Going on a game drive in the South African bush is an unforgettable experience.
Although most wildlife in South Africa is found within the boundaries of vast National Parks, wildlife reserves and private game farms, that by no way implies they are kept in a glorified zoo.
Hundreds of kilometers of wilderness, sometimes with drivable roads, but often-times just rough dirt tracks only suitable for 4x4 vehicles, means that most of the time the animals have the upper hand in the viewing stakes. They live their lives deep in the forest, venturing out of the protective tree cover to go to the water holes, and it is a question of good luck and perseverance that we humans are able to see them at all.
How to prepare
1) The first thing to avoid is the mind-set that a trip to the bush is only 'successful' if you see something spectacular like a lion, leopard, or cheetah. Obviously these are the prizes, and there is always a frisson of excitement when a big cat is sighted, but every game drive brings its rewards. Every game drive is special.
2) Invest in a basic wildlife reference book, especially for birds, because once you have identified the 'obvious' birds like ostriches and hornbills, secretary birds and vultures, you will almost certainly find yourself becoming addicted to the smaller ones that become increasingly difficult to ID. These are affectionately called 'LBJs' or Little Brown Jobs, referring to the myriad tiny birds that are always to be found in the bush.
3) Since we humans are trying to see wildlife on their terms not ours, the first rule of going to the bush is to follow nature's timing, which means up bright and early in the morning, often before sunrise. Once the sun is up and the day is hot, the animals retreat into the shade, which makes sightings obviously that much more difficult. On safari, early to bed and early rise is the rhythm to adopt.
What to expect
So what is the routine like on a trip to the bush? If you are staying in a lodge or a hotel (like Protea Kruger Gate) they organize your game drives for you. You will be woken up in the pre-dawn darkness, with a cup of tea or coffee and a plate of rusks, one of South Africa's great bush food traditions. You pile into the game viewing vehicle, remembering that if it is the winter, you will need warm clothes, a woolly hat and gloves, which you will then shed layer by layer as the sun rises and the day hots up into another glorious African winter day.
The game rangers who take you out on your game drives are informative, knowledgeable, and want only for you to share their unbridled enthusiasm for the bush. Usually, you are a small group in an open-topped Land Rover. The ranger normally drives you, and there is often a tracker – usually a local villager – who reads the jungle’s overnight news in the dust. He spots paw prints and spoor, a tell-tale broken twig or branch, which helps you locate which wildlife has moved through and where they were headed.
A voyeur's game
When you spot animals or birds, the vehicle stops and you sit in silence, watching nature at work or at play. You look through your binoculars, you film, you take your photographs, and you listen while the ranger tells you in a low voice more about the birds or animals you are watching.
Plains game are relatively easy to see – herds of antelope, wildebeest and zebra, whilst giraffe are usually in smaller groups. Elephants, buffalo, the iconic cats, rhino, and hippo by the rivers – and then the smaller residents such as meerkats, wild boar, hyenas, jackal – the possibilities are endless. However many game drives you do, the thrill of sitting quietly watching a herd of elephants wander by, or watching meerkats play in the evening sun, never stops.
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After a couple of hours, you stop for morning tea, and yet more snacks, and then by the late morning, it is time to head back to the lodge for – yes, you've guessed it – more food. After brunch or lunch, everyone has a few hours' rest, time to write up your safari diary, dump your photos, swim or have a quick snooze, until it is time to head out for the evening game drive.
The animals who have also snoozed the day away wake up in the cool of the late afternoon and busy themselves with feeding before settling down for the night.
As the sun sets quickly over the African bush, you stop for one of the most iconic moments in African bush life – the sundowner. Your ranger will carefully choose a scenic spot where it is safe to get out of the vehicle: as you sip your glass of white wine and watch the sun set over the thorn trees and the Bushveld, there really is little to beat that moment.
Another perfect day in Africa.