, nobody thinks this is more obnoxious and ridiculous than me. Except maybe you. You might. Do you? I wouldn't blame you if you do. I should've just written one big post about the whole trip in December and called it a day, but instead I had the bright idea to break it up into sections so I could do each spot justice and tell you about it properly, which now just seems idiotic because a whole year has almost gone past and I haven't even finished, mostly because these posts take forever and I'm kind of lazy, but also because I've sort of been busy establishing world peace, OKAY? Okay, not really. I just kind of wanted to make you feel bad for a minute. Establishing world peace seems like it would be a lot harder than sitting down and writing about a stupid vacation you took a million years ago, though, so we're gonna go with that if anyone asks. 

Anyway, I've got to see this thing through, no matter how ridiculous and contrived it feels like it's become—I've had, like, three different hairstyles since the pictures you're about to see were even taken—but if it's any consolation, a) I'm almost finished, b) this is the last section on Africa—we've got a two-day layover in Amsterdam still to talk about, but I can skip that if you want because it'll mostly be me rhapsodizing about salty licorice—and c) we're about to talk about being on safari! THIS IS THE BEST PART. 


See? I'm not lying. This is totally the best part. 

It's also the LONGEST part—seriously, it's like a thesis, albeit a thesis containing a larger than usual number of lion pictures—so I'm going to give you a little pause here to find a high-protein snack and what's left of your patience. 

Ready? Okay. So after our brief day in Johannesburg, we picked up our rental car the next morning and set out to make the trip up to Kruger National Park, which is about a six hour drive.

We'd heard a few slightly scary things about driving around Johannesburg, so we were careful to take as many precautions as we could. I kept my purse in the trunk so it wasn't sitting out on the seat, we put wallets, phones and cameras out of sight in the glove compartment, and—following the advice of our Johannesburg tour guide Henry—we cracked the windows of our car an inch while driving through smaller towns, so that if anyone did try to smash one, it wouldn't shatter as easily. That sounded counterintuitive to me at first—wait, you want me to open my windows if we go through a bad neighborhood?—but I had to admit that it made sense. You know, I've had a lot of people ask me if we ever felt unsafe in South Africa, and I have to say that we never did. Of course, there's always going to be risks, but traveling in South Africa, for the most part, is like traveling in any other unfamiliar country or large city: you take the precautions you can, you don't do anything stupid, you listen to the locals, and you hope for the best. It certainly shouldn't put you off visiting. 

That said, the drive itself was quite an adventure. We passed signs warning us not to pull over because the area was a known "hijacking hotspot" (for someone used to seeing the word "hotspot" preceded only by the word "wifi," this was quite the eye opener) and other signs imploring motorists to "obey the rules or face the fire."  We stopped, at Henry's suggestion, at a service station on the side of the motorway, where the largest size of coffee at a cafe called Mugg & Bean was referred to as a "Serious" coffee. I think we should adopt that over here, don't you? Small, medium, large, and Serious. Can I fetch those pants for you in another size, madam? Well, I'm carrying a little winter weight, so you might just want to bring me a Serious. 

We went through a town called Limpopo, and had a lot of fun imagining being pulled over by the Limpopo popo. We drove through a few stretches of road inhabited by what Sean coined "loose bulls"—basically just a couple of bulls meandering leisurely down the asphalt—and another stretch where people would just dart out randomly onto the freeway to cross from one side to another. We paused at a tollbooth to hand over our money, and when the boy sitting in there handed us back our change, he asked us if we had any painkillers. "I've got a terrible headache," he said and I felt awful that I didn't have anything on me. I still think about him sometimes. 

Five and a half hours into the drive, our GPS went insane. It started trying to make us drive down a closed military road, and then it threw a fit when we wouldn't. Sensing we were on our own from this point forward, we went up and down a different road at least four of five times, looking for the turn-off to the game reserve we were staying on. When we finally found it, we got further directions from the guard in the hut at the entrance, then promptly got lost again a few turns later. Picture us, in our tiny red rental car, bouncing along a dirt road in the dusty African bush, peering at inscrutable wooden signs leading down slightly foreboding tracks. Picture us becoming increasingly frustrated with, in turn, the GPS, the lack of any distinguishable markers, the rapidly dwindling daylight hours, and each other. Then picture one of us glancing up, mid-invective, to see this right in front of us:

A giraffe. A giraffe. Excuse my language, but HOOOOOLY SHIT A GIRAFFE. 

I think we sort of laughed and clung to each other a bit. There was a lot of giddiness and a lot of swearing. Here was a giraffe, out in the wild, just moseying along next to our car! There was no-one else around—just us in our silly little rental car in the middle of Africa—and suddenly getting lost felt like the best thing in the world. 

The second best thing in the world, however, was spotting an oncoming truck, flagging it down for directions, and finally not being lost anymore. After traversing what felt like the entire Balule Game Reserve, we turned down the well-worn path to our lodge.   

Now when I tell you I did a lot of research about safari lodges in South Africa, you're not even going to be able to imagine the level of research I did. You might try and imagine the level of research you think I did, but you're not even going to come close. If there had been an exam about safari lodges in South Africa sometime around last September, I would have aced it. In fact, I'm sort of sorry that there wasn't, because that would have been a pretty hilarious exam and the one thing you can't say about most exams is that they're hilarious, am I right? I mean, Chaucer doesn't even come close. A safari lodge exam would be a blast, even without all the Wife of Bath references you'd get to make. 

Anyway, I did a lot of research on safari lodges in South Africa and, more specifically, on safari lodges around Kruger National Park, and what I discovered is that they all pretty much offer the same thing: for your nightly all-inclusive fee, you get three meals a day and two safaris (one in the early morning, one in the late afternoon.) Once I'd figured that out, all I needed to do was find one that a) had delicious food, since we'd be stuck there eating it unless we wanted to venture out and fight a few vultures for a piece of leftover leopard carcass, b) had guides and spotters that came recommended, so we could be reasonably sure of seeing some wildlife, and c) didn't cost an arm and a leg. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Naledi Lodge. I cannot say enough good things about Naledi Lodge, which I am pretty proud of having chosen all by myself, and which I would recommend a hundred times over if you're ever thinking about making a similar trip. (Usual disclaimer: no-one has paid me to say this, asked me to say this, given me a discount to say this, or threatened to read my teenage diaries aloud to my co-workers during an all-hands meeting if I don't say this. I just really loved it that much and want you to stay there too.) 

So we pulled up at Naledi Lodge and were immediately greeted by a man in full safari regalia, who ran up to the car and asked us if we were okay. "We were expecting you hours ago!" he said. "Did the map I sent you not help?"

The map you...? Oh, wait, the map? The map? The map I briefly saw as an email attachment called MAP.JPG and then promptly forgot existed? THAT MAP? 

Whoops. 

Oh well, at least we saw that giraffe. 

The man in full safari regalia, who turned out to be Kjell—the owner of Naledi Lodge and our formidable host and guide—reassured us that we were still in time for the 4pm game drive, gave us a few minutes to get settled in our room, and then met us outside in the open-top car for our first venture into the bush. 




I don't know how to describe the actual safari part to you except to say that each time we went out on one, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Over the course of six game drives—we did two a day, each three or four hours long—Kjell made it his mission to show us as much as he could. We saw four out of the Big Five—lions, buffalo, elephants, and rhinos (alas the pesky leopard eluded us, which, coincidentally, is the name of my new all-xylophone hipster rock band)—as well as zebras, baboons, wildebeest, hyenas, warthogs, impala, vultures, jackals, kudu, springboks, waterbucks, and giraffes (although none as close as the one outside our car the first day.) 




Sadly, we did not see a honey badger. 

Back when we were shark-diving in Gansbaii, our guide had told us that "wildlife don't take bookings"—meaning we shouldn't be disappointed if the sharks didn't show up. In Johannesburg, Henry had given us a similarly good piece of advice for our time on safari: "put your bush eyes on." Putting your bush eyes on turned out to be kind of like staring at one of those Magic Eye pictures that were popular in the early 90s, in that you had to let your eyes lose focus a little in order to make out shapes right in front of you. The only difference, of course, is that the shapes you were looking for were actual animals, and not magic sailboats painted sneakily by artists tripping on magic mushrooms.


My bush eyes found you, you.....whatever you are! (Cape Buffalo, if I remember correctly.)

My most successful instance of putting my bush eyes on was when I spotted the baby lion cub we'd been tracking in the undergrowth for a couple of days, returning each morning to see if he'd make an appearance. After Kjell and our tracker Sidwell had been peering into a thicket of brambles for several minutes, my bush eyes suddenly started working and I made out the lion cub's bright blue eyes and the flicker of a cat-sized paw. "There he is!" I whispered. Kjell confirmed it and clapped me on the back. "If you don't want to go back to San Francisco," he joked, "there's a job for you here." 


Oh hey, I'm a five-day-old lion cub, and I challenge you to find anything as cute as me in your whole life ever again.

Our time at Naledi passed far too quickly in a wonderful blur, and our three and a half days quickly started to follow a pleasingly familiar pattern. Each morning, Kjell would knock on our cabin door around 4am, and we'd have 15 minutes or so to get ready and meet him out front in the jeep. With the sun not yet up, we'd drive around for a couple of hours spotting animals, and then stop for coffee around dawn.

This also gave us the chance to use what Kjell called "the bush toilets," which basically meant finding the closest tree you could duck behind. "They're all unisex!" he'd joke, as I prayed furiously that I wouldn't bump into a lion while wandering off to answer nature's call. 



Aw, come on, I just want a belly rub.

Back at Naledi, we'd have breakfast as a group—Naledi only has a few cabins, which meant there were never more than six of us on the game drives or at meals—then spend the rest of the day reading in the open-air treetop lounge or lying around by the pool.




After a delicious lunch and a few more hours of relaxation, we'd meet up again for the 4pm game drive. We'd drive around in the open-top jeep, following the crackly tips that came in over the radio, then stop around 6pm for my favorite part of the entire trip: sundowners. Every afternoon before we left Naledi, Kjell would ask what we wanted to drink that night, and then, under the setting African sun, he'd mix up cocktails and set out snacks, and we'd hold up our sundowners and toast to another successful day. If I ever make it to heaven, I want it to be exactly like that


Looking awfully happy for someone with such a hastily-made ponytail, missy.

After another hour of animal-spotting in the dark, we'd bump along the trails back to Naledi, where the lit torches at the entrance would welcome us back and we'd have a shot of Amarula, which tastes like Baileys but better, and then gather for a three-course dinner outside, where we'd talk about the sightings we'd had that day. 

Of all the animals we saw, the lions were my favorite. Perhaps it was because we'd just lost our cat Charlie and I was feeling a particular affinity towards anything feline, or perhaps I just really have a thing for lions, but it was our encounters with them that were the most unforgettable. Right at the end of our very first game drive, long after the sun had set, we turned a corner on the way back to the lodge to find a dozen lions gathered around a giraffe carcass, their massive jaws stretching and chomping, their rope-like tails swatting the air in pleasure. They looked and sounded for all the world like Charlie when we'd throw the remains of a rotisserie chicken in his bowl. We stopped a few feet away and sat in silence, watching the lions feast, and when we finally pulled away, I thought I could probably have sat there forever. "Let's head back for dinner," said Kjell finally, breaking the silence. "Which hopefully won't smell like that." 


Yeah? I ate a rotting giraffe carcass and I liked it. 

On our last night, we came upon the lions again—in a different spot this time, the giraffe carcass having been picked clean and left to the vultures—and pulled up right alongside them. They were grizzling here and there and then suddenly one of them—Big Boy, the leader of the pack—picked up his head and started to roar, and the rest of them joined in. Of all the videos I lost when I stupidly deleted everything I'd taken in South Africa, this is the only one I managed to salvage. At the end you can hear me laughing in pure unadulterated joy.

I feel unendingly lucky that we got to take this trip to South Africa and create this bounty of indelible memories. Everyone we met was impossibly friendly and welcoming, and everything we saw was more beautiful and exciting than the last thing we saw, and if you ever have a chance to visit this incredible country, I'd jump on it faster than a lion on a giraffe carcass. And while I do feel that we, as a society, need to collectively agree to finally retire the phrase "I want to go to there," Balule Nature Reserve just outside of Kruger National Park is where, if given the chance, I would want to go. Every single time.

In the meantime, I know it feels as though you've seen a picture of every single animal in South Africa, but if you want to see more—including wildebeest, hyenas, and warthogs, oh my—there are approximately seven squazillion more safari pictures over here. If they're sort of average looking, they were taken by me. If they are ridiculously good, they were taken by Sean, who is lucky I have not printed out that belly-rub-lion picture from above and mounted it over our couch, the only reason being that I'm afraid the lion's giant balls, when reproduced at that scale, would put potential visitors off their dinner. 

(Oh go on, scroll back up and have a peek. You can't look at anything else now, can you?) 

Filed Under:
1
Jo
Aug 27, 2012

Wow, so envious of your safari trip, it looks and sounds freaking amazing. And yes, you know your readers so well, I definitely scrolled back up to check out those giant lion balls! An enlarged copy of that photo over the couch certainly would be a talking point ;)

2
Super Sarah
Aug 27, 2012

Aaaah, its been worth waiting for reading this recap, you capture how it feels so well. The South African bushveldt is a place so close to my heart. I am so happy you loved it. I cannot wait to go home!

3
Amy
Aug 27, 2012

I miss South Africa, so I'm glad to read the recap no matter how delayed. When people ask me what my favorite country was on our round the world trip, I pick South Africa every time. We went as budget as possible and did a self drive safari in our little tiny rental car. I was positive we'd get trampled by elephants, but we lived to tell the tale. We did see all of the Big Five, including the elusive leopard, but we certainly didn't see baby lions! I mean, seriously, baby lions! Those pictures made my morning. The next time we go on safari (and there will be a next, that's how amazingly awesome it was), I'd like to go with a guide. It seems like you really can see a lot more and get closer with a guide. You guys got some great pictures - were you using a special super zoom lens or just a regular one?

4
Leah
Aug 27, 2012

amazing. south africa is now on my future travel destination list.

5
A'Dell
Aug 27, 2012

Oh, I LOVE reading these because they remind me so much of Kenya. I only saw one leopard in the year I was in Kenya, at SEVERAL game parks, so don't feel too badly. About that one. They're very sneaky.

I have always thought I'd want to take my family back, when everyone is old enough to really appreciate it. Your safari is exactly how I remember them.

6
Krissa
Aug 27, 2012

Holly, don't apologize for drawing these out! It's a lovely treat in my RSS reader to read about a great vacation, even if it was, say, in the last calendar year. And these photos and stories are amazing! You have made me want to go back to Africa even more than I usually already do, and Naledi has been duly bookmarked.

7
Michelle E Black
Aug 27, 2012

I loved reading about this trip. A trip such as this is something that shifts our entire perspective and makes us realize that we are in fact, not divided by continents but all on the same planet. I took a similiar trip a few years ago to Mikinduri, Kenya and then onto Samburu National Park visiting a small Massai village that consisted of only women and children. I too had done incredible research and was visiting a priest friend of mine who had recently moved back home to build a parish. It shifted everything for me. Inspire others as you do and those who can will follow in your footsteps will and others simply will glow as an armchair traveler through your accounts. Thanks for sharing.

8
Michelle E Black
Aug 27, 2012

Perhaps I should have edited it after I had my morning coffee. Sorry. : )

9
Kristin
Aug 27, 2012

It's five months after my own Naledi trip, and I still think about it every day. The middle of the African wilderness - oh, you know, with elephants and lions and baboons, just running around free - is undoubtedly the coolest place I've ever been. So you can imagine how much I loved this post!(And I still haven't made time to edit all my photos from that trip, so you're not the only procrastinator. The trip was so amazing that it feels overwhelming to try and do it justice.) THANK YOU again for the fantastic recommendation. ps - Have you seen the video posted on the FB page this morning? The one of the lions fighting?

10
A
Aug 27, 2012

Beautiful. I have always, always wanted to do a safari. One day...

This is where these animals belong. In the wilds of Africa. Yet one was reportedly on the loose last night in Essex! Don't think they'be found it yet or know where it's come from.
Hopefully it will dine on the cast of TOWIE.

11
Kristen
Aug 27, 2012

You can take as long as you want to put this whole story together, because it just makes it easier for me to put the moves on my husband to go there with me!

12
Meghan
Aug 27, 2012

I really want to say something about how amazing this trip must have been, beautiful things and animals, omggiraffes!, but honestly? Holy lion balls! You just can't unsee that can you? Lemme scroll back up to the lion cub to help me scrub my eyes clean ; )

13
Alison Presley
Aug 27, 2012

THE POST WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR! IT IS HERE AT LONG LAST!

My god. This has to have been the best vacation ever.

14
Jennie
Aug 27, 2012

Holly, never stop traveling, please--whether it's a weekend to Pyramid Lake or a safari in Africa. No one writes about it quite like you or inspires people quite like me to get into their cars, onto airplanes, and just see the world already.

I loved this post maybe more than any other you've ever written. And I've loved a lot of them.

15
Tina
Aug 27, 2012

We went to Kenya 2 years ago and I feel the same way about the safari. Just amazing! I so treasure that trip and am thankful we got to do it. As for your pictures, yeah, skip the first lion photo. Maybe you could take the other one and blow it up?

16
nonsequiturchica
Aug 27, 2012

My husband and I went to Kruger (the southern section) for a week of our honeymoon and it was AMAZING. Hearing a lion roar was one of the highlights of the trip! We also missed seeing a leopard, but saw a dead impala hanging from a tree (a leopard kill) and a hungry hyena below. I was pretty psyched to see a cheetah though...and the mating dance of an ostrich. :-)

If you are interested, our pictures from Kruger start here: http://nonsequiturchica.blogspot.com/2009/11/birds-of-kruger.html

17
jen
Aug 27, 2012

this sounds absolutely amazing and with each part of your vacation recapped, my husband and i declare that this is our next vacation. if anything, the drawn-out nature of your posts has just reminded us over 9 months how much we'd like to go. :)

18
Lindsey
Aug 27, 2012

I want to go, and not just because they have Serious coffee (though let's be honest, that is legit enough to spurn a text to my beau that says, "AFRICA FOR CHRISTMAS?")

19
Marcheline
Aug 27, 2012

EXCELLENT post. And regarding enormous lion balls? Photoshop some bermuda shorts onto Mr. Centerfold there, or just crop the photo before enlarging! I wouldn't let a pair of large balls get between me and a good time. I'm just saying.

20
Sarah
Aug 27, 2012

Thank you! Thank you! For posting this! (I commented a while back asking for you to be sure to finish writing about the safari!)

21
Brianne Joy
Aug 27, 2012

Amazing! I'm adding Africa to my must-visit list now! The pictures are phenomenal. Thanks for sharing.
ps. I'm not bored with these year-old vaca photos & tales, so keep 'em coming. :)

22
cynthia
Aug 27, 2012

Wow. That looks just...amazing, excellent, mindblowing. Oh yes, I'm super wordy and articulate today!
But really... what a great trip. Thanks for sharing. :)

23
Sarah Brown
Aug 27, 2012

I am tearing up reading this and looking at the pictures. I definitely, definitely want to do this.

I wonder what that baby lion club is doing RIGHT NOW, nine months later.

24

Incredible! I've been waiting for this post!! I seriously never wanted your South Africa posts to end. What an amazing experience!!!

25
Colleen
Aug 27, 2012

I've been planning my first trip to Europe for a few months now and have been growing more and more excited for it by the day. But now I'm wondering, seriously wondering, if my money would be better spent doing something as amazing as your South Africa trip. Decisions, decisions!

26
Lora
Aug 27, 2012

Yes, those are some mighty big balls.

27
Nothing But Bonfires
Aug 27, 2012

Thank you so much for the nice words, everyone! So glad you're not sick of this yet.

Amy: We were CRAZY close to most of the animals so most of the time we didn't need a super long zoom lens. The lions, for instance, were just right there and the giraffe that walked out in front of us was as close as he appears in the picture. I think Sean did use the big zoom for some of the animals we saw from further away, though, to get those up-close-and-personal pics: the rhino, for instance, we watched from a hidey-hole while he bathed in a little watering spot, so we were definitely the paparazzi in that case! Most of the time, though, we didn't need to zoom a whole lot: the animals were just right there!

28
Camels & Chocolate
Aug 27, 2012

We did see all of the Big Five, though our cheeky guide waited until the last morning to show us the rhinos (I swear he knew where they were the whole time, but wanted us to have something to look forward to--as if the whole experience weren't something to look forward to!). We totally lucked out by seeing a leopard and its baby one morning and then another leopard that we chased through the bush one night.

I had a hard time deciding my favorites--I would say the lions, too, but oh the giraffes were so cute and also two words: BABY ELEPHANTS. Sigh.

29
Ami
Aug 28, 2012

Thanks for this! I went to SA in 1998 -- spent three weeks traveling the country. It was lovely, and my absolute favorite part was when I went on a dusk safari inside Kruger...spotted a bull elephant behind a huge bush -- turned out he was in musth and ended up trumpeting at our vehicle! Awesome. Thanks for this lovely trip down memory lane.

30
Julie
Aug 28, 2012

I'm pretty sure there's no such thing as "too much recapping" of a vacation this wonderful. I feel a little like I've been to South Africa, and even more like I really, really want to go there. The tourism board should have your check in the mail any day now!

31
Jessi Joy
Aug 29, 2012

Thank you for the play-by-play! I have always wanted to go to South Africa... This is very inspiring.

32
Carlien
Aug 30, 2012

I love that you love my country, so draw this out as long as you like :)
And thank you for all your positive recommendations!
Just one point: while it is entirely possible that there is a town of the same name - because South Africa can be funny like that - Limpopo is one of the nine provinces of the country. But hey, you can call it a town if you want to.. I just love that you love South Africa so much :)

33
Nothing But Bonfires
Aug 30, 2012

Carlien I'm preeeeeeeeetty sure that we also actually drove through a town called Limpopo, but it's entirely possible that I'm wrong, and you would certainly know better! I did know about Limpopo province -- I'm wondering now if we just saw a sign that we were entering Limpopo province? Either way, thank you for the clarification!

34
Annie
Aug 30, 2012

You make me want to visit. Tomorrow.
My favorite line?: Sadly, we did not see a honey badger.

35
Lisa
Aug 30, 2012

you have such a lovely style to your writing. i always want to hear more. and how can i NOT go to Naledi someday after reading about your experience and seeing the gorgeous pics? what an incredible time this must have been for both you and Sean.

36
Jolene
Aug 30, 2012

Wow - that lion picture is unreal. Seriously that is a shot for the ages.

http://jolenesblog.com

37
Marcheline
Sep 01, 2012

Regarding the Limpopo.... the offering I have is a quote from Rudyard Kipling's book "The Elephant's Child".

"Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry, 'Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out."

38
Alecia
Sep 04, 2012

Amazing! I hope to visit someday!

39
Jenny
Sep 06, 2012

Nice life. :) Great photos and recap I'd love to see a giraffe close to my rental car

40
edj
Sep 10, 2012

I so admire you for finishing this! (Or, continuing it, I guess) When I haven't finished some blog series I'm doing, I assume everyone's forgotten and they're not interested now, but it nags at me. I like your way much better and plan to adopt it in future!

Oh and WOW. What an incredible experience!!

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