The one thing I always bring with me when I travel is my bottomless pit of questions. No matter where I am, I want to know what it is, how it is, why it is—and if I’ve already seen a picture of it on the Internet, where it is and if I can get there by sunset.
Normally you find travelers like me sitting at the front of the bus chatting with the tour guide while the rest of the group is trying to sleep. Normally, but not on my recent trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Oh, I was still sitting behind the tour guide as the van wound through Blyde River Canyon—I just wasn’t the only one asking questions.
While we drove in and out of the fog on our way to Kruger National Park, remarking on the red mountains and lush vegetation rushing by outside our windows, the inside of the tour van buzzed with excitement. Because this wasn’t any old safari—it was a safari with National Geographic.
These kinds of trips usually run at a heavy price point—too heavy for most budget-minded travelers. But NatGeo recently partnered with G Adventures to launch a new and more affordable line of tours—National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures. In Africa, these journeys start at just $1,999 per person for 2016 departures.
Through the Glossy Pages
Entering Kruger National Park felt like driving through the golden frame and into an actual National Geographic magazine, the kind I used to read as a kid. We’d just crossed into a national park the size of Israel, where animals I’d previously only seen behind bars roamed without constraint. We followed the road through a wide-open landscape, scanning the bush for animals, stopping occasionally when a colorful bird flew overhead.
It was impossible not to immediately notice that many of the trees were either bent or appeared to have been snapped in half. “That’ll be the elephants,” said my guide Johan, a cheery man who had been cracking dad jokes throughout the trip. “When they’re under a lot of stress, they take it out on the trees.” He said this too casually to be joking, but what, I wondered, could stress out an eight ton elephant?
I wondered about the duality of these creatures that are so divinely large yet also have such bad days that they’re prone to tantrums.
As we came upon the first animals—mischievous baboons, zebras that looked like delicate figurines (though they were surprisingly gassy), and giraffes teetering between regal and positively awkward—we made no noise except for the clicking of our cameras.
But when the first elephant appeared, we momentarily forgot about any promises we might have made to keep quiet, though we quickly shushed when we came across an old bull rubbing his trunk against the tree bark. His face was weathered and his left tusk worn down nearly to the end, a sign of his old age and left-handedness, Johan informed us. We snapped away as the elephant sauntered from one tree to the next, hunting for the tastier leaves before disappearing into the bush without a sound.
Exhilarated, we drove on, scanning the plains and focusing in on every bush. Our eyes tricked us, turning tree trunks into giraffe necks and boulders into buffalo. Our drive through Kruger would be like this the whole time, long bouts of scenic anticipation punctuated by incredible moments like feeling how an elephant’s trumpet shook the air or watching a wildebeest’s silhouette balancing the horizon line as if it were a tight rope. As we drove back through the gates of Kruger on our exit, we could hardly believe it was only our first drive.
Kings of the Jungle
Our next game drive took us to Karongwe Reserve. Privately owned and much smaller than the national park, Karongwe offers an immersive experience in the heart of the reserve where guests can watch for wildlife from the front decks of their tents.
Each reserve has its own rules, and before we set out in the uncovered vehicle, our driver (Solomon) and tracker (Thomas) began with the two most important: Don’t get out of the car and don’t stand up. The animals see the jeeps as one big creature; when you stand up, you change the shape of the car. It’s surprising to them, like seeing an elephant grow a second head. You really don’t want to surprise a predator like that.
Being in a smaller reserve meant the guides could communicate with other groups about sightings, and our first drive at Karongwe did not disappoint. Within minutes, we glimpsed the elusive rhino through the trees and had a lone buffalo walk right toward us.
We drove along the twisting dirt roads through the jungle-like terrain, past empty watering holes, and across a dry sandy riverbed. Then, tipped off by another group, Solomon took us off-road and through a clearing right up to two resting lions. They stared lazily at us, blinking and then shutting their eyes. They’d spent the past four days mating, but for now were laying side-by-side, back paws touching as if playing a game of footsie.
There’s no closing time in this private reserve, so we stopped to watch the sun set behind the Drakensberg Mountains. Someone pulled out a phone and played “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and Solomon and Thomas poured rich South African wine into aluminum cups. I had no complaints.
Walking on the Wild Side
When the guide motioned me closer, I thought he was trying to kill me. I could count already every spot on the cheetah's back, wasn't that close enough? But I followed the guide, trusting in his footsteps, and stepping quietly myself watching the cheetah as he nibbled on his kill, keeping his golden eyes on our every step. Until he stood up and stared right at me, moving forward in what I would later learn is called a mock charge. Without thinking, I began to turn back. " Don't run," the guide said, grabbing my arm. "Just take pictures." My body shook, but I didn't run. The cheetah returned to his meal and I took the shot. #PPDoubleDare
The next morning, like all mornings at Karongwe, began before sunrise with a knock at the door. Though there was no telling which animals awaited us, I knew the day would be special because I’d be meeting Grant Beverley, a cheetah specialist from the Endangered Wildlife Trust, an organization funded by National Geographic. That would come in time for our evening game drive, when he’d speak to us about cheetahs and the threats they face. Little did I know the lesson would begin much earlier in the day.
The drive began peacefully enough as the morning light broke through the trees and we came across a giraffe lazily chewing on breakfast. We drove on for a while until Solomon stopped the car and asked us to follow him and Thomas into the bush. Of course, if they wanted us to step out into the brush, I knew it couldn’t be anything dangerous. I hoped for an elephant graveyard, but expected a tortoise. I figured if we’d be getting up close to anything still living, it would have to be slow-moving.
That’s when I saw the cheetah and the carcass.
Solomon motioned me forward. My eyes asked a thousand questions but I was too frightened to speak. I stopped 12 feet away from the cheetah as he tore away at what was left of an impala. Standing so close to the world’s fastest animal is a bit like bungee jumping, but much more terrifying. Bungee cords are designed to hold you, and they don’t have a mind of their own. Cheetahs are designed to kill and can do whatever they please.
I’ve never been more afraid, but Solomon and Thomas assured me that cheetahs only hunt smaller prey like the impala. As long as I didn’t crouch for a photograph, he wouldn’t be interested in me. The cheetahs at Karongwe are part of an ongoing study and are used to people standing close to them. I watched him until he leaned back like a house cat and panted like a dog as the afternoon heat set in, full and content.
When you hear about poaching from afar, the figures lose their emotional impact. They just seem like a bunch of numbers. But by the time we met up with Grant Beverley from the Endangered Wildlife Trust, I’d encountered so many of the creatures at risk that the numbers both captivated and horrified me.
Two rhinos are killed in Kruger National Park every day, and the hunting industry has encouraged the practice of “canned hunting” (in which tourists can pay thousands of dollars to shoot a lion in a small enclosure, with the lion often drugged beforehand). Cheetahs and other animals are bred in captivity and sold for exorbitant prices abroad to either be kept as pets or used in recreational hunting.
Grant Beverly spoke to us with incredible passion—for the animals, for his research, for the problems threatening African wildlife. He joined us on our next game drive and for dinner, too. Having access to his experience and knowledge in the midst of our explorations is one of the unique benefits of traveling in partnership with National Geographic.
I think it’s impossible to speak about a safari without also speaking about the individual encounters that make it special. Whether it was watching a baby rhino roll freely in the mud as his mother kept watch, spotting the glowing red eyes of the nocturnal bush baby staring from the darkness, or catching a leopard fast asleep with his paws dangling from the branches of a jackalberry tree, those transcendent moments can’t be summed up in a single description.
Each encounter is its own story. While the giraffe looks off in the other direction, apathetic to your camera, the lion will stare back with the full weight of his golden eyes. And when the herd of elephants walks in front of you, eating, humming, and playing freely with one another, you may realize—as I did—that you’ll never again be able to bear the sight of these creatures behind bars.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Best Bucket-List Safaris in Africa
- What It’s Really Like to Sleep in a Treehouse Hotel
- Packing Guide: South African Safari