South Africa: Safari at Sabi Sands Game Reserve

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Going on a safari was always one of those things Drew and I thought we’d do when we retired. But, seeing that the kid situation didn’t quite work out as we had planned, we decided to say eff it, let’s do this safari thing. What are we waiting for? So we packed our bags and flew over to South Africa in August. Being in the opposite hemisphere, it was their winter and a great time to go because it’s not too hot and much easier to spot the animals since there’s not much vegetation to block your views.

There are a lot of amazing safari lodges and the task of choosing one can be daunting. Tripadvisor is a great place to start once you decide on where you want to go (Kruger, private game reserves, etc). We decided on Sabi Sands Game Reserve near Kruger National Park because you’re practically guaranteed to see the Big 5 there. What are the Big 5 you ask?

They’re the elephant (the real king/queen of the jungle),
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lion (yikes! looks vicious, but he was just yawning),
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leopard,
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rhino,
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and Cape buffalo. Don’t be fooled by that George Washington wig. The Cape buffalo has been reported to kill more hunters than any other animal.
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After tons of research and lots of emails, we luckily were able to reserve 3 nights at Chitwa Chitwa Safari Lodge in South Africa. Because August is peak season, many people book a year ahead of time! Here I was hoping to score a room 3 months ahead of time…but the universe was kind and we stayed at one of the best safari lodges in Sabi Sands.

There were a million things I loved about this place. One was the watering hole where hippos and crocs loved to hang out. The perk is, you get to see hippos all day. The not so perky is you get to hear them at night making grunting noises as they graze.
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There’s gorgeous deck where you can relax and view the animals. At night, they set up tables and chairs for al fresco dining here.
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Chitwa Chitwa is such a well-oiled machine. Our stay could not have been better – they did everything so well from the very beginning. From Johannesburg, we took a small plane to the nearest landing strip and were picked up by our safari guide, Surprise.
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We flew in with another family from Britain and shared the ride to the lodge with them in the open-aired jeep.
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Settling into our room was exciting…
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Our own private deck with a little dipping pool. It was definitely not hot enough for us Arizonans to dip in- my blood runneth thin now.
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Warthogs right off our deck. Pumba!
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Speaking of Lion King…there were a couple of Zazu’s hanging around the breakfast area.
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Yep, definitely happy with our choice of safari lodge here.
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Every afternoon around 3pm, all guests meet at the main lodge for cake and tea or coffee. Then it’s off to the jeeps for our game drives. It’s an open-aired jeep with 9 seats, but I love that Chitwa Chitwa never fills up those 9 seats and instead takes a 2nd jeep out so we’re not packed like sardines in the jeep and everyone has a great view of the animals. Ah yeah, mama lion waiting for dinner.
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I could not stop saying “Oh my God” on our first game drive because I couldn’t believe how close we got to the animals. Sometimes we were only 5 feet away from a mama lion! Other times, elephants cruised by and we could’ve reached out and touched them…though you should never do that. Nor should you stand up in the jeep and make yourself a target for the animals, unless you want to win a Darwin award.
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It’s hard picking a favorite animal, but the giraffe is definitely up there on the list. What a strange, almost mythical looking creature!
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Most of the animals at Sabi Sands are used to people, so they just disregard us, or this big blob looking thing that we’re all sitting in -and they just go about their business. Eating, sitting around, sleeping. But much credit goes to our guide Surprise who is amazing and knows how to read the animals’ body language really well. He grew up in the bush and learned over the years when it’s safe to approach an animal, and when it’s better to leave them be. If you go to Chitwa Chitwa and are able to request Surprise as your guide, do it! He’s also great at helping people get over their fears. Like how he helped me get over my fear of poop by having me stand in literally a shitload of impala pellets!
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So not only do you get to go on game drives that’s better than anything you’ll see on Nat Geo, but at the end of the drive, you stop in a clearing and have sundowners -cocktails, wine, beer at sunset- and talk about all the amazing things you saw on the drive!
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I can’t think of a better way to end an evening game drive.
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By the time you get back to the lodge, it’s dark and your guide has to walk you back to your room, just in case. There was a dead nyala hanging from a tree off the back deck of the British family’s room. A leopard, saving his meal for later. So to be safe, it’s a good idea that they have the guides walk you back to your room. You get some time to freshen up before your guide comes back to get you for dinner.

One night, we had a special dinner in the open-aired boma with a cozy fire keeping everyone warm.
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After dinner, we’re walked back to our rooms by our guides again. Time for bed because the wake-up call for morning game drives is at 5:45am! Your guide comes to pick you up about 30 minutes later and you’re off on the jeep as the sun rises. It’s cold in the mornings so they have hot water bottles and fleece blankets in the jeep to keep you warm.

Every time we go out for a drive, I’m in awe. Every. Single. Time. There are moments when we get so close to the animals that I’m thinking, “Uh, please Mr. Leopard, don’t lunge at me because I’m only 10ft away.” But they never do…well, at least not on our game drives.
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It was amazing to see the Big 5, but I was giddy seeing zebras and giraffes living their lives out in the wild.
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Most of the animals we saw had little birds hanging out with them…eating ticks off their bodies. Can you spot the birds on the giraffe?
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So I had always thought it was the lion who was the king of the jungle. Not so my friends. The elephant rules here and lions will get up and move when elephants come through.
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Most of the time when we saw them, they were busy eating.
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Adult males are loners while the females all hang out together with the babies. The elephant social system and matriarchy is amazing. When they’re in a group, the babies will always be in the middle.
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Baby lion cubs, on the other hand, can be playing away from mama…but usually within sight.
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Or feeding.
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Or nuzzling up to mama.
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One morning, we found the baby cubs alone on a termite mound. The two female lions went off hunting in the night and hadn’t returned yet. They left their babies alone, which could put them in danger if other predators are around.
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It just so happened that on this particular morning, there were two cheetahs on the prowl for breakfast.
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Oh, hello Mr. Cheetah. Please keep looking at baby lions instead of me. Surprise said we won the tourists of the year award because they hadn’t seen a cheetah in these parts in about 5 months, and we got to see not one, but TWO!
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Not only that, but they were scoping out lion cubs for breakfast. Not sure if these babies had spotted the cheetahs, but to keep predators from attacking, their mamas sprayed around the perimeter of the area so any predators would pick up the scent and think that they were around, even if they couldn’t see them. Somehow, the cubs knew not to roam far from the area where their moms left them.
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So the cheetahs, unsure of whether the mama lions were nearby, decided not to take chances and turned around.
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One last looky loo, just in case.
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Lucky baby lions!
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That evening, we found the lions all feasting. The moms had been successful and hunted down two buffaloes.
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Thanks Mom.
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Meanwhile, in a nearby tree…
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All this time, where were the male lions? During our game drives, we never saw a male hanging out with the lionesses and cubs. So when we finally saw one, we were so excited. Mufasa!!!
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So sweet you just want to hug him.

On another morning, we spotted three lion brothers soaking up the sun.
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Driving around, we also saw this guy. “Hmmm? What? Oh, you can see me? Damn.”
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Zebras like hanging around giraffes, because they can see further and warn them of danger. “Guys, there’s something over there.”
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Guess what this is.
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It was once one of these guys. Impala. Very rare, Surprise likes to tell us.
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The one up in the tree was this leopard’s kill. He drags it up there to keep it safe from other predators.
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Like sneaky Mr. Hyena who lurks around because he smelled food. He decided it was better to turn around after spotting the leopard guarding it’s dinner.
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We ended that evening’s game drive with a most amazing sundowner near the lodge.
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This is biltong, South African jerky made from a variety of game, ostrich, and beef.
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Amurula. A sweet cream liquer made from the fruit of the African murula tree.
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Thank you Chitwa Chitwa and our guide, Surprise, for making our first safari experience out of this world! The people, the food, the environment, and the close encounters with the animals totally surpassed my expectations. They are all so unique that it’s hard to pick a favorite. I love them all!
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But I’ll end with this solitary leopard at sunset. There was something so peaceful and yet so grand about this moment.
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Don’t forget to watch the awesome video of all the animals in action!

P.S. I’m applying for a new job. Tracker at Chitwa Chitwa!
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2 Comments

  1. Kim Kissel January 1, 2017 at 2:10 pm #

    Absolutely breathtaking photos!! I’m so glad I came across them, totally by accident. Looks like you & your hubby did in deed have a great time. A safari is on our bucket list, so I’ll note your suggestions. 👍🏻 The animals come alive through your photos. Like you, I’d love to hug a male lion with his big mane. Glorious.

    Since you live in AZ I can see you make wise decisions all the way around. 😁 I was born in Phoenix, we’re planning to move to AZ in the next couple of years (perhaps Scottsdale, not sure where yet), and my Mom recently moved to Kingman.

    Thanks for such beautiful photos!! Happy New Year – 2017!!

    • admin January 1, 2017 at 11:09 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Kim! Sure hope you make it to South Africa for safari. Cape Town and Knyssna are beautiful too. Lots of beautiful hikes. When I have time, I’ll blog about that next with suggestions. Good luck on your move back to sunny AZ eventually!

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