On safari in Kruger National Park

The African safari remains one of the most amazing experiences that any traveler could hope to enjoy. The boundless wildlife that is on display there is one of the greatest natural wonders in the world, and watching those hundreds of different species in their natural habitats is a source of never ending wonder.

There are two classic destinations to experience the African safari, the Serengeti, which spreads across Kenya and Tanzania, and Kruger National Park in South Africa. A few years back I had the opportunity to visit the Serengeti, and it remains one of my favorite destinations of all time. Recently I made the journey to Kruger as well, and while I found both places had wildlife in abundance, the safari experience was quite different between the two as well.

The first thing I noticed that was different, was the landscape. In Swahili, Serengeti means “the endless plain,” which is a fitting name indeed. It is a vast expanse of open grasslands, broken only by rolling hills and the occasional rock outcropping. Kruger, on the other hand, is marked by thick forests and lush green fields. While I was there in early February, summer rains had fueled the growth of the underbrush and caused the rivers to swell, which made for a warm, humid environment. A stark contrast to the more arid Serengeti.

That lush green growth made it a challenge to spot wildlife while on daily game drives. The thick brush gave the animals plenty of places to hide and concealed their movements. On the Serengeti, the wide open spaces always made it easy to spot game, sometimes from miles away.

Fortunately, I had some of the best guides on the continent showing me around, and we had no problems discovering where the wildlife hid. While traveling through Kruger, we came across hippos, buffalo, wildebeests, and zebras aplenty. There were monkeys and baboons, and antelope too numerous to count. There were also large herds of elephants, massive in size and more aggressive than their Serengeti counterparts. In short, Kruger didn’t disappoint in terms of spotting animals, you just had to look a bit more closely to find them.Perhaps the best of those wildlife encounters was with the smallest of creatures. In the early evening hours of my second day in the park we were traveling by safari vehicle down a deserted dirt road. It had rained that afternoon, but the sun broke through the clouds as it sunk in the west, providing some warmth as the day waned. Suddenly, our vehicle stopped short as we spotted a small, golden figure sitting in the road. It was a tiny lion cub, no more than two weeks old, and while its mother was away on the hunt, it had crawled out of its wet hiding spot seeking warmth in the sun. We watched the cub for nearly an hour as it stumbled about, occasionally calling out for mom. It was an amazing experience, made all the more special when our lead guide, an 18 year veteran of the profession, told us that he had never seen a lion so young.

Our chance discovery of the young cub wouldn’t be our only close encounter with the wildlife of Kruger. One afternoon, while driving back from a local village, we came across a very large bull elephant wandering the road. He was enormous, even by the standards of the species, and he was in a surly mood that day. For more than 20 minutes we played cat and mouse with the beast, looking for a way to get around him. More than once we put the van in reverse and backed off, as the bull strayed too close. Finally we made our escape when the creature momentarily wandered behind a tree, giving us just the opening we needed to speed past. It was a narrow escape however, and as we sped away, the elephant charged from around the tree, nearly clipping our vehicle as we roared down the road.

In all, I spent six days in Kruger, and was given the chance to explore it both on foot and by vehicle. In those days, I found that it lived up to its billing as one of the top safari destinations in all of Africa. Not only is the wildlife all that you would expect, and more, but the landscapes are breathtaking as well. In my travels within the park boundaries, I saw beautiful rivers, emerald forests, and stunning canyons. The gorgeous scenery was an element I wasn’t expecting, and it helped to further separate Kruger from the Serengeti.

Since my return, I’ve already been asked by friends which destination I’d recommend for someone heading to Africa on safari. That isn’t an easy question to answer, as both places will offer you a memorable travel experience that you will never forget. By response is that it is impossible to choose, and that it is best to see them both for yourself.

This trip was sponsored by South African Tourism and South African Airways, but the ideas and opinions expressed here are my own.

African safari: then and now

African safaris are one of the most enduring travel experiences ever. For decades the safari has remained at the top of the “must do” list for many travelers. Such a trip is often seen as the ultimate escape, giving them a chance to visit a wild and untamed place, encounter amazing wildlife, and add a bit of adventure to their lives. Over the years, the traditional African safari has evolved greatly, and today it is still a fantastic experience with options for nearly every type of traveler, under nearly any budget.

The word safari traces its origins back to the Arabic word of “safara,” which when translated means “to go on a journey.” It was originally used by merchants traveling long distances trade routes throughout the Middle-East and Africa. As late as the 18th centuries, the term continued to refer to those traveling caravans that roamed the continent selling all kinds of goods, which was a profitable, yet dangerous, venture during that era.

During the 19th century, the writings of a number of prominent naturalists and explorers, such as Henry Morton Stanley, kept the public enthralled. They told tales of Africa that included vast herds of wild animals, deadly predators, primitive cultures, and dark, unexplored jungles. Those stories sparked the imagination and painted the continent in an almost mythic light. Many readers wished to travel to Africa themselves, and see these wonders with their own eyes, but in that age, few could make such a journey for a variety of reasons.The modern safari as we know it had its origins early in the 20th century, when larger than life figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway made frequent visits to Africa on big game hunts. Tales of their daring exploits were popular with the public as well, and soon the safari became synonymous with bagging big game on the wildest continent.

For the hunter, the ultimate prize was to shoot one of the Big Five, which include elephants, rhinos, lions, buffalos, and leopards. Well heeled travelers came from around the world just to have the opportunity to stalk one of these creatures and take its pelt home to put on their wall. Roosevelt himself once spent weeks on the hunt with his son, and over the course of their expedition, the two men claimed more than 500 kills, including 17 lions, a dozen elephants, 20 rhinoceros, and much more.

In those days, travel was often done on foot or horseback, with dozens of porters carrying gear, food, and other supplies. Travelers stayed in tents, although they were often quite luxurious in nature, with plenty of comforts from home. Later, trucks would make travel easier, as they could carry the travelers and their gear over rough terrain much more quickly and efficiently. In those days, the vehicles were prone to frequent breakdowns however, and they were far from reliable in the field. Later, more durable and sophisticated trucks, jeeps, and SUV’s would hit the open savannas of Africa, allowing for even more travelers to experience the safari first hand. The Land Rover was just such a vehicle, and for decades it was seen as the only way to travel throughout the continent.

The advent of cheaper, more reliable, vehicles meant that people no longer needed to be rich to go on safari. That realization brought a more diverse, and discerning, traveler to the Serengeti. One that wasn’t all that interested in killing the creatures they saw, but would rather see them thriving in their natural habitat. Slowly, the safari evolved once again, this time away from shooting the animals with a gun, to shooting them with a camera instead.

Today, travelers can go on safari in a number of countries across Africa, each offering a unique and amazing experience. You can now have a safari experience that is expensive and luxurious or affordable and basic, with just about every option inbetween. For example, you can catch the Great Migration in Kenya and Tanzania from a comfortable vehicle or go deep into the bush on foot in South Africa. You can glide across the Okavango Delta in dugout canoe in Botswana or sail above the African plains in a hot hair balloon in Zimbabwe. The options are nearly endless, and there is little to keep adventurous travelers from making the journey themselves.

The concept of the safari has come a long way in the past hundred years, and it is likley to continue to evolve in the future. No matter how it has changed however, the African safari remains a fantastic adventure that is unlike any other.

REI Adventures offers members 25% discount on select trips

In 2011, REI Adventures, the travel arm of outdoor gear retailer REI, is celebrating its 25th year of offering great outdoor and active journeys to adventure travelers. To commemorate the occasion, they’re passing on a substantial discount to members of the REI Co-Op, giving them 25% off some of their most classic trips.

In all, there are seven trips that the discount is being applied to. Those trips include a classic safari in Tanzania, a trek to Everest Base Camp, cycling in the Loire Valley of France, trekking the Tour Du Mont Blanc, hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, backpacking in Fitz Roy and Paine in Patagonia, and exploring the Alaskan wilderness on foot and kayak. Each of these trips is considered to be one of REI Adventures’ signature vacations, offering some of the most amazing and memorable experiences for any traveler.

As mentioned, to take advantage of the 25% discount, you must be an REI member. Becoming a member is simple however, and it offers more benefits than just the discount on these trips. There is a one time fee of $20 for the membership, but it entitles you to take part in special events at REI stores, increased discounts on gear items, and a yearly dividend that is based on the items you purchased. That dividend can then be spent on new gear in the store as well. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast at all, then the membership usually more than pays for itself in the first year alone.

Members always receive a discount on REI Adventures trips, but the additional 25% savings is on top of that already discounted price. For instance, the African Safari normally costs non-members $4075. Members get the same trip for $3699, but if you take advantage of the added discount, you can visit the Serengeti for just $2775. Not a bad deal at all.

Dates for the discounted trips are limited, so you’ll want to take advantage of them as soon as possible. To get more details on these adventures and the dates when they are available, click here.

Study says Serengeti Highway will impact migration

The annual migration of hundreds of thousands of animals across the Serengeti plains of East Africa is amongst the most spectacular natural wonders in the entire world. Each year, giant herds of wildebeests, zebras, antelopes, elephants, and more make a pilgrimage across those open landscapes in search of food and water. But a new study finds that a proposed highway through the region could have dire consequences for the Serengeti ecosystem and the animals that call it home.

The study, which was conducted by a team of biology and ecology professors from the U.S. and Canada, appeared recently in the scholarly journal PLoS ONE and predicts a dramatic impact on the Serengeti environment. The researchers came to the conclusion that wildebeest herds alone could be reduced by as much as 35%, with a similar impact possible for the other species in the region as well. Those predictions only take into account the increased traffic on the movements of the wildebeest herds and doesn’t factor in such other issues as car accidents and the potential for increased poaching.

One of the scientists who took part in the study, John Fryxell of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, has studied migration patterns for more than 30 years. He says that the proposed highway, which would cross a northern section of the Serengeti National Park, has the potential to completely transform the region. He cites the importance of the wildebeest migration to the entire ecosystem for his belief, saying “The wildebeest migration plays an important role in a number of key ecological processes, so this finding has important ramifications for ecosystem biodiversity, structure and function.”

We at Gadling have been closely following the developments of this highway for sometime, first sharing the story when the road was proposed last summer and then again when an alternate route was suggested this past fall. It seems that nearly everyone outside of the Tanzanian government believes this road is a bad idea, and yet it is still moving ahead with the plan none the less. We could be watching one of the last great, unspoiled places on the planet altered before our vary eyes, and it seems there is little we can do about it.

African safari game drives – five things you must know

On my recent African safari in Zambia, I went on game drives every day, sometimes twice. I was hosted by guides from Abercrombie & Kent and Sanctuary Retreats, so I was well taken care of, but there was definitely a learning curve and I didn’t have the best practices nailed down until the third or fourth time out. African safari game drives are thrilling and rewarding, but they can also be wildly uncomfortable if you’re doing it wrong.

Here are five essential tips to take with you to Africa before you head out on a game drive of your own:

1. Wear light colored clothing.

It’s not just a fashion thing, and it’s not, as some ludicrously believe, all that functional as camouflage — most animals spot movement better than shapes anyhow. You should wear light colored clothing on a game drive because dark colors attract tsetse flies. They bite. A lot.

2. Go early.

I’m not a huge fan of a 5:00 AM wakeup call (or anything before 8, really), but I quickly learned that the crack of dawn is the best time to see game. The animals come out for breakfast and a drink of water before it gets hot. Furthermore, a morning game drive is a lot more comfortable than the sweltering hours of the afternoon or the buggy sunset.

3. Bring a pen and paper.

You may have your amazing-lens camera at the ready, but remembering which animal or bird is which is virtually impossible without some help. It’s a shame to have endless pictures of things you can’t identify properly (What kind of monkey? Is that a hawk’s nest or an eagle’s nest?). Our camps provided us with checklists for the game we could spot, which certainly helps, but keeping a simple list in chronological order will be even more helpful for identification when you’re going through your photos later.

4. Ask to see what you want to see.

Your guide is not a mind-reader. If you don’t say what you want to see, you’ll get a general tour — when it could be directly focused on what’s important to you. Some people are birdwatchers, some want to catch a leopard in a tree, and some want to make sure they see every kind of monkey. Your guide probably knows the park, the animals in it, and where they hang out very well. If you want to see lions, for example, your guide will know a couple of places they’ve been spotted recently. You’ll still be doing plenty of birdwatching and see a vast array of other animals, but by letting your guide know you want lions, your chances of encountering them are greatly increased.

5. Listen to your guide.

This last tip may sound like a no-brainer, but when I asked my guide in South Luangwa National Park what the most important tip for new safari-ers is, he said that it’s listening. Apparently, his most common peeve is when he drives near to an animal and says “stay seated please,” and then the guests spot the animal and leap to their feet with their cameras, scaring it away. If you are good to your guide, your guide will be good to you and take you to the best spots — don’t take them or their advice for granted.

Also, check out what to do if your safari vehicle gets stuck: Safari vehicles – stuck in the river with you.

[Photos by Annie Scott.]

My trip to Zambia was sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent and Sanctuary Retreats, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.