When in South Africa you have to spend a day at a game reserve/safari. If you’re rich or lucky enough to win one of those daytime TV competitions you’d spend a week at one. I was a gap year student who didn’t have the permission of the phone bill payer to enter, so I just spent my afternoon at one, Inkwenkwezi.
The game reserve is not far from East London, but to be fair there are game reserves everywhere in SA, just Inkwenkwezi just happens to be one of the better ones.
We drove along a long, dusty track until we reached the entrance. Let’s just say first that we had to go through numerous gates and that only made me more nervous that we were now in a lion’s playground.
So we make it to the carpark, trying not to run over an emu, slowly get out of the car and then leg it to the reception. Much safer in there, not for the bank that you dig deep into for the afternoon activities that lie ahead but I’d rather pay £80 to not be mauled to death by a bird in the carpark. The reception was one of those tasteful-safari themed buildings, like a jungle hut which got you all excited to see some wildlife and pretend to be a Wild Thornberry. Well that was my plan anyway.
We chose a day that would let us feed elephants, go an a guided tour of the reserve and finish with a cheetah ‘experience’. (There was the option to walk in a line of elephants but I wasn’t going to pay to be squashed between one elephant shitting on my hand and another trying to trample me). We clambered into a massive Jeep and I decided to play danger by taking an outside seat, I could see a gun in the front so I thought I would be well prepared for any lions that took a disliking to me, although I was hoping they’d first try and talk it out reasonably with me. Off we went onto a track that went either 90° up or down, never horizontal. It’s just come to me that I was also incredibly hungover from a night of what I assume was Stroh Rum so no wonder I was hating life whenever the truck hit a boulder in the middle of the track.
However the scenery was incredible. As soon as we reached the open reserve, a picture of rolling hills and a clear blue sky (a lot like Wales but replace ‘blue’ with ‘grey’) it was animal paradise. There were animals everywhere, in the distance we could see the outline of a bull giraffe, a few zebras spotted across the hills and we were often held up by a pack of 50 Impala.
Our first stop though, was the elephants.
Gorgeous African elephants. They weren’t as big as I’d expected but that just made them so much more loveable. We were able to get out of the Jeep and head over to learn some elephant facts like the thickness of their skin and how much they can drink in one go- important elephant things. I just wanted a big cuddle with it but settled with just a pat, that in itself is an impressive thing to be able to say you’ve done, and then I fed it. That’s cool right? It was also really weird having a moving trunk sniffing and grabbing out of your hand. I wish my nose could do that sometimes.
We headed off again after giving the elephants their lunch. Me, wanting to throw up but managing to distract myself with zebra and rhino spotting.
At one point we found ourselves stuck behind an incredibly stubborn ostrich who then made its way over to the Jeep to check us out. I really like ostriches just because their faces are so ugly (no offence) so getting up close and personal with this ostrich’s ugly face was awesome.
You see what I mean.
Just after our Ostrich encounter we headed for a mid-guide break. It’s here I found a teeny tiny new friend who’s life I saved from some odd man that had managed to join our group. Yes, ‘friend’ because I bet he’s easier to get on with than most people I know. Hello cute lizardy thing.
Side-tracked by a lizard. Back on the dusty, I-wish-the-Romans-had-done-something-about-this track we headed in search of some rhinos. We found them pretty quickly, which we seemed to be doing with most of the animals, and there we were in front of a little rhino family. Rhinos are pretty dangerous, but at Inkwenkwezi you can hop out of the safety of your Jeep and walk down to play chicken with the animals (not the lions obviously). You can feel your heart trying to jump out of your mouth as you enter a staring competition with daddy rhino and then heartbreak as you watch the rhinos running away from you (which must be where twerking originated from).
It was then that our guide told us about that one time a rhino didn’t run away but instead ran towards. Apparently they had been on the horseback tour of the reserve when a rhino charged. The horse played hero and refused to run away, much to the poor rider’s dismay, and instead stuck around a little to first kick the rhino in the face and then gallop off. I love horses.
After that we quickly made our way back to the Jeep in case the rhinos had run off to fetch their guns and were on their way back.
We traveled a little further until we came to an open space, separated by two sets of steel fences. It was like heading into a war zone, not that I’ve ever headed into a war zone but I can imagine it seems quiet at first and it’s only the fact that your guide has to pick up a gun from a locker that indicates you’re heading into somewhere that’s not a land of bunnies and antelope, well not live ones anyway.
So after seriously locking the two gates behind us, we slowly drove off. We passed a few skulls, quite a lot of skulls and skeletons actually. All looking pretty familiar. It was when we eventually came across a gnawed hoof that we realised our fellow horsey friends had become dinner. I’m cool with that though, it’s part of the circle of life saving horses from glue factories to become lion food.
Eventually we turned a few bushes and found ourselves in the middle of a pack of white lions. They were literally a few metres away from both sides of the Jeep and a pretty incredible sight.
Stunning kitties, it’s a shame they’d rip you to pieces because they only make you want to cuddle them, what a way to go though. There were some gorgeous cubs too playing around and sleeping, which didn’t help with the suicidal thoughts that were going through everyone’s mind but we managed to stop ourselves.
I think these guys were definitely one of my favourite sights. Big cats are always being filmed for any kind of nature programme, even the marine types, and when you see them in the most natural habitat you’ll probably find them it’s hard not to have an Attenborough-style voice narrating their every movement.
Yup, lins were definitely a winner at that point. However, the next spotting gave them some tough competition.
Enter the giraffe.
We could see them dotted across the top of the hills, yet weren’t able to get so close to them as with the other animals. We also seemed to have exhausted the reserve and found the wildlife within the first hour so the next hour or so was spent dodging wilder beast and warthogs.
We made our way to the final stretches of the hills and turned a corner to see this guy wandering round on his own. (The Felicity of the giraffes).
He was massive and an absolute beauty; we were definitely very lucky that he’d decided to ditch his mates and do his own thing. Thank you giraffe, it was a perfect end to our game reserve experience…..by Jeep anyway.
We headed back the the reserve for some lunch and were joined by the awkward guy that had made it onto our tour. Other than the awkwardly boring conversation with this man, lunch was good and we ditched him ASAP for the ‘cheetah experience’ which turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life….so far.
We walked into an enclosure and locked the gate behind us. A biggish pen with a big tree in the middle covered in scratch marks. Great. Probably the last person that entered the lions den and tried to do a runner up the tree.
Then lazily out from the shadows walked two cheetahs. I was in love straight away and soon a third joined us and I died and went to heaven. I love cats and if I end up 40 on my own, I hope to have cheetahs as my feline friends.
We got to stroke and tickle them, their purrs were like no other and they loved the attention. (To be fair I give good massages so I don’t blame them). At one point the cheetah I was cuddling rolled over and caught me with his claws, understandably the guide automatically went on stand by but I was pretty chuffed with my new wound and since then tried to keep picking it to make it scar so I had an interesting story to tell my grandchildren.
The cheetahs became my new favourite and were definitely an out of the ordinary experience. Not everyone gets to cuddle a cheetah after all.
So that was my South African Safari experience. Definitely an incredible one and something you don’t forget. It was so much nicer to see animals in their natural habitat. I know I’d much rather be living off horses in a hot country.
After a sad goodbye to the cheetahs and leaving a generous tip to our guide, we made our way back to the carpark. This time dodging a family of warthogs.