By Vivienne Mackie
South Africa is a land of varied landscapes that has much to offer the visitor. Probably the two best-known activities are viewing wildlife (often on a safari) and visiting Cape Town and the Cape wineries. We always try to do both.
South Africa has a number of wonderful game parks, and visiting one is on the bucket list of many people. Well, if you can, I really do recommend it.
What pops into your mind when you think of an African wildlife park? A ride in a safari vehicle ... thick bush and tall grass ... elephants ... lions ... the Big Five ... danger and excitement ... being far from the madding crowd?
It's all that and more. It's also peaceful and a chance to be at one with nature. Africa's incredible wealth of animal life — including the world's tallest (giraffe), largest (elephant) and fastest (cheetah) land mammals — provides visitors to the continent with unique experiences and lifelong memories.
The Big Five are lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffalo — so called because in the 1800s and early 1900s these were the animals that big game hunters wanted to find and kill. Nowadays, we don't hunt these animals to kill, just to film them and mark them on our animal-spotting checklists. (Note: some people now add the hyena to make the Big Six.)
There are many options for viewing: private game parks, which have proliferated in recent years, and national parks. The largest and most famous is the Kruger National Park, but I recommend Hluhluwe-Imfolozi in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), north of Durban, as it has many animals and is not as touristy.
On our last trip in January, we spent a week in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, staying at Hilltop Camp in a large chalet.
Even before we entered the park, we were driving carefully around small herds of African cattle with pretty markings and/or goats clustered on the roads by the tiny Zulu villages on the way to the park. So we were prepared for creatures on the road.
On many different days, we drove around the park on our self-drive safari, with our animal-spotting eyes wide open. And we did spot many different creatures, large and small (think chameleon or dung beetle), in spite of the lush summer-rains vegetation that hides the animals much more than the drier winter vegetation.
We saw creatures in the bush, near ponds and wallowing in mud pools. But we also saw many just standing on or ambling along the road.
Here, animals reign, so vehicles must stop and wait and sometimes it's a long wait!
For the smaller animals, such as a troop of baboons or a herd of impala (type of antelope), it's sometimes possible to inch forward and slowly the animals move off.
But for the large ones, like rhinos and especially elephants, it's potentially dangerous. The rule is to keep at least 150 feet between your vehicle and elephants because they can become bad-tempered, change direction and decide to chase the vehicle. You'd then be reversing at a great rate, possibly uphill and on very bumpy roads.
Not an ideal situation, so better to wait.
We waited one morning for a rhino, and about an hour for an elephant one afternoon, and eventually it moved off the road and back into the bush.
Late another afternoon, my husband and son had a rather scary experience, as they got stuck behind a pair of elephants, which did eventually move off. So they drove forward and soon got stuck behind another pair, and then another, so there were elephants both ahead of and behind them.
By then it was dark, and park rules say everyone must be back in camp before sunset. But the game rangers know the habits of the elephants and were monitoring the situation — by then three or four other cars were stuck, too. All ended well, but they said it was a bit stressful (an understatement, I think!).
We feel very honored to have been so close to these wonderful African creatures in the wild, just doing their own thing and living their animal lives.
Winter in South Africa is a better time to visit as the parks can be really hot in the summer. Vegetation is less dense in winter, making game spotting easier (that's of course summer season in the United States).
One word of caution: It is essential to wear long clothes, use mosquito repellent and start anti-malaria medication before arriving in South Africa.
Vivienne Mackie is originally from southern Africa and loves to return whenever possible. Her favorite African animal(s) are probably the giraffe and the hippo — but it's really not possible to choose. See her blog at http://viviennemackie.wordpress.com.