This happens to be my second visit to Africa. In 2001, I traveled with my parents and grandparents to visit my sister, who was living in Botswana at the time. If you do not know where Botswana is, I have included a map of the southern countries of Africa. No time like the present to start familiarizing ourselves with this HUGE continent. Take a long look at the countries, their names and locations. Seriously, we can wait.
While we were visiting my sister, we had the opportunity to see amazing sites in Botswana and South Africa. We took in nature reserves of different sizes starting with a very small drive-thru reserve in Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone, to a river safari near Chobe National Park building up to a large reserve called Madikwe Game Reserve in the northern part of South Africa. It was a great strategy because each game drive/safari built upon the previous one. Although it was not intentional, my visits to nature reserves in South Africa have also began this way…starting with a small walk on the wild side.
The east coast of South Africa is not known for safari animals and game drives. Because the weather is so humid, the habitat is not the best for them. Marine animals are the main highlight for this area. However, I was able to find a small nature reserve just fifteen minutes outside of Ballito, South Africa called “The Rain Farm.”
The Rain Farm sits along the shallow Umhali River. It offers nature walks, game drives and has a variety of options in accommodations for whatever type of sleeping adventure you are looking for. I decided to go on the nature walk and the game drive. The Rain Farm does not have any predatory animals like lions or hyenas. They mostly have plant eaters which allows for safe walking. Do not get me wrong, you still have to keep a distance away from the animals like the waterbuck. That guy kept an eye on us for a long time to the point where we headed off the main path and hiked through the brush to keep a good distance from him. This is where I wish I was traveling with my good digital SLR camera with a zoom lens because that waterbuck was a beautiful creature but too far away to adequately capture with my phone. But, I digress.
I saw emu, ostrich, several types of antelope, caracal (a type of small cat), wildebeest, zebra and my favorite of the visit, giraffe. Most of the animals are used to the game drive with the sound of the vehicle but as we walked, they tended to be more skittish. The exception to this was the male giraffes. They were magnificent. We were able to get near them, only a couple of arm lengths away. It was only after we passed them and I stopped recording that I realized I had been holding my breath while they were near. I did not want to do anything to scare them off, not even breathe. Take a look for yourself!
After the nature walk, I went on a game drive. The vehicles they use are like pick-up trucks with several rows of bench seats added to the bed of the truck. The benches do not have seatbelts so it is best to hang on if they are driving at steep grades or fast speeds. The trucks also have a canopy cover to shade guests from the hot sun or any rain. In the larger game reserves, the driver typically carries a hunting rifle in the cab as the very last resort toward an attacking animal. But because the Rain Farm is a small reserve with no predatory animals, a rifle is not necessary.
The drive took approximately an hour as we made our way through most of the same land I had just hiked. Since many of the animals are more accustomed to the sound of the vehicle, they did not run away and we were able to get closer views of the antelope and wildebeest. Both of these experiences were a fantastic way to ease into the animal sightseeing.
Through my friends who live in the Johannesburg region, I was put in contact with a new friend, Noelene, who lives near Durban. She and her son, Darryl, were extremely helpful in showing me around the Durban area. They also took me to the Natal Lion Park.
Side note: Keep an eye out for that symbol on the hood of Darryl’s car, it is the logo for his soon-to-be released clothing line called DANOCH. The logo represents the Lion of Judah.
Located in the Natal Midlands, the Natal Lion Park is exactly what it sounds like – a park for lions. After you pay the admission fee, you drive your vehicle down a very bumpy, dirt path to the first of two gates. Signs at the gate tell visitors to keep all windows rolled up, turn down loud music, do not feed any of the animals and if a lion approaches the vehicle, it is best to keep moving slowly.
As we reached the gate, the gate-keeper came out of a small concrete shack to open the first gate BY HAND for the vehicle to enter. After closing it behind us, the car was now enclosed in a large, protected “cage” area. He then went to the front of the car open the second gate by hand. No electric gates here my friends! The double gated, cage area is a safety precaution so if a lion makes it past one gate, they are trapped in the cage and will not be able to get past the second one to keep them in their parkland. As the gate-keeper opened the second gate, he slid back into a small gap between two of the fence lines which would keep him protected if a lion happened to enter the cage. Interesting job he has!
The park area was not as large as I expected and the lions are considered captive animals but even so, it was a nice experience to see live lions wander the fenced in area. The park had something like eight to ten lions – several males a just a few females. Since it was midday and humid, the lions mostly sat around with their tongues hanging out trying to cool down. Regardless, the lion is such a beautiful animal!
Right next to the Natal Lion Park is a small zoo. We had some extra time so we took a stroll through. Normally zoos are not my thing but it was nice to see some animals I would not normally see like a liger, a tapir, a white lion and many brightly colored birds (some were talking birds). Again, it was a good start to seeing animals. Hopefully I will have an opportunity to see them again in the larger game reserves as this journey progresses.
This past Wednesday, I said “goodbye” to the Southeast side of South Africa and took an eleven hour Greyhound bus ride to the town of Springs. I need to put in a plug for the Greyhound bus in South Africa. This was a good experience. The bus is far more luxurious than the United States has to offer. The seats are more comfortable, movies are played onboard and there is even a bus “hostess” who offers beverages and snacks during the ride. The bus was double decker and I happen to get a front seat on top for nice scenery views the entire way. I highly recommend testing it out if you ever get the opportunity.
In Springs, I have a friend whom I met in Israel named Marianne. Marianne invited me to come stay with her, so here I am! So far it has been nice to spend time with her, hear about and meet some of her family, learn more about South African culture and play with her four dogs, one cat and one talking bird named Coco. Coco only speaks Afrikaans so Marianne has to translate what she is saying so I can understand.
Yesterday, I had the most shocking animal experience so far. Marianne and I were driving to the store when all of a sudden, she says, “I need to ask that man a question.” She pulled the car over, jumped out and ran over to a truck window. She came back to the car and said, “Come on, I want to show you something.” I followed her onto the man’s property, past a thatched roof patio area and into his house. As we walked out the back door, two large, Siberian tigers came into view – one white and one orange. Apparently, the husband and wife who own the property love felines. They have 19 different cats from Persian house cats who have their own room in the house to these two huge tigers and a small, older dog with painted toenails. They had to purchase the house next door in order to have enough yard space for the tigers to play. When I asked what made them decide to raise the tigers, the only thing the woman could tell me is “I’ve always loved cats.”
Come along with me as we continue exploring parts of Africa!