pathetically really bad at swallowing pills, so I wasn’t happy to learn that I’d have to take 33 days of doxycycline as a malaria precaution for a three day visit to the Thornybush Game Reserve in northeastern South Africa. However, even if you share my pill phobia, swallowing monster capsules for a South African wildlife safari experience is definitely worth it.
Our late October visit was during the end of the dry season and we saw exactly one mosquito in our room (handily dispatched by my hero, Mr. Excitement), but the can of DEET bug spray we were given and the mosquito net draped over our bed every night convinced me it would be prudent to follow the advice of the travel doctor we consulted about malaria prophylaxis.
There are wild animal viewing options all over South Africa, including at game reserves within short distances of the major urban centers of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, but the wildlife safari gold standard for the Republic of South Africa is the massive Kruger National Park (7,523 square miles–roughly the size of New Jersey) and the surrounding private game reserves.
Thornybush Private Game Reserve
Thornybush is an approximately 44 square mile private game reserve, adjacent to the west north-central part of Kruger National Park and the Timbavati Private Game Reserve. I chose a private game reserve for our 3 night safari experience over staying in Kruger National Park itself based on suggestions that we were more likely to be able to see animals at a close distance because in the private game reserves, the safari vehicles are allowed to leave the road, unlike in Kruger.
Monwana Game Lodge
Accomodations in Kruger and in the private game reserves are available at a wide range of price points and luxury. Based on stellar TripAdvisor reviews, we settled on the Monwana Game Lodge, a small, four star, privately owned lodge in the Thornybush Private Game Reserve. Monwana can only serve ten adult guests at a time in 5 en suite rooms located in small thatched roof buildings. (Two of the rooms can be made into a family suite). A central building houses a lounge and dining room. This building also has a large rear deck with a view of the usually dry Monwana River and a covered front porch. There is also a small swimming pool and a covered gazebo that has a view of a watering hole where animals come to drink.
To get to the Monwana Game Lodge, we took a 45 minute flight from Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport to Hoedspruit’s East Gate Airport. Our travel agent arranged a private transfer for the 30 minute ride from the airport to the main Thornybush Lodge. A Monwana game tracker in an open air land rover retrieved us from there for the 15 minute drive over rough gravel roads to the Monwana Game Lodge. At Monwana’s entrance, we were welcomed by the manager, Emma, and several staff members.
We arrived just before the daily 3:00 p.m. high tea, consisting of a hot dish, salad and desert. Thanks to the nice weather, we enjoyed all our meals outdoors. We found the food ample and tasty. Soft drinks and water are included. Alcohol is extra at reasonable prices. We enjoyed sharing the communal dining table with the other lodge guests, but if you are in the mood for a romantic dinner, that can be arranged. Our fellow guests were a personable lot: two women from the Netherlands (one of whom was making her 20-somethingth visit to Monwana), a couple from Chile who were happy to indulge me in Spanish practice, and an English family with two engaging teenage daughters. (I don’t usually use the words “teenage” and “engaging” in the same sentence, but these two were capable of conversing with adults without any
public eye rolling and I don’t believe I heard one “like, you know” or “whatever”.)
At 4:30 p.m., it was time for our first game drive. All 10 of us climbed into the open, uncovered land rover which was driven by our ranger, Jacques (Emma’s husband). The land rover has 3 tiers of 3 person benches, each higher than the one in front, so no one has an obstructed view. Perched on a seat on the hood (bonnet) of the rover was our tracker, Morris.
Very shortly after leaving Monwana, we started driving through the dry river bed of the Monwana River and almost immediately came upon a lion and lioness. The male’s stomach was noticeably distended from a recent meal. Not unlike many Americans after Thanksgiving dinner, these two were sleeping off their repast. I could read in the bubble over Mr. Excitement’s head that he was thinking that maybe being four feet from a lion (even a sleepy one) in an open air vehicle could prove to be too exciting. We both noticed that Jacques had a rifle along for the ride. However, Jacques assured us that as long as we didn’t stand up nor get out of the land rover, the lions did not view us as a threat, and more importantly, not as prey.
The group had seen lions the previous day and were hoping Morris and Jacques could dial up some rhinoceroses. They found some grazing white rhinos and later, much to Jacques’ surprise, some rare black rhinos. Like the lions, they were accustomed to humans in vehicles. They persisted in grazing as we watched them from a few feet away, close enough to hear their enthusiastic chomping. Unfortunately, rhinoceros horns bring a hefty price on the black market and everyone at the private game reserves and at Kruger National Park is intent on trying to foil poachers. Last year, Kruger National Park lost some 520 rhinos to poachers. (I am purposely not posting any photos of the rhinos we saw).
The roads in the Thornybush Game Reserve are unpaved and quite eroded in many places. After our first game drive, I decided I’d be happier in a middle seat since I sometimes felt we would tip over on the uneven surfaces and I was hanging on
like a weenie for dear life. There are no doors, roof nor seat belts and the people sitting on either side of the vehicle were at risk for being strafed by branches, some of them with vicious thorns. “Hello — what part of Thornybush didn’t you understand?”
After about two hours of game searching, during which we also saw baboons, vervet monkeys, warthogs, Cape buffalo, wildebeests and and many elk type creatures such as impalas, nyalas and kudus, we stopped for refreshments in a clearing where we were treated to a “pinch me” caliber sunset over the distant Drakensberg Mountains. We returned to the lodge in the dark, coming across another sleepy lion and a cat like caracal—apparently a quite rare sighting.
We were greeted by Emma with some pre-dinner sherry and soon gathered around a fire on the back deck for a dinner of butternut squash and carrot soup and a braii (a South African style barbecue) of ostrich fillets and lamb kebabs. Dessert was a South African pudding (malva) with creme Anglaise. Dinner each evening included an appetizer, a choice of two main courses served with side vegetables and an enticing dessert. Not being a fan of raw meat nor eating Bambi-like creatures, the only thing I skipped was the Springbok carpaccio.
Mr. and Mrs. Excitement were passed out by 10:00 p.m. (because we are THAT exciting), tucked in under our mosquito netting. Our natural disinclination for late night partying was advantageous because wake up for morning game drives at Monwana is at 5:00 a.m. A quick coffee or tea is available for those who are suicidal and/or homicidal before their first cup of the day and we were off by 5:30 a.m. While the afternoon sun required sunblock and it was warm enough for those inclined to go swimming, the early mornings were quite chilly. I was happy to have the blankets provided in the land rover.
The group was hoping to spot a leopard and Morris and Jacques were intent on finding one for us which called for them to do some tracking into the bush on foot. Jacques took along his rifle on those expeditions. We waited in the land rover, hoping it was true that the animals are not interested in well behaved tourists in land rovers and that the leopards would not find us while Jacques and Morris were gone looking for them. At about 7:30 a.m., there was a stop for warm beverages and muffins. Apparently, the rifle is not for show as during this stop, Morris and Jacques were quite insistent that folks not wander even a short distance away since they knew a leopard was in the area. Thanks to Morris and Jacques’ tracking abilities, we soon had a glimpse of a leopard disappearing into the brush.
At the Monwana Game Lodge, a hearty breakfast is served between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m., after the morning game drive. After breakfast, there is free time to enjoy the lodge and pool until the 3:00 p.m. high tea. Not unlike the sated lions, after our substantial breakfast, I’m afraid Mr. and Mrs. Excitement needed a nap.
During our 3 night Monwana stay, we went on 5 game drives and saw the “Big Five” (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo). We also enjoyed encounters with a host of other wildlife, including a hippopotamus, giraffes, crocodiles, hyenas, interesting birds and a bonus juvenile African rock python. I would probably have needed CPR had we happened upon a full grown specimen of this constrictor as they are thick, average 16 feet (4.8 meters) in length and are capable of swallowing an impala. Even doing two game drives a day for six weeks at a stretch, Jacques’ genuine enthusiasm for the wildlife of the bushveld was infectious.
We enjoyed the informal atmosphere at Monwana. Jacques had lunch and post game drive drinks with us and our fellow guests. He told us that his first language was Afrikaans although his English is excellent. (Emma is originally from Scotland). In addition to sharing his wealth of knowledge about the wildlife in Thornybush, he was also happy to answer our questions about South African history and politics, subjects by which we were fascinated in this young republic with a stormy past and uncertain future.
As you might imagine, it was impossible not to want to take photos during our game drives. Indeed, there are safaris dedicated specifically to photography. With my Samsung S4 phone camera and our Canon point and shoot, we had camera envy of the photographic equipment sported by the other guests. Fortunately, they were happy to share their images.
Should you go on a game safari in South Africa?
As I believe you can tell, my answer is definitely “yes”, but there are some things you should consider:
- You must do research and/or work with a travel agent who is specifically knowledgeable about safari possibilities in the area you are wanting to visit. We actually worked with 3 travel agents in planning our South Africa trip.
- Although our game drives did not require any sustained exertion on our part, you need to be able to hoist yourself into a high vehicle without doors and be able to handle quite a bit of jostling over rough or non-existent roads. Keep in mind that during the 3 to 4 hour game drives, bathroom facilities are not available—
one of those times when men have a leg up (as it were).
- I would recommend doing your safari during the dry, South African winter season (May through September). I suspected, and Jacques confirmed, that driving in mud and over flooded terrain can be very difficult if not impossible, even in a four wheel drive land rover. If this is a trip of a lifetime to see African animals in the wild, it would be a shame to spend your time reading by the fire, even in a charming, comfortable lodge building. Although we enjoyed three sunny days in late October, Emma said there had already been some rainy days.
- There is a nominal fee for wifi internet at Monwana, but we never found it comfortably usable. There was 3G data service. I purchased a South African SIM card for my phone and used that for checking email. If you’re a Baby Boomer, sit back and remember when you traveled all the time without internet service and the earth did not stop spinning on its axis.
- In the Thornybush Game Reserve and others, you are likely to be able to find the animals you want to see, but there are ten other lodges in in the Reserve. Thus, you will occasionally see land rovers with groups from other properties. In fact, the rangers communicate by radio to alert each other to good “finds”. They also seem to coordinate taking turns, so as to limit the vehicles at one place at the same time. With 44 square miles to roam in the Thornybush reserve, we never felt crowded out and most of the time, we did not see other vehicles.
- At Thornybush, there is some fencing although animals can also pass to and from the adjacent Timbavati Reserve. The animals are accustomed to the land rovers and some watering holes are kept full through the dry season. However, the animals are not fed or otherwise controlled. Thus, you might come upon predators killing their meal. Indeed, the Thornybush cheetahs were killed by the lions.