Planning a Safari-and-Capetown trip just a couple of days before Christmas might seem like a mission-crazy impossible to many. And after a couple of failed attempts (you could almost hear tour operators snickering at my madness- they don’t seem to like the last minute concept!) and getting the fully booked! Sold out! Ha, in your dreams! on every booking engine…I nearly gave up myself. But momma didn’t raise a quitter…so I tried the ultimate approach…via Instagram !

You’d think all that mind-numbing scrolling on the ‘Gram is in vain. But Instagram’s higher powers were perfectly aligned that day and this is how I came across @EverseenSA : the ultimate Safari designers. Charlie & Serena were click-on responsive and ready to tackle the challenge : succeed in giving us the Christmas-Safari of our dreams…with 48 hours to organize everything.

Charlie & Serena of EverseenSA, our South African Safari Designers

Surely, I swooned over Conde Nast Traveller’s “Best South African Safari Lodges”- but man, the prices were insane. Scary stuff. After being smacked in the face with some cosmic-proportions bargains (hey, it’s the peak of the season, folks- the travel agents all shrugged in defense of the high numbers) the wonderfully attentive @EverseenSA steered us clear of rip-offs and came with the perfectly balanced offer: the Real Deal for a fraction of the price.

And this is how we set off on Christmas Day. Woke up elated, the kids slashed open Santa’s presents in traditional frenzy…and a couple of hours later we hopped on the plane for Johannesburg. Dubai DXB to O.R. Tambo under eight hours…that flew by seamlessly due to all the safari-wildlife daydreaming.

My ten year old daughter is a walking animal-encyclopedia (with a penchant for big cats !) and the seven year-old is boy-curious with all things quirky and scary in nature…so I knew they’re in for a treat of the eyes and for the senses. I had only experienced my first ever Safari this summer in Kenya (damn I’m a lazy blogger, should have written the post by now!) and I was still hyper-excited to live the adventure once again.

We crashed in an airport hotel – The Southern Sun – comfortable enough- but if you’re looking for an extra oomph in your stay, and love downy, hug-you-to-sleep beds I would recommend The InterContinental O.R. Tambo – we booked there on our way back.

Boxing Day found us driving for six hours from J’burg to the gates of Kruger National Park, the most famous South African wildlife reserve, but steered right into the Manyeleti Private Game Reserve : an off-the-beaten track, still (sort of) secret place that promises a pristine bush experience, without the annoyance of big groups blocking your prime views for the roaming wildlife. Let’s say you’re getting a comfy front-row seat for one of nature’s greatest shows!

…my 7-year old first safari: the look of wonder

Getting there:

You could also fly into Hoedspruit airstrip (under one hour!) and cut your driving to only 45’ to your camp- but as we booked on the run the flight was already full. The drive was pleasant enough, getting our eyes used to the landscape of the new country we had the chance to see- and what seemed the usual fuel & snacks stop made it even more special : the Alka Gasoline station where the kids got to see their first rhinos !

“Manyeleti” means place of the stars in the Shangaan dialect – and it’s home to just a few selected lodges: the Honeyguide Tented Camps- Mantobeni & Khoka Moya, offering the authentic safari experience, and Tintswalo Safari Lodge & Manor House– the more luxurious, exclusive…and expensive option, with fancier suites artfully placed amidst a sycamore-tree grove.

The camp is not fenced – which means spotting wildlife around your tent can happen anytime- I crossed paths with a placid nyala antelope, several elephants came to quench their thirst at the pool in Mantabeni, and every night we could hear the whoo-oop of hyena laughter at what it seemed just steps away from our tent.

Our tent stood on an elevated platform, all breathable canvas and mosquito nets that give it an open, airy feeling, with a huge bathroom space inside. The second day a strange windstorm swept across the bushveld – and our tent rattled and shook all night, while we cowered under the blankets imagining that any given time the tent will fly off and the scariest of wildlife will creep on us exposed in the dark ! I woke up several times in the night- the children blissfully soft-snoring- mostly because of my active imagination- hearing animal sounds and things scratching at the tent walls.

Safari Game Drives: AM & PM

We had an open-top Land Rover all to ourselves. The incredulous look on my children’s faces when the first fifteen minutes of our debut game drive brought us at an arms-length close to a family of elephants, the bull tearing up through tree leaves but at all times watching us and slowly flapping its massive ash-colored ears as a mild warning.

…trunk family by the watering hole

A couple of days out on our safari game drives and we had managed to score the Big Five (elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and Cape buffaloes), plus many wonderful extras, like this pack of incresingly-rare wild dogs shadowing a herd of impalas, the alert antelopes scattering in a flash after the ambush.

…we understood on a later note how lucky we were to stumble upon the wild dogs in the Manyeleti Reserve- they move fast across wide areas and it’s only around 300 of them left in South Africa!

Here, on an-increasingly cloudy afternoon brooding with a storm, we found this resting lioness and her playful cub, guarding whatever was left of a wildebeest after the first meal, while a spotted hyena was patiently waiting in the high grass, at a safe distance, for a taste of the prey. All around, countless African vultures sitting with ruffled feathers and that sinister look on the stretching black limbs of msasa trees.

Circle of life in the South African savanna

Two cheetahs – brothers, our tracker said- exploring and playing on a tree trunk. We felt so lucky and blessed for this bountiful experience, like witnessing Noah’s Ark come alive from shrouds of legend.

Mornings, barely awake after a shot of black coffee, we’re driving through a dreamscape: the savannah seems dormant, not yet shaken from that moment right before dawn when finally all night creatures have silenced their cry, and everything lies still, holding its breath. It’s like we chance a glimpse at the secret life of nature, not wild but vulnerable. And suddenly you understand the meaning of the famed African light, saffron-rich, its particles traveling on the vastest of spaces. The bush stirs, small shadows start moving, and morning birds break into song and shoot in flight from hollow trees.

….sunset bush break, enjoying a fizzy treat and the spellbinding views

My favorite time of the day…

Still, nothing compares to the light shift on the bush when the sun dips low in the late afternoon: the shades of burnt sienna get an enhanced glow, the treetops are coated in what looks like melting gold. We would stop somewhere for sundowners- usually an orange juice for the kids and a gin tonic for me- the indulgence! and take in the view, the unpredictable wilderness around us. My favorite spot was by a watering hole, where from a safe distance we could watch giant crocodiles with their saw-toothed mouths frozen agape, like taxidermy models in a museum.

The second night, right after the afternoon game drive, the guides took us to a secret location, where the camp had prepared a surprise Bush Dinner with a huge braai – the Afrikaans version of a barbecue- the meat has to be cooked over an open fire – of kudu antelope sausages, lamb chops, steaks and boerewors (farmer’s sausages) served with grilled-and-buttered corn on the cob and mealie bread – South African sweet corn bread. An unusually cold wind blew showers of sparks from the boma fire, and we huddled up close under our borrowed ranger ponchos. The staff treated us to an array of traditional songs accompanied by dances from the local folklore. At the end, walking to our car, our ranger told us the same pride of out-to-hunt lions we had watched earlier was spotted prowling about just meters away from our bush dinner campsite. Best to always watch your back while in the bushveld !

The last two days of our safari we moved to Khoka Moya sister-camp, Mantobeni – which quickly became my favorite of the two- as usual just going by my vibe-o-meter. The communal area and the boma had a more intimate feel- inviting to that authentic camp togetherness- which nowadays requires serious effort considering that in the other camp visitors had a hard time even saying hello to others- everyone pretty much sticking with their pack. The staff was kinder, the smiles were wider.

And not lastly…wild elephants by the pool! Every night and often at breakfast we had two to three giants coming to dip their trunks in the basin by the elevated pool, drinking for long stretches of time and ofter showering, much to our sincere glee.

…breakfast with the big boys 🐘

Safari Packing List:

…prepared for any moody
weather with my lucky jacket and wraparound scarf!
  • parka / windbreaker jacket in muted colors – you don’t have to go all Hemingway in Africa or white colonialist with hat, binoculars and riding boots – but you do want to blend in with the landscape and avoid looking like a lilac-breasted roller (one of the most pretty and colorful birds that we would spot daily, swooping over the bush!) so yeah wear khaki, beige, earthy tones and no blue or black as it attracts the dreaded tsetse fly. I still dressed pretty colorful though 😅
  • scarf and hat/cap : for those random windy, dusty days in the bushveld
  • mosquito-and-other-creepers repellent- the Kruger National Park is deemed low-risk for malaria, but you might want to avoid being buzzed about and targeted by all sorts of blood-thirsty insects. My legs had yet to heal from the Cambodian mosquito attacks, one of the most vicious I have encountered so far and undeterred by any kind of chemical-strong spray!
  • a swimsuit! Both our camps had pools and on one particularly hot day in the bush going for a dip there was a huge relief. Bobbing in the pool while elephants come for a midday drink is also a bonus- and makes for great pictures to show the folks back home !
  • snacks 🙌🏼 The meals at both our camps were tasty and plentiful- and I was always gorging myself with a full basket of buttered bread – but for the munchies in-between a good supply of nibbles is LIFE ! Kids getting fussy on the three-hour drive with down-on-your-luck animal sightings? Essential parent hack : throw them something to chomp on. I packed nuts, crisps, granola bars, crackers, cheese puffs, gummi bears…and the occasional apple to peel with the ranger’s knife and share the slices over a bush-break.
  • biodegradable wet wipes, hand sanitizer and serious sunscreen should not miss from your backpack. African sun can scorch you! Not just for the girls: lip balm or chapstick- driving for hours in our open Land Rover with the swirling hot winds blowing in our faces will leave your mouth feeling cracked-dry like waking up after a long night drinking…when you forgot to put water by the bed. Hangover parched!
…with our wonderful Safari Guides, Mr.Johnson (on the left) and Mr.Twice – which my son affectionately called Mr.Three Times 😀

So this is it guys, our wonderful Safari experience. We enjoyed epic wildlife adventures, and experienced the ultimate serenity that only a deep conversation between nature and yourself can ensure. We went to bed early after gazing at the incredible display of stars from the Southern Hemisphere, and woke up rested before sunrise. The children stayed wide-eyed with wonder, asked countless questions, learned and wanted more. You leave, already longing to come back!