It makes me smile to think of an African safari trip as a “once in a lifetime” experience because, to me, it seems to suggest the safari experience is the same every time and that’s not the case at all. My first ever sighting of a majestic lion sprawled lazily across the savannah in the midday heat was incredible.
At Pilanesberg National Park on a South African safari, we watched for what seemed like hours while, much like a moody teenager, the King of the Jungle refused to get out of bed. Yet, the sight of this powerful predator in his natural habitat didn’t drive me to tick “See lions on safari” off my bucket list.
If anything, it sparked the desire for another encounter: the surprise of a pair of eyes glinting at you from the bushes on a night drive, watching elegant lionesses stalking their prey or seeing adorable cubs playfully tumbling on top of each other just metres from your car.
You may only be lucky enough to experience a African safari once in your lifetime but every experience in the bush is different. Just as every individual experience in the bush is different, there are also different ways to put a twist on your African safari experience – here are just a few:
The classic game drive
When you think of a South Africa safari, most likely your first thought is of being an open-sided 4×4 (or your own car if you’re on a self-drive) cruising around a game reserve to try to find “the Big Five” and other wildlife. This is a popular way to see the parks – for good reason. Your ranger’s immense knowledge gives you a pretty high chance of seeing something amazing.
Our guides knew exactly where to look and how to interpret any clues the animals had left behind: for example, the scuff in the dirt, which we wouldn’t even have spotted if left to our own devices, which was a clear sign that a lion had been running through the area earlier that morning.
We also benefited from the guides keeping in touch and giving each other a heads up when they found something special. When the radio buzzed into action, I’d find myself leaning forward, ears pricked, to try and hear what animal we might be about to speed towards. I was always foiled because guides refer to animals by their local names so tourists (like me) don’t overhear there’s a lion (or cheetah, leopard, etc.) only to get there and be disappointed if it has moved.
Having no expectations about what might loom into view in the road ahead made it even more exciting when we did spot a rhino blocking the path or cheetahs wandering casually beside us.
Walking with wildlife
For something a bit more unusual – and definitely more adventurous – you can also organise a walking safari. Whereas the animals are used to the game vehicles, they’re much more wary of people so, on foot, you won’t get as close to the wildlife itself: we’d only just spotted a herd of impala on the far side of the savannah by the time their ears had pricked up and they’d began running away from us to safety.
Well what’s the point of that, you might ask, if I’m not going to see anything? Even though you might not get as close, there’s an exhilaration in walking through the game reserve with no idea what might be around the next corner or behind the bush.
Although the lion tracks we came across didn’t turn out to be fruitful (to the huge relief of some of my group), we strolled right past a herd of zebras who eyed us suspiciously but didn’t seem to fazed before we abruptly, and thrillingly, came upon a family of rhino. With the wind in our favour, they couldn’t smell us approaching so we were able to watch them quietly for a few minutes before they noticed us and decided they, frankly, weren’t too happy about us being there.
If it weren’t for the calm confidence of our ranger as we backed away slowly, at this point I would have been extremely nervous to say the least. It’s not every day you’re standing just a few metres away from three very large and rather disgruntled rhinos.
Of course, on safari there’s no guaranteed you’ll see wildlife up close like we did. But, even if you have an hour’s wander around the reserve without meeting any of its residents, you learn a huge amount on walking safaris about the park’s ecology, conservation and the species living in it.
Oh, and poop. Every time you see a pile of poop, your excitable guide will stop to examine it and tell you which animal it belongs to, whether they’re on musth and how this particular pile of poop is even more interesting than the last.
Scenic safari from the skies
If you told me I was going to go on safari without seeing any animals (if you don’t count a herd of cows), I probably wouldn’t be rushing to sign up. But this was before I’d heard of a scenic safari with Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris.
We arrived at the crack of dawn and warmed ourselves on hot coffee while our hot air balloon was slowly filled with air. It was only when our balloon started inching off the floor that I realised, with a sinking feeling, I was about to rise thousands of feet off the ground in a tiny basket held up only by hot air.
As soon as we were soaring above the fields with a spectacular sunrise before us and the misty shadow of the mountains in the background, I forgot any thought of vertigo and soaked in the view. Our hour’s flight was over in a flash and we landed, with the mildest of bumps, and were greeted with a glass of champagne. I could get used to hot air balloon safaris!
For more information please visit www.southafrica.net. Hayes & Jarvis offers a 7 night holiday to South Africa from £1,619 per person. The offer includes three nights at the Garden Court Sandton, Johannesburg, on a B&B basis, followed by four nights at the Bakubung Bush Lodge, Pilanesberg, on a full board basis. The offer also includes car hire throughout and return international flights from London Heathrow with South African Airways. Based on departures 03 April 2019.