After an early (4:40AM) 7-1/2 hour flight from Dubai, we arrived in Johannesburg at 10:50AM. We were met by a Federal Air representative who was there to take us to the small airport about 10 minutes away. Federal Air runs flights between Johannesburg and many of the game lodges near Kruger. Before we left for the small airport, we also met a representative from a local camera rental company called Lensrental.co.za where we’d rented a nice big camera (Canon 6D) and a couple lenses (16-35mm F/2.8, 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6 IS L) to get wide views and close ups to the animals (and a lot of photos!).
Headed to the Bush
Our flight landed at the Sabi Sands airstrip and took about 1 hour with stops at 2 other nearby game lodges to drop off and pick up passengers. We were met by a ranger from Sabi Sabi in one of their open-air Land Rovers who took us to the Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge.
Sabi Sabi is a private game reserve located in the 56,000 hectacre Sabi Sands area that also includes Lion Sands, Nottens, and Ullusaba (Richard Branson’s Lodge). Sabi Sands shares an unfenced ~30 mile border with Kruger, allowing animals a larger migration area. Selecting a lodge in South Africa is about as daunting as selecting a resort in the Maldives. There are many lodges in every price range in and around Kruger, from spartan to superlux. Searching can also be tricky because the private game reserves are technically not in Kruger, so they don’t come up in Tripadvisor results unless you know the name of the larger area (e.g. Sabi Sands).
Sabi Sabi consists of 4 lodges: Earth Lodge, Bush Lodge, Little Bush Lodge, and Selati Camp. Each lodge is a little different and may cater to different types of visitors. For us, only Bush Lodge allowed children under 12. The cabins accommodate 4 easily. The lodges are all-inclusive, exclusive of some alcoholic drinks (they have house wines which are included).
Breakfast is buffet-style with fresh croissants, fruit, custom omelettes, juice, coffee, and tea. Lunch is also buffet-style and features delicious salads, sandwiches, and grilled meats.
Dinner is very nice. Tables are set out around a fire pit. You are seated with your guide for recaps of the day and previews of the next. The Swiss-trained chef announces the meal, sometimes including specials such as ostrich steaks and flank of impala which may be prepared red, raw, or how you like it.
Tea time and snacks are also very good. Here are a few of the yummy treats:
Some of the reserves sponsor schools in the local towns, and Sabi Sabi is no different. They sponsor a pre-K (6 and under) school in Huntingdon, one of the nearby villages, and the one in which most of the day staff (housekeeping, maintenance, etc.) live, commuting by bus daily. One of the optional morning trips is to take a tour of the community. 100% of the tour fee goes to the community. Our guide for the tour was also from the town and was proud to show it off.
We visited at a local grocery store, the local medicine man who rolled dice, hyena bones, lion knuckle bones, snail shell, and other bits to tell our future fortunes, and a local dance troupe who did a couple numbers before pulling us into the action:
We also visited the local school. The pre-K school has about 400 kids, 50 to a classroom, with 2 teachers for each class. The head teacher showed us each of the classrooms starting with the under 3-, under 4-, under 5-, and 6-year olds. He also showed us the shade structure for their garden that was paid for by donations from Sabi Sabi.
After a couple songs, all the kids gave our group high fives and fist bumps.
It was a very rewarding experience to visit the kids and their teachers, as well as the rest of the community.
A Typical Day on Safari
The folks at Sabi Sabi keep you busy. A day at Sabi Sabi goes something like this:
- 6 AM: Wake up call by Ranger
- 6:15 AM: Coffee, Tea, pastries
- 6:30 – 9:30 AM: Game drive
- 9:30 AM: Breakfast
- 10:15 AM: Bush walk, community visit, or spa (all optional)
- 1:30 PM: Lunch
- 3:15 PM: Tea time (drinks, cookies, snacks)
- 3:30-6:30 PM: Game Drive
- 7:30 PM Dinner
After the evening game drive and before dinner, you can gather in the bar for drinks or go back to your room to freshen up. By the end of dinner, you’re ready for bed! Riding around for 6 hours takes a lot out of you!
Camp is not completely safe. Our ranger escorted us to our room every night. There is an electric fence to keep out large animals such as elephants, cape buffalo, and rhino, which can destroy the camps by their size, but big cats (lions and leopards) as well as hyena and baboons can and have been seen wandering through camp.
Rangers and Trackers
When you arrive at the lodge, you are assigned a ranger and tracker with whom you do all of your game drives. The ranger drives the vehicle, communicates over the radio, and runs the show. Tracker sits on a seat off the front of the vehicle, watching for tracks on the roads and animals in the bush. Sabi Sabi is made up of miles and miles of unmarked dirt roads which the rangers know by name. Our ranger, Kosie, was an Afrikaner from the west coast of South Africa, and our tracker, Evans, was from one of the nearby towns. Both were super nice, friendly, and made our trip that much better. Kosie was also extremely knowledgable about the wildlife. Here is a photo from our first afternoon (“please keeps hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times”)
The Game Drives
We visited Sabi Sabi in mid-July, the middle of the South African winter, so mornings and evenings can be a bit chilly. We found warm water bottles and blankets in the truck when we arrived in the morning which was a real treat. With a tracker in the hot seat and the ranger at the wheel we set off looking for elusive beasts. Radios help the 20+ rangers (one per vehicle) across the 4 lodges track and triangulate herds du jour (herd of the day).
Mid-Morning drive, you have a sun-upper – a break for coffee or tea and some cookies.
Similarly, mid-afternoon, there is a sun-downer – drinks (wine, cocktail, etc.) and some snacks.
The morning drive starts in the dark and ends after the sun is up. The evening drive starts in the afternoon and ends after the sun goes down. We had a full moon while we were there:
The moniker “Big 5″ was assigned to those wild animals that were the most dangerous, most prized, and most difficult to hunt and kill on safari back when safari meant tracking into the deepest darkest Africa on foot. These Big 5 were the Cape Buffalo (dangerous because of their aggressiveness, size, and sharp horns), lion (big teeth, sharp claws), elephant (large and easily agitated), rhino (big and ready to charge), and leopard (elusive and stealthy hunters).
We saw a number of lions, from a group of females, to a pair of young males, to a couple of mating pairs.
We also saw a lone female stalking a herd of Cape Buffalo. Can you spot the lion? The Cape Buffalo is standing guard.
Another group saw a pack of lions feasting on a buffalo calf a couple days later. They said that they were excited to see it, but it was a little too graphic. Here is a link to Sabi Sabi’s blog about a recent kill.
On our first afternoon and subsequent days, we ran into a large (~200) herd of Cape Buffalo. They continued to wander around the reserve.
One of the bulls from the herd that was being stalked by the lion confronted the lion and scared it off, but not before the herd flushed out some elephants from the dry riverbed.
Our first sign that there were elephants was a trumpeting from the riverbed. Then they crashed out from the bush into the open space.
We followed this female, two juveniles, and a calf for a bit.
We got a little too much in their way as they began to flap their ears as a warning and near charge:
One of the things that we found interesting is how fast elephants can walk and how quickly they can blend in and disappear into the bush. Their immense gray bodies are the same color as the dead wood and silvery trees.
Our first rhino encounter was a pair that were down for their afternoon nap. One had recently undergone horn surgery to make the horn unappealing to poachers. The procedure colors the horn and also shows up on x-ray. Poachers can get up to $65,000 per kilogram, or over a million dollars for a single horn. While the poachers could tranquilize the animal and cut the horn off above the base, they prefer to kill the animal and get every extra centimeter of horn they can.
Note the oxpeckers (birds) cleaning the rhinos’ ears. They actually climb all the way into the rhinos’ ears to eat ticks and bugs.
Amazingly, our first night out, we saw (and heard) leopards. The rangers had tracked a pair of leopards to a small creek. One was pacing back and forth and disappeared from view but not out of earshot:
This is the sound of leopards mating:
We saw leopards on our last night as well, this time, a female eating a cane rat. We got pretty up close and personal with her. There was also a larger male nearby who refused to pose for us, but not surprising because of the spotlight.
Our second day ended with a great surprise. A male cheetah surveying all that he could see on top of a termite mound. Actually, he was relaxing, lounging in the afternoon light. We maneuvered around the mound as the fastest animal in the world posed for photo ops.
Hyena, Zebra, and Warthogs
Hyenas proved to be pretty elusive, but we crossed paths with a couple lone beasts. They are the only animals on the reserve that can crush bone and can digest teeth. Their taller front legs give them amazing pulling power to drag prey somewhere else or to rip off bite-sized chunks, but it also gives them a very strange posture.
Zebras camouflage is to stand together so that their stripes all blend to make it harder for a predator to pick out a single animal from the herd.
The warthogs were very funny. On running away, they all raise their tails in the air – possibly as a follow-me flag through the bush. There is one guest-warthog. See if you can spot her.
On our last night out, our ranger was determined to find a giraffe for us. We had seen giraffe footprints the day before, but no giraffe. As we stopped to look at some zebras off to the right, we turned to the left and saw an old bull trying to hide in the not-tall-enough bush.
The next (and last) morning, we drove to another part of the reserve – the boundary with Kruger – and also saw another two.
Baboons and Monkeys
Little white-faced monkeys live in the trees around the Lodge. At breakfast, lunch, and tea time, they steal any food items that are left unattended. They are very cautious, but if nobody is around, they will swoop in. The staff scares them away with an empty slingshot.
Baboons were first spotted at the watering hole across from the Lodge. Later that morning, we discovered baboons in our outdoor shower outside our room. Another guest said that their door had been left unlocked while they were out on a game drive during which the baboons raided their suitcases for candy bars and snacks!
Impala, Kudu, Bushbucks, and Nyala
Impala are the most numerous animals around the reserve.
Kudu–the impala’s larger relative–are impressive. Males have long, twisted horns, and vertical stripes allow both males and females to blend into the bush.
Bushbucks are some of the smaller antelope family represented. They are quite skittish, but we had a couple that were in camp – possibly trying to hide from predators and eat the nice green manicured lawns.
Sabi Sabi was doing a controlled burn while we were there, which flushed the elusive Nyala into the open–a rare sight since these beasts normally never leave the safety of the dense bush.
The blue wildebeest, also known as a gnu is a strange looking animal. It’s actually a member of the antelope family. We only saw a handful here and there during our stay.
Several birds frequent the Sabi Sabi Reserve including hornbills, Bateleur eagles (black), and the lilac-breasted Roller (Blue/purple bird), long tailed widowbird. Some of these birds act as an early warning system calling out what sounds like “Pray” in the presence of predators.
Sabi Sabi is a great lodge filled with great staff. The game drives are exciting and fun. So far, this is the highlight of our trip, more so than the Maldives because instead of having nothing to do (which is great in it’s own right), we were always tracking the next beast. If you like animals and you like the thrill of the hunt, we would highly recommend this to any family (young or old). The rangers are extremely knowledgable in all the wildlife and super friendly. By the end of our 4-day stay, Kosie, our ranger, and Evans, our trackers, were part of our extended family. Thanks, Kosie and Evans for a great trip!
Next stop: Rio!
Happy RTW Travels!