Trip Report: Safari Highlights at Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa
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This is the twelfth post of my South Africa Series. Follow along to read my reviews on several different aspects of my trip. Other posts in this series include: Come Along With Me To South Africa!; Flight Review: South African Airways Business Class JFK-JNB; Hotel Review: Westin Cape Town; Trip Report: Watching African Penguins at Boulders Beach and the Cape of Good Hope; Cape Town Dining; Hotel Review: Hilton Cape Town; 10 Things I Love About South Africa; Hotel Review: 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa Luxury Room; Trekking Up Table Mountain In Cape Town; Hotel Review: Hyatt Regency Johannesburg, Trip Report: South Africa Safari at Savanna Lodge in Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve.
Despite all the fun we had in Cape Town and out wine-tasting in Stellenbosch, hanging out with cheetahs and African penguins, diving with great white sharks and generally enjoying all the things the Cape had to offer, the highlight of our trip to South Africa had to be safari.
As I mentioned in my post yesterday, our friend Michelle at Azurine Travel had recommended a three-day stay at Savanna Lodge the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve near Kruger because it’s a particularly game-rich area where rare leopard sightings are almost guaranteed. Our three-day window was partially thanks to Michelle’s advice and partially to airline award availability since we had to fly back to Johannesburg from Cape Town to continue on to Kruger and then we would be departing Johannesburg on our way back to the States at the end of the trip.
Three days ended up being the perfect amount of time because it meant we got six extensive game drives and is about as much as you want at a time thanks to the fairly odd schedule safari lodges operate on. Here’s a sample itinerary of a day at the lodge:
-5:00am Wake up
-5:30am Coffee and game drive
-9:30am Back for breakfast
-10:00am Rest time
-4:00pm Game drive
-8:00pm Return from game drive
So as you can see, the mornings started very, very early, and then you have a large chunk of time in the middle of the day to unwind and relax before heading out on another long game drive. When you get back to camp, you find your suite all turned down for the evening including a hot bubble bath that has been drawn and into which you can crack these small eggs that have been filled with lavender oil. It’s a perfect way to ease out the bumps and jolts of the day before a late dinner.
Eric and I were keeping up on news and developments back home, so we weren’t really on vacation like the other folks at Savanna, which meant there was very little time for naps and resting during that quiet middle part of the day for us, so the days ended up being very long, though very exciting and rewarding.
We got to Savanna around noon on our first day, right between the two game drives of the day, so after being shown to our rooms and brought fresh sandwiches and drinks, we relaxed until “lunch time” at 3 when we met the two men who would be our guide and tracker for the duration of our stay, Patrick (the guide) and Nordik (the tracker). There were two couples who would be joining us in our Land Rover for a total of six guests.
I was really excited about getting Patrick as our guide since friends of mine who had stayed at Savanna a few months ago had personally recommended him – and they couldn’t have been more right on. Not only was he knowledgeable and friendly, but he was a bit of a jokester and was always kidding with us and telling us great stories. He also comes from the local village, so he has a personal connection to the area and was telling us about its people. For his part, Nordik was an expert tracker and was always pointing out tracks in the dirt paths that no one else could spot. Perhaps his most impressive find was a white mongoose in the dark on our drive back to the lodge the first evening. I have no idea how he even spotted it in the thick bush yards away from our vehicle.
Our first afternoon drive was pretty much perfect. Not 15 minutes after leaving the lodge, we came upon two pairs of male lion brothers lounging under a tree for a sun-dappled afternoon nap.
It was almost as if they had been placed there specifically for us. We spent some time observing them and learning about them from Nordik and Patrick, and then we continued on our way exploring some of the other paths of the reserve before someone radioed in a leopard sighting, and we were suddenly racing to the spot where another vehicle was tracking a male leopard out for an afternoon saunter. As you’ll see in the video, Eric was very excited about this encounter.
After hanging out with that big cat for a while, it was time for sundowners out on the savanna under a gorgeous sunset. Sundowners turned out to be one of my favorite experiences – and no, not because you get a cocktail or beer along with snacks and canapes – because it gave me a chance to stretch my legs, compare notes with our fellow travelers and take a look at the pictures everyone was able to snap.
We drove back to camp in the dark, stopping briefly to have a look at the four lion brothers again who had taken up residence right in the middle of the road! Then it was time for dinner, which we shared with our fellow vehicle passengers and Patrick, who told us more about the animals and what we might hope to see in the morning.
Unfortunately, the weather turned bad that night and we woke up to pouring rain. That made getting out of bed at 5AM even harder! Still, we were up for the adventure and packing heavy-duty ponchos, so off we drove.
A lot of the cats and smaller game tend to keep to themselves during the rain, but bigger game like elephants and rhinos don’t seem to mind it much, and sure enough, we came across a female white rhino and her calf not long into the drive.
The weather cleared up for a short while, and Eric got the gold star for spotting giraffes way in the distance.
After a rushed morning coffee (it started to rain hard) we cut our drive a little short in order to beat the storm back to the lodge, though we still got pelted with rain. Good thing the lodge has its own laundry facilities and takes in laundry every day so we could get our things washed and dried!
The storm turned worse over the afternoon and I decided to stay and work rather than getting soaked through again. Eric said it was a good decision since they didn’t see much game out during that drive with the exception of a few rhinos and a group of hippos hiding in a pond. They even skipped sundowners!
The following morning we had another rainy game drive and though we were out for a few hours, we ended up cutting it short again, and I have to say, I was getting a bit dispirited, though we did get up close and personal with an adolescent male elephant who was out munching on marula fruits, though he didn’t seem terribly pleased to see us and actually looked like he was playing peekaboo at one point!
It was pretty uneventful other than that, but things were looking up for the afternoon because the sun came out and we ate lunch quickly in order to get out into the reserve and spot some animals. It was then we had one of my favorite moments of the whole safari when we came across a herd of elephants having an afternoon snack on the trees along a path and drove right into the middle of them just to hang out and watch.
There was a baby elephant among them who was pretty sassy and came right up to the Land Rover to investigate us and trumpet his little trunk. His mom came over before too long and took him to task, though.
It was just incredible being so close to these magnificent beasts and surrounded by them as they foraged their way past us – truly an amazing moment from the trip.
We tracked a few more animals that day, but eventually ended up on the scenic Sand River running through the heart of the reserve for sundowners at sunset. It was a gorgeous spot (even if there were crocodiles nearby!) and we had a lovely moment just relaxing and taking in the scenery. You’ll see I was enjoying myself in this video:
The last morning drive had to be the best because we spotted tons of game as we were driving along, including elephants, giraffes and rhinos all over the place and enjoying the nice weather after a few wet, stormy days, and before long, we were tracking another leopard – this time an even bigger male who we found perched in a tree, which is a pretty rare sight.
That would have been enough to make it a great morning, but after seeing him, we got a radio call that another guide had discovered some lions feasting on a buffalo kill – one of the best opportunities to view wildlife that safari has to offer – so without a moment’s hesitation, Patrick put the gas pedal to the floor and we raced along paths to a corner of the reserve where sure enough, two male lions and a lioness were guarding a huge buffalo carcass. The lioness even pulled a piece of meat off the rump as we sat there and started chowing down.
We all were pretty giddy as we drove along to a beautiful rock outcropping for our morning coffee and couldn’t stop discussing what a great find that had been.
Then all too soon, it was time to head back to the lodge to have breakfast and pack up for the drive back to Nelspruit and our flight to Johannesburg. We had one last meal with Patrick and he and Nordik both came back to say goodbye and see us off, and I almost had tears in my eyes because they had been so fantastic and the entire safari experience had been above and beyond my wildest expectations, even with the couple rainy drives.
I’ve been to zoos all over the world and seen many of the same animals we saw at Sabi Sands, but there is absolutely nothing like being up close to wild game as they go about their daily lives. Looking into the eyes of a wild lion just feet from you is enough to send your heart racing, or getting teased by a baby elephant while his herd looks on benevolently, while following behind a leopard as he saunters from tree to tree is an experience that redefines the word “cool.”
My only consolation at having to leave was the thought that this was only a great first safari experience and that I hope I can have many more to come in my life as I continue to explore Africa – which I am only more eager to do after this wonderful trip.