Umbrella acacia tree surrounded by grassland at the start of sunset

My Safari Conversion Story: Part 2

Read Part 1 of “My Safari Conversion Story”

By the time we got to Hwange National Park, I was truly regretting my decision to skip the Kruger night drive (and having missed the lion sighting on the first day in Kruger). So, against my better judgement, and some skepticism from other group members (after all, Hwange is NOT Kruger), I decided to take the optional (and rather expensive) pre-sunset game drive.

I had drunk the Safari Kool-Aid. (Plus, there was nothing else to do but sit at the watering hole behind the hotel and watch the various antelope drink.)

But I still kept my expectations low (Hwange is NOT Kruger). And when the driver finally stopped— after driving through the park for a while—only to point out the solar-powered water pump system, I decided to content myself with the ride, the landscape, and the company.

Toward the end of the drive we stopped at a watering hole with a viewing platform and enjoyed some drinks and appetizers. We saw crocodiles, jackals, and some running herds of zebra, wildebeest, and kudu. Then along the road, we saw some coy hippos inching their heads out of the water. So, not a total wash.

And yet our driver was not satisfied. He had told us that something was “eating” his brain. Apparently, he had a notion he had to pursue. So, as we began our return to the park gate, which was soon to close, the driver turned off the exit road and sped down what seemed to be a service road.

After a few minutes, the driver stopped and declared: “There, lions. I knew it!”

Way up in the distance a small pride of lions—females and juveniles only—was sauntering up the road. We counted 10 in total as they walked toward us. One cheeky lioness walked right up to the truck and turned into the bush. A few playful cubs ran from one side of the road to the other.

It. Was. Incredible. And, as a bonus, Hwange was Cecil the Lion’s old stomping ground, so these ladies and their cubs were probably his cousins (or perhaps even more closely related). (Big Five: 4/5)

After we had collected our jaws from the floor of the truck, we raced back to the main road to find our sister truck (who had not followed us). But it was too late. Half our group had missed this transcendental experience.

As we ceremoniously marked the sighting on the lodge’s game board, all I could think was, “Worth. Every. Penny.”

Young man reaches up to the top of chalk board with a large grid to place a check mark next to "lion" on May 4th, 2018.

Sam has the honour of marking our lion sighting on the lodge’s sighting board.

The next day, my marathon tour continued on to Victoria Falls (which was awesome). But just a day later, we crossed into Botswana and took a sunset cruise on the Chobe River. By then, the elephants and crocodiles and kudu were old news to me, so the star of this safari show were the many hippos that surrounded us, raising their heads ever so slightly, as we enjoyed wine and cheese and the setting sun.

By then it was Day 14, and I was knackered—and still on a high from the rhino attack and the pride of lions—so I choose to skip the next day’s optional early morning drive in Chobe National Park.

And that was my second mistake.

I really needed the sleep, but I also really needed to see a leopard to complete my Big Five. And predictably, the early risers saw a leopard.

Disappointed, I kept the faith, and resolved to NEVER skip an optional drive again.

A few days later, we arrived in Etosha National Park in Namibia. Compared to Kruger, Etosha is barren. And its arid landscape means there are no water-loving hippos or buffalo. But we lucked out, nonetheless. Driving through the park to the campground, we saw many elephants, giraffes, and zebra.

And on our first night in the park, we were treated to the sight of several black rhinos at the fenced-off watering hole behind the campground, complete with bleachers and floodlights. (Big Five: 4+/5

Our Etosha itinerary included an all-day drive around the park in our tour bus, but as a new convert, I gladly paid extra for the all-day drive in an open safari truck (I also helped our tour leader convince new group members that it was the only way to go).

We began what I thought would be the last game drive of my trip with a lion sighting in the distance. But Etosha is so barren that you can see for miles, and these lions were so far away, they were really just lion-shaped blurbs in the binoculars—even the cameras with the most obscene zoom lens could not pick them up. But no matter, because the day saw  oryx, red hartebeest, kori bustards, secretary birds, and thousands of springbok—from the start it was a good drive.

And this was the day we communed with the elephants on three significant sightings. We followed an ancient bull across the open terrain as he made his way to a watering hole, calmly passing by our truck. We watched a whole herd of females and juveniles drinking and cooling themselves, and later we saw three more bulls coming in for a drink. It was spectacular.

Selfie of blog author in sunglasses and banana over her mouth, taken from inside safari jeep, with herd of elephants in a watering hole in the background.

No big deal, just a herd of elephants—females and juveniles of all ages.

At the end of the day, I thought my safari days were done–all I had to look forward too was spectacular deserts, and dunes, and canyons. Then Ashish and Shivani suggested signing up at the park office for a night drive. It was the most expensive drive yet, but it was my LAST CHANCE to see a leopard. I was really regretting taking a pass on the Kruger night drive, and the Chobe morning drive. It was the worst case of FOMO I’ve ever experienced.

As we headed out in the cold night, it seemed like we were going to spend the whole drive chasing little rabbits—a new animal sighting, to be sure, but, you know, they were rabbits.

But we eventually stopped at a watering hole in the pitch black, the same watering hole visited by the bull elephants. Then all of a sudden, the driver focused his spotlight on a male lion, mane and all, moving in for a drink.

Content with such a sight, even in the dark, we were soon witness to a flirty lioness initiating an encounter with some serious affirmative consent. Through my binoculars I had a very close up view of lions mating in the wild just 20 metres away.

Shortly after (and I mean shortly, as lions go for about 15 seconds, giving it multiple goes throughout the night), three teenage males showed up and we were surround by five lions, in pitch black darkness, in an open truck. (“Where did they go?” she whispered…)

Our truck then followed the young lions as they trailed behind the mating pair. (It truly is remarkable how much the large animals of Southern Africa will ignore you if you don’t get in their way.) After some time travelling in parallel with the lions, we made our way back to camp. And all I could think was “Worth. Every. Penny.” (Big Five: 4++/5)

And that was the end of my safari adventures (but not the end of my tour through Namibia). After visiting 6 national parks in 4 countries, I had only seen four of the famed Big Five. Like most who go on safari, the leopard remains my white whale. But I’m sold nonetheless. I’m hooked. I still remain relatively indifferent toward animals in general, but I’m a safari believer.