On Wednesday the 24th of July, my family and I took an 11 hour flight from the UK down to South Africa where we would be spending the next 10 days. We would travel across the eastern side of South Africa, from the Drakensberg Mountains to Kruger National Park. We were incredibly lucky in the sheer amount of wildlife we saw there, including lions, leopards, wild dogs, elephants, rhinos, cheetahs and hyenas.
We arrived in Johannesburg on a chilly Thursday morning. From here, after meeting up with our guide for the trip and the rest of our group, we made our way up to our first destination – the Drakensberg Mountains. ‘Drakensberg’ is derived from the Afrikaans word for ‘Dragon Mountains’ and this beautiful mountain range definitely lived up to its name.
After a freezing first night up in Drakensberg, we got up to begin our walk. We took a 4-5 hour walk up in the Drakensberg where we managed to see a troop of Chacma baboons and a small herd of common eland in the far distance. The baboons found here are highly adaptable and are able to thrive in this unforgiving terrain. Common eland are the world’s second largest species of antelope (after the giant eland) and were the first of many antelope we would see during this trip.
Upon returning from the walk, we had a lovely ‘al fresco’ lunch up in the mountains. The views were spectacular. Although, some cheeky blue-eared starlings did try to steal our food. During lunch, our guide gave us a history lesson on the people and culture of South Africa, in particular the Zulu people and how they managed to dominate a significant chunk of eastern South Africa in the early 1800s. This information would be important for day 3.
On this day we visited the battlefields of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana which were hugely significant events in the history of the Zulu nation. Firstly, we visited Rorke’s Drift where, in 1879, just over 150 British and colonial troops managed to defend the station against attacks by 4,000 Zulu warriors. We got to see the monuments that had been created to commemorate the lives lost, on both sides.
Next, we visited the Isandlwana battlefield where the first battle took place. Here, on the 22nd of January 1879, around 20,000 Zulu warriors attacked and completely overwhelmed 1,800 British and colonial troops. Over 1,300 British troops were killed. The Zulu name for the battle translates as ‘the day of the dead moon’ as a solar eclipse occurred during the battle. To commemorate the dead, bones found on the battlefield many weeks after the battle were buried underground and rocks were piled above each burial.
After visiting the battlefields, we made our way to St Lucia (not the one in the Caribbean) where we would stay at a hotel for three nights. The town of St Lucia is built around a lake called the Hippo Pool, and yes, it did contain a lot of hippos.
This was the day where we had our first safari. We entered the iSimangaliso Wetland Park which was the most serene wildlife reserve we visited during our trip. The first animal we saw was the greater kudu. Their large ears immediately stood out as they inquisitively followed the open game drive vehicle. We also saw zebras, wildebeest, impala, warthogs, cape buffalo and seven white rhinos!
We stopped for lunch at this hidden paradise by the Indian Ocean. During lunch we were raided by vervet monkeys but luckily they only managed to steal a banana. A group of banded mongooses then came along and jumped into bins looking for scraps. The mongooses were very entertaining to watch. Just as we were about to leave the lunch spot, we saw a few Samango monkeys up in the trees – a rare find in this reserve.
In the afternoon we did a ‘Hippo Cruise’ on the Hippo Pool. We saw Nile crocodiles, monitor lizards and countless hippos. I managed to get some great photos of the hippos both in the water and snoozing on the water banks.
Following a 5am start, today we travelled to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve. This reserve boasts the densest population of both white and black rhinos in the whole of Africa. However, this has made it a target for poachers who wish to kill the rhinos for their horns even though their horns have no clinically proven medicinal value. We did manage to see quite a few white rhinos (including one huge male) but sadly no black rhinos.
Before beginning the safari, we witnessed a classic African sunrise, with the moon still visible in the sky. As the sun continued to rise, we began our safari and almost immediately saw a small herd of elephants. They were glistening in the rising sun. At one point, two elephants walked across the road right in front of us, truly emphasising their size and majesty.
Aside from the elephants and rhinos, we also saw giraffes, impala, zebras, kudu, cape buffalo, wildebeest, Chacma baboons, nyala, warthogs and slender mongooses. Sadly, no big cats, but we were close to seeing a pack of painted wolves (also called African wild dogs). Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and was great at spotting the different animals.
We travelled back to our accommodation in St Lucia and freshened up before beginning our night safari in the local iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The guide was very experienced. Impressively, he was able to spot tiny chameleons on bushes using only a torch light.
We saw quite a few grazing hippos during the night safari, as well as bushbuck, common duiker, zebra, waterbuck and impala. My two favourite sightings were a porcupine waddling along the road and a bushbaby jumping up in the trees.
Today was mainly a day of travelling. We left St Lucia in the early morning and made the long drive north to Eswatini (formerly called Swaziland). Eswatini is one of the last remaining monarchies in Africa. It is a small independent kingdom inhabited by the Swazi tribe who revere their king and take great pride in retaining their culture and traditions.
We were staying in the Milwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Although the reserve houses no large predators, it is an incredibly tranquil and immersive place. You can walk freely with the wildlife. We were staying in traditional beehive huts which I grew to love. At night, you can hear the soft sounds of crickets and the distinctive brays of zebras.
I woke up to the sounds of geese flying over our beehive huts. As I left my hut to get breakfast, I saw the resident herd of nyala searching for leaves and twigs and a group of warthogs digging for roots and insects. One of my favourite aspects of our camp was the way the warthogs snuggled up by the fire like puppies.
We had a free day today to do whatever we wanted. I decided to go for a walk in the reserve in search of antelope. There were quite a few crocodiles living in the nearby lakes so we had to be a bit careful about where we walked. We saw a bunch of crocodiles sunbathing on an island in a lake which was nice to see albeit slightly disconcerting.
During the walk, I saw zebra, impala, nyala, wildebeest, blesbok, bee-eaters, ibises and helmeted guineafowl.
In the evening, we were able to see the Roan antelope nursery, an area of the reserve which is trying to boost the population of the Roan antelope. I was surprised how large they were. One individual walked right up to me, almost like he was asking to be stroked. The Roan antelope became one of my favourite antelope species; their ears remind me of Dobby from Harry Potter.
After an early start, we left Eswatini and journeyed to Kruger National Park. We crossed the Crocodile River and began our next safari. Within an hour, we had already seen four of the big five – lions, elephants, rhinos and buffalo. We also saw loads of giraffes. I managed to get a nice photo of a giraffe with the sunset in the background.
Kruger was incredible. It was so diverse and bursting with life sometimes you don’t know where to look. One of my favourite sightings of the entire trip was as we were approaching our camp. Right next to the road was a spotted hyena mother and around 8 little cubs. Hyenas have a bad reputation, but it was impossible not to fall in love with those baby hyenas. We didn’t see any leopards unfortunately, but we still had day 9 to go.
As the sun rose, we left our small rondavels at camp and began our final safari. It was an all-day safari and one of the best days of my life. We saw an unbelievable amount of wildlife. From start to finish, we were constantly thrown new encounters. One of the first sightings was the impressive sable antelope – a black antelope with huge horns that curl back like scimitars. We saw many more antelope including waterbuck, steenbok, kudu, nyala, impala and duiker.
We ended up seeing all of the big five. The leopard was difficult to spot but could be seen laying down in the shade of a dried-up river. I find their spot pattern and general elusiveness to be fascinating. Then we saw a pair of lions no further than 200 metres away from the leopard. We saw a huge herd of buffalo, a pair of white rhinos and a plethora of elephants (many of which were with young).
However, our luck did not stop there. We saw two cheetahs jogging along the side of the road, scent marking the vegetation as they went. Their agility and elegance was clear to see. When we were approaching the end of our safari, on our way out of Kruger, our guide suddenly said ‘wild dogs’. We thought he was joking because our day had already been filled with brilliant sightings, but he wasn’t. Just next to the road were three painted wolves. Their fur was magnificent with patches of white, cream, black, brown and yellow. I also loved the way their satellite-dish ears moved about like, well, satellite-dishes.
It truly was a magical day. After the game drive, we drove to Graskop where we would spend our final night in South Africa.
This is where our adventure ended. We left Graskop in the early morning and made our way back to Johannesburg. Along the way we stopped at various view points. One of these view points was of the awe-inspiring Blyde River Canyon which allowed for some remarkable photos.
We got to the airport in the late afternoon and flew back to the UK. We arrived home yesterday (Sunday the 4th of August). Overall, my time in South Africa was phenomenal. My encounters further intensified my passion for wildlife and conservation. It has given me first hand experiences with these animals in their natural habitat – their appearance, behaviour and interactions with their environment. It is horrifying to imagine any of these species going extinct. Therefore, I wish to dedicate my life to conserving nature and wildlife.