Imagine visiting a land where giants roam the bush with indifference for humankind. True indifference — you’re not a staple of their diet yet they aren’t intimidated or scared of you. That’s when it hits you – Africa is a spectacularly unique destination.
As you meet others that have visited Africa, the first question is almost always
“did you see the Big 5?”
As soon as we landed in Hoedspruit, South Africa, we were met by a young, funny and quick witted ranger named Ruan. He whisked us off to the Kapama Private Game Reserve. Along the way, he said we would be driving through the private game reserve to our lodge and that we would be on alert for animals along the way.
Ruan asked “what did you come to Africa to see?“. I quickly said “elephants and lions” and he said “Can you name the African Big 5?“. Big 5, eh? Not sure but my guess is “elephant, lion, hippo, giraffe, and zebra”. Well, I got 2 of the Big 5 right, they are:
- Black Rhino
- Cape Buffalo
Just minutes on the way to our lodge we spot a giraffe. We’ve all seen this lanky animal at the zoo but to see it within a stone’s throw away was amazing. We stopped as it contemplated drinking from a nearby watering hole.
It quickly spotted cousins and made its way to join the pack flanked by a lone zebra. By the way, a group of the giraffe is called a Tower, you can kinda see why:
At that moment, Ruan grabs his binoculars and excitingly focuses them in the distance. He sees something a half mile away and tells us to hold on. With dust flying and our backs pasted to the seat, we go flying down the road to come to an abrupt stop. As if seeing it for the first time, Ruan exclaims that one of the more difficult-to-find of the Big 5 is just ahead. He kills the engine and we wait as the giants make their way within feet of our land cruiser.
If you’ve never seen a Rhino in person or especially without any protection between you and this mammoth animal, it’s a bit intimidating.
Ruan explains the plight of Rhino. They are often poached for their horns, as just a small section of the horn can sell for over $100,000. When Rhinos mate, it can last for up to 45 minutes and local folklore mistakenly suggests that eating Rhino horn can increase your stamina. Go figure. It’s become a huge problem in South Africa, about 2,000 of these wonderful animals have been poached in the last year.
As we continue our journey to the lodge, we see a few more animals, mostly antelope. In less than an hour, we’ve already spotted one of the Big 5.
Wow, this is going to be a great trip!
Kapama Karula Lodge
Once we arrive at the lodge, we are greeted by name by the staff at Kapama Karula. This professional staff is very welcoming and give us a tour of the place. Their reputation is well deserved — they realize you’ve come a long way at considerable expense and want to ensure that you enjoy the absolute best experience possible.
After providing refreshments, they show us to our private villa, an incredible lodge complete with a huge deck with a private pool with direct views of the bush.
The accommodations are 5-star, with beautiful architecture. It comes with a fireplace, private pool, indoor and outdoor showers, soaking tub and incredible furnishings. The staff explains that the mini bar is fully stocked, anything we desire in food and drink is at no additional cost — enjoy everything they have to offer.
Twice Daily Game Drives
Each day, we were awakened at 5:30 a.m. for our first game drive. It’s a bit cold — South Africa is in the southern hemisphere so our summer is their winter. Most days, it starts out at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. We make our way to the restaurant for a quick snack before we start our game drive. We again are greeted by name by our assigned waiter. His name is Themba, a native South African with a kind manner and eager spirit. We sit by the fire as we enjoy a cappuccino and pastries as we anticipate our day.
At 6 a.m., it’s time for our first-morning game drive. Ruan introduces us to our tracker, a native South African named Nick that grew up in the bush. As a young boy, Nick learned to read animal tracks to determine which way animals are migrating. Nick sits at the front of the land cruiser and instructs Ruan as to where to go as he reads fresh tracks along our path. The picture below is not of Nick (it was another oncoming tracker), but it illuminates the vulnerable position of the tracker — they can be very close and unprotected from big game.
Although chilly, they provide blankets and a warming pad for the morning game drive. My hope was that we would see a lion today and it wasn’t long before Nick was hot on the trail of a pride of lions that we quickly found.
The lioness had cubs that were just a few weeks old. They were running around playfully, learning to become quick and nimble. In the afternoon game drive, Ruan told us of 3 male lions called “the 3 brothers” that had formed an alliance to take over the pride from an older lion. The brothers were about 4 years old and during the day they would hunt independently and come together at night. We were fortunate to track the 3 brothers on the first night and saw them at dusk taking a nap.
The next day during our drive, we spotted one of the 3 brothers out hunting. We watched as he walked across the bush in search of a warthog, one of their main staples.
As we approached the massive lion, he seemed oblivious. It was a bit eery as he made his way within feet of our land cruiser. If he made a quick jump, we could be his next meal.
He had his sights set upon a warthog just a few hundred feet ahead. The lion began to crouch as he made his way towards the warthog who got spooked and luckily made it safely out of harm’s way.
On our second day, we heard that the most elusive of animals had been spotted nearby. It was the leopard, many people on safari never get a glimpse of this elusive animal. We raced out to the spot where he was last seen and as we arrived, he was making his way to the road, spraying his scent as he marked his territory.
As the leopard approached our land cruiser, Ruan warned us to not make any quick movements and not to stand up. I nervously snapped a few pics as the leopard walked a foot from our cruiser.
After seeing the leopard, Ruan and Nick spotted buffalo tracks. Within 10 minutes, we came across a buffalo heard making their way to their morning drink.
We watched as they drank and playfully splashed around in the pond.
Wow, in just two days we’ve seen 4 of the Big 5.
In Search of Elephants
Lynn and Ruan have similar personalities. Both are great conversationalist, fun loving and are always joking and teasing, so they got along well. Lynn kept teasing Ruan because he would see animal scat (like a huge pile of Rhino dung) and would pick it up, inspect it for what the animal had recently eaten in an effort to help Nick track its location.
Since we had not seen elephant to round out our Big 5, Lynn and Ruan made a bet. Lynn told Ruan that if he would find elephants, she would pick up some elephant dung. If you know Lynn, she is a slight germaphobe, so picking up dung would certainly be out of character.
It was our last morning drive and we had yet to see any elephants. Ruan and Nick spent all morning tracking elephants. They spotted tracks and sectioned off quadrants of where they thought the elephant would be. But they were elusive, each time we thought we got close to seeing them, they were nowhere to be found.
Although we saw lots of other animals along the way, I could sense that Ruan and Nick were frustrated that we could not find elephants. We saw zebra, antelope, and Impala.
As we were finishing our last morning drive, we stumbled on a heard of hippos getting a bit of vitamin D.
They are loud and rambunctious. We learned that hippos are the most dangerous of all African animals — big, nasty and can sprint at 35 miles per hour on those short legs. If you are between them and their watering hole, you could be in great danger.
We returned from our last morning drive without seeing an elephant. We had scheduled a massage at the lodge spa and that wiped away the disappointment of the elusive elephant. Lynn and I get massages often and we left the spa both thinking that this was the best massage we’ve ever had. The masseuses at Kapama Karula are simply the best.
Settling the Bet
It’s now our last game drive at the Kapama private game reserve and elephants have been elusive. Ruan and Nick are feeling the pressure of their bet with Lynn. They want to track an elephant in return for Lynn stepping out of her comfort zone in picking up and inspecting elephant dung.
We spend hours tracking fresh elephant tracks. Each time we feel we are close to finding them, we speed up to the area they should be and we see no sign of them. It doesn’t look like we are going to see them this trip, but 4 of the Big 5 isn’t bad. I can the see frustration in Ruan and Nick’s eyes as we drive mile after mile with the same result.
Earlier, Lynn and I told Ruan about a recent movie we saw that we really loved called Baby Driver. It is a story about this young gifted driver that was the getaway driver for a gang of robbers. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is a must — one of the best movies we’ve seen in a long time. Ruan is a great ranger and incredible driver, so much so that Lynn teased Ruan as being “Baby Driver”.
The sun is setting, it’s our last game drive. The prospects of finding elephant look dim and Ruan apologizes to Lynn for not spotting any elephants. We stopped at a water hole and Ruan asked if Lynn would still pick up the elephant dung. Lynn’s a good sport and decided to do it even though we had not seen an elephant. The picture below doesn’t do it justice, but Lynn was squirming back and forth as she handled the dung.
We decided to make our way back to the lodge and along the way, Nick spots more elephant dung and fresh tracks. Ruan quickly reverses the land cruiser in the direction of the tracks and speeds forward. After a couple of turns, I hear Ruan exclaim “there they are!“. In front of us stood not just one, but a huge herd of elephants.
I hope you enjoyed this post on our trip to Africa. We visited a lot more areas than just Kapama, I will be chronicling those visits in the coming weeks.
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I’ll leave you with a final picture of the view we had each day at the end of a game drive as we made our way back to the Kapama Karula lodge.
If you are planning an African safari, I can’t say enough about the warmness of the staff at Kapama Karula lodge. If you want to learn more about Kapama Karula lodge, click here.