I’m giving a first-time visitor to Africa some advice about game-viewing at the moment, and the eternal question of a private game lodge or reserve versus a self-driving safari in a public national park has once more raised its head. It’s a tricky one…
As with most things in life, the decision partly comes down to cost. I know some people who have only ever viewed Africa’s amazing wildlife from the back of an open game-viewing vehicle belonging to a private luxury lodge. However I have many other friends who have never been to a lodge, either because they can’t afford it or because they prefer driving themselves around the bush.
I can go either way, partly because I’m lucky enough to have the occasional opportunity to visit a private safari lodge or camp, and because I like doing both.
Friends of ours own Tanda Tula, a private camp in the Timbavati Game Reserve in South Africa. The Mrs and I were lucky enough to be invited to stay at the lodge for a couple of nights and I had high hopes for the game-viewing in the area, which I rate it as one of the best game-viewing locations on the continent. Knowing our friends, I had equally high expectations for food and service.
Our guide, Civilised, was as tall as I am (a shade under two metres), with a deep melodious voice. Together with his tracker, Jack, perched on a seat on the left front fender of their trusty open-top Land Rover Defender, Civilised steered us towards a stunning array of wildlife in a very short time. Within two drives we had seen all of the Big Five, including two lion sightings (close enough to hear massive teeth chomping impala sinews and bulging tummies rumbling) and some quality time with a young male leopard that seemed completely relaxed in our presence.
Back at camp, our chef showed us how bush cooking could be elevated to a fine art, producing delicious, imaginative light lunches (a trout quiche may sound a bit odd, but it was superb), and three-course dinners that would have looked perfectly at home in a five-star restaurant anywhere in the world.
As Civilised and Jack drove us into the middle of a relaxed herd of feeding elephants I reflected on what I like about game-viewing in a private reserve. I like being driven around for a change, I like a knowledgeable guide and a keen-eyed tracker finding game and teaching me knew things, and I like stuffing myself with fine fare and languishing in a bit of rustic luxury.
Then on the other hand I bought a house in a private nature reserve on the edge of the Kruger Park last year, and a typical game drive for us these days is usually a trip to the supermarket in Hazyview or the shopping malls in Nelspruit, via the Kruger Park.
I tell anyone visiting southern Africa to incorporate some self-drive travel into their agendas. South Africa’s roads are very good and the Kruger and other national parks are well set up for self-catering, self-driving tourists. Part of the fun, for me, particularly on my early visits to Africa, was driving around and stumbling across animals myself, sometimes not knowing what I was looking at until I’d scoured the pages of my well-thumbed bird or mammal guide book.
The Mrs and I are lucky in that we have the time to look for animals as we spend six months of every year in southern Africa and the remainder at home in Australia. Most visitors, however, are on a tight schedule and want to see as much as possible. Sightings of big animals, such as cats, are never guaranteed, but your odds can be better in a private reserve.
The exception to that rule occurred as we drove through Kruger on a nippy winter’s morning when, close to Pretoriuskop Camp, we encountered a young female leopard lying in the middle of the road. There wasn’t another car in sight. I switched off the engine and excitedly snapped some pics of the leopardess.
‘There’s something moving in the grass,’ said the Mrs, grabbing the binoculars. ‘Look!’ From the thicket of dry yellow stems came a tiny cub. It trotted onto the road and stopped before us, curious but confused by the clicking of my camera. I stopped and just stared into its golden eyes, which caught the morning light perfectly. It gave a little squeak, calling to its mother, when a second sibling emerged from the grass and scampered its mum’s side. She sauntered past our Land Rover. I resisted the urge to lean out of the door and kidnap a cub.
As we left the mother and her cubs and exited via Numbi Gate to go shopping in the big wide world I reflected on what I like about self driving – it was a mirror image of being on safari in a private camp. I like finding my own amazing game sightings, and I like getting home or back to camp and cooking a steak over glowing red coals then falling asleep to the distant roar of a lion in my own bed or tent.
So, to the friend who wants to come to Africa on a first-time safari, I’ll say, ‘It’s all good’. Whichever option you choose, you’ll still see some amazing stuff. But you may not get the trout quiche.