Authored By Jennifer

Monday was the day we started the most anticipated part of our trip, the safari! We drove from White River along the Panorama route (beautiful views of waterfalls, mountains, and the third largest canyon in the world, Blyde River Canyon) to Timbavati, the private game reserve just west of Kruger National Park. The private game reserves are owned by individuals rather than the government, but in Timbavati, the owners have agreed to remove all of the fences so that the animals can roam freely from Kruger into Timbavati. While there are lots of lodges you can choose from (Richard Branson owns an ultra luxurious one) we chose Tanda Tula because of it’s authenticity. Most of the lodges are very high-end resorts complete with air conditioning, private pools and luxurious spas, out in the middle of the bush. Tanda Tula on the other hand is far from hotel experience. Our room was a tent cabin with a thatched roof above the tent, a patio which overlooked a watering hole, and a bathroom and outdoor shower built onto the back, which you could see was made out of a mud, stick, other natural stuff, compound. Inside however was quite luxurious. A beautiful large bed, a claw foot tub, very homey feeling. There wasn’t too much to the rest of the property. 11 more tents, an outdoor lounge area with bar, sofas, fireplace and dining tables, a small pool and a small patch of grass the warthogs loved. It was what a lodge out in the bush should look like. There were no fences around the property (except some high electric wires to keep the elephants out) so we were visited by all kinds of wildlife. In fact, after dark, we had to be escorted to our rooms by our ranger because of the very dangerous buffalo that were nearby. At night you could hear the lions and the leopards roaring and in the morning we were awoken by a chorus of birds. Very authentic! (Too authentic for Brian one night who spent half the night laying awake waiting for the lion that he swore was right outside our tent to come in and attack us).

Our daily schedule started at 5 am when our ranger Kenneth came to wake us up and provide us with tea and rusk (kinda like biscotti). We met him and the rest of the guests at the open-topped Land Rover at 5:30 to start our game drive. Kenneth drove and our tracker Jeffrey sat in a seat at the front of the car to looks for animals and tracks. The drives lasted about 3 hours, and sometimes we stopped for more tea, sometimes we’d just keep going. We had our breakfast in the bush next to a dry river bed each morning. They set up a couple of picnic tables and cooked some delicious food. Then we’d head back to camp, sleep or read (no tv) until lunch at 1:30. A few more hours of relaxing and then another 3 hour game drive at 4. Right as the sun went down we’d pull over for a “sundowner” and then spend an hour or so driving in the dark with a spotllight to catch the big cats at night. Once we got back to camp, we’d have drinks and dinner around 8 and then head to bed.

The first drive we went on it was kinda cold and it took us awhile to see something. We’re driving around and around, and I’m thinking that it doesn’t look anything like I expected. I expected an open landscape with a few trees around, like you see on TV. That’s the Serengeti, not South Africa. Where we were there were lots of trees and bushes around and not so much open area. And everything looked completely dead because it was the very end of the dry season. And I kinda expected to see animals around every corner, but the cold weather kept them in hiding. None the less, on that first drive we saw a lion eating the last of the buffalo he killed 3 days before while the lioness and her cubs napped under a tree next to the buffalo’s rib cage and head. And on the private game reserves, you can drive off road, so we were literally 15 feet away from the lion. It almost didn’t seem real. The animals view the vehicle as one big animal. Since the people have never killed the animals or tried to take their food, the animals don’t feel threatened at all. So they just look at you a bit and then go back to what they were doing.

Over the four days we were there, we saw everything: rhino, lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant (the big 5), giraffe, zebra, hippo, vultures, impala, warthogs, a couple of different types of antelope, crocodile, hyena, and I’m sure I’m missing something, but you get the idea. Some of the highlights:

  • a herd of 700 buffalo making their way across the bush and drinking at a waterhole
  • elephants coming very, very close to the truck
  • a baby giraffe who was only a few weeks old and hadn’t seen the truck before, she was running all over the place
  • two male lions staring each other down to get to mate with a new female lion that came in. One of the males tried to mount her, but she wasn’t having anything to do with that.

The best sighting we had is a great story. After a couple of days, we still hadn’t seen a leopard. We were on a night game drive trying to find this leopard, but with no luck. We stopped at an open space near a watering hole to have our sundowner. Our ranger and tracker were trying to figure out the best place to head to to find the leopard. The sun goes down and we get back in the truck to head out. The ranger turns on the lights of the truck and right in front of us is the leopard! She walks right over the space we were just standing. She could have walked right by me and swiped her tail on my legs (or worse)! The tracker puts the spotlight on her (she doesn’t care because her eyes are reflective) and we follow her to the watering hole. She’s pretty young, but she’s big and you can see all of her muscles. Beautiful cat! We pull up next to the watering hole and watch her drink. As she’s drinking, just on the other side of the hole is an elephant. The elephant came down for some water too. We can’t shine the light on the elephant because it’ll blind it a bit which puts them at a disadvantage if anything else comes along, but you can just see it past the headlights of the truck. It was really, really awesome. It’s really hard to describe being close to the animals. It’s something you just have to do to really appreciate.

One night we were coming back from a game drive and our ranger informed us that the monkeys got into our tent. They made a mess of everything and it really stinks. We’re freaking out (Brian’s worried about his computer of course) and wondering what we did wrong to let the monkeys in. As we get up to our patio, we notice that there was a table for two set up for us for dinner, complete with candlelight and wine. But the ranger didn’t stop there, he said, “Go inside and see the mess.” I’m still believing the monkeys got in the tent, regardless of the dinner, and we go in and the room is filled with candles and flowers on the bed. In the bathroom, they filled the tub for us with more candles and flowers. It was so beautiful and so romantic. I was immediately embarrassed by how generous and thoughtful Tanda Tula was to us. We freshened up after the drive and then sat outside to wait for our dinner. One of the bar guys, Harry, brought us each course and made sure our wine glasses were full. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe we’re enjoying a gourmet dinner in the middle of the bush in Africa.” It was such a memorable experience. Also, Harry told us about his village, his family and his culture and how he was trying to help the kids in his village by starting a soccer team. We loved talking to him and learning more about the local Africans.

We also met another honeymoon couple from Ireland that we got along well with. The monkeys got in their tent too one night and after dinner that night we spent a few hours talking to our ranger and the head cook about life in the bush and in Africa. We felt like we were experiencing real Africa by sharing a few beers and a few laughs with them and learning about their lives.

This blog doesn’t really do justice to our experience. As we were saying our goodbyes, I had a lump in my throat. I felt like I was leaving my new African family. Everyone at the lodge was so friendly and warm and just a pleasure to be around. Besides our camera breaking after our first drive (can you believe that!) the 4 days we spent at Tanda Tula were some of the best out of all of the travels we’ve done. We really felt one with nature there and it capped off an unforgettable honeymoon for us. Some people say that Africa was where humans and civilization was first created. I thought about that a few times on our trip. As we watched the sun go down and the milky way come up one night, I realized why God would want to start here in Africa. The natural beauty, the people, the animals, it really takes your breath away. You have to go and experience it for yourself.

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