There are certain life experiences that sometimes I just can’t believe I’ve been able to have. Riding a camel across the Sahara Desert is one of them; snowmobiling on a glacier is another. Going on a safari is the latest experience that made me want to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
South Africa has an overwhelming number of options for safaris, but we chose Pilanesberg National Park & Game Reserve because one of Anthony’s coworkers recommended it — and I can’t thank her enough. Pilanesberg is roughly the size of Singapore, which seems large, but it can actually fit into the more famous Kruger National Park 38 times. Unlike other parks, Pilanesberg is malaria-free (no shots necessary!) and is set in an extinct volcanic crater that was formed 1.2 billion years ago. Its relatively small size and varied landscape of ridges, grasslands, wooded valleys, and rock formations dramatically increase guests’ chances of encountering the Big Five: elephants, black rhinos, buffalos, lions, and leopards.
Like other parks, Pilanesberg offers a wide range of accommodations, from tents to B&Bs to five-star hotels. We decided to stay at one of the more upscale hotels called Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge. I’m not usually a fan of all-inclusive resorts, but for a safari it made a lot of sense, as I wanted to be comfortable in such a new environment, and it’s not like we could have gone off on our own to discover little hole-in-the-wall restaurants like we usually do when we travel.
Someone from Shepherd’s Tree picked us up from our hotel in Johannesburg and drove us three hours to Pilanesberg. After receiving welcome drinks and touring the grounds, we had lunch at the stunning restaurant downstairs – and, oh boy, I had not expected to like the food on a safari this much. Every meal was included, from our breakfast buffet, to our three-course lunches and dinners. It’s a good thing our safari was only three days because I would have definitely gained ten pounds if it were any longer.
After lunch we were taken to our room. The entire hotel contained only a handful of rooms, sprawled across a ridge. Our room was one of the nicest rooms I’ve ever stayed in, with a canopy bed, chaise lounge chair, balcony that looked out into the bush, and French doors opening up to a huge bathroom with a tub and outdoor shower.
Each morning, a ranger picked us up from our room in a golf cart at roughly 5:15 am and drove us to the pool area, where coffee, tea, and pastries were waiting for us and the other guests. By 6:00 am, we were in a 10-seat jeep with some fellow guests, ready for our three-hour drive around the park. The route of each drive was up to our ranger, who worked hard to find us the most interesting animals. Some animals, like impalas and zebras, are so common that we eventually got tired of seeing them, while others are more exciting. Rangers communicate to each other by walkie-talkie, so if someone spots a lion, everyone makes their way over. This whole process is fascinating to see in action.
We were fortunate. We went on four drives during our stay, and each drive entailed a close encounter with a different animal. On our first drive, a herd of elephants surrounded our jeep. On our second drive, a tree above us was full of baboons, who jumped down and ran across the road. Our guide had to remind us that baboons are dangerous and can bite. On our third drive, we came across a sleeping lion, another troop of baboons, and some dung beetles. On our last drive, the grand finale was a rhino (my husband’s favorite animal!) who decided to block our road back to the hotel and just stand there for about ten minutes.
My favorite experience on the safari, however, was when some elephants came right up to our hotel. One afternoon, we were lounging by the pool, and all of a sudden another guest shouted, “Elephant!” We all ran to the balcony, and sure enough, an elephant was unabashedly walking over toward us. There’s a watering hole right next to the hotel, and apparently elephants come by pretty often. The next morning, we were eating breakfast outside, and another elephant came by and drank from the watering hole right behind me. Driving out to see animals out in the wild is fun, but having them voluntarily come to you while you’re swimming or eating toast is why I really wanted to go on a safari.
After each drive, we ate breakfast or lunch with our safari group, which was a great way to get to know each other and reminisce over the highlights of each drive. We made friends with a lovely Spanish family from Madrid, a Turkish woman from Istanbul, a dentist from Canada, and two women from Johannesburg who were there on business for their textile company.
Our two safari rangers were fantastic. They were able to spot animals miles away because they knew every inch of the park by heart. One of the highlights of our game drives was when our guide, Peter, stepped out of the vehicle to show us some dung beetles on the side of the road. It was my first time seeing a dung beetle and they were probably the most fascinating creatures in the whole park! We watched them roll rhinoceros poop into huge balls and attempt to fit the balls into tunnels so that they could eventually lay their eggs in them. It was mesmerizing, and now I want a dung beetle.
I can’t recommend going on a safari enough. As someone who thinks French bulldogs are normal, even I could appreciate wild animals in their natural habitats. I’ve never really enjoyed going to zoos, but seeing springbok and giraffes roam around in herds, with acres of freedom, was an unforgettable experience.
Tips for future travelers:
Three days is the ideal amount of time. Any longer and we may have gotten bored. Safaris are very sedentary; you’re either sitting in a car, lounging on a balcony or by the pool, or eating. It’s not the healthiest vacation to take, so I wouldn’t recommend staying too long.
Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge was perfection. Every detail was taken care of, from providing blankets when we got cold during our game drives, to handing us fresh face towels as soon as we returned, to ensuring strong Wi-Fi throughout the hotel. The entire complex was tastefully designed, taking full advantage of its surroundings. Additionally, we had some of our favorite meals on the entire trip right here.
How to dress? Before our trip, I was stressed out about what to wear on the safari. It’s wise to wear earth-colored neutrals (think tans and olive greens), but in the end, as long as you’re not wearing red, which can scare animals, you’re fine. Most of your body will be hidden behind the vehicle anyway. I wore sneakers every day and usually wore jeans or workout pants. Bring a sweater because it gets very chilly, as you’ll either be starting very early in the morning or ending late at night.
What to bring? Our hotel had a pool, so I brought a bathing suit and a book in case we had some down time. I thought I’d get bored on our three days, but we actually had very little down time. The one afternoon that I thought I could get some reading done, a couple of elephants showed up to the hotel, so obviously I had to put my book away. If you’re staying at a hotel like ours, you won’t even need snacks because our hotel was constantly feeding us. Even on our drives, we always took a break toward the end to drink wine or coffee and snack on biltong and cookies.