From Nature's Valley we travelled to Addo where we stayed in our ideal safari lodge room, it even had a piano, to rest before embarking on our first African game drive at Addo Elephant National Park.
Enjoy our stories of our first safari experience and a few of our favorite photos of the animals we spent the day observing. By the way, it was really hard to narrow down the photos, so enjoy your own voyeuristic safari journey through this post! :)
Ginnie: I awoke before dawn eager and excited for our first safari. I really didn’t know what to expect; however, when I saw lots of trees and bush and green I felt like it wasn’t what I imagined. I guess my mind had images of a more barren landscape from watching National Geographic specials. I wondered what we would see among all those trees, but soon after entering we saw two elephants on either side of us grazing away at the treetops. It was so surreal to be that close to these wild elephants. We traveled on into more open plains where we saw our first zebra! I was looking forward to seeing zebra and giraffes (I knew this park did not have giraffes so was on the hunt for zebra). It’s fascinating to simply sit and watch the animals as they go about their daily lives.
Throughout the day we kept coming across new animals – buffalo (an entire herd was on the plain at one point and not 30 minutes later they were all gone!), lots of kudu, many more zebra, two meerkats, more elephants, warthogs, and a little favorite – the flightless dung beetle who works really hard to form perfect balls of dung, which is its own mini-ecosystem. I could just drive around all day looking for animals. The moment you suddenly spot something in the distance or around a curve is exciting and as you get close and see what it is it’s like a fun game of seek-and-find and the reward is the impressive and huge wild animal just meters from you in many cases. It is really difficult to verbally describe the experience.
Not wanting to leave any area unchecked, we headed to the southern section of the park after a picnic lunch (big surprise, PB sandwiches and a local flavor of Lay’s chips; side note: Lay’s has some delicious flavors of chips around the world and I really wish I could get them in the US since I never really liked potato chips but these flavors make them delightful!) where loops are longer. When we first entered, we saw a lot more tall grass and had a feeling fewer animals would be around since clearly the grass wasn’t being eaten. After a long stretch with no sightings, we decided to pick a small loop and if we found nothing, we’d return to the northern main camp. Just as we came around the corner in front of us was a stopped vehicle, generally a sign of a spotting; just to our left was a black rhino, happily grazing on a huge stretch of land all by itself. It was an amazing scene since the park includes a portion of the sea (hence being a game park that includes sharks and dolphins) and we could see the ocean behind the rhino as he grazed on the green grass of the plain. Once the rhino moved on from our view, we continued along and found ourselves alone on the trail.
As we slowly entered an area surrounded by woods, a buffalo popped out ahead on the left. More buffalo followed and we could hear a great deal of rustling in trees. We found ourselves stopped by a herd crossing to the other side of the woods. It was exhilarating, if a bit tense at moments. Every buffalo (except for the babies) who exited the woods looked directly at us for a second or two, decided we were nothing special, and carried on. One had a tree branch stuck between his horns, when it fell it blocked the only potential path we could take should there be a brief opening in the herd. We closed the windows (the safari rules state that since animals see the vehicle as one unit if a body part comes out of a window it can be taken as threatening or simply scary, either of which can incite a reaction out of the animal) and just figured we’d wait it out. Ant pondered whether or not the vehicle could move in reverse fast enough should it be necessary and then realized that was not an option as we were also blocked by a portion of the herd behind us – we hadn’t noticed them. We simply sat in awe at the realization that we were sitting in a tiny vehicle all alone surrounded by a herd of buffalo and we’d be there until they were ready to move along. I never really felt a sense of danger from the buffalo, but I was always conscious that they could damage the car pretty well should they decide to.
After that intense experience we continued our loop and took one of the long ones to make our way back to the main camp. This loop was again pretty bushy and the most we saw were gigantic human toddler-sized spider webs looped between large trees and bushes. Back at the main camp we had one loop we skipped in the morning as we were following other animals so we decided to take that before we had to leave the park at 6pm. With the sun setting, we knew there was a chance for the cats to come out but had no expectation of seeing any lions at Addo since there aren’t many in the park and cats are cats no matter the size, so they are not typically out and about without purpose. Just as I was thinking about how we probably wouldn’t see a lion but how neat it would be, Ant turned a corner and said “what is that in the street?” Before I could formulate a response or really see in the glare of the setting sun, he said, “Are those lions? They’re lions!” Two lions were directly in front of us! It was insane, totally unexpected, and completely surreal and indescribable.
We immediately took photos, I even sort of took some outside my window when they were still kind of far, but as they got closer, I knew that was not a good idea, so I rolled up the window and made due with through-the-window shots (which came out fairly well, thankfully). My heart was racing with the adrenalin, the excitement, the nerves, and who knows what else. It was just unbelievable that these elusive hunters were walking right toward me. As we watched in awe, a third lion came out of the woods, so we just sat by as the three (two males and a female) sauntered past. The first male sprinted past the car, but the female and second male sauntered slowly by. They are such huge animals – they came up to the height of the window. They were so close, I could have touched them as they walked by; I thought they were going to rub along the car like cats do when walking around and rub onto people and furniture. It was absolutely amazing, no words can describe it. The entire day was incredible and that just really topped it off. For my first safari experience, it was truly unforgettable and made me excited for more adventures in game viewing. There truly is nothing like the experience of observing animals in their natural environment simply living their lives.
Anthony: Waking before the sun rises above the horizon is something I reserve for days when traveling to a distant land on an early plane flight or watching the sun climb above ancient ruins. Today we had arrived at Addo National Park, in South Africa, a distant land that had for so long remained a dream to me. We were in a place where some of the planet’s wildest and most beautiful creatures roamed freely in their natural habitats…so, I thought it may be worth the effort to skip out on some extra sleep.
As we entered the game park under the morning mist and yellow-lit sky, we were immediately greeted by a pair of enormous African elephants that were easily 3 times the size of our miniature car rental. Each of them was about their daily business, chomping away at the lush green leaves that covered the dense bush along the road. Slowly moving down the road, I had to smile as I glanced at the first of what would be many road signs that read “Caution, lions in area, alight from vehicle at own risk” I decided to stay in the vehicle at this point and opted to venture out later when the right time arrived.
Continuing on through the park we encountered a number of additional animals including zebra, kudu, more elephants, rhinos, herds of buffalo, turtles, dung beetles, jackals, meerkats, more hoofed animals than I can remember, and a number of large and small birds.
As the day wound down and the excitement of what we would see next continued to build, we were graced with our first sight of lions. There were 2 males and 1 female. Each of the males wore a large bushy mane and the female walked alongside, stopping every couple of minutes to yawn showing her enormous incisors (yeah a bit scary). We stopped the car and waited almost breathlessly. As we sat shooting pictures, watching, sweating, giddy with excitement, we realized that this small pride of lions was actually heading right toward our vehicle. I thought back to the many times that I had seen large cats in zoos and other animal parks, but the size of them walking past at less than a foot’s distance was absolutely incredible. The experience is one that I will never forget, and instantly catapulted itself into my top ten.
The Addo Park was definitely a life-changing experience as I watched the wild animals in their own natural habitat, killing when hungry (as demonstrated by the carcasses on the side of the road), living their lives as nature intended them to each live, without cages, bars, or human interference. We all have images in our minds of what places, people, and things will look like; I guess at first I had this National Geographic idea of a safari, of Africa, and each of the different animals, but as I leave the continent, I have to admit, being so close to nature definitely gives one an appreciation for our amazingly diverse planet and why it is so crucial to protect it.