A Safari, particularly one which offers an opportunity to spot the Big Five (African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros), is high on the bucket list for many people. There are, however, a few things to consider when planning a safari of your own. One of the main decisions you'll have to make is whether you want to go to a private reserve or an open park, like Kruger.
For a recent short safari we decided to go to a private reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park called Kapama. Kapama is literally across the road from Hoedspruit Eastgate airport. Kapama offers four different types of accommodation to suit your preference. There's hotel-like accommodation in the River Lodge, all suite accommodation in the Southern Camp, luxury tented accommodation in the Buffalo Camp and the ultra high end Karula Lodge. For our three days in Kapama, we stayed in the Buffalo Camp. Kapama is a very large reserve, measuring 13000 hectares (over 50 square miles) and contains all big five in its grounds in addition to 40 other species of mammal, 350 bird species, numerous lizards and snakes and a multitude of insects, fish and other things of interest.
To call the rooms in the Buffalo Camp tents is a stretch. These are detached buildings elevated on stilts with solid walls. The space is the size of a good sized hotel room complete with air conditioning, two vanity stations, a shower, free standing bath and Nespresso Machine. Camping, this is not.
There's also a decent sized balcony offering a view of wildlife if you're lucky (we saw Giraffe and Impala during our time there). You are warned upon arrival to keep the doors to the balcony closed otherwise monkeys will get in to your room and will steal things (there are monkeys everywhere).
The Buffalo Camp is all inclusive, so food and drink, including those found in the mini-bar in your room, are included in the price. Generally, I found the food to be of good quality. Typically, lunch offered an Entree choice (usually soup or something else), three choices of main and a choice of dessert. The quality was fairly consistent throughout although I think a bit more variety would have been good (sometimes the options were too similar). There were some standout meals, like the chicken in tomato herb sauce with mozzarella pictured here. Whilst lunch was served in the central building (there's also a bar) dinner might also be served in a communal eating area. We only experienced this once as the weather was too bad the other two nights. The communal dinner consisted of a BBQ with sides and gave us all the opportunity to try some zebra, something I wouldn't have ordered otherwise (although it was delicious).
One of the aspects of visiting a private reserve I was concerned about was how regimented it would feel. We are definitely the sort of people who like to do our own thing and go off the beaten track, and I feared we wouldn't be able to do that in a private reserve. Whilst this was true, it's also true of visiting the main Kruger park as access times are limited as are the areas you can visit. You're also constrained to your vehicle and have to content with lots of other tourists all trying to capture photos of the same animals.
The staff at Kapama give you a schedule which outlines what happens and when. Te scheduled whilst we were there was:
- 05:00 - Wake Up Call
- 05:30 - Coffee and Light Breakfast
- 06:00 to 08:30 - Morning Game Drive
- 09:00 - Breakfast
- 13:00 - Lunch
- 16:00 to 19:30 - Evening Game Drive
- 20:00 - Dinner
Some of the timings, especially the end of the game drives, were fluid and dependant on whether you saw anything interesting and where in the park you were.
There were other activities available in addition to the standard itinerary. These included a visit to a rehabilitation/conservation centre, a sunrise hot air balloon ride, a walking safari and an elephant experience. As these would result in you missing a game drive, we decided to give them a miss (it was also highly unlikely the hot air balloon ride would match the one we experienced in Bagan last year).
The Game Drives
The main reason you go to a place like Kapama is to see the animals. To give you the best chance possible to see everything you want to there are two game drives a day with skilled, trained drivers and trackers. The drives themselves take place in modified Toyota Land Cruisers with nine seats for guests (although it's far more likely there'll be eight occupants) plus a driver and tracker. The tracker sits on a seat perched on the front of the vehicle, above the front wheel. Note that most of the vehicles aren't covered, so if it starts to rain (and we experienced incredibly heavy rain one evening whilst out on a drive) you're left to battle with a provided poncho.
If you're using a camera with a long lens (I used a Sony A7Rii with the 70-200mm lens), they have adjustable rests you can affix to the hand rail in front of you. These are extremely helpful when trying to get a sharp photo using a long lens.
Despite Kapama being a closed reserve, with something like 40 vehicles roaming the area at any given time, they offer no guarantees regarding wildlife sightings. In fact our driver said it wasn't unusual to go weeks without seeing a leopard (leopards are especially difficult to spot). The reserve is enclosed in electrified fences but it's large enough, and the vegetation dense enough, that it feels like you're in the wilderness. They also have a rule of thumb that there should be no more than two vehicles at any one site at any given time. I found this to be generally true apart from one instance where there were three watching some male lions (contrast this to the potentially hundreds of vehicles you'll find driving around the busier parts of Kruger).
Our driver, Chris, and tracker, Ian, were in constant communication with each other and regular communication with other vehicles. The majority of their chatter was in Afrikaans which they do for a number of reasons. Seeing them work was actually quite a treat. At times they would stop the vehicle to examine tracks, determine what animal left them, how recently and in what direction it was travelling. A standout highlight was a leopard sighting. There had been reports of a leopard in an area of the park so we headed in the general direction. Ian, the tracker, spotted some tracks. Upon seeing these Ian left the vehicle and ventured in to the bush, unarmed and alone. We drove around some adjacent roads to see if there were corresponding tracks indicating the leopard had left the area. After about 20 minutes a call came from Ian over the radio saying he had a leopard in his sights. Ian was, by this point, deep in the bush. Typically, Kapama doesn't allow vehicles to deviate from the established tracks, the one exception is where there is a confirmed leopard sighting, so off roading we went. After about ten minutes of navigating some dense bush, including some incredibly thorny trees (one of the other guests was pinned, literally, to his seat by a thorn), we spotted this magnificent leopard, just as the sun had set,
As it happens, despite leopard sightings being relatively rare, we stumbled across another the next day in the middle of a hunt. This bit of luck was fairly typical of our game drives. In the first hour we saw four of the big five along with numerous other animals. One of the couples in the vehicle with us noted, repeatedly, how fortunate we were to be seeing the animals we were, so quickly. They did mention that they had been on drives that took 45 minutes to see anything. On one drive we came across two rhinos within 30 seconds of leaving the camp. On another, we saw a pride of lions hunting at night. We were also fortunate enough to see a large group of elephants drinking at a watering hole, including young calves.
In total we saw lots of animals on every drive. Some were more memorable than others, but none of them felt like a waste. I've included some photos from the drives below so you can get a feel for the experience, click on any image for a larger view.
One thing to note is that the evening drives mean you not only return in the dark, but also experience approximately 50% of the drive in the dark. This is a very different experience as it requires the tracker to be constantly sweeping the area with a spot light in search of things of interest. It is remarkable how many animals they spotted in the darkness including porcupines, lions, impala, owls, hyenas, jackals and a chameleon (yes, they spotted a chameleon in the dark whilst driving).
Photographing animals at night can be extremely challenging. Your tracker will normally shine a spot light on the animal which produces a very harsh light. It's better to slightly underexpose to make sure you retain detail. Underexposing should also give you a slightly shorter exposure time, helping to reduce camera shake. It's at night when the camera rests I mentioned earlier are absolutely necessary.
There is a break mid way through each game drive where drinks and snacks are served. This allows you to leave the vehicle to stretch your legs and relieve your bladder, providing you're comfortable using a bush toilet (i.e. a bush).
I mentioned, briefly, earlier that we got caught in some heavy rain whilst out on a game drive. We experienced roughly four storms in our three days at Kapama. Travelling during the shoulder season, we knew this was a risk. Fortunately, only one game drive was affected as the other storms hit either over night or in down time. When a storm hits, the rain is extremely heavy (50mm in a few hours) and is accompanied by high winds, thunder and lightening. I should point out that this didn't dampen our enthusiasm in the slightest.