by Ian at Vanguard
At the start of August 2022, I was lucky enough to visit South Africa on a two-week safari holiday. This had been planned three years ago to celebrate my daughter’s 18th, but delayed three times due to Covid, but we finally made it. Here I share an overview of the trip and some of the learnings.
Having done a trip to Kenya nearly 25 years ago, we wanted to see as much as possible, but a key aim was to see a leopard for the first time as these had proved elusive in Kenya. As a result, we got in touch with On Track Safaris who use the proceeds from the safaris they run for conservation projects, with special emphasis on leopard conservation.
The plan was to visit a number of private game reserves on the edge of the Kruger National Park in South Africa, which covers 2.2 million hectares. To put that in context, Wales is around 2 million hectares.
When we first considered the idea of “private game reserves” we were more than a little sceptical. We weren’t big fans of the idea of a glorified zoo, but that definitely wasn’t the case. In recent years, the South African government has been working with local landowners to return old cattle farms and tobacco farms to nature, removing fences to open them up to the Kruger National Park which extends the land that is available for the wildlife to roam. For example, opening the Klaserie private nature reserve to the Kruger National Park in 1972 added 60,000 hectares for the wildlife to roam. The additional benefit was the limited number of vehicles on each site, and the traffic management system that meant no more than two vehicles at a time at any sighting, rather than the free for all we had experienced in Kenya.
Based on that, we lined up a visit to four lodges – Rukiya, Nzumba, Jackalberry and Raptor Retreat. Each of these was recommended by On Track Safaris and designed to give a good mix of terrains to maximise the wildlife that we should see. With 3 nights at each location, it also gave us some down time to relax as the early starts and travelling the tracks is exhausting. It’s definitely worth building the down time into the trip (all the lodges above had viewing areas over water, so you still had the chance to see more as you rested), or tagging on a few days on a lovely beach to relax afterwards.
With the lodges decided and the bookings finalised (having all been rebooked three times by On Track Safaris through Covid!) we finally boarded the plane at London Heathrow for the 11-hour flight to Johannesburg.
It all went pretty smoothly until we landed, where we discovered that one case hadn’t been loaded onto the flight by the team at Heathrow. After filling in the paperwork (the bag was delivered to the lodge two days later) and a little emergency shopping courtesy of Virgin, we caught the connecting flight to Hoedspruit, and then a 30 minute transfer to the first lodge at Rukiya Camp, and straight onto our first game drive.
The routine at each lodge is pretty similar. Wake up between 5am and 6am, then out on the road from 6am until about 9am when you’re back for breakfast (Rukiya take you to a separate wildlife reserve for the morning drive so you’re out until about 11am, but you get a bush breakfast amongst the wildlife in that time).
Lunch is served after 1pm, then the evening game drive starts from around 3pm, which includes sundowners at around 6pm. Sundowners is where the tracker stops somewhere (hopefully) safe in the bush with a view, and everyone jumps out to enjoy the African sunset with their choice of pre-ordered drink. This is an important tradition on the drives, and you’ll sometimes find yourself flying over a potholed dirt track at unsuitable speeds to get to the sundown spot in time if you’ve been held up at a particularly interesting sighting. Only once in 12 days did we miss sundowners, and that was at our first sighting of a leopard (though on another occasion we couldn’t get out of the vehicle as we were surrounded by a pride of lions, but that didn’t stop the gin and tonics being presented).
It’s then back to camp around 7pm for dinner. All in all, you’re in the vehicle for about 7 hours a day, being jolted around and straining your eyes trying to be the first to spot the next animal.
Rukiya Camp consists of 6 tents (definitely glamping in style) in a small 3,000 hectare private reserve. It doesn’t (normally) have many of the big 5, but has resident leopard and a wealth of other animals that include sable, crocodile and giraffe.
We also saw how plentiful impala were (the guides had a saying “the day we don’t see impala means it’s Armageddon day”) and within days, were taking this beautiful antelope for granted.
Having said that, Rukiya Camp has a second site around 30 (surprisingly cold!) minutes away that opens onto the Kruger National Park for the chance to see everything that lives in there, and we had some particularly magical elephant encounters. The most memorable was meeting a bull elephant in musth (a phase linked to reproduction where they have an average of 60 times more testosterone flowing through their system).
It’s also interesting to see the length of tusks. It’s rare to see a bull elephant with the huge tusks of the past. Speaking to the trackers, it doesn’t seem to be down to the age of the elephant, but there is a perception that elephants are evolving to have shorter (or even no) tusks as a result of prolonged poaching, which has meant the genes for short tusks are being passed on much more than those for long tusks. This can also be seen in this article by National Geographic.
It was also the best place to spot the 3+ metre crocodiles on the Olifants River (and on the river about 30 metres from the tent).
No leopard sighting, but lots of evidence with tracks, scat, and calls.
We did however learn a simple method of finding South using the Southern Cross without needing to use Alpha Centauri or Beta Centauri. In essence, there are four stars that make up a cross (or kite) and to find south you join the dots to create the longest arrow possible, roughly measure the length, and then measure 4½ times that in the direction the arrow is pointing and where that ends, draw a line straight down, and that’s (roughly) south. A useless bit of information that you’ll (hopefully) never need to use.
From there it was on to Nzumba Camp which is located on the Klaserie reserve and was a good distance from civilisation, the drive in alone took over 45 minutes on dirt tracks from the main road. The camp includes a main block with five chalets overlooking a large permanent waterhole where you get escorted to your rooms every night. Our chalet was on the perimeter and on one walk back we had a herd (or parade) of elephants walking past less than 15 metres away, and we regularly saw a duiker hopping through the fence, so not predator proof. Definitely worth accepting the escort.
This was definite lion country and we saw these on our first drive, and several drives afterwards.
Whilst there were fewer elephants, we stumbled across the most magical sight when we stopped for morning coffee by a waterhole. A large female elephant was on the other side of the waterhole and was surprisingly wary. It wasn’t until one of the party spotted a tiny grey lump that we realised that she had a new born baby that couldn’t have been more than a few hours old, and was still learning to use it’s legs. As soon as we realised, we packed up and backed away for the mother to come down for a drink. You know it’s special when the guide with over 8 years experience is taking photos, and he was snapping away like a tourist!
It's not just about the larger animals. Some of the birdlife was stunning, but extremely hard to photograph due to their size and distance from the vehicle, and their selfish need to keep moving just as you had the focus right. This is definitely my favourite – the Lilac Breasted Roller – which defeated my limited photographic skills time and time again. This is my best attempt.
While bigger, there are also some incredibly shy creatures such as the Duiker, or this Steenbok, that are incredibly difficult to photograph as they run as soon as they see you. You soon get used to watching animal bums as they disappear into the bush.
But we did get to see our first ever leopard, a young male up a tree at dusk. It’s at this point I realised I should’ve practiced my low light photography at home! Meeting the leopard at dusk (rapidly becoming night) when it’s most active, shaded by the branches of a tree and at maximum zoom on my 70-300mm lens was definitely beyond my capability as you can see from the image below. Having said that, the photos are still great for rekindling the memory which is the main aim. I'll also have a play with the raw file when time permits to see if I can improve it.
It's not just the leopards. You see a lot into the night as many animals become more active, and all the lodges use a lamp on the last 30 minutes of the evening drive from sundowners so spot the eyes. It's at these times we caught glimpses of African wild cat, civet, bush babies and much more.
Then on to Jackalberry Lodge on Thornybush Game Reserve. While Thornybush is only 14,000 hectares, it’s here we probably saw the most animals as it’s much less bushy and there are a few more vehicles on the go, meaning more chance of spotting something interesting and calling it in for others to see. While I say more vehicles, you have to take this in context. When we visited Kenya, you could have 15+ vehicles gathered around an interesting sighting. Here the trackers manage it so that there are no more than two vehicles on the location at a time so they don’t intimidate the animal and it feels a more intimate experience.
Our first sighting was a pair of white rhinos (we saw six different individuals in total). The trackers explained that there was no difference in colour between the "white" and the "black" rhino. The name "white" refers to a mistranslation from the original Africaans which actually refers to the "wide mouth" on the white rhinos have (in Africaans wide is "wyd" vs white which is "wit"). The "black" rhino refers the the river it was "discovered" on and has a narrower pointed mouth as it grazes from leaves and shrubs.
This sighting brought mixed emotions, as all but one youngster had been dehorned to try and prevent poaching (and the youngster would be done on the next run).
Poaching is still a sizable problem. On one private reserve, seven rhinos were shot in one night for their horns. Many of the private reserves now have dedicated anti-poaching units on site, and cameras tracking the roads, but dehorning is another initiative trying to prevent this.
A helicopter darts and follows the rhino, reporting the location to a ground crew who race to the site where the rhino goes down, give it oxygen, use a chainsaw to remove the horn and mark the rhino so they can recognise it by taking a cutting from the ear (which also goes onto a DNA database so that if a horn is found later they can identify which animal it is from), then back off and observe the rhino to ensure it recovers before leaving it to resume life. This is all done within 15-20 minutes minutes before the drugs wear off.
Speaking to the trackers about this, you can sense a degree of frustration and sadness. Despite all the initiatives, poaching continues and poachers will often kill dehorned rhinos when they come across them to save them wasting time tracking it in future. There are also concerns for their ability to defend themselves without a horn, especially in the male rhino if it has a territorial dispute with a rhino who still has it’s horn. Unfortunately, the only long term solution is changing human behaviour, which looks depressingly unlikely.
In addition, we saw the resident pack of African Wild Dogs which was incredible as is one of the world’s most endangered mammals.
This was even more special as they had a litter of puppies, which also made them easier to find as they use a limited number of den sites when they have puppies rather than roaming.
We also saw a wealth of other animals, including several more encounters with lion, including a roadblock that forced a short detour.
And our last sighting of a leopard, with a female who’d killed a young Nyala antelope and allowed me to get a second attempt at capturing a half decent photo. This did however lead to another common challenge, trying to capture a photo of a big cat in good light doing something interesting. During the day they sleep and I have countless photographs of lions, cheetahs and leopard fast asleep under a bush. You have to try to predict when they are going to open their eyes or move, and capture that fraction of a second so they don’t look like lethal cuddly toys.
The added bonus of seeing a leopard with a kill is that the hyaena’s always seem to turn up, in this case the spotted hyaena. One myth that was dispelled is that hyaena’s are not just scavengers, but are successful hunters too, with a better success rate than a lion. I can also confirm, they have white poo caused by all the calcium in the bones they eat. Time to move on?
In that case, the next and final stop was Raptor Retreat Lodge in Balule Nature Reserve. While all the other lodges either didn’t have the big predators, or had a pretence at an electric “predator fence”, that’s not the case here. Animals are free to roam and in the nights preceding our visit, they had a hyaena and leopard walk through, and a lioness sleeping next to the game drive vehicle. It definitely added a little thrill to the walk to the truck in the early dawn, and back to your room after dinner (though at least you are escorted in the evening).
In every reserve, you need to work to spot the animals in amongst the bush, and you need to rely on the skill of the trackers to get you into the right area. To us, this was part of the thrill, spotting an animal before the tracker, and even if you didn’t, it made every sighting more special. In Balule the bush is much thicker than any of the other reserves, so the tracker and you really need to work even harder as a team to see the wildlife, let alone photograph it, but the rewards make up for this.
It was here that we got glimpses of a lion fight as a male lion took over a pride and the sounds were incredible. The next day we saw the successful lion mating with one of the lionesses, but chose not to film that as we’re not the BBC filming a wildlife documentary…
I was also in the back of the open top Land Cruiser when a bull elephant we were observing decided to walk up to us and cross obver to the other side of the track, walking past me at less than 50cm away. When you’re eye to eye with an elephant at that distance, you realise just how big these (normally) gentle giants are!
We also heard how the White Backed Vulture is being persecuted. Apparently some local witch doctors claim that if you put a vulture brain under your pillow when you sleep, you’ll get the winning lottery numbers. With the poverty in Africa, you can’t blame people for wanting more, but I suspect the witch doctor’s wouldn’t be sharing that secret if it really worked. Either way, it is leading to people poisoning carcasses, that then kills the vultures and hyaenas that feed on them, increasing the risk of diseases as fewer of these animals means more carcasses left to rot.
On a more positive note, we also saw a new born giraffe with it’s umbilical cord still attached, though difficult to show a six foot close up in this blog image format.
It was then back Hoedspruit for the long journey home.
It was an exhausting, but exhilarating trip that’s packed with memories that we’ll keep for a lifetime. At each lodge we met different guests from around the world, met guides and trackers who were incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about nature, and were looked after by incredible lodge staff. It’s definitely worth the trip…
Carry essentials as hand luggage. Luggage goes missing, as we found out, so make sure you have your essentials in your hand luggage, including a change of clothes. If there is more than one of you, split the contents of your case so that if one case goes missing, you can still cope using the contents of the other case.
Visit in African winter. This is technically May to October, but a South African couple we met who visit the bush regularly recommend June to August. These are the dry months, so you won’t get wet and the days we experienced were a comfortable 25-30°C (in the African summer it can reach 45°C). It’s more than just comfort though. There is less water so vegetation is lower making it easier to see the wildlife, the wildlife visits the waterholes and reserves tend to have a permanent source of water alongside them, there are no flash floods that close off area of the reserves and potentially lead to you missing flights, and there are less mosquitoes which means less discomfort and less chance of catching malaria (based on the research we did, we didn’t take any anti-malarial drugs and instead relied on suitable insect repellent, and had no issue with bites).
Wear layers. We don’t think of Africa being cold, but when the sun goes down it can cool down incredibly quickly and there can be frost overnight. The mornings are generally the worst and the 30-minute trip from Rukiya Camp on the main road in an open topped vehicle added 50kmh wind chill to this. I quickly gave up being brave and wore my fleece, padded jacket and gloves, as well as using the blanket they provided. But even going into a dry river can take 5-10°C off the temperature in seconds. However, when the sun goes up it warms up quickly and you need to be able to take off the layers to avoid overheating.
Wrap around sunglasses. Sunglasses are a no brainer, but you don't think about the frames. You never know where the animals will be positioned with the sun, and if the sun is coming in at the side, it can be distracting. Just having some extra width on the side can help block out the sun and get rid of that distraction.
SPF lip balm. It’s easy to remember sunscreen, but make sure you take some lip balm with an SPF of 30+. Here are the top 10 recommendation from the Independent.
Don't just rely on the tracker. This sounds self-evident, but look for the wildlife. The number of people we came across who sat in their seat and waited to be shown something interesting by the tracker was staggering. At the end of the day, the tracker can be focussing on steering or looking for tracks, or just looking the wrong way, so can’t see everything. To put in context, on the first pair of rhinos we came across it was me that saw it, just because I was lucky enough to have the right angle and have the right gap in the trees. On another case, two lions less than 10m away on the side of the road were spotted by another passenger. The more eyes looking exponentially increases the chances of seeing something.
Keep a lookout when you're entering and leaving the reserve. This is normally just a transfer in a taxi style service during the heat of the day so the instinct is to switch off, but the same wildlife is still there and we saw more on some of these trips than we saw on some of the formal drives.
Make your camera as unobtrusive as possible. Make sure you have the beep and flash off as these can startle the animals. At best, they’ll scare the animals away, while at worst it could trigger a more aggressive response. It’s amazing how many struggled with this on the day.
Practice low light shooting techniques before you go. Many of the most interesting animals you’ll see are at dawn or dusk, or are sitting in shade to escape the worst of the heat. If you’re not prepared (like me), it will mean you won’t make the most of some outstanding photo opportunities.
Set your camera to shoot in raw + hi-res images. It does mean you duplicate and use up memory (raw files are approximately 3x the size of the hi-res image), but it does give you more opportunities to enhance a photo in post-production, and SD cards take up next to no space.
Stay ready to shoot when on a sighting as those award-winning action shots can be over in a fraction of a second.
Use video on your smartphone when you can’t get a good shot, especially if the animal is moving. You won’t get that award winning photo, but what you capture is the natural movements of the creature that you can’t capture in a photo, whether it’s a leopard climbing a tree, cheetahs playing, or elephants chewing the bark off a branch and spitting it out. In lower light we took the advice and used smartphones to video the animals.
Put down your camera and smartphone at times and take the time just to enjoy the experience, the surroundings, the sounds and the smells
Use binoculars or a monocular. Even though you’re close, I found using binoculars can give you a much more intimate experience than my camera as you can make out details such as individual hairs, teeth and feathers with more of a 3D feel.
Tipping is one of those elements that we often struggle with. It is not compulsory but is expected at the end of your stay in each lodge. It tends to be split into tips for each guides/tracker (often the same person) who’s taken you out every day, and then a combined tip for all the other staff, and you can also give a tip to a named individual. The amount is clearly discretionary and subject to individual budgets, but we were advised that the normal tip for each tracker/guide was ~£20 in local currency, and ~£20 towards all other staff. I have to admit that this felt too little to reflect the trackers/guides knowledge and experience as it equates to just four bottles of beer (though admittedly at the lodge prices). If I could do the trip again, I would probably aim to pay ~£50 for a really good tracker/guide, reducing to reflect poorer service. Whatever tip you choose to pay, we got envelopes from the lodge and put the tips into that, writing the name on each envelope so they got to the right person, and handing them over as we left.
Essential Kit List:
With a maximum 20kg limit per person (including both hand luggage and hold) for the internal flight, we had to limit what we could carry.
My essentials for getting close to the action were a pair of VEO HD2 10x42 binoculars, but if I went again I’d opt for the 8x42 for the wider field of view and less “wobble” caused by the higher magnification. My wife and daughter took a monocular which they found easier to carry, and focus with one hand, and my daughter learnt to digiscope with for close ups, using the VEO PA-62.
For photography, I took my old Canon EOS 500D with a Tamron 70-300mm lens to get close ups. You can take larger lenses and get better images, but if the lens is too large, you will struggle to use it when you’re in a full vehicle, especially if you need a support to minimise movement, especially in low light conditions. It’s also dusty out there, so to minimise the risk of dusk getting in, I left that lens attached and used my smartphone (and iPhone 11 in a waterproof/dustproof case) for wider shots, landscapes, sunsets and video.
I also took a spare battery and the charger (each battery easily did a couple of days) and three SD cards (32GB, 16GB and 8GB). To put the SD cards in context, over the 12 days, I took around 1,200 hi-res photos of approximately 6mb each (duplicated with 1,200 raw photos of approximately 22mb each) and didn’t need to use the 8GB card.
One thing I did miss was a larger screen so I could see larger copies of the images at the end of every day, as the small monitor on the camera wasn’t enough to get a feel for the quality pf the images I’d taken. This would definitely have helped me learn from every shoot and improve on the go. So if you can take a tablet or small laptop then I would recommend it.
Even with just the 300mm lens, stability was key and so I took the VEO 2S CM-264TBP monopod. This monopod could fit between my legs in the van and could be used extended or folded for additional stability. It also had the advantage of the retractable tri-feet which allowed me to stand it on the floor with a foot on one of the feet to make it easy to transport between sightings, and allowed me to set it up for timelapse with my iPhone using some rocks on the feet to hold it steady, and the QS-72T with the VEO BT-11 Bluetooth remote. There are other models available, but whichever model you choose (even if not Vanguard) I would highly recommend you use a ball head to allow you to frame your picture properly.
I also took out the new VEO Optic Guard quick release harness system to try it out for myself. This is a series of wrist straps, neck straps and harnesses that are designed to be easy to change on your binoculars and camera so you have the right strap for the trip. I generally use the neck strap, but didn’t want it pulling on the back of my neck for three-hour stretches on bumpy roads, so I tried the deluxe harness. This was surprisingly comfortable, and the loops provided allowed me to hold either the binoculars or camera close to my chest on the move so there was little discomfort, despite the bumpy roads, and still be easy to deploy quickly. Having said that, it was a little overkill for my needs, and I fell in love with the wrist strap which I used most of the time, switching between the binoculars and camera in seconds, depending on the trip. Next time I’ll take two!