My wife, Susan (Susi), Niece, Christine, and I are not first-timers when it comes to going on safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park (“KNP”) and adjacent Sabi Sands private game reserves. We have been doing it roughly every other year since 2011 and have now been on seven trips. The first time “hooked” us. The three of us are all experienced travelers and have enjoyed traveling to great places world wide. It is amazing to us that Africa has been so magical that it could keep us coming back time and time again to the exclusion of so many other wonderful travel options. I think I can safely say there is one compelling reason for this… the wildlife. How many of us have thought about going to Africa’s famous game parks, going on safari and actually seeing lions, leopards, elephants and Africa’s other fauna and living, if only for a short while, the experience Hemingway wrote about? And how few of us have actually done it? We can tell you that it is truly a “bucket list” experience that lives up to all expectations. But this trip was truly special and we write this piece not only to memorialize our trip, but to offer a template to those who might be considering such an adventure.
First a paragraph about us. Susi and I are retired lawyers. We live and worked in Los Angeles most of our adult lives. We have a summer home in northeastern Wisconsin. We developed the routine of traveling outside the U.S. every other year and frequently invited our niece, Christine, to join us. In addition to being great company, Christine has traveled extensively for her work for American Express, Inc. and has been incredibly helpful in helping us navigate airlines, airports, lodgings etc. In 2011, the three of us made our first trip to South Africa. We had somewhat of a personal guide. One of my law partners was South African by birth and grew up going to KNP. He is an experienced photographer and birder. KNP is one place in Africa where people can go on safari without having safari guides or staying at sometimes pricy lodges. People can safely drive around the Park, stay at “Rest Camps” and see the flora and fauna from their own rental cars. That being said, we never would have done it without an experienced and knowledgeable person to to show us how it could be done and my work colleague was able to be that person.
The accommodations in KNP are fairly basic and the responsibility for doing everything for ourselves, led us for subsequent trips to start our safari at one of the many private game reserves adjacent to the Western boundary of KNP, collectively called Sabi Sands. These private properties are effectively extensions of KNP and, together, are sometimes referred to as the greater Kruger National Park. The various lodges of Sabi Sands offer food and lodging of various degrees of luxury, and most importantly, guided morning and evening safaris with expert guides and trackers. Guests simply get in a capable safari vehicle and are driven around by guides that have spent much of their lives tracking and finding the animals their guests come to Africa to see. Sabi Sands and KNP share a boundary, but it is not fenced, so the animals freely cross from the Park to the Reserves and back. We like to spend three or four full days at one of these lodges before we drive our rental car into the Park for the rest of our trip. It helps us deal with the inevitable jet lag caused be flying half way around the world while enjoying the hospitality and luxury of first class food and accommodations.
Our selection of such a lodge for this trip was influenced by watching a live, interactive, internet safari called Safari Live. Safari Live was our way of going on safari from the comfort of our home in Los Angeles. Experienced safari guides and accompanying camera men literally take you on a real time morning and evening safari without the false narrative of made-up stories about the animals you see. There is no script and you never know what you are going to see. Safari Live is based in the Djuma Private Reserve within the Sabi Sands. One of Safari Live safari guides, Alexandra Olivieri (“Ale”) started her own safari company, WanderingThru, and we jumped at the opportunity to be some of her first guests to enjoy Tumbeta House, the newest accommodation offering at Djuma. It is perfect for small, intimate groups of up to six people and is located in a separate, fenced compound. It overlooks its own waterhole with a wonderful, innovative eye-level hide. There we were guided by Tristan Dicks, a veteran Safari Live, safari presenter with Ale as our host. As described below, Tristan and Ale, and the able staff at Tumbeta provided us with an unforgettable experience.
To get to Djuma, Susi and I flew overnight from Los Angeles to London where we met Christine who lives and works in England. We waited a few hours at the British Airways Heathrow business class lounge and then flew overnight on an airbus A380 to Johannesburg, South Africa. Without leaving the airport at Johannesburg, we took a commuter flight to Hoedspruit adjacent to northwestern Kruger. There, Ale had arranged for a driver to pick us up and take us for a the two hour drive to Djuma. We had a wonderful lunch, and then, notwithstanding the jet lag, Tristan took us on our first afternoon safari. For the safari drives, we also had one of Djuma’s expert drivers and safari guides, Rexon, and his tracker, Mike, who sits in a specially designed seat on the front left bumper. Rexon and Mike are native Africans and have been a team at Djuma for quite some time. Tristan sat with us as we spread out over the three rows of seats in the open air vehicle. We choose the African summer for this safari, specifically the last week of February and the first two weeks of March. We did this to see the beautiful migratory birds that come to the greater Kruger Park to mate, breed and raise their young. An abundance of rain had preceded us this season so Djuma and the surrounding private reserves, for which Djuma had traversing privileges, were lush beyond belief. On the downside, the tall grasses and thick foliage no doubt obstructed our view of some animals, but the added element of the lush summer time flora more than made up for the occasional viewing obstruction we encountered. In a word, Djuma and its adjacent properties were breathtaking.
It was not long before we saw our first lion, the dominant full maned lion in the area.
Then we came upon the local lion pride consisting of five adult lionesses and their nine cubs at a wildebeest kill. It seemed surreal to be only two days travel from metropolitan Los Angeles and its population of eighteen million people sitting right next to that group of lions who completely ignored us in our safari vehicle. Tristan expertly narrated what we were seeing taking into consideration that we had been on safari before and had learned much about lion society from the safari presenters on Safari Live.
During the course of that first afternoon/evening safari we saw and photographed herds of impala, wildebeest, and waterbuck. We sighted hyenas and numerous of Africa’s birds. At dusk, we alighted from our safari vehicle for drinks and snacks as the sun went down.
We returned to our accommodations in the dark with our tracker expertly using a spotlight to sight Africa’s nocturnal animals. We again saw the resident male lion this time photographing him at night by spotlight.
Dinner was a multi-course meal expertly prepared by our personal chef, Lotus. Ale and Tristan joined us as they did at all our meals and we enjoyed their lively conversation and gracious hospitality until sleep beckoned us and we adjourned for the evening. Our well appointed quarters at Tumbeta included a bedroom and sitting area, plus a large bathroom area including bath tub, indoor and out door showers and dual sinks. (Susi loved the outdoor shower which she often shared with a small lizard)
We slept hard that first night with our only worry being whether we would manage to be up for the 5AM wake up call. Fortunately, a beautiful bird, the Woodland Kingfisher, had no trouble alerting us that it was time to get up with its exuberant CHIP-CHERRRRR descending trill. This striking blue-backed bird became known as “my” bird for our stay at Djuma as I tracked it incessantly within our enclosed grounds with my Nikon camera equipped with telephoto lens.
Our first full day at Djuma started out rainy, but it did not stop us from going out on safari at day break. We bundled up in blankets to keep warm against the unseasonably cold morning and put on ponchos to protect against the light rain. The sun would frequently emerge from the clouds to provide breathtaking views of the Djuma property. We saw and photographed herds of elephants, Spotted Hyena and various of Africa’s antelope. We also saw and photographed three kinds of eagles, a Wahlberg, a Lesser Spotted Eagle and a Bateleur.
On our second full day, Rexon and Mike were determined to find us a leopard, specifically one that we had often seen on Safari Live. All during the morning and evening drives we followed fresh tracks, plunged through the landscape off road and even watched as Mike got off the vehicle and followed tracks into the bush. Finally, as we headed back to our quarters in the fading light of evening, Mike spotted a female leopard and we again plunged into the bush. Our luck and the skill of Rexon and Mike made the difference as we found and followed the young female leopard known as Tlalamba (“playful” or “mischievous” in the local African dialect ). Thalamba proved a determined hunter as she maneuvered through the bush. Her beautiful coat glistened in Mike’s spotlight. She ignored us as we followed, and she briefly stopped as she pounced on and consumed a small bird. That allowed us to adjust our cameras for the darkness offset by the spotlight and photograph this beautiful animal. There are simply no words to describe Tlalamba’s beauty or the wonderful experience of her allowing us to share about thirty minutes of her life with us
We returned to our lodging and another bountiful dinner with lovely South African pinot noir and chardonnay (and a FlowStone Bushwillow gin and tonic for Susi) and with exciting conversation about the day’s events (Susi is bemoaning the fact that this gin is only sold in South Africa and she did not pick up a bottle to bring home).
Our third full day at Djuma had more wonderful bird and animal sightings including four of Africa’s Big Five, elephant, leopard, buffalo and lion. Again, the leopard was the highlight as we sat with Tlalamba’s mother, Thandi (“Beloved”), as she lounged on a horizontal tree limb before descending and disappearing into the African Bush. We had frequently enjoyed sightings of Tlalamba and Thandi on Wild Safari so we particularly enjoyed our very close encounter with these two leopards both of which we had seen live on our computer screen from over twelve thousand miles away.
We came upon a young, sleeping male lion at dusk. While we were watching and photographing him, he got up and began to move off as the sun went down. He had an injury to his front foot, a very pronounced limp, and began to look for his pride (and hopefully share whatever kill they may have had. We found him the next morning with the pride napping in the sun, so it seems he was successful.
Before heading back to the lodge for dinner, we stopped on the Djuma Dam for Sundowners, enjoying wine and gin and tonics, while we watched the sun go down. While we waited for the sundowners to be set up, Tristian sat on the shore of the dam and showed Christine how to photograph hippos at eye level and then photographed birds with John.
Once the sundowners were set up, John quickly found a seat on the front of the Jeep to enjoy his wine.
Our last Djuma dinner that night was like a luxury African bush braai. We sat around a fire while Lotus barbecued rack of lamb. Our evening was highlighted by a visit with two of Safari Live’s rock star presenters, James Hendry and Steve Faulconbridge. Along with Ale and Tristan, James, and Steve, we talked about our favorite Safari Live sightings, photography, and James’s recently published book and forthcoming wedding.
We regretfully ended our stay at Djuma with a morning drive blessed with beautiful weather. The animal sightings were stupendous. We saw giraffe, waterbuck, three hyenas, a herd of over forty elephants, the pride of five lionesses with nine cubs and the male lion in attendance. As amazing as these sightings were, they played second fiddle to our sighing of a pack of twenty-four wild dogs. Wilddogs are now unfortunately rare in Africa. The whole of the Greater Kruger Park, which is as large as the state of Connecticut, only has a total population of only about 250 dogs. Wild dogs are sometimes referred two as “painted dogs” for their tan, black and white coats. They are terrific predators and are skillful at chasing down all manner of antelope. They had made a recent kill as many of the dogs had bloody manes and faces. They had managed to corner three adult waterbuck against what was certainly a crocodile infested reservoir. For whatever reason, the dogs drank their fill and left the waterbuck alone.
We followed the dogs until time became an issue and we returned to our lodging for lunch before a car picked us up for the two hour drive back to Hoedspruit where we would pick up our rental SUV for the remainder of our African adventure, ten days of self directed drives up and down the full length of Kruger National Park.
We cannot resist attaching one more picture from our last safari drive at Djuma, a shot of Africa’s (and perhaps the world’s) most colorful bird, a Lilac Breasted Roller in flight.
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, we consider ourselves veterans of South African safaris. We have stayed at other private lodges and have enjoyed wonderful hospitality, great food, fine accommodations, and great safari drives. What set this experience apart was the immediate, and we hope lasting, friendships we were able to start with Tristan Dicks and Ale Olivieri. If you are going to be in the hospitality industry in anyway, you had better be able to sincerely connect with your guests, and both Tristan and Ale were able to do that seamlessly with us. We continue to connect with them via text, email and social media. And we are already planning our next adventure with them which we look forward to in anticipation of the next wilderness adventure and also to reconnect with the best safari guides ever!