Wildlife Spotting & Glamping On These South African Safaris
Patience is indeed a virtue for spotting wildlife although the African plains are perfect for seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. Trophy hunters once travelled to the continent to hunt and shoot majestic animals, but these days, the ‘shooting’ is mostly limited to cameras.
An African safari is high on most people’s travel list and they don’t come much better than in Southern Africa with countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Zambia offering excellent animal spotting possibilities.
Destination specialists like Asia to Africa Safaris have collaborated with Africa’s leading wildlife operators to ensure that their guests enjoy the experience of a lifetime.
Zooming in on Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is one of Africa’s leading safari destinations with its vast national parks supporting abundant wildlife. Most of these parks are remote, so travelling around this landlocked nation is best done in small aircrafts which land on bush airstrips. My personalised itinerary included two of Zimbabwe’s finest parks as well as the amazing Victoria Falls.
Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Zimbabwe’s northern border with Zambia, was my first destination after resting overnight in the capital Harare. After touching down on the remote laterite airstrip, my guide who transferred me to Kanga Tented Camp in a safari jeep. No matter how much research I had done, I was totally unprepared as my wildlife encounters were overwhelming.
Kanga Camp is located beside a waterhole or pan, as they are called in this part of the world. At the camp, I was greeted by staff who thrust a cold Zambezi beer into my eager hand while ushering me to an armchair for what they called an ‘armchair safari’.
I observed animals drinking at the pan and couldn’t have been happier as it was like being in a corporate box at a zoo.
Expansive trees cast shade over the accommodation of six elevated ‘tents’ (12 beds). While canvas on the exterior; my tent had a luxurious and comfortable interior. From my open but shaded verandah I was able to watch animals as well as shower in the semi-open verandah while watching elephants bathing in the waterhole. During my time here, I went on exhilarating morning and afternoon safaris in a semi-open jeep and saw many iconic animals and even lesser seen wildlife such as Painted Dogs.
In between each activity, the camp lounges were where guests gathered and discussed the daily sightings with fellow adventurers. The dry season was about to break and menacing lightning bolts flashed overhead.
My guide informed me the dry season (May to September) was the best time for wildlife, as they had to congregate around the waterholes due to limited water elsewhere.
Hwange’s Vast Plain
It was difficult to bid farewell to Kanga Camp but the decision was made easier as Somalisa Camp in Hwange National Park was my next destination. This meant a two-hour flight on a small aircraft, another dirt airstrip and, awaiting guide.
Somalisa offers the same luxuries as Kanga with my tented ‘room’ being a tranquil retreat from the wilds of Zimbabwe. The camp’s ‘lounge room’ was located on a rise around an open fireplace with elephants roaming freely beside an adjoining waterhole.
Hwange’s vast bushveld is an epicentre of wildlife supporting numerous species including elephants, lions, hyenas, and giraffes.
At dusk, I relaxed with a cool sundowner to observe the ever-active wildlife. After a sumptuous dinner, it was time to retreat to my tent with armed escorts, as there are no fences and animals roam freely.
On the day I departed for Victoria Falls, the heavens opened and the first rains thundered earthwards. My guide informed me that the animals would relocate into remoter parts of the reserve and would be more difficult to see.
However, something that wasn’t difficult to see in the far west of Zimbabwe was the thunderous Victoria Falls with its spray drifting skyward and taking on the appearance of smoke from a bushfire. These falls are truly amazing with various vantage points including the tropical gardens of the gracious colonial Victoria Falls Hotel where I stayed.
Built in 1904, this is the five-star Raffles-like hotel and the place for discerning travellers to stay. I dined in the elegant Livingstone Room and took afternoon tea in on Stanley’s Terrace. The must-do activities in Victoria Falls are to take a helicopter ride over the falls and the heritage train across the historic Livingstone Bridge into Zambia.
Once across the Livingstone Bridge, I was in Zambia, another land-locked nation.
After resting in the small tourist town of Livingstone, it was time to fly to Mfuwe Airport, surely, the world’s smallest international airport. From here, Kafunta Safari Lodge of just eight chalets was a 40-minutes’ drive from Mfuwe on the eastern banks of the Luangwa River.
Wild animals freely roam around the luxury lodge but staff escort guests to dinner and back when it was time for bed. The chalets are well appointed with flyscreen windows, mosquito nets, fan, hot showers, fridge, and spacious verandah for wildlife watching on the floodplain.
Training and experience help, but the guides/drivers have eyes as keen as the African Fish Eagles that can be seen here. They spot wildlife well before anyone else and manoeuvre the open-sided vehicle so that everyone gets to see and photograph all the animals.
After sighting a herd of elephants, we saw a family of Thornicroft’s Giraffe, a species endemic to the park. It was an amazing experience especially when informed by our guide that only 500 of these giraffe survive on the planet and only in this park.
As the safari progressed, we started ticking off animals like Common Waterbuck, Puku, Impala, Plains (Burchell’s) Zebra, Common Warthog, Velvet Monkey and, Spotted Hyena.
Of course, everyone wants to see lions and up until the last day, our only sighting was a solitary female and her cub hunting in the fading light near the lodge. However, patience is rewarded and on our way back to Mfuwe, we saw a pride of lions and managed to get within metres of them.
Wildlife safaris at Kafunta occur in the morning and afternoon and while times vary from summer and winter, it means waking around 6am for breakfast and then heading off at 6.30am as the sun rises. Everyone returns at 11am for brunch and a rest before an afternoon safari at 3.30pm with dinner at 7.30pm. This is quite standard in game lodges in Zambia and in other parts of southern Africa.
Kruger the Colossus
Several flights later and I was in northwest South Africa heading to Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve adjoining South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Kruger is acclaimed as one of the world’s best game reserves, giving visitors the opportunity to observe animals under the guidance of experienced rangers.
While many travel to deluxe accommodation destinations like Earth Lodge to admire the animals, the inclusive luxuries of gourmet meals, premium wines, and relaxing spa treatments place the lodge near the top of the list of the world’s most luxurious safari camps.
There are just 13 luxurious suites each with a plunge pool and indoor tub. Lodge facilities include a spa, art gallery, boutique, library, and bar.
Visitors travel to Sabi Sabi to see the ‘big five’ – lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and buffalo. Big five is an old hunting term, which reflected the difficulty in shooting these and other prey.
Some animals are more difficult to sight than others are and patience is required. On my second day, my guide became animated as a message crackled across the two-way radio, which maintains contact between vehicles. After some ‘bush bashing’, we arrived at a clearing to see a cheetah relaxing in the semi-open savannah.
After photographs, our patience was rewarded as the cheetah spurred into action after sensing a herd of impalas. As it stalked through the scrub, the guide repositioned the vehicle to follow the cheetah from a safe distance, as vehicles are not allowed to chase animals.
It wasn’t long before the cheetah hit top speed of 90km/hour, according to our guide. The impalas were too allusive for the cheetah and burnt out; it retreated to a shady tree to reassess its next meal. It was just another day on a southern African safari.
Travel tip: Southern Africa is accessible from Malaysia on Ethiopian Airlines via its hub in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Ethiopian Airlines operates connecting flights to many other African cities.