Any trip to South Africa is not complete without a visit to a game reserve to see the beautiful creatures that make our country and our continent famous. Visitors to Johannesburg can count themselves lucky that they are in easy reach of hundreds of spots perfect for spotting wildlife and spending a relaxing few days in nature. There are more options to choose from than you would believe, ranging from low-cost camping in the Kruger National Park to the highest end luxury resorts at private reserves and everything in between.
Spotting wildlife can be an unpredictable endeavour though, since these are gigantic and completely wild reserves where guides, despite their incredible tracking skills, can’t control the many factors like weather, other animals, fire or simply pure luck that determine how many animals will appear in front of your car. One thing that can be done though, is research. Certain areas or reserves are better known for having large numbers of certain animals, and usually this can be found out by talking to people in the industry if there are specific species you’re dying to see.
By far the best place I’ve been to so far is in the Sabie Sands reserve, a group of private farms that border the Kruger National Park on the eastern side and which have grouped together to allow visitors at each to take game drives across the whole territory. The animals roam freely between the farms and also into Kruger, meaning that anything and everything is a possibility. In particular, this corner is known to have a high density of leopard who have been resident in the area for many, many years. Luckily, they also have incredible local guides and trackers who know the land inside out and have been working around the animals for a long time as well. This means that in the game of chance that is a safari trip, Sabie gives you a pretty good hand.
I visited the area just as summer in South Africa was heating up, and right before the rains arrived to quench the drought-stricken land. This is a spine-tingling time in the bush. Herbivores wait to give birth to their young until the rains come, so there are huge numbers of pregnant Kudu, Impala, Blesbok and Steenbok running around anxiously trying to both find food and water, and avoid predators. Predators, on the other hand, are desperate for food, having endured a long winter with little rain. Green starts to appear on the bare brush, and the dry red sand slowly softens to reveal, early in the morning, the footprints of the animals that snuck by in the night.
While we were there the rains finally hit. We spent one violent thunderstorm, bordering on a hailstorm, huddled inside looking out at the savannah desperately soaking up the water. We weren’t quite so protected the next time a storm hit. In fact, we were out on a game drive in the early evening when rain started pelting our roofless vehicle. Our amazing guide told us to go home would be missing the best part of the show, and luckily we listened to his good advice. We sat pathetically in the back of the truck getting soaked to the bones, and it was the most incredibly liberating feeling. It made me realize how, despite our inflated egos and everything we humans have done to take over the earth we live on, we are utterly insignificant against the forces of nature. We were just a tiny little blip in the middle of a gigantic and vital storm raging across the savannah that brought life back to the world around us.
The next day, another storm arrived in the afternoon. This time, with lightning all around us, our guide deemed it best to stay inside. After darkness had fallen the storm passed though, and we managed to convince him to take us out for a drive. As we left the gates of our accommodation we spotted a female leopard sitting right outside. She was completely un-phased by us and immediately crouched down and started stalking something. It was pitch black and we couldn’t see anything that she could, but our guide started following her. The storm sat in the sky just in front of us, and we finally saw what she was after: a big herd of impala were grazing entirely unawares about 50 metres away. We were downwind from them, and they hadn’t picked up the scent of the leopard on their trail. Amazingly, she used our truck as cover, crouching low on the ground not more than a metre from where I sat, and moving slowly towards them in pace with us. Finally, when she was close enough to pounce, she cut across the field and we lost her. A few seconds later, though, as we rounded a bend, we caught her in our headlights. She had a big, pregnant impala by the throat and was slowly draining the life from it. We watched for a few minutes as she finished and cleaned up the kill. We waited for her to drag it up a nearby tree, but our guide said she was too exhausted to attempt it that night. Instead, she ate as much as she could before lying down next to it to await the morning. When we came back at first light, the impala was strung over a branch nearby, and she sat nearby watching.
The show that night was not even close to the only amazing thing we saw that trip. We came across four separate leopard, something that is unheard of in such a small territory- except in Sabie Sands. We saw leopard chasing a pack of wild dog away from their watering hole, also a rare site as wild dog are critically endangered. We saw giraffe, zebra, lions, hippo, vultures, eagles, chameleons and more type of buck than I can even remember. All this, in the space of just four days.
If it’s wildlife and a genuine African experience that you’re after, South Africa, and especially the Sabie Sands reserve, is the place you’re looking for. It combines relaxation with adventure, being in nature and learning more about the eco-system we live in with a fun retreat for any type of person. There are so many ways to experience the bush and so many amazing places to do it, but Sabie Sands is definitely one of the best.
Sabie Sands is a five hour drive from Johannesburg, in the province of Mpumalanga (in the direction of Mozambique). For more information about the reserves within it and accommodation see here.