By Art Petrosemolo
Everyone fantasizes about one day taking an African safari. As a professional photographer, it has long been on my bucket list. I even did a story for The Two River Times™ last summer on the game drive at Great Adventure in Jackson so I could practice photographing these magnificent wild animals.
This year, my wife and I planned the long-awaited trip and chose a South African safari in a private game reserve near Kruger National Park.
The experience met all our hopes, expectations and more. At times, what you see and what you experience can be almost indescribable and becomes very personal. You certainly come away from the experience changed.
Before I get ahead of myself describing a safari experience, you may have plenty of questions when planning a trip: Africa is too far, where do I go? Is it safe? Is it too expensive? Can I do a safari and sleep in a tent and where do I get the best advice are a few of the things that crossed my mind. I had dozens of false starts and restarts in my planning. Let me take you through it and some of my conclusions.
No matter where you decide you’d like to safari, you need to get there. Nonstop flights from many area airports to Africa are limited depending on destination. My planning focused on South Africa because of the selection of trips as well as safety. Unfortunately, personal safety has to be considered today when you plan anything and there is enough published safety information to review before deciding on a final African location.
From New York’s JFK International Airport, only South African Air flies direct to Johannesburg. Delta flies direct but from Atlanta. Take time to look at the best connections between New York, Boston, Philadelphia and your destinations so you avoid long layovers in Europe or late night arrivals in Africa if at all possible. It took us 24 hours from JFK to our South African lodge but it was better than almost two days if we flew through London. The SAA flight to Johannesburg is listed as 15 hours but it really takes 16. SAA leaves in the morning and arrives the following morning. There is a +6 hour time difference between the East Coast and South Africa.
Be sure you plan enough time. You need, in my opinion, a minimum of eight days on the ground for just a safari. And other spots in Africa beg for a visit including Cape Town and Victoria Falls to name just two. I chose to spend nine days just on safari outside of Hoedspruit and I did not plan to visit anywhere else, which I now regret.
Remember also to figure when you plan that you will have to transfer from Johannesburg to your starting point and it could be several hundred miles away. It counts in getting there and getting home. We had to travel 300 miles to the safari lodge and we did it by car. It was great to see part of the country but not fun after a 16-hour flight. And driving back for the plane and seeing it a second time was overkill. We probably should have flown to the local airport going or coming back.
In exploring safaris anywhere, my suggestion is start with Thompson’s. They are one of the biggest and most reputable firms in the business and offer lots of options and reading their materials gives you many things to consider as well as an idea of costs. This trip is expensive and you’d suspect that; our budget was to be in the $10,000 range for two people and we pulled it off.
Early on in my planning and as you will see in your research, there are almost too many companies – both U.S. and Africa-based – offering safari experiences in Africa. You can go on the road with a few people and one guide, moving nightly and sleeping in camp tents to major league luxury trips with 5-star accommodations even in tents.
For me, my first priority was photographing daily and my research told me a private game reserve gave me the best chance to get off-road and up close to the wildlife. For my wife, there would be no sleeping in tents no matter how luxurious. So I focused on small safari lodges in private game reserves. I decided on Vuyani Lodge in the Moditlo nature preserve in the Northwest corner of the country.
Vuyani has accommodations for only five (adult) couples. It offers lovely bedroom suites with all amenities. The accommodations come with three gourmet meals a day, snacks on game drives and a full bar. The lodge takes guests on two three-hour game drives a day (dawn and dusk) as part of the rate plan. There is not much night life at a game preserve as you are pretty tired after being out in the bush most of the day or on an off-site trip. Dinner followed by a drink relaxing by the fire or the pool depending on the season is usually it.
Vuyani offers a number of off-site trips that you intersperse with the on-site game drives. The must-do in this part of the country is Kruger National (game) park, which is within an hour of Vuyani’s front door. Kruger is a 10-million-acre preserve, one of the most famous in the world. A day in Kruger means almost 12 hours and although you can’t go off-road, you see almost all the big five (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and water buffalo) almost every day. Although I thought I would be just “watching” not photographing when in Kruger, I was able to get wonderful photos of elephant and giraffe and even a photo of a female lion protecting a fresh zebra kill in Kruger, not in the game preserve, from 25 yards away.
I also learned quickly while on safari, even as an experienced photographer, taking photos of animals in their habitat has more to do with luck and patience than skill. But sometimes on safari, especially after a few days of game rides, you have taken all the giraffe and zebra photos you need and you become discriminating and wait for the lion, rhino, cheetah, elephant and leopard. Sometimes the camera never comes up and you just watch in awe.
Remember Africa seasons are opposite the U.S. as it is in the Southern Hemisphere. We can only travel in the U.S. summer and knew we were heading to South Africa in the middle of its winter. There were pluses and minuses. The real plus is that without leaves on the trees, it is much easier to spot and track wildlife. The minus is that it can be quite cool after the sun goes down and a lodge’s outdoor pool is out of the question unless it is heated. We saw temperatures in the low 40s at night and early in the morning. A warm jacket, gloves and ski hat make sense until it warms up to 70s midday – if the sun comes out.
If you are a shopper like my wife, this isn’t Paris and although you can find souvenirs everywhere, away from the major cities, we looked for handmade gifts from local artisans and brought home lovely silk and authentic African artisan pieces from stores in a little town called Graskop on our tour of the Blyde Canyon.
Although we – like everyone – had health concerns, the CDC website was very helpful as was our family physician. We had a few inoculations and decided to take antimalaria pills even though it was winter and there were very few mosquitos. Malaria prevention pills are a must in the African summer.
Safety is always on everyone’s mind but a reputable South African safari company is just as concerned. Be alert, be smart and follow the advice of the tour guides.
In the end, we came away from our nearly two-week adventure very happy. Seeing many endeared species in their own habitat and in huge numbers is awe inspiring and experiencing a changing, vibrant culture was a pleasant surprise. My only question when I reflect on our safari was why did I wait so long.
If you’d like to explore the Vuyani website, visit www.vuyanilodge.com.