This past April we went on safari in South Africa. Having been on safari to South Africa before, there is always that concern that, as Ian likes to say, you can never go home, i.e., it won't be like last time, which could mean it won't be as good as the last time. I disagree with Ian. Sure, things change, everything is temporary. But that doesn't mean it won't be great or better or almost the same. I love pizza. Rarely do I dislike pizza. Safari, for me, is the same as pizza--excellent 99% of the time. April's trip did not disappoint, just like the pizza I had for dinner tonight.
The first part of our four day trip was spent at Ngala Tented Camp (www.andbeyond.com). So that I don't mess up the description, I'm going to take it directly from &Beyond's brochure: "Ngala Tented Camp is situated in &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve, which shares an unfenced boundary with the world-renowned Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest wildlife sanctuary and one of the biggest game reserves in the world. A spectacular diversity of wildlife moves through this immense wilderness, including breeding herds of elephant, leopard, spotted hyena, giraffe, large buffalo herds and white rhino. With its name meaning lion in Shangaan, the local language, Ngala lives up to its promise, supporting several large prides of these powerful cats. African wild dog can also be spotted moving through the reserve. . . . Chic and contemporary, &Beyond Ngala Tented Camp is renowned for sophisticated tented accommodation in tranquil bush surrounds."
Ngala Tented Camp lives up to its own description. It is simply a slice of luxurious wilderness (I must still be thinking about that pizza). I'll defer to the &Beyond website (www.andbeyond.com) for photos of the "tents" as our photos do not do the "tents" justice. They are technically "tents" just like a Rolls-Royce is a "car." These tents are pure comfort and African splendor, with the highlight being the expansive outdoor rain shower. Naturally, there is a fully stocked bar in your room (a close second to the outdoor rain shower). Also, though I don't usually feel this way about the places I've been around the Kruger National Park, the Ngala Private Game Reserve has beautiful vistas that give you the impression that you are truly in the middle of the wild and make it seem as if you will never be able to find an animal in that vast wilderness.
So, it's a good thing that Ngala Tented Camp has fabulous guides and trackers. Our guide was Dylan and our tracker was Adam. They were both personable, enthusiastic, and skilled. Not every game reserve uses both a guide and a tracker, but it is a great experience to have both--to have two people with different points of view to work together to track and locate the animals. A plus is that they do not always agree; so, you find yourself keeping a mental tally of who--the guide or the tracker--is "winning" the drive.
Day 1. It had rained a good amount prior to our arrival. Rain can throw a bit of chaos into tracking animals; they don't need to visit their regular watering holes if water is available everywhere. So, our guide and tracker had a challenge at hand. Our first evening drive (our first safari drive), brought us a bounty of zebra, or what is called a dazzle of zebras. And, I find them dazzling; they stare right at you (which always makes for a good photo) and those markings are mesmerizing.
Day 2. Despite good viewings the night before, Adam and Dylan were driven to locate a member of the big five. And, I couldn't blame them; they are amazing animals to see. Of the big five, we found the white rhino, elephant, leopard and the buffalo. Success! The leopard was a bit shy, i.e., not in a good location for photo. But, a glimpse counts. The most interesting sighting, and not the most liked animal in the bush, was a hyena with her cub (also pictured in the above banner photo). Though Adam and Dylan assured us that it was easy to track the hyena to her den; it seemed quite difficult to us as we followed their tracks through the bush.
The lion though was still alluding us, and Adam and Dylan were putting all of their skills and efforts into tracking them. They were out of the truck, getting their hands dirty, analyzing the tracks. Frustrated. Debating.
Back at the lodge, we met one of the resident warthogs at dinner. No, we did not have him for dinner; but he did sleep right outside the bathroom. After getting used to the idea, he really was quite adorable.
Day 3. Day 3 brought with it many surprises and many lion tracks, but no lions. Adam's frustration with our inability to locate lions was palpable; at one point, he got off of the safari truck and tracked the lions by foot for what must have been over an hour. But, they simply did not want to be seen. Adam's and Dylan's irritation with our lack of luck with the lions was endearing; it was proof that they love what they do and take it seriously. Me, I was not concerned; this animal often doesn't post for me until the last day on the last drive. And, it wouldn't be quite as much fun if it was easy. Instead, we had Amarula for our morning coffee, and we were happy.
And, we had a fun viewing of a cheeky elephant and some zebras (scroll below to see photos).
At the end of our tracking efforts that morning, the lodge surprised us with a wonderful bush breakfast.
The next surprise was set up by Ian. And, it was an amazing surprise! But, first on our way, we were surprised with a wild dog sighting, which given their endangered status is a very special sighting even if it wasn't the best photo opportunity.
Next, Dylan drove us on to the airstrip where a helicopter was waiting to take us on a tour of the Drakensberg mountain range! At this point, tracking lions was far from our minds as a new adventure was awaiting us.
Citing from the Encyclopedia Britannica so I don't get it wrong, "Drakensberg . . . [is] the main mountain range of Southern Africa. The Drakensberg rises to more than 11,400 feet (3,475 metres) and extends roughly northeast to southwest for 700 miles (1,125 km) parallel to the southeastern coast of South Africa. . . . In 2000 uKhahlamba/Drakensberg Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Drakensberg is part of the Great Escarpment and separates the extensive high plateaus of the South African interior from the lower lands along the coast."
Seeing this range from a helicopter is something we will never forget, particularly memorable is the way the helicopter ducked and swerved through the mountains and over waterfalls.
The helicopter experience ended with some sparkling wine back on the airstrip at the game reserve. Of course . . . (still pinching myself)!
At the end of that third day, Dylan almost dejectedly apologized for our lack of success of tracking down lions. Of course, it was not his fault, just a bit of back luck. And, we still had one drive to go. So, I gave Dylan a pep talk, assuring him that tomorrow would be the day. That evening, we also had a nice conversation with the two managers in training. There was something very familiar about one of them that I couldn't quite put my finger on.
Day 4. A bounty of cats! The first was a leopard spotted by . . . me! I never spot anything. So, when I saw this leopard, I may have screamed a bit loudly "Leopard," and my arms may have been flailing around a bit--complete amateur hour! But, it is so exhilarating to actually spot a leopard; so, I deserve a pass. A few photos of this leopard sighting to scroll through:
The leopard was on the move, marking his territory, when it growled like it smelled something it did not like. He then took a siesta in a tree; so, we left him to be. And, as we turned the corner to inspect a water hole, we found what the leopard was smelling . . . lions! We spotted a female lion with her cubs, and mating pair. The lion with cubs was shy and protective; so, we focused on the mating pair. It did not appear as if the male was having much success, and the female seemed completely disinterested in him (a few photos to scroll through below).
Before the stay at Ngala ended, I had proof positive for Ian that you can kind of go home. That manager in training, whose name is Richard, who looked oddly familiar, turned out to be our guide on safari in South Africa at different camp in 2010!
But, I get it; you can't go home exactly. But, you kind of can. You can have the same feeling. The same rush. It might be a different camp, a different country and a different cat, but there is a familar feeling and rush when you see a massive, wild lion, and it sees you. It is something you remember. Like a great slice of pizza.
After that last sighting, we left Ngala satisfied and longing for more. I'm sure we would have felt the same regardless of whether we had spotted a lion. And, it's definitely on our list of places to visit again.
*FYI - This trip was planned by our wonderful travel agent, Jeanie Fundora at www.travelbeyond.com.