Walking through a Milkwood forest with my guide Tiaan van Dyk is more Hansel and Gretel than I imagined South Africa to be. The branches bend and twist like the fingers of an evil old witch. Suddenly, Tiaan puts up his hand to tell me to stop. Just ahead are a bushbuck antelope and her tiny offspring.
Time stands still. In this moment of being so close, I am totally captivated. This is the magic of South Africa — its animals, its landscape and its people.
I have three wonderful wildlife experiences while in this magical land: a nature reserve, an ocean cruise and a safari.
Grootbos Private Nature Reserve
Two hours south of Cape Town, almost to Africa’s southern tip, are the seaside town of Gansbaai and Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, where I see the bushbuck and her calf. What started as a bed and breakfast built on the fynbos slopes overlooking Walker Bay has turned into an eco-lodge for travellers from around the world.
Set in 2,500 hectares of botanical and wildlife treasures, Grootbos offers several ways to explore its nature reserve, including nature walks, scenic drives and horseback riding. In this pristine fynbos kingdom and ancient forests, there are 791 plant species, 118 bird species, 29 mammals and 21 amphibians – some of which are under threat of extinction.
Guests stay in freestanding suites or a private villa. My suite is located in the enchanting Milkwood forest and has a view of the Atlantic Ocean.
Grootbos arranged a whale watching cruise with nearby Dyer Island Cruises. This day is the first time I hear the term “Marine Big 5,” which includes whales, sharks, dolphins, seals and penguins. The waterfront is abuzz with passengers talking about their hope of seeing all five.
We set off mid-morning. The crew is everywhere with binoculars scanning the horizon. Passengers choose to be on the main deck or the upper deck. I decide on the upper vantage point.
Once we get out into open waters the crew starts pointing out whales in the distance. They are hard to photograph, but we all see them. A few come to the boat, as does a lone African penguin. Then the ship pulls up close to an area with thousands of fur seals; a prime feeding area for them. The water looks like it is boiling with the seals diving in to catch fish. On the rocks, they sun themselves and sleep. The beauty of the scene is mesmerizing.
On the way back, we see a shark cage ship, where passengers put on wetsuits and get into the cage suspended on the side of the boat. We watch as the sharks circle the cage. The area is known as shark alley and great whites are often seen here.
Our tally for the day? Four of the Marine Big 5 and, lucky for me, on a pleasure cruise later on in my visit, I see dolphins as well.
Royal Malewane is a short drive from Hoedspruit Airport and a world away from everyday life – unless you live in the South African bush. Voted one of the top 50 resorts in the world by Condé Nast Traveler readers in 2016, the lodge is a perfect base for game drives.
It is one of eight lodges located in Thornybush Private Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. The reserve is open to another reserve that is open to the national park. This allows access to a much larger area for animals to roam including the Big 5 (elephants, lions, rhinos, giraffes and leopards) and impalas, wild dogs, dwarf mongoose, several species of antelope and exotic birds.
My guide Noelle van Muiden and her tracker, Lawrence, travel all over more than 15,000 hectares in search of animals. “There are more than 60 types of mammals, more than 300 different birds and approximately 150 different species of trees and shrubs,” says Noelle as we bounce along in search of our next sighting.
Game drives take place early morning and late afternoon when the animals are most active, and the light is perfect for photographing them. Understanding animal movement and communicating with other guides as well as Lawrence’s incredible sight and listening abilities, the pair usually has a plan when we climb up into the truck and set out on an adventure.
One morning, Noelle is driving down a road when Lawrence says simply, “Owl.” She backs up, gets out her binoculars and can’t see it. Then she gets out of the truck and invites her four passengers to get out and look. None of us see it until it moves and eventually flies away. How he saw it while we are moving still boggles my mind.
On another occasion he says, “I hear elephants drinking.”
Noelle drives slowly off-road through thickets and brush until we come to a pond where a dozen elephants are drinking water. We sit in the truck along the water’s edge watching and photographing the amazing scene. One elephant comes quite close to me and looks me in the eyes before moving on. Others begin to eat from trees lining the pond.
Lawrence often spots lion tracks and can recognize when they were made. We see several lions on our game drives. One day, we come across a mother rhino and her baby resting in the road. We wait until they move off, photographing the youngster yawning before following his mother into the underbrush. We come upon zebras and giraffes; gazelles and nyala antelope; baboons, Cape buffalo, monkeys and wart hogs.
It is at dusk and the sun is setting when we see two leopards eating their freshly killed prey. We watch and wait until one comes out into the open a little.
“How do you put a feeling to the experience?” asks Director and Head Ranger Juan Pinto one day just after lunch.
Indeed; there are no words to describe the feeling of being in the presence of these majestic animals in the wild, whether it’s a bushbuck, mighty whale or magnificent leopard.
South Africa beckons you to come, enjoy, learn and remember.
For more information:
Grootbos Private Nature Reserve http://www.grootbos.com/en
Royal Malewane http://www.theroyalportfolio.com/royal-malewane/overview/
South Africa Tourism http://country.southafrica.net/country/ke/en