How To “Survive” A South African Safari

“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” – Out of Africa

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If you visited our Instagram page (@pintoeverafter) last week, you would have seen hints about our latest travel experience! We vacationed in South Africa, which was at the top of Rocket’s travel destination wish list. It took some convincing to get me to agree, but I’m so glad I did!

We spent half of our trip around Cape Town while concluding in the East as we searched for wildlife around Kruger National Park. In this post, I will focus on our safari experience, saving the rest for next week!

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Planning for this trip took a great deal of work and I credit Rocket for making it all happen. I was nervous about the safari after hearing stories about past animal attacks including the infamous Tsavo man eating lions. After talking with friends from South Africa, Rocket preferred the self-drive experience in Kruger for the WHOLE trip. On the other hand, I debated that the guided tours were safer! More on our debates next week, but in the end we decided to compromise and do both!

 

We flew from Cape Town to Hoedspruit (the smallest airport I have ever seen in my life) before driving past giraffes and warthogs on the way to a private luxury camp called Thornybush. During our first two drives, we saw the “Big 5,” the most dangerous animals for man to hunt on foot. This list includes elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, and rhinos. Do you know which animal is the most dangerous from the list? Comment below.

At the private reserves, guided vehicles are allowed to drive offroad enabling us to get closer to the animals and capture amazing pictures. The guides carry rifles, but as long as you follow the rules (DO NOT STAND UP in the vehicle) it’s highly unlikely that an animal will attack. Also it is prohibited to walk around the camp at night without a guide as animal activity increases and it can be dangerous.

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After our two drives at Thornybush, we headed northeast to Kruger. I was still a little nervous, but after some advice from Kilmon, our guide at Thornybush, I felt much more prepared to face the animals on our own. Kilmon explained that elephants in the private camp were comfortable around cars, but bull elephants in Kruger tend to be more aggressive and if one is headed in your direction it’s best to get out of the way! We packed up and left mid-day, this time spotting giraffes, elephants and kudu along the way. Once in Kruger, we realized that many animals will cross the road and your only choice is to stop and wait.  

Check out more regularly updated animal crossings in this previous post.

During our time in Kruger, we scheduled a morning walk in the bush which was quite terrifying, but a fun and informative experience. By droppings alone, our guides were able to identify different animals, as well as their age and sex while helping us track (and walk through) a herd of buffalo! That evening we also enjoyed a sunset ride with new animal spottings. During our self-drives, we found 4 of the Big 5 along with countless other species. Although I was initially apprehensive about the self-drive, it was exciting for both of us to find and identify animals on our own!

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THE END!

 

If interested in planning your own safari, see more information below about things we considered while preparing for our trip.

 

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Things We Considered:

What is the best time of year for a safari in South Africa?  

For us, early September was the best time for a safari in South Africa based on the following

  1. Visibility: South Africa’s winter is one of the best times to see wildlife as there is limited foliage enabling you to spot animals between trees and bushes in the distance.
  2. Malaria Risk: September is the tail end of South Africa’s winter (dry season) which means the fewer mosquitoes and accordingly reduced malaria risk.
  3. Low Season: Most guests visit Kruger between November – February. We didn’t see many cars on the road unless there was a particularly interesting sighting nearby (any big cats or an eagle with a large monitor lizard kill).
  4. Weather: South African winters can be pretty cold. September starts to warm up and we were blessed with beautiful spring weather for our entire trip.

 

Is malaria a risk? Should I take malaria pills?

While “malaria transmission is not known to occur” (according to the CDC transmission map) in most of South Africa, Kruger, which borders Mozambique (moderate risk), is in a low malaria risk region particularly during the months of October through April. I did a lot of research online, asked friends who had previously visited, and continued to ask locals during our trip, but always received differing opinions as to the necessity of malaria prophylactics.

My advice is to understand the risks of each approach and decide for yourself what method would give you the best peace of mind during your trip. Either way, it is advisable to wear long sleeves, use spray and other bug repellant methods, and trust in God! 🙂  

Keep in mind that no one who lives in and around Kruger takes malaria prophylactics year-round, and most of them have never contracted malaria. Also, for those that do contract malaria, it is treatable if symptoms are not ignored and the doctor knows to test for it.

Since our trip was in the dry season, we did not take malaria medication, instead opting to use natural repellant sprays for our exposed skin and DEET-based repellents for our clothing (in the summer, wet season, I would definitely take the medication, but Rocket probably wouldn’t). We wore long sleeves and pants with high socks every day, even while sleeping. The biggest thing to remember is if you do get any symptoms similar to a cold after your visit, tell your doctor about your trip and make sure they test for malaria as soon as possible!  

Can you roll down your car windows on a self-drive safari?

This completely depends on which safari park you are visiting. Always follow the park’s safety instructions! Some parks allow open windows as long as you keep all body parts inside the vehicle, while others explicitly say it’s prohibited. Choosing to ignore a particular park’s safety rules has lead to multiple deaths across various parks.

Always keep your doors locked, keep a safe distance, and have the ability to roll up a window quickly if necessary (we never turned our car off completely even while taking pictures). While at Kruger, I never felt like we were in danger, but upon talking to locals we learned that other parks have different rules and regulations regarding safety. No matter how comfortable you get around the animals NEVER relax on the rules.

 

Would you go again? And if so would you change anything?

I would definitely go again because there are so many animals that we still did not see. However, Rocket and I both said that our second trip would be a little different after completing the first one.

We would likely start with a self-drive in the southern part of Kruger (known for big cat sightings), while trying to see as many animals as we could on our own. However, after a couple days of self driving we would conclude the trip with a private camp to enjoy the luxury and a few guided tours.

 

How did you prepare for the trip? What things did you buy?

Here is a list of things we brought with us that I would recommend:

  1. Camera – A DSLR with a zoom lens (100-400mm) in order to capture animals at a distance. If you are self-driving and restricted to the roads, we wouldn’t recommend anything less. A more affordable option are any of the super-zoom point and shoots.
  2. Hiking boots – We bought Salomon shoes which were great during our hiking in Cape Town as well as the morning walk in Kruger. Make sure to buy at least a half to full size bigger because walking downhill can hurt your toes otherwise.
  3. Polarized sunglasses with straps – the straps were key with this type of trip. I also bought sunglasses that could fit over my glasses (Yodo). I normally wear contacts, but during this trip my glasses were more comfortable.
  4. Binoculars – We were debating on buying two pair, but for a couple only one is necessary, especially if one or both of you will be spending a lot of time taking pictures.
  5. Clothing – Light green, brown, and tan are the best colors to wear to not draw attention to yourself while on a safari. Due to the small risk of malaria, it is important to have clothing that will cover you and help repel insects. Craghoppers creates adventure clothing made with bug repellent. You still need to use the spray on your exposed skin and long socks, but this will add an extra layer of protection.
  6. Hats – We bought one hat online before our trip and Rocket bought another hat in Cape Town. They were great because the sun is very bright even in the winter.
  7. Mosquito repellant – We waited until we arrived in Cape Town to buy repellant. We didn’t need the spray until we arrived in Kruger, and once we arrived we saw a plethora of options at the shops in the big camps. South Africa has many trustworthy brands. If you need suggestions, just let us know.
  8. Hand wipes, face wipes, and hand sanitizer – I like being clean and over prepared at times. I brought 3 different types of travel wipes and one bottle of hand sanitizer and I used them all during the trip!
  9. Fanny pack/backpack – With all the items on this list it was nice to have a carrying case. Rocket chose a camera backpack for our bigger items, but I love my fanny pack even though Rocket still makes fun of me for it.
  10. P Style (FOR LADIES ONLY!!!) – When you never know what the situation will be like. Contact me if you have questions!

 

If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to contact us!

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