My preconceptions are shredded like an antelope dismembered alive by a pack of wild dogs. Safari is not toasty warm. It’s fucking freezing cold on the savannah of South Africa. The four of us chatter and shiver as the sun sets. It’s only going to get colder.
It’s not like we weren’t warned. We were. But 10 Celsius (about 50 F) we thought would be a late night temperature when you are huddled around a fire or snuggled in a tent. We didn’t know that we would be driving for hours in an open vehicle at night freezing.
But we are also excited by the animals, and the chance to see the great predators of Africa. The Creekmores are on safari.
The Silent Darkness
It’s also eerily silent when the Land Rover is turned off. Winter is here and the bugs are hibernating. After trekking through the cacophonous jungles of Asia, south and central America, silence is a treat. Not a bug, bird or rustle breaks the quiet.
Emma fidgets and taps her shoe compulsively on the metal bottom of the 11+1 seater open-top jeep. Human kids will break the silence of the winter savannah. At least it’s not Lily babbling one of her really long stories.
Mike and Sam get out of the car to inspect tracks. He and Sam can see the recent crap and hoof marks of a large group of Buffalo.
Travel to Timbavati
We’re in the Timbavati area of Kruger Park, a long way from home in Washington D.C. Almost 48 hours ago we left with 7 bags (2 are for my work) and 4 day packs.
This trip will take us from the freezing cold we are in now to dusty blazing heat, and sandy humid oceanfront. We have a lot to carry. (This is our gear table on the left.)
We left just before school was officially over. June is ‘shoulder’ season in Africa so there is better availability and rates for hotels and activities. And it fit better with our summer plans and my work schedule in Africa. It’s pretty good season for seeing animals, but not peak (August/September). We will have to get a little bit lucky.
The South African Airways flight from DC to Johannesburg was our longest single flight – 16 hours, although it did stop in the middle for refueling in Senegal. It was the coldest airplane I have ever been on. Maybe they were preparing us for the fridged safari.
We arrived in Johannesburg around 7pm by the time we finally got out of customs and passport control. I knew we wouldbe too late to get to Kruger Park and had arranged for a local guest house with good Trip Advisor ratings.
Sunrock did not disappoint. The jolly owner, Arthur and his family, greeted us with big steaks and a full meal. Arthur has a parrot is a Harley Davidson fan, and is planning a month long bike trip across the US including Sturgis.
A long days drive to safari
We got up at 4am today, partly because of jet-lag and partly because our transport arrives at 5:30am. After a cup of coffee and a shower, it seemed fitting to do a ballerina photo.
The ride from Johannesburg to Shindzela lodge was 7 hours on small two-lane highways through various places, one of which the driver described as “the ugliest towns in South Africa”. Mmmmm-kay. The winter sun is so bright in the early morning. Blinding. At least we didn’t have to look at the ugliest town.
There was a nice waterfall on the way.
And finally at the gate to the Timbavati reserve he dropped us off and a good-looking young guy introduced himself as Mike, our main guide while staying at Shindzela. And we piled into the Land Rover that will be our safari vehicle for most of the next few days.
Your first big animal you see in Africa will most likely be Impala. They number in the millions and are a critical part of the predator food chain. But they are much like deer in the Northeast – cute yes, but there are lots of them.
Nonetheless we all ‘Oooohhh’ and ‘Aaaahh’ at the Impala like safari noobs. (As I look at this picture now, I realize I may have spotted a unicorn.)
The wind was warm in the middle of the day, and the girls giggled a lot in the windy open Land Rover. It was incredibly fun after a long boring drive from joberg. And then our first Elephant! He was munching away in the sun, just off the road.
After an hour, we reached Shindzela camp down bumpy dirt roads. Sindzela is a permanent tent camp in southern Timbavati reserve. They have 8 tents that sleep two each. A small kitchen and an open dining hall is inside the small fenced area that also encloses a tiny pool and a campfire.
One long edge of the camp is a brook, that in dry winter becomes a rocky watering hole.
Zebra approached slowly just as we arrive, watching us from about 300 feet. The dry season forces the animals to drink at the few remaining watering spots and they tolerate us nearby humans.
Mike starts the engine again, and we roll forward through the dry brown grass. The buffalo went north probably along the road. Sure enough, he slows the Land Rover down after a half-mile. In the road are hundreds of African buffalo.
The buffalo are migrating North slowly as they do every Winter. “This is a good sighting,” Mike says in a clear South African accent “They usually aren’t up here in these numbers for another month or so.” He is clearly excited too.
There are hundreds just a few short feet from the vehicle – some only 3 yards away. The buffalo look at you with this stare that you can’t be sure is smart or dumb.
They seem to demand something – ‘a bankers stare’ as Mike calls it. But all they really want is some water, green grass and to avoid predators.
The African buffalo would be nothing without the crazy horns. All of them are known for the hard cap horn that covers the entire head. Some horns have been worn smooth from fighting and tussling.
Off in the trees is a old guy with the longest horns Mike has seen ever – five feet end to end. And anther has deformed horns that go straight down.
In the setting sun, the buffalo are bathed in a beautiful orange and pink light of the evening savannah. But as it goes down slowly over the horizon it gets colder and colder.
We leave the buffalo and ride on to the hippo dam for our next sighting – the resident hippo. Our lightweight fleece and jeans are no match for the windy chill of the ride, even with the thick wool blankets they provided.
In the dark, the floodlight sweeps side to side as the tracker, Sam, looks for yellow eyes of lions, leopard and Heyena. Big cats are the prize sighting and they are easier to spot at night by the glowing eyes.
No cats show up and we huddle through the last two hours of frozen night safari. Just before turning back, we get a spectacular viewing of giraffe and elephant very close – 15 feet at most.
Mike shuts off the land rover and the only sound is a half-dozen elephants munching and moving. We can hear each foot drop with its low sonic thump, thump, thump, thump. Amazing.
We feel alive! Being so close to these amazing animals is energizing even as we huddle together for warmth.
Back at the camp we have a simple dinner and skip the after-supper camp fire chat in favor of sleep, which as always, comes easily after a long day like today. They put old-fashioned hot water bottles in the beds which delight Lily and Emma and keep us all warm in our tents.