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SOUTH AFRICA'S MAGIC KINGDOM
 
(2017 - Fall Issue)

Writer: WAHEEDA HARRIS



As I walk under the shade of the fever trees to where my group is gathering for breakfast, I am not greeted with a chorus of good morning but with “Did you hear the lions last night?” Sadly I did not, but that would be my only disappointment in my exploration of the wild areas of eastern South Africa.

I’m experiencing a new kind of safari, one that matches game drive experiences with scientific knowledge thanks to the newly launched National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures. Looking forward to seven days of adventure, our focus is to see the big five: lions, elephants, leopards, rhinoceroses and Cape buffalo.

Leaving behind the bustling metropolis of Johannesburg, busy streets and high rises morph into rolling hills of cornfields and the mountainous Blyde River Canyon. Our G Adventures CEO Johan Noppe shares his knowledge of South Africa, mixing in bits of history, biology and memories of his own adventures as we drive northeast along the famed Panorama Route. This takes us through the canyon region, and as we stop at Bourke’s Luck Potholes and The Three Rondavels, the sun peeks through the clouds to highlight these distinct geographical landscapes.

A day’s drive leads us close to Kruger National Park. The road is lined with marula trees whose fruits lure baboon families seeking the trees’ sweet offerings as much as their shade. The sun is setting as we arrive at the welcoming Kubu Safari Lodge, where we’re greeted with the sight of a Cape giraffe eating the choice leaves at the tops of the trees in the dying light of the day. It’s my favourite African animal, and I consider it a good luck omen for our adventure.

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

The next morning we head off in our safari truck for an excursion into Kruger National Park, the largest park in the country and one of the largest on the African continent, to explore a small part of its almost two million hectares. Arriving at the park’s Orpen Gate, our park guide reminds us to stay seated and not to yell or speak loudly. As we drive, the vastness of the park overwhelms me and I regret not having binoculars to catch a glimpse of any of the local inhabitants in the distance. Our first stop is to observe a herd of impala. The distinct chocolate brown markings on their rears resemble the letter M. Since they are so plentiful, locals have nicknamed the creatures McDonald’s.

As we traverse paved and dirt roads, colourful birds are easily spotted against the dusty muted landscape, an unexpected benefit of Kruger National Park, which boasts 45 driving routes just for birders. An hour goes by and I remind myself we have many days to see the big five and to enjoy the moment of being in one of the world’s most famous parks.

We shout at the driver to stop, then berate ourselves for being loud, as we’re less than 10 metres from an elephant. Happily crowding together, the only sound from us is the clicking of camera shutters. The African elephant ignores us, eating leaves and snapping branches to scratch a persistent itch. As I watch Africa’s largest mammal, its fixation on eating equals mine on getting another photograph, but I stop and just gaze at him, wishing the elephant could tell us its story.

As our day continues we see more varieties of gazelles and birds as well as monkeys, zebras, warthogs, jackals, wildebeest, Cape giraffes, ostriches and, as we are about to leave the park at dusk, a herd of Cape buffalo. The immense beasts seem so gentle as they slowly walk the dry brush in search of their dinner. One day has blessed us with an abundance of African wildlife and two of the big five.

KARONGWE PRIVATE GAME RESERVE

The next day we head to Karongwe Private Game Reserve, a privately owned park about a 45-minute drive from Kruger National Park. Our base is the idyllic Chisomo Safari Camp. The main building is a rough-hewn open-air wood lodge, with lamps made from bold African textiles swaying in the gentle breeze, and a circular bar dividing the dining room from the lodge’s sitting area where oversized leather club chairs and couches create the perfect atmosphere to enjoy a sundowner. Warthogs wander camp lawns, and we have the possibility of seeing hippopotamuses and crocodiles in the nearby Makhutsi River from the front porches of our elevated canvas-walled rooms furnished with inviting king-size beds swathed in white linens and mosquito nets.

Our routine is set for the next days: a morning excursion in the reserve starts before sunrise, followed by a relaxing afternoon discussing what we have seen, and a late-day drive before dinner. Our game drives are with Karongwe guide/trackers Solomon and Thomas as well as our G CEO Johan informing us about animal daily habits and sharing stories of personal encounters.

Graceful Cape giraffes become a regular part of our mornings. Spotting a distinctive grey silhouette in the distance, we’re offered the first sight of a rhinoceros. Getting closer, it’s a mother and child. The young rhino is curious about us, but is cautioned by its mother. The quick movements of the baby rhino’s chunky legs are comical, and we have a moment of sadness as Solomon explains the poachers’ relentless efforts to acquire rhino horns. As we check another big five sighting off our list, our next drive will lead us to the king of the jungle.

Although their exchange is in their tribal language, the excited tones of Solomon and Thomas reveal an impending animal experience. As we approach a clearing, Solomon cautions us to be quiet. We are now in the presence of a lion couple sleeping in the grass. As we take endless photographs, Solomon explains the duo has separated from the pride in order to mate. He slowly circles the vehicle around the lions to give us different photo angles. As the male opens his large golden eyes, ever watchful over his sleeping mate, we quietly marvel at being so close to royalty.

Toasting yet another day in South Africa, our group stops for an impromptu sundowner in a clearing in the reserve as the pale evening sky transforms from bright orange to deep fuchsia. Before heading back to camp in the enveloping darkness, we visit our lion couple again and later witness a small group of hippos slowly cross our path on the way to the river. 

Before another late-day game drive, we meet Grant Beverley of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, whose research is funded by the National Geographic Society. He tells us about African big cats, especially the leopards and cheetahs, and how they aren’t as protected as we assume, victims of big-game hunting and the exotic pet trade. Beverley’s passion for these creatures affects us as we head to the game drive vehicle, crossing our fingers for our last big five animal: the leopard. Our guides don’t disappoint. In the darkness, they spot a sleeping leopard high up in a tree. The big cat is draped along the branch, its large paws revealing the creature’s strength despite its relaxed state.

Back at camp we are as excited as teenagers who have seen their favourite band, each of us sharing memorable moments of the past week, a never-ending game of animal encounters, each one as magical as the next. Having seen the big five, I realize this term undersells the experience of South Africa and its wildlife, as each creature experience is unforgettable. This journey has changed my view of our planet and allowed me a glimpse into South Africa’s magic kingdom, one I hope to experience again.

Travel Planner

G Adventures offers numerous itineraries for National Geographic Journeys in South Africa. We participated in the seven-day Explore Kruger National Park, and travelled with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which offers direct flights from Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Montréal via Amsterdam to Johannesburg, South Africa.

For more information, visit:

G Adventures: gadventures.com

Karongwe Portfolio: karongweportfolio.com

Kruger National Park: sanparks.org/parks/kruger

 
 
 
 
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