A six-tonne elephant is slinging mud at the back of my head.
Not even mud, per se. It’s fresh sludge, straight from the wallowing pool. At first I was like, “beat it, Dumbo” but now it feels like a blessing of sorts—who needs holy water when you’ve been baptised by an African elephant?
From the seat of our safari truck, we’re watching a 30-strong herd take their twilight bath. Huge males with tusks the size of bull bars lumber past as females spray water on the backs of clumsy calves. Two women (and one man) in my truck are crying with—what I hope is—joy.
Gavin, a certified safari veteran and our G Adventures guide, leans over to tell me he’s never seen anything like this before. And he’s been guiding for decades.
But that’s the beauty of safari. You never know what’s around the next Marula tree. It’s why Gavin has got us whispering "thank you bush" every time an animal (Big or Ugly, doesn’t matter) comes into view. "Thank you bush" is an offering of gratitude to the South African game reserve gods, and a reminder to check your safari expectations at the park entrance.
Just because you want to see a lion doesn’t mean the wild is going to offer one up, and no one—I mean, no one—is about to lure a leopard out of a tree just so you can get the perfect IG shot.
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That said, you can still hope. This is my third South African safari and while I’ve seen a pack of lions take down a giraffe, I’ve never actually spied a cheetah. So you could say I’m energetically chasing some spots this trip.
I’m at Karongwe Private Game Reserve as part of a 7 day National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures tour through South Africa. Karongwe is a private 10,000 hectare parcel north of Kruger National Park, and while Kruger is epic, Karongwe is like stepping into an Attenborough documentary. You’ve got disco donkeys doing the zebra crossing, monkeys with (literal) blue balls, giraffes silhouetted against African sunsets, hyenas sneaking out of dens, baboons eating bird eggs, prancing impala and hakuna matata-ing warthogs. I’ve got a sore neck from all the seat swivelling.
Driving the safari truck is our Afrikaans ranger, Jurie. There are many reasons to love Jurie, but topping the list is: his unending, infectious enthusiasm for wildlife; his choice to support conservation rather than smuggling (despite a close family member once dealing in the contraband trade); and the fact that his spirit animal is a warthog.
“I just love them… I guess because I’m also resilient and sometimes a little stubborn,” he laughs, showing me his warthog tattoo. “Oh, and really energetic.”
Jurie and his tracker partner, Freddie, are the dream safari duo. From his perch at the front of the truck, Freddie uses his exceptional skills (honed over a tracking career spanning almost two decades) to spot rare birds in flight, civet scat and drying rhino tracks.
“We’re not lazy, we’re clever,” Jurie explains to me one day while we’re off-road, bush bashing through river reeds in search of three lionesses and their cubs. “Some people like to chase their radios, but Freddie and I look for things ourselves.”
And it’s true. Freddie is so good at reading tracks that he can tell how recently an animal has moved through the area, the pace of their grazing and what direction they’re headed. It’s beyond impressive. While I still need road signs to get me to the airport freeway, Freddie gets us up close to a snoozing Mufasa—no directions necessary.
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And yet it’s been three days in Karongwe, with a phenomenal tracker, and still no sign of cheetahs. I’m beginning to think I’m either cursed or perhaps there just aren’t any cheetahs on the reserve. Kulani, an expert from Endangered Wildlife Trust who partners specially with G Adventures National Geographic Journeys (this expert insight is a definite perk of the trip!), is quick to assure me otherwise.
Kulani is working on the Cheetah Range Expansion Project, a collaborative effort between 60+ southern African reserves that involves routinely relocating cheetahs to avoid inbreeding. It’s very important, god-like stuff. But why do cheetahs need humans to physically move them around southern Africa? Good question, with a not-so-good answer—cheetahs are the most endangered big cat on the continent.
Kulani is a cheetah aficionado and conservation expert. He’s also super passionate about sharing his knowledge with people, especially the kids he takes on field trips to Kruger. “I have always loved leopards the most, but I learned quickly that I need to let children fall in love with whatever wildlife they want,” he tells me.
“There was one girl, and she fell in love with a tiny bird… and that’s perfect because the whole objective of these trips is for kids to fall in love with the landscape and conservation and protecting animals. Because then no matter what you do when you grow up, you’ll never lose that love.”
Kulani is joining us on our evening game drive, and that feels like a promising omen. Surely a big cat expert is the good luck cheetah charm we need. Two hours later, the sun has set and so too have my hopes. It has drizzled incessantly, pushing the animals to take shelter in the scrub. We hardly see an impala, let alone a cheetah. I resentfully thank the bush, my safari expectations running rampant.
Speaking of running rampant, we wake the next morning to a ropeable bull elephant (named Flippy) tearing through the lodge, unearthing trees and bulldozing garden beds. Flippy’s in a seriously vexed mood—maybe he also hasn’t seen any cheetahs.
On our final morning drive, Jurie receives a radio call to say there’s been a lion spotting. We hustle into the truck as the sun starts to rise, dewy spider webs glistening. The air is crisp enough to warrant a beanie and blanket. Everyone is silent as Jurie sends us charging down narrow dirt tracks.
It’s a perfect morning. The reserve is just waking up, birds are singing to each other, giraffes are stretching their necks for a morning feed. We come to a fork in the road when Freddie holds up his hand, signalling Jurie to stop. He’s seen something.
He motions for Jurie to take the right-side path, slowly. We inch forward on silent wheels. Our collective eyes scaning the bush for orange lion manes. And that’s when I see them—spots.
Right beside our truck, three male cheetahs are stalking through the scrub. Lithe and focussed, they don’t acknowledge the truck as they pursue a lone wildebeest.
Just when I think they’re going to go for the kill, they veer off and move away; choosing to lay down in a patch of sunshine rather than toy with their prey. The wildebeest prances down the path, oblivious to his near-death. We watch as the cheetahs soak up the sun, like domestic cats on a warm windowsill. Their spotted coats are glistening and their huge paws kick up red dust; they’re magnificent.
All I can do is whisper “thank you bush”.
get lost was hosted by G Adventures on one of their National Geographic Journeys.
Qantas, Emirates, Qatar — you name an airline and it’s highly likely they fly to Joburg. No matter where you are in the world, South Africa is actually quite a convenient destination on flight maps!
South Africa has 11 official languages (and many more unofficial ones).
We travelled with G Adventures on one of their incredibly National Geographic Journeys for this safari odyssey, and it was a world-class experience. The team at G manage to make small group travel super interesting, flexible and authentic. Our guides were local and incredibly knowledgeable. Plus, G is for Good! Meaning this company use travel as a vehicle for positive change and impact around the globe.