Vince and I just returned from a trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. This was our first time visiting the African continent, and we travelled with a large group of friends, family, and new friends that we met along the way. We were traveling on a group tour with our friends Rachel and Jared from Percussive Tours. This wasn’t our first time traveling with Percussive and it will definitely not be our last. We also went with them to Colombia and Scandinavia in 2016, and this time around we brought along our friends Bonnie, David, and Jordi, and our siblings Jess and Caleb (this was Caleb’s first international trip). We also were alongside a group totaling 24 people, and it was fun to meet and get to know them along the way.
The first two days of the trip were based out of Johannesburg, South Africa. The large group stayed in Johannesburg for the first day and did various city tours and a sunrise hot air balloon ride, then took a safari the following day. While all of those activities were tempting, I was dead set on giving myself the best chance I could at seeing wildlife, so Vince and I decided to break off from the large group and go on a two day safari. The rest of our smaller group opted to join us, and Jared helped us book the tour. We were exhausted from travel and Jet lag when our guide, also named Bonnie, picked us up from the Devonshire hotel in Johannesburg at 6:00 am. After our departure we stopped at one more hotel to pick up an eighth person, a girl named Kristin who had extended a business trip in order to go on safari.
The drive from Johannesburg to Pilanesberg National Park lasted about three hours, and it was a huge relief to get out of the nauseating stop-and-go traffic of the city. As we left Johannesburg further behind in the distance the landscape became more mountainous, and when we finally entered the park we were surrounded by gentle peaks dotted with scraggly trees. Almost immediately, we saw a giraffe and then a zebra. We were all excited, but Bonnie didn’t stop the van, promising that we would have much better sightings later. He did pursue a distant rhinoceros, an effort that proved itself fruitless.
Before long, we spotted our first of many elephants. We were able to watch him for a long time as Bonnie explained that elephants have a dominant tusk just like humans have a dominant hand. Whichever tusk they favor will be shorter from the extra use. This was also my first opportunity to get used to shooting in the lighting conditions at Pilanesberg, so I didn’t get a wealth of compelling photos, but I did gain a plan for how I would operate moving forward.
After we left the elephant the wildlife action began to explode. We saw a rhino, our first herd of kudu, and a dazzle of zebra. Then Bonnie drove us down to a large lake which had formed in an ancient volcanic crater. From our vantage we could see a distant herd of elephants meandering toward the water. There was also a lone wildebeest nearby, and giraffes’ heads poked above the tree tops in the far distance. Bonnie drove the van down into the crater and circled around a river that was teaming with activity. There were crocodiles, tortoises, zebras, kudu, impalas, and warthogs all gathering for an escape from the midday heat.
Next Bonnie drove us over to where we had spotted the giraffes. This was the most exciting part of the day for me because I have loved giraffes as far back as I can remember. The bizarrely adorable herbivores didn’t pay us any attention as they had ample leaves to eat, and no time to concern themselves with petty human affairs. A couple of giraffes crossed the road just a few yards in front of the van and we were able to see the full length of their gangly legs.
I could have watched the giraffes forever, but eventually we had to move on. Bonnie took us to another lake which was positively brimming with elephants. There were also many storks and some distant hippos, but the elephants were by far the main attraction. A few young males were in the water play fighting while another, seemingly just for the fun of it, chased a group of storks while making trumpeting sounds. We turned around to see a parade of elephants pass behind the van, with young ones toddling along near their mothers. We sat and relaxed at this scene for a quite a while, watching the elephants play and feeling altogether quite peaceful.
We made one more stop before lunch to a photography hide overlooking the first lake. We didn’t see much wildlife here, save for an adorable kingfisher, but we did get to appreciate the beautiful scenery.
Then it was time for lunch. The park has one restaurant, which has outdoor seating overlooking a lovely view of the mountains. Throughout our meal, grazing animals wandered around in front of the deck. A hungry hornbill lurked near our table, and was eventually successful at stealing one of my fries, but not before it was kind enough to pose for a few pictures.
After lunch Bonnie drove us to the Manyane Resort, which was going to be our home for the night. He gave us a short tour and introduced us to Norbert who would be helping around camp, then set us free to settle into our safari tents and relax a bit before our next game drive which was to be in an open vehicle. The accommodations were advertised as “luxury tents,” and I wasn’t sure what that would entail, but they turned out to be well-equipped, comfortable, and honestly just really cool. They were spacious, heavy, canvas tents on concrete slabs. Each one had electricity, a refrigerator, space heater, and coffee maker. The resort also had a pool and superb bathroom facilities. Impalas wandering the grounds added to the atmosphere.
We had a bit of time to relax and enjoy the pool, but then it was back to business and time for our sunset game drive. Bonnie dropped us off with Russ, one of Pilanesberg’s rangers, who was going to be showing us around in an open Jeep. We piled into the vehicle, which was more spacious than the van. Everyone was hoping the big cats would be out since it was nearing nightfall.
Our first animal was another elephant, who we were able to get close to as he grazed on a very unlucky tree. Not long after that, we encountered a rhino.
As sunset neared, Russ drove us around and taught us about various plants and animals around the park, including the poisonous euphorbia tree. We hadn’t seen any animals for a while when we came upon a small tortoise in the middle of the road. Russ stopped the Jeep so we could get a good look at it, and someone asked him how old it was. Russ, in an act that we all thought was some combination of brave and ill-advised, jumped out of the Jeep and crouched down in the road to examine the tortoise. He looked up for a moment to say, “Make sure there are no lions behind behind me, guys,” as an endless field of neck high grasses just perfect for hiding lions expanded behind him as far as the eye could see.
As he looked at the tortoise he explained that it grows one ridge on its shell for every season of the year. He counted about 34 ridges, so we determined the tortoise to be around eight years old. Then Russ hopped back into the Jeep and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
We made one more stop at a photography hide before sunset. Here we saw hippos emerging from the water for the night. Hippos stay in the water during the day to protect their extremely sensitive skin from the sun, but at night they can come ashore.
After the sun set we saw an owl, a jackal, and a beautiful starry sky, but no big cats graced us with their presence. We retired to Manyane where Bonnie and Norbert had a delicious dinner and fire waiting for us back at camp. Spending the night in the tents was fun, but I was still struggling with a bit of jet lag so I did a lot of lying awake and listening to male impalas make strange grunting sounds in the pursuit of females. The next morning we were up before the sun, and Bonnie and Norbert had tea and coffee ready for us before they gave us back to Russ for another open vehicle drive, which we had unanimously chosen to upgrade to.
The morning was chilly, but Russ was still dressed in his shorts as the rest us shivered bundled up under blankets. The morning ended up being great for herbivores again and we got excellent views of a few rhinos right as the sun was rising.
Soon after, we saw a dazzle of zebras walking in a single file line. Russ explained that the strongest zebra walks at the front of the line to pick up all of the bugs and ticks so the weaker zebras don’t have to deal with them. Suddenly the leader stopped dead in his tracks and stared into the bush. The rest of dazzle came to an immediate halt, all of them focused intensely on the leader to see what he would do. It was Caleb that spotted the perceived threat in the distance. A dark head with pointed ears peaked out from the tall grasses. It was a lone hyena. Russ remarked that it was a brown hyena, which are mostly scavengers and not a threat to the zebras. Shortly thereafter, the lead zebra seemed to draw the same conclusion, and relaxed his posture and resumed his march through the grass.
Soon we saw a large harem of impalas grazing under a tree that contained the decimated remains of an impala that had been dragged up there by a leopard a couple of weeks prior.
The only other significant activity that morning was a fight between a few male zebras. Russ told us that the females would be ready to mate soon, and the males were fighting for mating rights.
Despite our best efforts to find cats, we did not encounter any and Russ dropped us off back at camp where Bonnie and Norbert had breakfast ready. Afterward, we got back in the van for our last game drive, which again yielded few animals. Just when we thought we might not see any animals at all, we encountered an elephant road block. The herd stretched across the entire road, and they headed straight for us, forcing Bonnie to back the van up as they advanced. Just as it seemed they might trample us, they veered to the side and passed by us in a single file line. One of the younger ones waved his trunk at us in a defiant gesture causing Bonnie to remark, “The little ones are cheeky.”
After the drive we got to enjoy one more lunch at the restaurant, where we ran into the rest of the Percussive group and caught up with them about how their day in Johannesburg had gone. It was sad to pile back into the van knowing our time in Pilanesberg was coming to a close, but it was still just the beginning of our trip, and there were many exciting things to look forward to. The next morning we would leave for our next adventure in Zimbabwe.