The pre-dawn stillness of “the bush” was broken by our wildlife tracker, a tall man by the name of Enoch, pounding on the pole of our tree camp platform and announcing “time to get up!” It was not quite 5:00am in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve and the blackness of the eastern horizon was just turning a light gray.
As we slowly gained focus, it would still be some time until we saw the first rays of sunshine. Somewhere, off in the distance, a nocturnal hyena giggled. We’d flown for two days and two nights to fulfill our dreams of going on an African safari and we’d finally made it to the bush.
For several years, we’ve had the dream of going on safari in South Africa. My parents had been to Africa several times and they urged us to “visit Africa before it changes.” We’d spent years trying to figure out a way of making this trip happen, but limited vacation time always got in the way. We couldn’t fathom making the trip for anything less than two weeks. We didn’t want to cut our experience short.
Like most novice safari visitors, we had our dreams of seeing Africa’s big five game: the mighty lion, the majestic African elephant, the shy leopard, the fearsome rhinoceros and the unpredictable Cape buffalo. Of course, there are other animals we wanted to see: the skittish zebra, the elegant long-necked giraffe, the vicious hippopotamus, the stealthy crocodile, the graceful impala, and many more.
So, in the early pre-dawn hours, we boarded our open-top Land Rover for our first game drive in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. It was a cold South African winter morning and we huddled under blankets clutching our cameras and hoping for big game sightings. Humming along the dirt track roads, we slowed for sightings of impala herds and several kudu pairs.
Our first sighting loomed large as we turned a blind corner. There, munching blissfully unaware on a small tree, was a male elephant. Due to the blind corner, we’d stopped closer to the elephant than our guide normally would like, however, this male was entirely unphased and gave us only a glance before going back to eating the tree.
Shortly thereafter, we came on square-lipped rhinoceros (sometimes called white rhinos) in a small clearing. These fearsome beasts were shy with us, sliding behind a bush and play hide-and-seek as we watched them.
Our guide, Matt, and tracker Enoch from nThambo Tree Camp explained rhino conservation, anti-poaching efforts and the disgusting trade in rhino horns. You read about this kind of thing in the news, but seeing this magnificent creatures up close (and not in a zoo), makes it all the more real…and heartbreaking.
On a subsequent afternoon drive, we saw four of the big five in one trip. Straight off, we saw a family of rhinos in a clearing – including a male, female and a calf. As we worked our way west towards the approaching sunset, we came on a herd of Cape buffalo were gathered in a small field and nearby a small male elephant was happily ripping a nearby tree of all its leaves and small branches.
Just down the dirt track, we headed off into the bush were two female lions were lounging in the shade. One of the lions had recently given birth. On this drive, we also saw warthogs, zebras and kudu.
We moved to a different part of the Klaserie Reserve for the last part of our trip. On our final morning game drive, our game ranger Faffa from Africa on Foot camp, took us out for a game drive in the search of our final big five animal: the leopard. Far from our camp, in a stand of tall trees, we found one lounging lazily on a branch in a tree. She took our presence in stride. We were impressed with how beautiful these animals are!
A lot of people spend a lot of time planning the perfect South African safari and making sure they see the Big Five. And yes, the Big Five are each magical and amazing to see.
However, along the way, we realized that the journey is actually the destination. The process of tracking the animals, stopping to look at animal tracks in the soft sand and the way the grasses have been pushed down – it’s all part of the safari experience.
Yes, we had a game drive where we didn’t see anything other than three impala – all for a four-hour effort. However, even in that experience, we were having the time of our lives. Going on a big five safari was a dream come true!
We explored the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve while we were the guests of Africa on Foot and nThambo Tree Camp. As always, all opinions are our own.
Lance Longwell is a travel writer and photographer who has published Travel Addicts since 2008, making it one of the oldest travel blogs. He is a life-long traveler, having visited all 50 of the United States by the time he graduated high school. Lance has continued his adventures by visiting 70 countries on 5 continents – all in search of the world’s perfect sausage. He’s a passionate foodie and enjoys hot springs and cultural oddities. When he’s not traveling (or writing about travel), you’ll find him photographing his hometown of Philadelphia.