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safaris

Bedroom in the deluxe suite at Mhondoro Safari Lodge

Mhondoro: Ultimate Luxury in the South African Bush

I have safaried in every possible fashion during my years in Africa. I’ve done low-budget camping trips, high-end tented camps, mid-range SANPark self-drives, river safaris, and walking safaris. You name it, I’ve probably done it. But when it comes to flat-out luxury I don’t think any of these past trips compare to my recent weekend at Mhondoro Safari Lodge and Villa.

Out on a game drive with Mhondoro.
Out on an afternoon game drive with Daniel, our Mhondoro guide.

Mhondoro is in the Welgevonden Game Reserve in central Limpopo, less than three hours from Joburg. Welgevonden is a private, Big 5 game reserve (meaning all the “Big 5” animals — lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant — live there) and there is no self-driving allowed, so the only vehicles driving around are those belonging to the reserve’s small number of lodges.

Game drive sundowners with Mhondoro
Game drive sundowners in the bush.

This sense of exclusiveness makes for excellent game-viewing as at any one time there are a very limited number of people — and a huge number of wild animals — hanging around in Welgevonden. Yes, it costs a lot. But the money helps preserve a huge, beautiful piece of wilderness and keep the animals (many of which are critically endangered) safe within it.

There are 21 lodges in Welgevonden. They all look pretty nice online but I can only speak for the one I stayed in. It was freaking fabulous.

Lobby at Mhondoro
The Mhondoro lobby.
Bedroom in the deluxe suite at Mhondoro Safari Lodge
Oh, just an average bedroom in our deluxe suite in Mhondoro.
Mhondoro Deluxe Suite
Outside view of the suite.
Deck attached to deluxe suite at Mhondoro.
This deck, also part of the suite, was everything. The Mhondoro watering hole is just to the left of this frame.
Zebras at waterhole outside the Mhondoro game viewing hide.
This photo was taken from an underground game-viewing hide in front of the lodge. To reach it you enter a secret staircase next to Mhondoro’s main kitchen, walk down a long underground tunnel, and pop up in the viewing area at eye level with the lodge’s watering hole. We only saw zebras and warthogs while in the hide (which was amazing enough) but rhinos and elephants regularly appear here. (Photo: Kevin Millner)
Warthog at the watering hole.

Besides the obvious luxury of the lodge itself, I can not overstate how wonderful the service was and how genuinely nice and helpful every Mhondoro staff member is. They go out of their way to make sure every guest’s experience is perfect.

Weekend at Mhondoro

Here’s how the weekend went down:

SATURDAY:

We left Joburg in the morning and arrived at the Welgevonden park entrance around noon. We parked our car there for the weekend and met Daniel, who drove us — along with a lovely family of four from Joburg (children are welcome at Mhondoro) and two rad women from Amsterdam — 45 minutes into the reserve to Mhondoro. We saw a couple of rhinos, elephants, and a variety of other wildlife along the way.

We hung out at the lodge for a bit and had lunch before our first game drive.

Mhondoro’s food is delicious. This little bird agreed.

On the game drive we saw a mother white rhino with her three-week-old baby.

Mom and baby rhino in Welgevonden
There is a huge rhino poaching problem in South Africa. But Welgevonden has a very large population of rhinos and due to a sophisticated anti-poaching program not single rhino has been killed there since 2015.
Baby rhino in Welgevonden
Rhino baby. I die.
Zebras under an impending full moon.
Heather in Welgevonden Game Reserve
Me looking happy and cold in the bush. (Photo: Kevin Millner)

We returned to the lodge after dark and had a wonderful “boma dinner” (an outdoor braai around the fire), then went to sleep in that amazing, cloud-like bed.

Boma dinner napkins
Napkin art at the boma dinner.

SUNDAY:

We rose at 6:00 a.m. — game drives start just before sunrise. This drive was freezing (thank god for the blankets and hot water bottles) but totally worth it as we saw lions and the cheetah chase I wrote about in my previous post.

A lazy late morning and afternoon followed, including a sumptuous breakfast, spa treatments, sauna time, deck time, general relaxation, etc.

On that evening’s game drive we found ourselves surrounded by an entire herd of elephants, unable to drive forward or back for about 45 minutes as the elephants grazed all around and stubbornly refused to move out of the road. Some of the other guests were a bit perturbed by this but I loved every minute.

Elephants in Welgevonden
Curious elephants.
Bull elephant walking toward the vehicle in Welgevonden.
This guy walked toward us flaring his ears a bit. Maybe I’m just naive but for some reason I didn’t feel at all worried. In the end it was fine.
Last sunset in Welgevonden
Last sunset.

One more delicious dinner, one more sleep in the cloud-like bed.

MONDAY:

One more sunrise game drive. This one wasn’t as dramatic as the previous ones but such is life in the bush. We ate pancakes next to a dry riverbed and saw some beautiful kudu.

Kudu in Welgevonden Game Reserve
Kudus have the loveliest ears.

Back at the lodge: Breakfast, one more session in the game viewing hide, then time to go. (Sob.)

Zebra at Mhondoro watering hole
Bye bye zebras.

The deluxe suite at Mhondoro costs R5675 (about $400) per person sharing per night. This rate includes full board, drinks, two game drives a day, and a massage. My stay at Mhondoro was complimentary. Opinions expressed are mine.

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Mhondoro Safari Lodge and Villa is a luxurious family lodge in South Africa's Welgevonden Game Reserve.

Cheetahs on the Hunt in Welgevonden Game Reserve

Over the recent long weekend I spent two days at Mhondoro Safari Lodge in the Welgevonden Game Reserve, which is in the Waterberg region of Limpopo. This trip amazed me in several ways, the first of which was how close Welgevonden is to Joburg (about two-and-a-half hours), and the second of which was how luxurious and fantastic Mhondoro is. It’s definitely one of the top three nicest (if not the nicest) safari lodges I’ve ever been to.

The third most amazing thing about Welgevonden was, of course, the animals.

Male lion in the grass at Welgevonden Game Reserve
Lion in the grass at Welgevonden Game Reserve.

I’ll have a lot more to say about Mhondoro in my next post. But I don’t want my cheetah hunt story to get lost in the shuffle of that post so I’m telling it here.

I have been a travel writer in Africa for nearly a decade and during that time I have participated in dozens, if not hundreds, of game drives and bush walks and other wildlife viewing experiences. But the Holy Grail of wildlife viewing — watching big cats on a hunt — eluded me until my trip to Welgevonden.

Cheetahs on the Hunt in Welgevonden

Spoiler alert: I didn’t see anything kill anything else. (I’m not sure that’s something I want to see anyway, as I imagine I’d feel very distressed. But Circle of Life and all that.) I did, however, see a family of cheetahs racing across the plains in pursuit of a herd of blesbok. It was the closest I’ve seen to a live Sir David Attenborough documentary.

Mother cheetah and cubs
This mother cheetah (center) has four eight-month-old cubs, two of which are visible here. We’d already been watching this family all morning — earlier the cubs were on high alert as their mother left them to chase away the male lion pictured in the image above. Note the mother’s thousand-yard stare: She’s looking out over the bushveld at a hapless herd of blesbok in the distance.
Mom has zeroed in.
Mama cheetah running
There she goes.
Cheetah on the plain
Not pictured here: A herd of giraffe watching curiously from the side, a couple of ostriches striding off to get out of the way, and three of four jackals circling around hoping to swipe a few bites of the cheetahs’ eventual kill. It felt like a scene in The Lion King. My eyes aren’t as good as a cheetah’s so I never saw the blesbok.
Cheetah cubs on the hunt
The cubs chase after their mom. These cub are already weaned and need to start learning to hunt themselves.

And that was it. Our guide later told us the cheetahs caught and devoured their blesbok but no one (at least no humans) saw it happen because it was too far from the road.

We had several more great sightings during our visit to Mhondoro — stay tuned for the next post.

My visit to Mhondoro was complimentary. Opinions expressed are mine.

Also I’m doing Pinterest now. If you like this post, please save the image below.

Ray's family at Kruger Elephant Museum

Kruger, Top to Bottom: Secret Places and Random Tips

Before my recent trip, I hadn’t fully grasped how large the Kruger National Park is. The park is 19,500 square kilometers (7,523 square miles), spread over a pipe-shaped area 360 kilometers (220 miles) long and about 65 kilometers (40 miles) wide.

Our route through the Kruger, with all the rest camps and picnic spots where we stopped along the way. The camps where we slept are marked in red.

I also hadn’t grasped how much there is to do in the Kruger, beside the obvious game-viewing.

Kruger is so vast that traveling between rest camps is an experience in itself. We stayed in four camps over seven nights, starting in the northernmost Punda Maria camp for one night, then on to the Shingwedzi and Satara camps for two nights each, finishing at the massive Skukuza camp for two nights. (Note that booking accommodation in the Kruger is a special skill requiring a blog post of its own. Ray’s mother is an expert — maybe I’ll ask her to do a guest post.)

The Kruger rest camps are historical, iconic places worth exploring in their own right.

Chalet at SataraA thatched Kruger chalet. This one is at Satara, one of my favorite rest camps.

Inside a chaletInside a Satara chalet, in case you’re wondering what the inside looks like. Most of the Kruger chalets we stayed in are set up more or less like this, although this particular one was my favorite. A chalet like this costs about R1400 ($105) per night for two people. More information here.

Also, there are dozens of interesting spots throughout the park where visitors can get out of the car, check out ancient ruins, peak over the edge of a bridge, make/buy a meal, read historical plaques, or simply gaze at the view.

View from Mlondozi picnic spot in KrugerWatching an elephant cross a dam (lake) at the Mlondozi picnic site, between Skukuza and Lower Sabie rest camps.

Ray and his family are clued in to lots of quirky Kruger sights and activities that others seem to overlook. Among other things, I thought I’d use this post to share some of the cool places I discovered with them.

Secret Places in the Kruger

1) The Elephant Hall (Letaba Rest Camp)

The Elephant Hall is a museum devoted to elephants, at the Letaba Rest Camp in central Kruger. The museum has an incredible collection of elephant tusks and stories of the giant “tuskers” who have lived and died in the Kruger during the last century. I was amazed by the cross-section of an elephant’s foot (huge!) and the preserved elephant’s heart, about the size of a beach ball.

Apparently the museum is usually empty, which is a shame. But we happened to show up at the same time as a school field trip and were engulfed by hoards of giggly teenagers eager to photograph themselves, each other, and us. It was fun.

Ray's family at Kruger Elephant MuseumRay’s mom and brother participate in a giggly schoolgirl photoshoot at the Elephant Hall.

2) The Kruger National Park Museum (Skukuza Rest Camp)

This museum, in the Skukuza Rest Camp, has to be the Kruger’s best kept secret — perhaps because there is almost no information about it online and the official name seems to vary. (The sign inside says Kruger National Park Museum, but I’ve also seen it referred to online as the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Library and the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Centre.)

Anyway, this museum was very recently refurbished — clearly at a significant expense — and has aesthetically pleasing, fun, informative, and culturally sensitive exhibits about the history of the Kruger Park. It also includes a library full of beautiful old books covering every wildlife- and nature-related topic imaginable.

Despite being smack-dab in the middle of the Kruger’s busiest rest camp, which houses thousands of visitors at a time, we were the only people in the museum. Please show it some love the next time you’re at Skukuza;  it’s a perfect way to pass those mid-day hours when the animals are sleeping, and so much more peaceful than Skukuza’s noisy restaurants.

Library at Kruger National Park Museum in SkukuzaThe library at the Kruger National Park Museum.

3) The Dog Cemetery (Skukuza Rest Camp)

The dog cemetery is just outside the museum at Skukuza, but deserves an entry of its own. This lovely little garden consists of gravestones of dogs collected throughout the Kruger Park over the decades. The graves are touching, commemorating the extraordinary lives and achievements of working dogs in the park.

Dog cemetery gravestonesTessa was a foster mother to three lion cubs! The half-cropped grave on the far right reads, “Buster: Died fighting a mamba in this garden.”

4) The Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial (southern Kruger)

Kruger is full of interesting memorials and historical plaques, usually beside little parking areas with signs inviting visitors to “alight at your own risk”. We stopped at many of these, but the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial near Skukuza was the most beautiful (and heart-stopping).

Heather at the Stevenson-Hamilton MemorialMe standing in front of one of the huge boulders at the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial. James Stevenson-Hamilton was the first warden of the Kruger National Park; his ashes are scattered here. (Photo: Ray)

Ray and I discovered this spot during one of our last evening game drives. The rocks loom far above the rest of the landscape and we climbed a winding dirt road to reach the memorial.

Even though visitors are allowed to leave their cars at the memorial, I hesitated. “This seems like a perfect place for leopards to hang out,” I said, looking around at all the underbrush. We were the only ones there.

But Ray convinced me. We took the path around the side of the huge rock to look at the plaque honoring Stevenson-Hamilton, then walked a bit further to one of the nicest viewpoints we’d seen all week.

Viewpoint at Stevenson-HamiltonThe viewpoint at the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial. (Photo: Ray)

As we walked back to the car, I couldn’t shake my uneasiness. “No leopard!” I called into the bush. “No lion!”

As we were unlocking the car to get back in, another car screamed around the corner and pulled up next to us. The man in the driver’s seat was wild-eyed. “We just saw a leopard,” he gasped.

Ray thought the man was joking and didn’t jump into the car as fast as I’d like. But this wasn’t a joke. The man held out his camera screen and there it was.

We drove up and down the mountain a few times but couldn’t find the leopard. I suppose that might be a good thing in this case.

Anyway, the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial is beautiful and I recommend the view. But please do alight at your own risk.

A Few More Kruger Tips

1) Don’t miss the northern Kruger.

Yes, the north is further away for most people, and it’s a bit quieter animal-wise (only a bit though). But I still like the north more than the south. It’s wilder, much less crowded, and has amazing birds and baobabs.

Elephant in northern KrugerAn elephant near the Punda Maria Rest Camp.

If you decide to go north and stay at the Punda Maria camp, I highly recommend the Russell Guest Cottage: a historic house that once served as the Punda Maria police quarters, and is now one of the park accommodation options. The cottage sleeps four and costs R2450 ($184) per night. Book well in advance.

Porch at Russell Guest Cottage in Punda MariaThe huge screened porch in the Russell Guest Cottage.

2) Prepare for crowds in the South.

We visited Kruger during low season, but the southern part of the park was still crowded. I rarely noticed the crowds though, except in a couple of instances.

The first was when we tried to sit down for a meal around mid-day at the Skukuza and Lower Sabie rest camps. Those camps are insanely busy and I recommend avoiding their restaurants and shops as much as possible. (The chalet areas are still quiet, thanks to the clever layout of the camps.)

The only other time I noticed the crowds was around lion or leopard sightings.

Traffic near lion sightingThere’s a lion around here somewhere. I only saw cars.

When you see a pile-up like this — unless it’s the only opportunity you’ll ever have in your life to see a lion — I recommend driving right on past.

3) Use the picnic spots.

Mid-morning breakfast at a picnic spot is a hallowed Kruger tradition. We got up early every morning, left the camp by 6:30, drove around for three or four hours, then stopped at our planned picnic spot for a “fry-up”: fried eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, and a wondrous thing called “fried slice” — store-bought bread fried in bacon grease. (Fried slice is best with maple syrup.)

Morning fry-upMorning fry-up.

Each picnic spot has a full-time attendant, who rents out gas burners to visitors. Each spot also has dishwashing facilities, bathrooms, and access to boiling water. (Just don’t go to the Afsaal picnic spot near the Malelane gate. They charge R5 for boiling water and that’s ridiculous.) Watch out for greedy birds and monkeys.

Lady and nyala at Pafuri picnic spotAt the Pafuri picnic spot. The northern Kruger is the best section of the park for nyala-viewing. Apparently the nyalas also enjoy human-viewing.

Ray’s mom knows every picnic spot in the park and we stopped at all her favorites. My favorites were Mooiplaas (near Mopani), Mlondozi (between Skukuza and Lower Sabie), and Tshokwane (between Satara and Skukuza), which has a charming albeit busy restaurant in addition to a picnic spot.

4) Don’t bother with night drives.

Self-drivers must be off the road and inside the gates of their camps by about 6:00 p.m. and can’t leave again until 6:00 a.m. (Times vary slightly according to the time of year.) So the only way to see Kruger at night is by booking a SANParks night drive.

We did one night drive, and although we had one amazing sighting of an African wildcat, I do not recommend it. The night drives consist of about 30 people cramming into the back of a huge safari truck like a herd of cattle. The driver hands out a few big flashlights and tells everyone to yell if they see something.

Every few minutes the driver yelled, “Look in the trees! Look on the ground!” and otherwise said nothing. People yelled out when they thought they saw something, the driver jerked to a halt, backed up a few feet, and then everyone strained to see something — anything — in the dark. In every case but one, we saw nothing.

African wildcat in KrugerProps to Jack, Ray’s brother, who spotted this African wildcat and saved the night drive from being a waste. I had never seen one of these before. I love how it steadfastly refused to open its eyes, or even get up and run away, despite 30 people oohing and ahhing and shining flashlights in its face. That’s so…cat.

5) Don’t feed the animals. And don’t get out of the car.

This seems obvious, especially the second tip. But believe it or not, we saw one idiot get out of his car in the middle of the road, within spitting distance of a LION. I had a short “discussion” with this man and was dismayed to find that he was either American or Canadian (probably American).

Guy outside his car in the KrugerGo back to Trumpland, buddy. (Photo: Ray)

Leaning outside of the car in the KrugerThis is also not allowed. (Photo: Ray)

Not only do you put yourself at risk by doing this, but you also risk habituating the animals to humans. Also you can get fined lots of money. So don’t.

6) Don’t obsess over the Big Five.

The Big Five includes lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and rhino. No one really knows why the Big Five are the Big Five. Do yourself a favor and don’t get obsessed with seeing all five. You’ll drive yourself crazy.

That said, I have to brag that I did see all five for the first time ever. No decent lion or leopard pictures to show for it though.

Baby Big-FiverA baby Big-Fiver.

Waterbuck in KrugerWaterbuck are not part of the Big Five but they’re still freaking cool.

I could say much more but 2000 words is enough.

I dedicate this post to Tim Couzens, Ray’s father, who passed away in October 2016. In addition to being an accomplished South African writer, historian, and pioneer in the field of African literature, Tim was a die-hard Kruger lover and went there every year with his family. That family misses him very much.

In addition to being a family vacation, this Kruger trip was a tribute to Tim. We visited all his favorite places and Di, Ray, and Jack regaled each other (and me) with countless stories and memories of their dad/husband. I’m fortunate to have been part of it, and I’m fortunate to have known Tim.

Tim and Di in NyangaTim and Di in Nyanga, Zimbabwe, in November 2014.

Rest in peace, Tim.

Sunset in the Kruger

Mom and baby hyena - mom looking away

Three Incredible Moments in the Kruger

I’ve just come back from a week with Ray and his family in the Kruger National Park. I’m not sure where to begin writing about it. This was an extraordinary trip.

Kruger sunriseSunrise in the Kruger.

I’ve visited lots of games reserves in South Africa over the years — mostly private reserves with luxurious accommodation and a “guests must not lift a finger except to press the camera shutter” kind of approach. (There are tons of private reserves around the borders of the Kruger, while the park itself is public.) I know the drill at places like this: Wake up early, guided game drive or walk, return to luxurious accommodation, eat gourmet food cooked by others, sleep, eat more food, another game drive, drink sundowners, eat more food, go to bed, repeat.

Such trips usually last three days at most, because: 1) Few people can afford to stay longer; and 2) Eating and drinking 10,000 calories a day is surprisingly exhausting.

Luxury safaris are wonderful. I’m ridiculously fortunate to have stumbled into a profession allowing me to take trips like that from time to time. (Read about a few of them here and here and here.) But my do-it-yourself week in the Kruger — traveling with tough, seasoned South African nature-lovers who know every inch of this massive national park and would never think of seeing wildlife in any other place, in any other way — was eye-opening.

The Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s oldest and most iconic game parks. Self-driving the park for seven days was a totally different experience than anything I’ve had in a private reserve. I came away with a new perspective on this particular type of South African holiday, and on the natural world more generally.

After seven years of living in this country, the Kruger made me love South Africa in a way I never have before. The Kruger made me more South African.

Ray's family and me in the KrugerLeft to right: Ray’s brother John (aka Jack), Ray’s mom Diana, Ray, and me, at a lookout point near the Skukuza Rest Camp.

My Favorite Moments in the Kruger

We did a top-to-bottom tour of the Kruger, starting at the far northern tip of the park and exiting the southernmost gate. I’m going to do a longer post after this one, with more impressions about where we stayed and what we did and what I do and don’t recommend.

But to start, I’ll share a three-part photo series documenting my favorite game sightings of the week.

1) Mud-covered Tuskers

On our second afternoon in the park, just north of the Shingwedzi Rest Camp, we ran into a group of giant-tusked elephants coated in mud.

Mud-covered elephant and carLook at those tusks! That car is a bit too close for comfort, in my opinion.

Elephant shaking his headShaking his head, providing a better perspective on the length of the tusks. Unfortunately we didn’t witness this elephant actually wallowing in the mud — I’m sure that was quite a sight.

Smaller elephant with mudA smaller elephant with smaller tusks. Still freaking huge.

Elephant head and tree trunkThis elephant was having a nice rub against the tree. I’m fascinated by the eye, which is either closed or covered in mud.

Elephant tree-rubbing
More tree-rubbing.

Big elephants crossing the roadThis guy also has a massive tusk, but just one. I wonder how he lost the other?

Tsessebe crossing the roadAmidst all the tuskers, we also watched a group of tsessebe cross the road. Tsessebes are fairly uncommon in South Africa, and also just super interesting-looking.

2) Side-striped Jackals on the Hunt

We spent two nights at Shingwedzi Rest Camp. On our second evening there, Ray impulsively turned down a short dirt road on our way back to the camp. Di and Jack had gone ahead in a separate car.

The sign said we’d find a watering hole in two kilometers, but when we reached the end of the road we found only a dead end. We shrugged and laughed.

As Ray turned the car around, he saw a jackal. Then we saw two.

First shot of a side-striped jackalJackal!

We only realized the next day, after another jackal sighting, that these were not the black-backed jackals more commonly sighted in Kruger. Rather this was a pair of side-striped jackals, which are exceedingly rare and difficult to spot because they’re nocturnal. Di estimates she’s been to the Kruger more than 30 times and has never seen one.

Side-striped jackal in the grassAfter seeing this photo, a friend commented that side-striped jackals look more wolf-like than black-backed jackals. 

Black-backed jackalHere’s a black-backed jackal we saw the next day, for comparison.

Jackals often disappear quickly but these two hung around, trotting a few steps down the road and stopping to turn and see if we were following.

Side-striped jackal waitingWaiting for us to catch up.

One of the jackals veered off into the brush, and moments later a small hare darted out in front of us and streaked across the road. The jackals were hunting!

Two side-striped jackalsOn the hunt.

Eventually they gave up on their prey and ran off.

Side-striped jackal running awayNot the sharpest photo but I love the fact that all four feet are airborne.

3) Hyena Motherly Love

Our longest drive of the week was between the Shingwedzi and Satara Rest Camps, through the middle section of the Kruger. We left particularly early — just after 6:00 a.m. when the gate opened — and were rewarded with a spectacular early-morning hyena sighting.

Mother hyena in the roadA female hyena chilling in the road, bathed in early morning sunlight.

I was already madly clicking away when Ray tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the left. The hyena had a cub.

Hyena cub crossing the roadI die.

I’ve always loved hyenas. (I once wrote a blog post called Hyenas Make Me Laugh.) This was my first time seeing a hyena cub and it could not have been better.

Hyena and cubSeriously now, I’m dying.

Mom and cub - cub looking at cameraDead. I’m totally dead.

Mom and cub hyena, both lookingAre you getting tired of these yet? I’m not.

Mom and hyena cub playingThey’re playing!

Hyenas playingOkay I’m done now.

More Kruger posts to come.

Cheetah family feeding

Five Cheetahs and an Aardvark

We tiptoed along as the sun lowered behind us. The wind howled. Tendai pointed ahead and we could just make out the body of a large animal with three small, spotted heads bobbing around it. The body, we would later learn, was a kudu carcass. The spotted heads belonged to a hoard of little cheetahs.

Warning: Dead carcass imagery combined with extreme cheetah cuteness below.

Three cheetah cubsThree cheetah cubs — wait, make that four — hover around the kudu that their mother (lounging in the background) killed. 

We crept to within about ten meters of the cubs and I raised my camera to my eye, shooting madly. There were four cubs total. Their mom, wearing a radio collar, reclined under a thorn bush.

Tendai kept moving closer. Ray and I exchanged glances. Surely it can’t be safe for humans to walk within a few feet of a family of wild cheetahs eating a fresh kill?

But Tendai beckoned and he seemed to know what he was doing. Soon we were close enough to hear the cubs purring as they tore into the kudu’s flesh. The cubs occasionally glanced our way between bites. The mom ignored us.

CheetahsGet ready for lots more cheetah pictures.

Cheetahs

Cheetah tongue

Cheetah mom stands upMom, whose name is Chilli, finally pays us a bit of attention, giving us a polite warning to keep our distance.

Ray and I were at Samara, a private game reserve in the Great Karoo. Samara, as you’ve already guessed, is not your average game lodge. It’s luxurious, to be sure, like many other South African game lodges, with delicious food and excellent service and the usual trimmings. But the cheetahs set Samara apart.

Mom and baby cheetahMom and baby. These cubs are about four months old.

Cheetah family feedingAre you bored of cheetah photos yet? I hope not.

The Story of the Cheetahs

Mark and Sarah Tompkins started Samara 20 years ago, on land previously used for livestock farming. The Tompkins family gradually restored the land to its natural state and stocked it with wild animals that were originally indigenous to the Karoo but had long ago disappeared from the region.

The first cheetah, Sibella, came to Samara in 2004 and the cheetah population grew over time. Most of Samara’s adult cheetahs wear radio collars so researchers and staff can track their movements. (Cheetahs are severely endangered.) While the cheetahs are definitely wild, they are accustomed to human observation and don’t mind people coming into close proximity, as long we maintain healthy respect.

There are no lions or other big cats at Samara, so cheetahs are the apex predators. This charmed existence allows Samara’s cheetahs to behave a bit differently from cheetahs in places like the Kruger where they have to compete with bigger, stronger cats. For example, we were able to observe Chilli and her family with their kudu carcass on two consecutive evenings. Since there are no other predators around, they could relax with their kill in the same spot for as long as they pleased.

Cheetahs chowingChowing. The cub at the back on the right is called Stumpy because he was born with half a tail.

Cheetah cub

Enjoying Samara

Seeing wild cheetahs up close was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (This was my aim for the weekend — it was Ray’s birthday and I wanted to do something he’d never done before. As far as wildlife goes, Ray has seen almost everything.) But tracking cheetahs is not the only great thing about Samara:

There’s the lodge itself, opulent yet understated, with its beautiful view, cozy fireplaces, and hearty food.

Heather in the Samara Manor HouseOur bedroom in the Samara Manor House. The four-bedroom house is usually reserved for small groups or families, but there was a wind storm just before we arrived and Samara’s larger Karoo Lodge was closed for repairs. So we stayed in the Manor instead and had the place pretty much to ourselves. (Photo: Ray)

Afternoon tea at SamaraAfternoon tea at Samara: devilled eggs and lemon meringue pie.

There’s the incredible Karoo scenery. The vast semi-desert is a totally different environment from other game reserves I’ve visited in South Africa.

Karoo Shepherd's treeA Karoo shepherd’s tree, the most distinctive tree species at Samara.

Heather and Ray on plateauRay and I sitting atop Samara’s mountain plateau, with the desert stretched out below us. (Photo: Tendai)

There’s all the other wildlife.

Giraffe familyA family of giraffes.

Giraffe nursingA baby giraffe nursing — I’d never seen this before.

Mom and baby animalsI can’t say the name of this animal in my post, as Samara is concerned about tech-savvy poachers. But you know what they are. 

Mountain zebraWe saw beautiful game on top of the mountain plateau. This is an endangered mountain zebra.

Black wildebeestBlack wildebeest with their funny horse-like tails.

There’s the staff.

Tendai and BenedictOur dynamic guiding duo, Tendai (left) and Benedict. All of the Samara staff members are excellent.

There are the sunrises and sunsets.

Sunrise at SamaraI barely caught this stunner of a sunrise in the parking area of the lodge.

Sunset at SamaraSunset the same day.

And finally, there’s the aardvark.

Aardvark at SamaraWe saw an aardvark! They’re similar to anteaters but eat termites instead.

Samara is known for its aardvark, one of the hardest wild animals to spot. (They’re usually underground and come out mostly at night.) As our final game drive drew to a close, we joked with Tendai that an aardvark was the last animal he needed to find for us.

Just a few minutes before we arrived back at the lodge, Tendai came through. We jumped out of the truck and followed the aardvark on foot until we were just close enough to see it clearly. Then it caught wind of us and scampered away.

Perfect ending to a perfect trip.

Cheetahs

Samara Private Game Reserve is a 3.5-hour drive from Port Elizabeth. Our stay at Samara was complimentary. Opinions expressed are mine.

Makuleke community drama song

Pafuri: A Beautiful Place With an Ugly History, Turned Beautiful Again

Once upon a time, the Makuleke people lived on a triangle-shaped piece of land, bordered by two rivers, at the intersection of three countries. The land was beautiful and fertile, with a huge diversity of animals and the mightiest trees in the world. This triangle was called Pafuri.

In 1969, at the height of South Africa’s apartheid, the Makuleke were “removed” from the Pafuri Triangle so the area could be incorporated into the Kruger National Park. Men with guns drove trucks into the Makuleke villages, rounded up the people, and drove them to a barren piece of land a couple of hours away. The people — mostly women, children, and elderly men, as the younger men were away working — were dumped and given tents to sleep in. The men with guns left, and the Makuleke had to start over.

This is a grossly oversimplified description of what happened. I’m a blogger, not a historian.

The Luvuvhu River in PafuriA typical scene in the Pafuri Triangle, on a bridge overlooking the Luvuvhu River. It probably looked much the same in 1969.

Traditional Makuleke homeA traditional home in the area where the Makuleke were forcibly removed, 90 minutes’ drive from the Pafuri Triangle.

When democracy came to South Africa in the 1990s, the Makuleke filed a claim to get their land back. They won. But after much consideration and negotiation, the Makuleke elected not to return to their land. They stayed where they were and entered into an agreement with the South African government to preserve the Pafuri Triangle for conservation and ecotourism.

Technically still part of the Kruger, the Pafuri Triangle is now called the “Makuleke Contractual Park”. There are two privately owned, luxury eco-lodges in the park, staffed almost exclusively by people from Makuleke. The Makuleke community owns this land and receives a portion of the income from the lodges, which goes toward public works projects in the Makuleke villages.

This brings me back to last weekend, when I spent a few days at ReturnAfrica‘s Pafuri Camp in the Makuleke Contractual Park.

Pafuri Makuleke-8650You’ve probably already seen this elephant in my pervious post. I couldn’t resist showing him off again.

I was really excited about this trip. I had visited Pafuri once before, on my first-ever media trip five years ago. Back then the camp was run by Wilderness Safaris and I participated in the four-day walking trail; we stayed in a rustic campground away from the main lodge and explored Pafuri on foot. It was my first walking safari and I was enthralled.

Two years after that visit, in 2013, Pafuri was ravaged by a flood that destroyed the Pafuri Camp lodge. Wilderness Safaris withdrew from Pafuri, leaving all of the local staff without jobs. I remember hearing about that flood and feeling very sad.

But now, the good news. ReturnAfrica took over the Pafuri Camp last year, in partnership with the Makuleke community and the African Safari Foundation. Many of the Makuleke people who worked here before the floods have returned, and the lodge has more of a community focus than before.

The Pafuri Camp

This post is already long and I haven’t written about my actual experience yet. So let me boil it down for you: My stay at the Pafuri Camp was amazing — definitely the nicest safari accommodation I have ever stayed in. My game drives were fantastic, as you saw in my previous post. And my visit to the Makuleke Community, where I learned most of the information shared above, was the best part of the trip.

First, the lodge:

Pafuri safari tentOne of the thatch-roofed safari tents at Pafuri Camp. There are about 20 of these luxurious tents, widely spaced from one another and connected by wooden decks. All of the tents overlook the river, which teems with wildlife.

Inside Pafuri tentThe inside of my tent, which also has a full bathroom, indoor and outdoor showers, and two more beds at the back. This room was so peaceful and comfortable, with nothing to listen to other than bird calls and the sound of buffalo and waterbuck wading through the shallow river. I wanted to stay forever.

The cost of a stay in one of these tents starts at about R2300 ($146) per person, per night, including meals. This might sound expensive, but it’s a good deal for luxury accommodation in or around the Kruger. I’ve stayed in far worse places that cost as much or more than Pafuri. I can’t recommend this lodge highly enough.

Pafuri Makuleke-8617A saddle-billed stork, one of the Birding Big 6, spotted outside my tent.

Pafuri afternoon teaAfternoon tea in the dining area.

Visiting the Makuleke

I’ve got more camp and safari pictures but I think you get the idea. Let me skip to our Makuleke visit.

I was wary of this visit, worried that it might feel like those fake cultural villages that are supposed to teach unwitting tourists about “authentic” African life. It was nothing of the sort. Mukuleke is a real place and we were taken there without pretence, as observers.

Ford Escort in MakulekeEnos, one of our guides in Makuleke who is also a manager at the Pafuri Camp, took us to visit his mother’s house. This perfectly preserved 1970s-era Ford Escort, which belongs to Enos’ brother, was parked in the back yard. Enos’ mother served us a delicious traditional vegetable dish made with cooked pumpkin leaves.

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p style=”text-align: center;”>Maria Makondo, sangoma in Makuleke
Enos also took us to meet Maria Makondo, a local sangoma (traditional healer). Maria is showing us a portrait taken of her many years ago.

Maria with Instax pictureI took a photo of Maria with my Instax camera. She loved it. “I’m still beautiful,” she said.

Maria in MakulekeThe collection of shells, seeds, stones, and bones that Maria uses to look into people’s lives and tell fortunes. I found it interesting that she keeps her collection in a handbag.

Maria telling fortunes in MakulekeMaria dumps her stuff out on the mat, watches where it all falls, and uses the configuration to learn and predict things about her clients (in this case, me and my two colleagues, Mini and Bridget). Maria didn’t do the best job with her observations about me but I didn’t mind at all.

The highlight of our Makuleke visit was the community drama, in which a group of women acted out a play about the forced removals.

Makuleke Community Drama songMakuleke women in traditional attire, singing a song during the community drama. The women spoke and sang in Tsonga (Shangaan), but Enos translated for us.

Community drama is a common form of storytelling in traditional African communities. I’ve watched quite a bit of community drama in various countries over the years, as part of non-profit projects I’ve worked on. The Makuleke drama was the best I’ve seen.

Woman Makuleke actor playing a manThis woman is playing the role of a male Makuleke elder speaking out about the impending forced removals. 

 Makuleke actors on busThe most painful part of the play, depicting the actual removals. The actor on the left, holding the “wheel”, is playing the role of the truck driver carrying the people away from their homes.

Makuleke woman with whistle The whistle is an important instrument in traditional South African music.

At the end of the drama, everyone — including me — had to dance.

Bridget dancingBridget.

Mini dancingMini.

Ezaya dancingEzaya, our handsome guide, who comes from Makuleke himself.

Heather dancingYours truly. I can’t remember who shot this photo.

This was an incredible trip. The ReturnAfrica lodge is stunning and well run. And it seems like there’s been a happy ending to this story for the Makuleke.

But the fact remains that these forced removals, which happened less than half a century ago, were tragic and cruel and unconscionable. Also, this incident was only one in a long, long series of unconscionably cruel forced removals all over South Africa, which affected millions upon million of people and continue to affect them today.

It’s great that the Makuleke are now benefitting from the land they lost, but the truth is that their loss can never be completely restored. After our Makuleke visit, lying in my king-sized bed listening the buffalo and waterbuck, I still thought about that loss.

Enos and his familyEnos (left) with his mother and brother. Enos’ mother experienced the forced removals as a young woman. Enos worked for the Wilderness Safaris camp for many years, then left after the floods to work for Singita, one of Africa’s top luxury safari lodges. Father of two sets of twins (!), Enos was thrilled to be able to return to the area as a manager of the Pafuri Camp when it reopened under ReturnAfrica. 

The end.

My stay in Pafuri was courtesy of Return Africa. Opinions expressed are mine.

Elephants in the fever tree forest

The Land of Elephants and Baobabs

The Pafuri Triangle — a piece of wilderness in the very northern corner of South Africa’s Kruger National Park — is a land of giants. The trees are huge. The animals are huge. The beauty of the landscape is beyond comprehension.

Elephant eating in PafuriThis elephant looks small in the photo (which, incidentally, was shot from the doorway of my tent at Return Africa’s Pafuri Camp). Trust me though — he’s huge.

I spent three days at the Pafuri Camp, run by Return Africa, in the Makuleke Contractual Park. This section of the Kruger has a fascinating history, which I’ll describe in a future post.

Elephants and Baobabs: Kruger’s Photogenic Giants

I saw so many elephants during this trip and it’s been a struggle for me to narrow down the number of elephant photos I want to share. Same goes for the baobabs: I love these huge, ancient, topsy-turvy trees — which can only be found in the northern part of the Kruger — and I photographed them profusely. So before I go into the whole story of my trip, here are my favorite photos of the giants.

Baobab and truck shadowThis is my favorite baobab photo because you can also see the shadow of our safari vehicle. Note how this tree, which may be more than a thousand years old, dwarfs all of the other trees around it.

Elephant in fever tree forestMy favorite elephant photo, which again makes the elephant look smaller than he really is. This was a special elephant sighting because it happened in Pafuri’s magical fever tree forest. Fever trees, while they don’t compare to baobabs, are majestic in their own way with clouds of lacy green leaves and eerie, green-tinted bark.

Elephants in fever tree forestMore elephants and fever trees.

Baobab with weaver nestsA baobab in the late afternoon sun. The branches are dotted with weaver bird nests.

Baobabs at sunsetBaobab silhouettes at sunset.

Angry elephant in musth.A single male elephant, seen through the back of our truck. The elephant is in musth (pronounced “must”), as you can see from that dark, wet patch next to his eye. Male elephants in musth are particularly moody. He wasn’t too happy about our intrusion onto his road, but he held his temper.

Elephant on the road.We encountered the same elephant on the same stretch of road a couple of hours later. There was a car trailing behind him; the driver was afraid to pass the elephant and had been following along behind for 40 minutes.

The big baobab tree.Sunset at “the big tree”. Apparently this is the largest baobab in Pafuri. See the ant-like people on the bottom right?

Essay climbing the big baobab tree.Ezaya, our guide, demonstrates how to climb the big tree.

Bridge and Mini in the big baobab tree.My colleges Bridget (left) and Mini (right). They climbed the tree but I elected to stay on the ground.

I’ll have more to say about Pafuri soon. In the meantime, feel free to read the posts I wrote about a previous visit to Pafuri in 2011. See here and here and here.

Elephants and Baobabs-8674

My stay in Pafuri was courtesy of Return Africa. Opinions expressed are mine.

Kruger at Ground Level, Part 1: Animal

A big thank you to travelgurus.co.za and Wilderness Adventures for making this blog post possible.

Last weekend I visited Kruger National Park, the largest park in South Africa. This wasn’t just any old Kruger safari, either. I went to the remotest and most beautiful section of the park — the Pafuri Triangle.

A view of the Limpopo River, just before my plane landed at Pafuri Camp. The Pafuri Triangle is in the far northern corner of the Kruger Park, wedged between the Limpopo and Luvuvu Rivers and the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

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Elephant-Watching Through the Rearview Mirror

It was a beautiful afternoon in Pilanesberg, a game reserve two hours from Joburg. Joe, my mother, and I, along with our safari guide, Chris Green, were driving slowly behind a large bull elephant. The elephant was ambling down the center of the road and there was no getting past him.

I leaned out the window to take a photo. I had to twist myself at a funny angle to get the shot because Chris was driving in reverse, and had been doing so for the last ten kilometers. We were trying to reach the park headquarters, which was still several kilometers away.

Cruising along behind an elephant and another car, in reverse. I couldn’t get the camera straight because of the way I was leaning.

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