One of the most-do activities in Africa is to go on a safari and see animals in their natural environment. THE place to go in South Africa is Kruger National Park. Unfortunately for us, that wasn’t an option because it’s clear across the country and really requires a four- to five-day stay to make it worth it. With Greg working Monday through Friday, I had to research some weekend options.
I finally settled on the Garden Route Game Lodge, about three-and-a-half hours east of Cape Town. The whole package included breakfasts, dinners, lodging, game drives and a driver to and from the lodge.
I knew it would be somewhat a controlled environment—unlike Kruger, which lets you just drive around looking for lions, elephants, etc. There are some pretty amazing videos on YouTube from tourists, including the now-famous “Battle at Kruger.”
Every month, tourists die in Kruger because they (1) get too close, (2) don’t understand or respect basic animal behavior, and (3) get out of their cars for “the shot” and are mauled.
Even more people are eaten each month when they cross the border from Mozambique illegally (but don’t give Arizona and ideas).
The Garden Route drive was magnificent with breathtaking vistas and valleys. Greg got some beautiful shots from the moving vehicle, which I’ll post later.
The lodge is made of a main building with a restaurant and many of the rooms, as well as a group of “chalets.” They’re actually small thatched huts with a veranda. They were quite cozy and comfortable. And the views were fabulous.
There are two game drives a day, one in the early morning and the other at sunset. There are nine seats in the back of a pick-up truck. The lodge property is separated from the animal by a fence that encloses the reserve and also separates natural enemies from each other. They don’t have many of each example of animal, so they can’t afford for “nature to take its course.” In 2006, a rhino did kill one of the elephants on the property and you can tell the staff was deeply affected by the loss.
On our first ride, Greg mentioned that it felt like Jurassic Park as the big metal gate closed behind us. The roads are a bit rough, but the drivers are slow enough that we don’t get bumped around too much.
On our first ride, as we stopped at a clearing to see the springbok, a male ostrich came running right up to the truck. They are not dangerous so long as they don’t kick you. So if you stay in the vehicle you’ll be fine. The guide would try to shoo it away, but it was too curious about us. It’s a bit intimidating to have this huge, dumb bird come right up to you. The driver started the truck and revved the engine to no avail. And when she slowly started to drive away, it stepped in front of the vehicle and wouldn’t let us pass. Finally, it started to lead us along the road, got bored and eventually went in search of a female ostrich. On later drives this ostrich-in-heat would provide continuous entertainment as it chased around the females and bothered the other animals.
We were able to see a quasi-sample of the big five—buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard and rhino. Why “quasi”? For example, we saw a white rhino, which is far less dangerous and aggressive than the black rhino. We saw a Cape buffalo, not a true water buffalo. And while we saw cheetahs in pens, they’re not leopards. They’re called the big five because they are the most dangerous animals to hunters on foot. Of these, the buffalo is the most dangerous. It kills more humans than the other four animals combined. This is primarily because their warning signals are not obvious if you don’t know what to look for.
On our last night’s drive, there were only four of us in the back. The other couple was from Cape Town. After a nice sunset drive, we drove into the lion’s area. Although the animals are sequestered into their own areas, these are still huge enough that you have to drive around a while to find the animals, even the elephants (they get 100 hectares, or 247 acres, just to themselves). So we drove around a bit and couldn’t find the lions, until we saw one lioness came out of thicket of bushes along the fence.
Typically our drivers would back into the area where we would see the lions. This would allow for quick getaway, just in case. The three lions (two female, one male) typically hang out together. They are rescued animals from a “canned hunt” park. The Born Free Foundation rescued them from deplorable conditions. So while they would not survive on their own in the true wild, they are actually more dangerous than true wild animals because they are used to humans.
Greg and the other two had spotted at least one of the other lions also in the thicket up along the fence. So our driver backed up the truck closer to the thicket, but a safe distance from where we thought the other lions would be. I kept looking to the other side, having remembered an episode of “Planet Earth” in which lions worked as a team to surround their prey. It was disconcerting to me to be so close to the bushes without a real visual on all the lions. But you figure the guide knows what he’s doing.
So now the driver/guide, the other couple and Greg are all scanning the bushes along the fence in search of the other two lions. I’m standing up in the back. It’s silent. Suddenly, I hear a flutter of birds and I look out of the corner of my eye and one of the female lions comes rushing out of the bushes. I yell, “There’s the lion! At two o’clock!” OK, so you don’t really want the lion to be (1) that close, or (2) in front of you! The lion, of course, heard me and looks over and hunches over (anyone who has ever had a pet cat knows this pose) just as the driver hits the gas…and the lion gave chase. We were bouncing around too hard for me to catch any pictures. We didn’t drive far before the lion gave up (they’re well fed), and we stopped momentarily to catch our breath. We decided to get the heck out of the area, so we drove back out the double gates and stopped to excitedly tell each other our perspectives—where we each were looking, when we first saw the lion, how exciting it was. The driver admitted that was a bit too close for comfort for him.
After that, we drove out to the elephants. These elephants are also rescue animals, used to humans, but were not cooperative in the program that teaches them how to be a ride at a festival (good for them!). They were being put back into the barn for the night and our drive took us in there to help out with the feeding of the male (the female is a grouch). It was totally wild to pick up a couple handfuls of pellets and dump them into the end of the elephant’s trunk!
After all our excitement, it was time to head back to the lodge for dinner and a quiet evening in our chalet.
The next morning we packed up, had breakfast, and took another scenic drive back to Cape Town with our hippie driver.