It’s been a few weeks since our trip to South Africa, and I still catch myself daydreaming about it! I absolutely fell in love with the country – the trip wet my appetite to explore more of the continent, and to go back to South Africa again! We were there for two weeks, but I honestly wish there was some way we could have gone for a month.
I got a ton of requests for details of our trip over instagram – I love that so many of you all are interested in going! This first recap will cover our three nights on a safari in Sabi Sands Private Reserve, then I’ll also share a recap on Cape Town, and one on the last leg of the trip, traveling the Garden Route, “camping” in Addo Elephant Park, and a night in Johannesburg.
How we planned our trip
This was a very impromptu trip! We were supposed to go to Portugal with my family, but that got cancelled last minute when my dad needed a surgery. Later that week we got an alert on Scott’s Cheap Flights (the subscription is definitely worth it if you travel) for flights to Johannesburg for less than $700 round trip. Granted, there was a 14-hour layover in Frankfurt. But it actually worked out well because we got to spend a day exploring the city on the opening day of the Christmas Market, and it helped us get used to the time change, so we were never really jetlagged in Africa.
Thankfully we had friends and family who had traveled to South Africa and gave us a ton of advice for planning our trip. Probably the hardest thing to plan was the safari – deciding where we wanted to go and for how long. We knew we wanted to visit Kruger National Park or one of the nearby private reserves. Kruger is the largest public park in SA, and you can stay in lodges in and around it that include safari drives. Or you can camp in the park and drive yourself around in a car. If you can afford it, I recommend the former. We drove around Addo Elephant Park on the tail end, which was really fun, trying to spot the animals on your own after learning some of the signs to look out for, but you get much more impactful animal sightings with a guide. If you go yourself, you can “camp” in a pretty nice tent with a floor, bed, electricity, etc at a really reasonable price, while most of the lodges are a splurge ($300 and up a night). However, most are all-inclusive - food, drinks, 2 safaris a day with a ranger and tracker, etc. Per the recommendations of my travel agent aunt, we worked with Ashley from Go2Africa. She sent us a few different options for lodges, and booked our flights to Kruger, and a driver from the airport to the lodge (one of which happened to be a former ranger who once drove LADY GAGA and Brad Womack when he was The Bachelor!).
We decided to splurge a bit with 3 nights at Arathusa Lodge. We absolutely loved it there. It was also really important to me to stay somewhere with good track record on sustainability practices. We stayed in a private suite out in the bush that was far away from the main lodge - at night we had to be escorted back so we wouldn’t accidentally become lion bait. There were tons of windows so you could literally watch animals from bed. Keep scrolling for the most epic elephant encounter! Our room had an gorgeous outdoor shower, plunge pool, and a giant tub for soaking with a view of the busy, plus a king sized bed and huge living room.
I’d recommend doing at least 2 nights, but 3 would be better. Nature has it’s way of doing it’s on thing, and our middle two drives were a little light on animals. I know we would have been disappointed if we had left after that second night, so I think having 3 nights would ensure you get to see all the things.
Typical Safari Day
Most lodges have a pretty similar daily schedule. We would wake up and join the group at the lodge at 5:15 for coffee, tea, muffins and fruit. Sounds pretty awful waking up before 5 am when you’re on vacation, but with the time change, and the fact that it was already getting bright out at 4:30, it really wasn’t bad.
Then we’d go out for our first safari of the day, when the animals were just waking up and getting active. The safari lasts about 3-4 hours, with a midway break for coffee and biscuits/rusks. Then back at the lodge, we would have a big hot breakfast around 9-9:30 with eggs, bacon, toast, fruit, cheeses, etc.
After breakfast, we had a nice chunk of time to ourselves until lunch around 2. One day we did a bushwalk with our guide and got to see some of the smaller animals and flora, then lounged in the pool with cold beers. Another day we just napped and enjoyed the big tub and plunge pool at our suite.
Lunch was typically a plated main served with a few different salads, which were always fresh and delicious. Then we had a little more time to ourselves before meeting back up again for a snack/cocktail and hopping back in the cruiser for our second safari of the day. We’d go out till 8ish, stopping halfway for a sundowner, which is a cocktail enjoyed with sunset. Gin and tonics are the traditional choice. After sunset, we’d have another 30 minutes of safari, driving around with a large flashlight so we could see noctournal animals.
Dinner was a 3-course meal. One of my favorite meals was a buffet with grilled chicken, oxtails, and roasted fish with African spices, chakalaka (a tomato relish) and samp (hominy), and veggies. I do wish there were more traditionally African dishes they served, although I really liked getting to taste some of the game, like springbok and impala.
I was most excited to see elephants, and while we had a ton of elephant sightings, the most epic one was when we spotted them from our suite! I was lounging around our room taking a bath, and when I got up and looked outside the window right next to me, there were two elephants probably 10 feet away, walking towards our room to drink out of the plunge pool. We definitely startled each other! They stopped in their tracks when they saw me get up, then started to walk away. I quickly grabbed a camera, but figured they were gone for good.
Well, then I went to take a nap, and when I woke up a little while later, there were 7 elephants drinking from our plunge pool and snacking on the trees outside our room. We slowly grabbed our cameras, but mamma elephant kept an eye on us while we were inside!
My other favorite elephant moment was these elephants in the rain! It was gross and cold outside, and my poncho was leaking so I was soaking wet. But I forgot about all that as we sat in our cruiser for almost an hour, watching 20 or so elephants wander by, scratching their rears on trees, pulling up roots, and doing their elephant thing.
Our first big animal sighting was this leopard, relaxing on a termite mound with it’s antelope kill hanging in a tree nearby. We were SO close! We also spotted a leopard that seemingly came out of nowhere and walked right behind our cruiser - while Scott and I were in the backseat! At the same time, our guide was trying to redirect our attention to a very rare owl he spotted. Ha, I think I’ll keep my eye on this massive leopard!
I was kinda scared to see lions, especially after falling into a black hole of tourist-death-by-lion articles on the internet. But they were so lazy, and basically just slept as we watched them. My favorite were the two lions spooning, one of which was snoring loudly. Our guide and tracker, who have a combined 36 years of experience, said they had never seen a lion snore before!
Who knew hyenas were so cute? We had quite a few hyena sightings, but the best was these 2-3 month old hyena puppies, who had just started coming out of their den in a termite mound. They were so fluffy and curious and came right up to the cruiser to check us out!
We were really lucky to see African wild dogs, the second most endangered carnivore in Africa. This may be obvious, but they were just like actual dogs! The year old puppies chased each other around, playing with an impala leg (I mean, it’s basically a Kong).
We also got some really cool sightings at this waterhole, which was filled with probably 10 or so hippos. My favorite was seeing 200+ water buffalo coming to drink. We also spotted a group of zebra’s and a huge male giraffe.
What to Pack
Packing was a bit of a challenge because weather can vary quite a bit, from day to day and morning to night. Our first day was burning hot, up to the 90s. The it got rainy and cold for our second afternoon game drive, and finally was comfortable in the mid 70s for our last couple of drives. Be sure to pack layers, and maybe even an extra shirt for warm and cool weather in case it’s hotter or colder than expected.
On game drives and bush walks, you’ll want to wear neutral colored clothing so you don’t surprise the animals. Think greens, browns, khaki, and other earth tones. You’ll also want to avoid black and dark blue, as these colors supposedly attract bugs. Since you’re mostly in the cruiser, whatever shoes you want are fine - I wore hiking boots but you could get away with tennis shoes or even sandals if it’s not raining or muddy. They’ll provide you with a poncho if it rains, so don’t worry about brining one if you don’t have a neutral colored rain jacket.
Dinner is casual, but you probably won’t want to bring the same sweaty, dusty clothes you’ve been wearing all day. Jeans and a nice t-shirt or sweater, or a casual cotton dress are perfect.
Other essentials we brought were sunscreen, DEET bug spray (the bugs weren’t bad, but there’s malaria in the region so this is one where you’ll want to break out the chemicals), and a good book to read while lounging midday.
If you’re thinking about planning an African safari, I hope this information was helpful for you! Feel free to leave any questions in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer!
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