South Africa and its famed Kruger national park has been in my dreams for many years. Couple of times I had made detailed plans to go down (including booking campsites in Kruger park one of the times) but due to one reason or the other it never materialized. So all the while I went to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda etc. South Africa remained a mystery.
This time I decided to make it a family trip and since this would be Aarav's first Africa trip (though he has had multiple safari experiences in India), we thought of skipping camping and going the lodge route. Also since this would be a once in lifetime event (given the prices of private reserves, unlikely I'm going to repeat it in a jiffy for sure), we decided to open our purse strings a bit. Especially coming as it was after the Covid induced lock downs leading to couple of years worth of travel budget left unused.
First and foremost was to get the Visa. It seemed more laborious than previously, probably due to the various rule changes due to Covid. Thankfully the Visa is still free for Indians and hence we had to spend only for services at VFS in Dubai. After we submitted a truckload of documents (had to go back once due to the incomplete nature of the said truckload), we got our Visas within a week. First hurdle crossed, it gave us additional impetus to finalize the bookings for which we had paid advances.
We were clear on a few design principles - we would not do Kruger main park nor do self drive. Primarily this was due to lack of offloading in Kruger and I'm also not a fan of the crowd during winter holidays at Kruger. We wanted something wilder and exclusive - again something helped by the 2-year worth of travel budget savings ! Given that we were spending only 8 days in South Africa given leaves, we did not want to take a chance.
We decided on Sabi Sands and Timbavati as the two reserves we would want to be in. Both world-famous as the top private concessions of South Africa. Once the reserves were finalized, we had to choose the resorts. After back and forth with friends and forum members of SafariTalk, we decided on Umkumbe at Sabi Sands and Bateleur at Timbavati. The booking process was straightforward and the response and service levels were amazing.
Since we were flying on 8th July we decided to start anti malarials by 6th. Went with the significantly more expensive Malarone this time given this was Aarav's first malerial prophylactic, and we were not sure how he might react to sun with the other prophylactics. With that out of the way, we excitedly waited for the 8th morning !
8th July 2022
Ubered to Terminal 3 of the Dubai airport for our Emirates direct flight to Johannesburg. With an ETD at 9:55 am and ETA at 4:15 pm in Joburg, we found it to be a great timing with kids even though we lose one full day inflight. Post landing, we were picked by our cousin living in Joburg, and we spend a nice evening at his place playing with his son plus two lovely dogs !
Woke up early in the morning to sounds of love birds on the bird feed in the garden. Decided to test my new mirrorless camera Canon R6 in combination with the 300 f2.8 on the lovebirds. After clicking a few test shots, wrapped up all photography gear for the serious work ahead !
After a sumptuous home made break fast, we decided to go to Soweto to the famed Villakazi street housing Mandela House. We spent an hour or so learning about the venerated leader and his wife's lives, struggles and leadership in South African history. Outside, we were presented with local dancers doing a touristy dance routine.
After Mandela house, we decided to go to the local farmer's market - Fourway Farmer's Market. It has multiple stalls serving delicious piping hot food of varied cuisines. The weather was a lovely 20 degrees, sunny and the whole area had an amazing energy including open air seating and a live band performing.
Evening was well spent relaxing with family members and having a delicious Indian dinner ordered from a restaurant close to Sandton.
Woke up to a cold Joburg morning with the temperature reading a chilly 6 degrees. Got into the heated truck and were dropped at the Domestic terminal of OR Tambo international airport for our flight to Kruger via Air Link. We boarded the small plane that would take us to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport - one of the 3 airports through which one can access the massive Greater Kruger National park.
After a short 45-minute flight, we landed at KMIA airport in Nelspruit. We were welcomed and accosted by our driver booked via Umkumbe themselves. We decided to take some local currency for tips and incidental expenses en route. Right out of the airport we saw our first interesting sighting - that of a melanistic impala grazing next to the road.
In less than couple of hours, we reached the Sabi Sands Gate and then in a short while we reached the Umkumbe River Lodge with its well appointed chalets. We were in the large Elephant chalet at the end and next to electric fence. It was a great location since we could see elephants next to our chalet on most days (of course the other side of the electric fence) - and hence the name of the chalet turned out to be quite apt. Off-safari times, my favorite thing to do was sit reading a book, looking over the Sand river, the elephants grazing there, sipping a Windhoek. Or just sit beside the pool deck and enjoy the same view. Water was too cold most of the time for a dip so avoided the swimming.
We relaxed in the lounge since the chalet was not ready yet given check in time of 2p.m. We had a quick lunch by which time room was ready, and we were escorted to the chalet. We were asked to be ready by 4 p.m for our first South African safari !!
The very first safari brought us couple of antelopes that were lifers for us - the Kudu and the Nyala - apart from many other plain games like Zebra, Impalas and Blue Wildebeest / Gnu. Just out of the camp, we saw couple of Dagga boys (African buffaloes) - our first of Big Five. The buffaloes were covered in flies and were lazing around. They got up, gave us a bored look and went off in search of food and friends.
The highlight of the safari was a large herd of elephants at sundown. It was lovely to watch the beautiful African sunset surrounded by the sounds and sights and smells of the herd. That also meant we had ticked off 2 of the Big fives in the first drive.
Just when we thought we had a great safari to start off our South Africa experience, we found 3 Cheetah brothers preparing to hunt an impala at night close to the border with Londolozi. We followed them for a while but soon they crossed over to Londolozi, and we left them to head back to camp. On the way we saw side striped jackals to add to the night fun. We also heard male lion in the vicinity, but we couldn't track it given it seemed to have crossed over the border.
Back in camp at around 8 p.m , we had a lovely dinner under the stars around a camp fire. Dinners on all days across the two lodges were amazing - the same can be said in general about food though we had vegetarian. Chef seems to be quite adept at catering to different palates, and we never ever had complaints about quality of food or service - both at Umkumbe and Bateleur.
We slept off to the sounds of roaring lions from across the Sand river behind the camp. These were thought to be the male lions of the Styx pride who were now in the Mala Mala concession - other side of the sand river. (For all we know it might well have been the Kambula pride resident there also)
A very cold early morning wake up call at 6 by our guide saw us already fully ready for safari. We had woken up at 5 and was decked up in winter cloths ready to go and have our hot chocolate and cookies. We saw the mists rising up over the sand river - which passes just behind the Umkumbe. You can sip a hot chocolate sitting next to the pool watching the mists rise up from the river along with early rays of the African sun. Few things in the world can match it ! In the mists we could also see presence of elephants in the river, which would be a common occurrence most days we spent at Umkumbe.
After passing couple of Giraffes who momentarily blocked our path forward, we caught up with the Styx pride. In the early golden rays, we saw the moms playing with the cubs. The male lions who were roaring through the night were not to be found. However, we spent a good 45 minutes in the company of the 15+ lions all around our vehicle. Priceless way to tick off the 3rd of big five at Sabi.
We returned to the camp before 10 to find elephants all around. There was a herd numbering over 40 of all ages happily munching grass and bush all around the camp and in the river. We had lunch enjoying seeing this amazing sight. As we got ready for evening safari around 4 p.m, they were still in the river bed.
We heard that there was a male from another pride sleeping in the Umkumbe concession, and so we decided to go and check him out. He was from the Kambula pride from across the river at Mala Mala, one of the largest and well known concessions of Sabi. Since the sub adult was just happy sleeping we left him and went in search of other residents of the bush.
We soon came across a white rhino grazing in open with sunset approaching. However, the excitement of seeing the Rhino was immediately over shadowed by a radio call mentioning the resident leopardess Sesekele was on the move close by.
Soon enough another jeep tracked her and informed us about the location of this beautiful adult female leopard. We went in search of her and found her just in time of her scratching a tree with her claws. Soon enough though she decided to move into thick brush, and we lost track of her.
However, our tracker saw another one behind our jeep stealthily moving - one we never could find again. That mystery would remain as to which it was and where it went ! Most believed it would have been Sesekele's cub. That then was our last 2 of the big five in a span of an hour - leopard and Rhino.
We went back to the white Rhino and spend some time with it before our sun downers. We had a relaxed night drive which yielded a white tailed mongoose and were back in camp at around 7:30 for a lovely dinner. After putting batteries for charge and ensuring cloth and camera bags were ready for an early morning start, we decided to take an early night.
Before we knew, our last full day at Umkumbe had come upon us. We had seen all the Big 5 by now. Plus the Cheetah surprise. The morning safari started with some interesting antelopes - a male Kudu bull and then a steenbok eating leaves pretty close to road. Apart from these, we also saw a Duiker which was quite skittish and far away. The morning safari ended without yielding much else.
During lunchtime, we heard baboons alarm calling from over the kitchen area. Though we couldn't see the reason for their excitement we knew there was something lurking around. And soon enough as we wrapped up our lunch we saw a big male leopard (the resident Nweti) ambling across the river away from Umkumbe and towards Mala Mala.
For the afternoon, we decided to track the resident Styx pride again. Soon we caught up with the Styx pride who were all lazing around in a grassy open space. We waited for 30 minutes and soon the young ones were up and jumping around, play fighting and climbing onto their sleeping moms. The females seemed curious to follow sound coming from opposite side before realizing it was anti poaching unit members and not any of their beloved prey. We left the Styx pride after an hour and went back to the camp following an uneventful night journey.
In our final morning, we met with a small Elephant herd which had a female with a tusk bent backwards. We spent close to an hour with the herd seeing them feed on grass, bush and then have a drink.
After leaving the elephants, we were greeted by the pleasurable sight of a white rhino mom and calf peacefully grazing. They came quite close to us - we could almost touch them if we wanted to. It was a great experience to have these creatures hunted for their useless horn by poachers be so comfortable with humans. We also painfully realised they were dehorned to reduce the risk of poaching. Sad to see so many animals butchered for something which is as useless as our finger nails.
We got back to the camp at around 9:45 and got ourselves busy with packing for our transfer to Timbavati. We had booked transfer through Swift and the driver was prompt in picking us up. We started our drive to Timbavati after settling bills at Umkumbe and leaving tips in envelopes for guide (Sam, an amazingly knowledgeable young guide), trackers and other staff.
We reached Timbavati around 2 after taking stop to buy some snacks, toothpaste etc and taking some money from ATM. We reached later than expected since there was a long drive after entering Timbavati/Klaserie to Bateleur given the 30 kmph strict speed limit.
We were greeted at Bateleur by Phillippa & her team with some drinks and wet towel. After explaining to us about the camp and amenities, we were accosted to our tent named Ingwe which means leopard in Shangaan.
Unlike at Sabi, at Bateleur safaris start early at around 3 p.m. So we did not have much time to enjoy the camp area before our first drive. First drive was mostly spent enjoying the company of 4 tuskers which came at touching distance of our jeep. After clicking some nice snaps of them in late evening light, we had our sundowner.
After the sundowner, we went on our night drive assisted ably by our tracker Lucky who is one of the best I've seen in Africa over the past decade or so. Just before camp we (lucky) saw a leopard in dry river bed and hence we decided to offroad a bit to get a closer look. (At Timbavati offroading is typically done for only big cats or other interesting sightings). After clicking a few regulation shots of the leopard, we left it to go back to camp.
It was a lovely dinner under the full moon overlooking the small seasonal river behind Bateleur.
At bateleur there is some light snacks early in the morning before the drive - like yogurt, hot chocolate, cookies, fruits and flakes / muesli. After partaking some in the cold, dark morning we got ready for what would turn out to be one of the most memorable days of safaris.
As we were driving through the main path of Timbavati, from afar we saw a lioness walking on the road. As we approached her, we saw her looking to the sides and soon two other lionesses joined her on the path. As we positioned our vehicle across the road, the 3 of them lay down to relax in beautiful early morning sunshine. As they moved about afterwards, we could see their breath shining in the golden sunrays. The 3 of them soon started roaring for rest of their pride, named Mayambula whose territory overlaps many concessions including Bataleur, Tanda Tula and even part of Kruger. In a breathtaking display of chorus, we were treated to couple of minutes of intense roaring right next to our vehicle. Three full-grown lionesses at their prime, touching distance from yourself and roaring at an insane intensity sends you to extreme of excitement.
With hearts beating fast, we waited till they walked across our vehicle and went their ways. We waited to see if the rest of the Maymbula pride would join them, but they didn't.
We did roam around a bit post that but nothing matched the intensity of the morning, and we retired to camp for lunch and sharing the stunning experience with others.
After a sumptuous lunch, we decided to relax reading a book at the pool deck looking at vervet monkeys in the garden and across the dry river bed. Few of them decided to even enjoy their own reflections in the mirror kept next to the public restrooms at Bataleur.
We also had the regular Nyalas for company that munches on the grass growing around the tents.
Afternoon drive was very uneventful, and we saw pretty much nothing - not even plain games, and we were wondering what happened to all the animals. Soon luck changed. We got called into a leopard sighting. Since only two vehicles are allowed we had to be in the queue. When our time came, we were allowed to look for the leopard. She was named Thumbela. Quite an old lady who have had multiple litters. We spotted her in the Rockfig concession over which Bataleur has traverse rights. It was splendid 15-20 minutes of following her as she first tracked and made an attempt at hunting a Steenbok and then royally sat atop a dead tree surveying her kingdom.
Leaving her and letting the next in line to follow her, we went in search of other animals. The only other interesting sighting was a chameleon in the night drive- a great catch by our tracker lucky.
Our last full day at Bataleur was quite uneventful though we did see a large herd of buffaloes and plenty of interesting birds. And late in the evening we bumped into a large herd of white Rhinos numbering over 8 dispersed inside thick brush. We spent some time with them acknowledging the privilege of seeing them roam the open plains unlike their black Rhino cousins who have been nearly poached to extinction in many parts of Africa, all for their useless horns.
The last morning we went searching for the male lions and cubs of Mayambula pride. We tried everything we could, including lucky at one point tracking on foot but alas though we came across fresh scat and urine we never could find the pride. Since we had already done our Big 5 at Bataleur also and had a great time with the lionesses and leopards, we were not unduly unhappy ! We ended the sojourn with a lovely dance by 3 Ostriches very close to the road. And few Giraffes sashaying through the grass lands.
Grass was still quite high for South African winter given late rains and hence one could say the sightings overall was probably not as high as a typical winter especially with regards to the smaller mammals.
In the afternoon, we said bye to the lovely people at Bataleur and drove back to Johannesburg instead of flying so that we could enjoy having a close look at the Blyde's canyon. The weather was lovely and it was worth spending around 7 hours on the road enjoying the many farmlands, mountain ranges and finally the suburban Johannesburg.
After spending a lazy evening at home, we flew back to Dubai the next day wrapping up a memorable trip and personally for me stopping the South African jinx which seemed to have had a strong hold over me for past years. The icing on the cake was some brilliant sightings (Big 5 at both Sabi and Timbavati) and spending time with extended family at Joburg ! And to the Ingwes and Ngalas and Nyathis of these beautiful bushes - we will be back ! (Those are Shangaan words for leopards, lions and buffaloes :)