The Perfect South African Safari
The river meanders its way toward the lavender and rose-colored sky as the sun is setting over the African bush. The sounds of the night begin: small owls hoot softly; a grunt of a hippo deciding to leave the safety of water for food; a gentle whisper indicates wind or an animal close at hand. We stand in awe from the cliff overlooking the scene, sipping a glass of South African Chenin Blanc, and chatting with our fellow adventure seekers. We ponder: Is this how one feels when truly connecting with nature, away from cell reception, modern stores, and light pollution? Maybe this is where true relaxation begins. We may have found the perfect South African safari.
We arrived at the Hoedspruit airport from Johannesburg midday, noticing that after leaving our propeller plane and walking toward the airport itself, there wasn’t much to it. Two small, wooden buildings with the signs written in English and Afrikaans, “Arrivals” and “Departures” greeted us, and upon walking through Arrivals, we found the driver from our lodge. He smiled warmly and asked for our bags; seemingly impressed we stood there with just the backpacks on our backs. “You must be expert travelers,” he said as he then began to talk about his job at the lodge: game tracker.
We arrived at the Hoedspruit airport from Johannesburg midday, noticing that after leaving our propeller plane and walking toward the airport itself, there wasn’t much to it.
“You mean you leave the safety of the safari vehicle to follow animal tracks?!” I asked in shock. He assured us that they extensively study animal behavior and as a result, are very experienced. It was in that moment we entered the Timbavati Private Reserve, and started spotting our first animals. At first, there were multitudes of impala, skipping off into the distance, and then we spotted giraffes, zebras, and even a leopard prowling around! But, when we started seeing a few elephants, followed by an entire herd, heading toward the road, we couldn’t contain our excitement! The largest of the herd started slowly toward the road, so close that our driver backed up to avoid her. Then, we saw 40 elephants of different sizes cross the street, following their matriarch. It was incredible!
Did I mention this was just from our transfer drive to the lodge? We had already seen so much!
By the time we arrived at the lodge, we were smiling from ear to ear, first because of the wildlife we’d already seen, and second because the lodge was breathtaking. Open aired with a lounge and bar set up and ready to serve, not to mention the deck overlooking the dry riverbed made this place amazing! It gave the most wonderful view of giraffes chomping on leaves across the way, warthogs rooting about, and even turtles sunning themselves on the watering hole that was mere feet from the deck.
Fruity liqueurs and an overview of our itinerary greeted us. Game drives began at 6am and 3pm sharp, with coffee in the morning after our 5:30am wake-up call and tea in the afternoon. Breakfast is offered after the first drive, and dinner is served after the second drive. We quickly realized that we wouldn’t go hungry. We were then shown around to the braii area, or “barbeque” in Afrikaans, where we would gather every other night when we weren’t enjoying a romantic, private dinner on the deck. The hostess gave us the keys and enthusiastically led us to our tent.
Game drives began at 6am and 3pm sharp, with coffee in the morning after our 5:30am wake-up call and tea in the afternoon.
To be honest, before we left, we were both skeptical about tent camping on safari at a resort. We heard there would be bathrooms in the tent, but part of us was wondering how much we’d have to rough it during our stay. When we walked onto our private deck and opened the French double doors to our tent, we were blown away. The A/C was already whirring away, cooling down our room, which had a sitting area, queen size bed, fully equipped bathroom with double sinks, an additional outdoor shower, a mini fridge, and an area to hang up clothes. We were not in Girl/Boy Scout camping arrangements anymore. Upon viewing the mini bar, snacks, and phone, I felt more like I was in a beautiful hotel room covered in canvas, facing the wilderness. It was glamping at its finest!
We dropped our bags off, changed into cooler clothes for the evening drive, and headed to the lodge to begin our first magical adventure. We sampled delicious and fragrant rooibos tea and lemon cakes before meeting our guide, Kyle, and tracker, Humphrey, who would be with us the remainder of our stay. After short introductions, we hopped into the oversized and open-aired Land Rover, and sped off to see what the African bush had to offer that evening.
We drove around to the other side of the tree, and there he was: long, lean, and with a full stomach, a male leopard lazily cleaning himself.
In between chatting with our new friends we met in our safari vehicle, we happened upon our first sighting: Humphrey spotted an impala dangling high in the tree, fresh from a kill. He noted that a leopard must be close by, full from his night’s meal. We drove around to the other side of the tree, and there he was: long, lean, and with a full stomach, a male leopard lazily cleaning himself. Our guide drove up very close to him, about 6 feet away to be exact. While my heart was beating out of my chest, Kyle and Humphrey were nothing but calm, with others in the vehicle snapping away on their cameras excitedly. When I noticed how tranquil, relaxed, and full this leopard appeared, I felt better and enjoyed viewing him as he slowly drifted off to sleep.
In between chatting with our new friends we met in our safari vehicle, we happened upon our first sighting: Humphrey spotted an impala dangling high in the tree, fresh from a kill.
Then, we drove off to see what else we could find, and it didn’t take long for us to spot our next sighting! We saw two male elephants chomping on tree bark, hippos hiding in the safety of the river, giraffes reaching high for what leaves were available after the long and dry winter, and so much more. We even happened upon a hyena den, with a mother cuddling with her baby while the rest of the pack started their evening hunt. The cub wandered close to the vehicle, then would dash back to the den. He wasn’t sure what to make of us, but he exhibited the same sense of wonder and curiosity that all children possess!
After leaving the hyena den, we noticed the sun sinking below the horizon and decided to watch it while enjoying a sundowner glass of wine and some biltong, or South African beef jerky, during a stop outside of the vehicle. We got to know our fellow safari goers better, and found out that a Belgian couple was on their honeymoon! Our vehicle was then named the honeymoon car, as we’re engaged, and we had another honeymooning couple join the next day. After the sun went down, we got back in the vehicle and headed back to camp.
We even happened upon a hyena den, with a mother cuddling with her baby while the rest of the pack started their evening hunt.
Upon arrival to camp we were welcomed with warm towels to wipe off the dust from our faces and a drink before being led to our tent and then into dinner. Fresh impala and vegetables were on the menu that night, and we enjoyed our bottle of Pinotage with it before retiring early to bed, already anxious for our early morning drive the next day.
Early in the morning, we were awoken by the loud call of the crested francolin. We didn’t even need our wake up call! This was enough. We were buzzing with excitement (and some coffee) for our next adventure. We met our fellow travelers and boarded the vehicle. And, we were off again!
Early in the morning, we were awoken by the loud call of the crested francolin.
Shortly into our drive, Humphrey jumped off of our vehicle to start tracking rhinos. We saw the footprints in the dirt and we were excited to see what he could find. In the meantime, we received a dispatch from another guide that they had spotted lions. So, off we sped, but not as fast as my heart, toward the lions. It took quite a bit of off-roading, but soon enough, we were within 12 feet of the king of the savannah.
I thought the leopard was large the afternoon before, but lions? They were massive! Two brother lions faced toward us, relaxing in the morning sun, allowing the breeze to cool them. Their paws were the size of dinner plates, faces 20 times the size of our housecat, and teeth that terrified me when one yawned. Yes, they were calm. They were not about to jump on top of the vehicle. They had grown up their whole lives seeing vehicles like ours, that they paid no mind. But while most animals assume this vehicle is a large animal, I swear I could see the lions look directly at each of us individually. In short, I would stay firmly in my seat observing. These were not cuddly creatures. The jitters didn’t stop until we pulled away.
I thought the leopard was large the afternoon before, but lions? They were massive!
While we didn’t get to see the rhino that morning, we happened upon two male rhinos during our game drive that evening. Skittish, they kept their distance and ran off eventually, but seeing these two prehistoric animals made me wonder just what this must have looked like millions of years ago. They were beautiful. At this point, we had seen 4 of the Big 5, and were eager to spot the last one: the cape buffalo.
Nonetheless, we were ushered back to camp just in time for their braii, in which we could chat with our guide some more as well as our new friends. We tried pap (a South African version of grits or polenta), as well as kudu and chakalaka (a spicy vegetable relish). It was delicious, and fresh off of the smoky fire. We chatted well into the night with the other guests at our table, tasting and savoring new wines, and even spotting a hyena rushing past our lodge, no doubt in search of an evening meal.
We chatted well into the night with the other guests at our table, tasting and savoring new wines, and even spotting a hyena rushing past our lodge, no doubt in search of an evening meal.
Waking up that next morning was a challenge, but we were determined to spot the last of the Big 5. So back into the vehicle we went, and halfway through our drive, after seeing tons of steenboks, impala, nyala, and kudu (these are all various antelope) as well as giraffes, we drove into the dried riverbed and allowed an entire herd of 20 elephants to graze on grass and surround our vehicle. We saw mothers with their little babies, who hadn’t quite figured out how to use their trunks yet. We saw a large female lead the pack, stopping to nibble at the green grass starting to wedge itself from the earth. It was a sight to behold: our vehicle seated in the middle, with the elephants minding their own business, allowing us to join in on their breakfast ritual.
It was a sight to behold: our vehicle seated in the middle, with the elephants minding their own business, allowing us to join in on their breakfast ritual.
Upon returning, we enjoyed some amazing breakfast of our own. Eggs, toast, baked beans, tomatoes, and quiche filled us up before we got our couple’s massage. We then lounged by the pool until our next drive, still hopeful to spot the buffalo.
And, spot it we did! It was growing closer to evening when we found a watering hole and the buffalo herd close by. Our guide drove up close as if to herd them toward the watering hole. Soon enough, one started walking, then two; then the whole herd of over 100 drifted to get water. They piled in, several at a time, until rows of cape buffalo dipped their heads and drank. It was incredible! They walked within a foot of the vehicle many times, paying no attention, before drinking again. We stayed until they had their fill before having a sundowner and enjoying the perfect sunset.
It was this evening that I decided to really look up at the night sky. The sun was down, and the stars were out. But, not like back home, with light making the sky look dull. The stars were bright and plentiful, with nothing blocking their beauty. I sank into this new routine with Chris and cuddled on the way back to camp.
It was this evening that I decided to really look up at the night sky. The sun was down, and the stars were out.
That evening, we heard the snorts of the hippos rushing past the riverbed in the night, the owls hooting, and the monkeys settling in for the evening. We saw the night sky, the dimly lit fire, and each other’s bright smiles. We tasted the delectable local wine, nibbled at fresh and flavorful food, and took in the cool night air. It was a lullaby in itself. We wanted to stay forever. It was the perfect South African safari.
While we were sad to leave the camp the next day, we couldn’t help but marvel at all that we’d experienced. We’d seen the Big 5 and many more animals, we met amazing new people, and we truly connected: to each other, to nature, and to our new friends. Having no distractions made us feel amazing, and we decided it was something we needed to do more often.
Have you experienced the perfect South African safari? Would you like to? Let me know in the comments! Never thought you could afford a safari? Think again! Subscribe to see my guide on What a $5,000 Honeymoon Budget Gets You Around the World! And have the perfect South African safari today!
* Heads up: this is not a paid review. We’re just giving credit where credit is due and Simbavati River Lodge was awesome!