Best Budget African Safari
A loud banging on our tent door wakes us up. It’s Sam, one of Shindzela Safari Camp’s* guides, here to get us up for our morning game drive. It’s barely 5:30 AM. Miserably, I detach myself from the heated water bottle, that I had spooned for warmth, and cringe as the cold air hits me. Despite donning two pairs of leggings, sweatpants, long-sleeved shirt, fleece, down jacket, rain jacket, wool socks, fuzzy beanie and gator, I’m still freezing.
Typical Day on an African Safari
Days in a safari camp are very regimented. Each morning we wake up at the crack of dawn and down a mug of hot chocolate before piling into the open-top Land Rover. After four hours of driving around in the cold we head back for a big brunch. Then it’s nap time-either around the pool or in your tent. Lunch is around 2:00 p.m., then it’s time to get ready for the evening game drive. The evening game drive departs around 3:30 p.m. and we stay out until well after sundown. When we return there is a three-course dinner under the stars awaiting us. After that it’s time for bed. Although all we seemed to do was eat, sleep, and drive around, this cycle was exhausting.
The Big 5
At Shindzela, there were guests from all around the world with one common goal: to see the “Big Five”. The African Big Five include elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, and Cape buffalo. To see all five is a safari goer’s dream-come-true. A dream that for many people does not come true despite multiple trips to Africa. Surely, we must have had God on our side that first day, because not only did we see all of the Big Five, but also giraffes, zebras, hyenas, hippos, kudus, impalas and wildebeest.
One of my favorite things about the game drives was how real everything was. This was not the zoo. None of this was staged. We were watching these exotic animals in their natural habitat.
Actually, as long as you follow your guide’s instructions, it’s not really that dangerous. The main rule is to stay seated and inside the vehicle at all times. That means not standing up or leaning out in order to get the perfect shot. Even though we got VERY close to many of these animals, they see the Land Rover and its occupants as one, big entity rather than a human snack pack.
One of my most memorable moments was the first night. I was passed out in the back of the jeep (Jet lag finally won) and I woke to my mother pointing and shouting, “Look the lions are having sex!!!!” (She denies doing this but I promise it’s true.) It was very interesting to say the least.
Then, we witnessed a pack of hyenas feasting on an elephant carcass. It reeked and we smelled it long before we saw it, but the odor reminded us of how natural it all was. We watched as a hyena toted an elephant’s leg like it was a Milkbone.
We also had an elephant almost storm our makeshift campsite while we were enjoying one of Africa’s famous sundowners. Sadly I was asleep and missed this (Again, jet lag…).
Fortunately, I didn’t miss the leopard–with fresh blood dripping from his teeth–snacking on a warthog. We met a couple who has been to Africa five times and still hasn’t seen a leopard.
Even so, one experience really topped the rest. It was the second day and we had already checked off every animal on our “must see” list. And then we were rewarded with the most spectacular surprise…
To put in perspective how rare these are–according to our guide–there are only three wild white lions in the world. Three! And we saw two of them.
2 of the 3, in the entire world!
Even our safari guide, Eugene, was excited. We knew it was a big deal when HE started taking pictures with his phone. Eugene has been a safari guide for 12 years and in all those years this was his second time ever seeing white lions. Pretty cool, right?
Finally after a long hard day of safari-ing (you know, because sitting in a Land Rover and looking at things is so exhausting), we head back to camp where we are virtually still on a safari. After sundown, no one in camp is allowed to walk anywhere without a guide armed with a rifle.
We didn’t understand the severity of this rule until a hyena waltzed right by our table as we ate dinner around an open camp fire. Animals prancing through camp is a regular occurrence. At night as we fell asleep, the sounds of elephants trumpeting and hyenas laughing surrounded our tents.
Spending our first three days in South Africa at Shindzela Safari Camp was an amazing way to begin our African adventure. It also set our safari bar very high. Shindzela is located in Timbavati,* a private game reserve bordering Kruger National Park. What makes the private reserves so cool is that you are actually allowed to drive off-road to get up close to the animals. We went on a second safari in Etosha National Park in Namibia at the end of our Africa trip. Like Kruger in South Africa, Etosha is Namibia’s main national park. This meant, unlike on private reserves, the game vehicles must stay on the one main road. No off-roading allowed. After experiencing both, I would highly recommend spending a few extra bucks on the private parks. Being in such close proximity to the incredible animals was beyond amazing and definitely worth the extra cost.
Tips on planning your budget African safari:
- The best time to visit is June-August. It is their winter, so the foliage has dropped and it is easier to see the animals. Also, it is the dry season, so the animals congregate around the watering holes.
- The weather is ideal. It is cold at night, but the days are spectacular. With heated water bottles and down comforters, we were toasty warm at night.
- For a 5 star safari on a 3 star budget, book directly with Shindzela*.
- After your safari, be sure to spend some time exploring the rest of South Africa.
- If you really want to venture off the beaten path, plan a 10-day trip to Namibia where you can experience sand, seals and safaris.