Meet South Africa – The Jungle

In the second of this three-part series documenting my travels through South Africa, I tell you what I learnt from my very first safari experience. 

‘In the jungle
– the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. In the jungle
–the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.’

This song from The Lion King reverberated in my head as we set off on one chilly morning for my very first game drive on the last leg of our South Africa trip. I’d barely slept the night before out of excitement, and was up and awake before the crack of dawn, slathered in sunscreen and mosquito repellent, binoculars strung around my neck, and a nervous anticipation seated in my stomach. You see, I’d never been on a safari before and I was blessed that my very first time was going to be at South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park. 

A South African vacation is incomplete without getting a taste of the jungle life, and there are plenty of smaller game reserves scattered across the country that offer the safari experience. However, Kruger is the largest, most popular, and offers plenty of options ranging from luxury lodges to government owned properties. No matter where you stay, you’re guaranteed plenty of animal viewings – it’s Africa after all! I was in the jungle for two days, went on three game drives, and here’s what I learnt…

Everyone’s aiming for the big five….

Africa’s big five animals – the African elephant, the black rhinoceros, the cape buffalo, the African lion, the African leopard – a term coined by game hunters referring to the deadliest of the jungle animals.The term has now been adopted by safari tour operators as a ‘list’ of sorts, to tick off before you take that flight back home. We finished seeing the big five on our first two game drives, our rangers ensuring that. We saw a large herd of African elephants grazing, the matriarch coming dangerously close to our car almost warning us not to create any trouble. We saw three young male lions snoozing after devouring a giraffe they’d hunted down two days ago. We managed to get a glimpse of a leopard hidden himself in the bushes, chomping down on an impala leg. All of this on our very first game drive – possible only in Africa!

…..but there’s so much more to see.

Don’t let the greed of seeing the big five inhibit you from appreciating the less popular, yet equally exciting animal sightings around you. There’s so much flora and fauna to see and appreciate in the jungle, it’ll only make you realize what a thriving ecosystem the jungle is. A good ranger will point out everything from acacia trees to yellow-billed hornbills aka the ‘flying bananas’, to springboks nestled within the branches to wildebeests rolling around in their own poop. All of these were brought to our notice by the very talented and experienced rangers who drove us around for two days. It was thanks to their keen sight that we managed to spot a pangolin – an extremely rare creature belonging to the anteater family, widely poached for it’s meat and scales. All of this on our second game drive – possible only in Africa!

An extremely rare sight – The Pangolin!

You’re definitely going to spot animals….

In Africa, the safari experience begins even before you get into your 4×4. Most of the private game reserves situated in the national park have no boundaries or fences, meaning animals come and go into the property as and when they please. Which makes it an extremely thrilling, albeit, a bit scary experience at night especially when you’re taking a shower and a random baboon decides to tap on the window. After a point, the impala and the apes lurking around the hotel property don’t really bother you, it all just adds to the safari experience. The hyena lounging outside our rooms like an oversized ugly dog, and the elephant that decided to walk into the property to get a drink from the pool were experiences I am never going to forget.
The probability of spotting animals is much greater here, owing to the flat topography of the land and how densely populated the jungles are with animals – you’re in Africa after all! We didn’t go five minutes without a viewing a large animal or a small bird thanks to the keen acuity of our rangers and trackers.

…..but flexibility is the key.

It’s the jungle, not a choreographed stage performance that’s scheduled to operate a certain way. Remember to be patient and have an open-minded attitude. Yes, we all want to see lions and leopards but it’s not always possible. Just enjoy the experience, and be grateful that you get to witness something as beautiful as this. The safari experience for me was very humbling, it made me realize how inconsequential we humans are in the giant scheme of this universe.

Be prepared to rough it out in the jungle….

All safaris start at the crack of dawn, which means getting a good night’s sleep and putting those cocktails away early. It is so important to dress comfortably, in weather-appropriate clothing. You’re going to be seated in a 4×4 open-top vehicle, which means you cannot escape the sun, rain and/or wind that’s going to be thrown in your face. Carry warm clothing, dress in layers and apply copious amounts of sunscreen – I cannot stress this enough. Remember, you need to click Instagram worthy shots of the animals, and not of yourself!

….and get pampered back at the resort

Barring the morning and evening game drives, the safari vacation can be pretty relaxing during the day. You can snooze in the afternoon, lounge by the plunge pool or get a massage in the middle of the forest with deer chomping on grass a few feet away from you. We were put up in two uber luxurious safari lodges that redefined all my prior notions about ‘roughing it out in the jungle’. The Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge screams minimalist chic with thirteen private lodges each carved within the earth’s surface, private plunge pool and exquisite fine dining options. No wonder Virat and Anushka decided to vacation there, and National Geographic recommends the lodge in lieu of their commitment to ecologically sustainable tourism. Comparatively, the Lion Sands Narina Lodge – with a view of the Sabie river – felt far more homely and comforting, almost like you’re in colonial times.

Lion Sands Narina Lodge
Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge

You’re in safe hands with your ranger…..

Any nervousness or uncertainty you have about going into a jungle in an open top vehicle with nothing separating the wildlife and you is thrown out of the window when you look at the reassuring faces of the rangers. Or when you see your tracker lounging around in his seat, dangling his legs in the faces of three sleeping lions after they’d just finished lunch. #TrueStory
Usually, two experienced personnel accompany you on a safari – the ranger driving the vehicle and a tracker who has a special seat in the front looking out for pug marks, animal droppings and possible sightings through the foliage. They’re knowledgeable, extremely patient, and happy to answer any questions no matter how silly they are such as asking them to identify elephant poop.

…..but follow his instructions

I cannot stress this point enough – your safety and the safety of your co-passengers is important, but equally important are the lives of the creatures around you. The most important rule that was emphasized was to remain seated in the vehicle at all times and to avoid standing up or making any sort of sudden movement. It was interesting to learn that the animals associate the vehicle and passengers as a single unit, but when you stand up, you tend to isolate yourself and draw the animal’s attention towards you. And lord knows you don’t want a rhinoceros or a lion singling you out.

The most important rule that no safari guide book will tell you, is keep your phones away! (Yes, you get surprisingly brilliant network in the South African jungles.) No matter how strong the temptation is to go live on Facebook with a lion around you, or have your mother Facetime with a hyena, keep that phone away! Enjoy the safari experience through your own eyes and not through the lens of a DSLR camera. Click a few good pictures and then keep those devices away, I promise you the memories you take home will be stronger and remain with you for life.

I’d love to hear about your safari experiences in the comments below. Were you brimming with excitement and nervousness as well?

(My trip to South Africa was hosted by South African tourism. As always, the views are unbiased and entirely my own.)

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