South Africa: Hidden in Plain Sight

viaBangkok’s article as seen on Masala Magazine

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We drove a long way from Cape Town, covering a distance of 1,400 kilometers with 3 overnight stops through the Garden Route. Lalibela Game Reserve was the most anticipated destination of our journey, and we were glad to be closing off our South African adventures on a high note.

Did You Know? Game reserves are privately owned animal safari destinations. This means that the owners purchased some thousand hectors of land, fenced it up, and brought in the animals. However, game reserves are planned to ensure a food chain and natural life cycle exists within these confines, so you will get a real safari experience during the game drives with the perk of a luxury lodge to relax in at the end of the day.

Our eyes were peeled to the road as we drove past the town of Port Elizabeth. We spotted the game reserve entrance and followed the dirt path inside; slightly skeptical and hesitant as to its close proximity to the main road. Just as we stepped out of our vehicle, the receptionist bellowed,

“Take out everything you need from the car. You won’t have access to it for the next 2 days. Your lodge is located 30 minutes from here by jeep. We’ll be driving you in with your luggage. Oh… and you’ll all need to sign a waiver. In case anything happens to you, the reserve is not liable.”

I looked at the jeep, no roof. I looked at the sky, no clouds. This was going to be a hot 30-minute ride, quite literally. Hats on, and we were ready to go.

Our drive to the lodge proved to be a bold and promising introduction into the wildlife as we witnessed warthogs, various antelope, some hippo heads popping out of the lake, and a family of the infamous big five; the rhinoceros.

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Did You Know? The African elephants, Cape buffalos, African lions, African leopards, and white or black rhinoceros are coined the big five game animals because they are the most difficult animals to hunt on foot.

We arrived at the lodge after our eventful drive, and were provided a briefing by our caretaker.

“Sometimes elephants wander around close to the swimming pool area, and because they are wild elephants, we would need one of our rangers to escort you for safety reasons. Also, on your walk back to the cabins, mind your step as may find some snakes on the path. Walk carefully, and close your cabin doors as soon as you enter. You don’t want the snakes slithering into your cabin.”

There was no cellphone service, no wireless, and no telephones in the room. We were given blow horns, and were advised to use them only when our lives were at risk. This was a fairly vague description of when one could use the blow horn. I’m pretty certain my life is at risk when I see an insect or a spider; doubt she would feel the same way though.

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Did You Know? There are several lodging options, also known as camps, in a game reserve. Each lodging area varies in décor, ambiance, and price. We chose to stay in a more standard, family friendly dwelling; it was quite luxurious nonetheless.

After lunch, we were introduced to our ranger, who would be with us throughout our stay. He walked us through the number of game drives we would have; a total of four, two per nights’ stay, with one at 6:00am and another at 4:00pm lasting approximately four hours each. Animals like to come out during dusk and dawn, he explained, so the chance of spotting something special is much higher.

“A few rules before we go on our first game drive that you need to keep in mind,

1. Always stay seated when you’re in the jeep.
2. Do not make too much noise,
3. Do not touch the animals,
4. …and finally, do not scream when the animals come close.

You must stay calm at all times. Remember, the animals won’t hurt you unless you startle them. If they come close, they are simply investigating. They are curious.”

Did You Know? December is the best time of year to visit a game reserve as South Africa transitions to summer. Prime mating season occurs during the spring, and by December there are adorable little offspring running around in packs.

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Our ranger was a walking encyclopedia when it came to wildlife. During our game drive, he would point to various plants, birds, and animals and give us a wealth of information about their mating calls, behaviors and characteristics, how they protect themselves from predators, how they hunt for dinner, and how they bring up their offspring. He has been trained to spot animal tracks, detect how fresh they were, and in which direction the animals were heading. We followed some elephant, cheetah, and lion footprints, and eventually tracked them down. Our ranger would also study the animal feces and identify its freshness, which would give him some clues to the animals’ proximity. He was passionate about the animals, and belonged in the wild more than he did around people.

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What we witnessed on our game drives was magical; the birthing of an impala, a cheetah on the hunt for his meal, an elephant stampede, lions wandering around, a tower of over 15 giraffes’, and a herd of zebra crossing (which I found quite amusing) just to name a few. It was scary, and there were moments where I could hear my heart beat, especially when we drove up close the three lions at 8:00pm in the night. It was dark and we had just spotted them in the field. We were watching them with the jeep’s headlights while they were wandering around just a few meters in front of us. It felt like a scene straight out of The Lion King. They were majestic creatures.

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Patience is crucial on a game drive. These animals are in their comfort zone in the thickets, so finding them requires one to be extremely observant. You could easily miss the animal tracks, the lions wandering around in the tall grass fields, and the giraffe necks popping out of the trees. These animals are hidden in plain sight; you just have to be attentive.

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