"TUSK: The Ultimate Safari Kruger"
by George Snider
January 18, 2007
Few Americans, I suspect, place Africa at the top of their travel wish-lists. It's far away, it's expensive to visit, and parts of Africa are dangerous. Until about two years ago, Africa was pretty far down the Sniders' list. Then it began to creep toward the top.
It's not that we intended to die any time soon, but Nora and I had begun to talk about the destinations we really would like to reach before we become too creaky and cranky to venture far from our Ohio home. We had visited many places around the world, but Africa was not yet among them. So, without thinking too much about it, we began collecting articles about the Dark Continent from various travel magazines. We started investigating safari opportunities on the web. We returned from a week in Palm Beach and found it next to Cape Town in a Town & Country Travel feature on five "hot spots" to visit - an omen for sure.
Then, in mid-2005, we received a fateful e-mail from our favorite travel agent, a woman named Ngaire Keene in Dallas. She was putting together a South African tour cum safari for just eight couples, including her husband and herself, to begin in late September 2006. With the centerpiece consisting of two game preserves bordering Kruger National Park, her expedition came to be known as TUSK: The Ultimate Safari Kruger.
Nora and I are fiercely independent travelers who, for example, select only those cruise ships that allow us to dine alone. The idea of group travel had never appealed to us, but here was an opportunity for small-group travel to a destination we would be unlikely to tackle on our own. We quickly signed on. Over a year later, we flew from Newark to Cape Town (via Amsterdam), using frequent-flyer miles to obtain "business-first" tickets. With over 18 hours in the air, the front of the plane was for us the only way to fly.
South Africa proved to be one of the most beautiful, exotic, and on some days disturbing places that we have ever visited. It is a country whose inhabitants speak any of nine native languages, Afrikaans (a local form of Dutch) or English. First colonized by the Dutch in 1652, the country a century later saw the English arrive. During the 19th century, the English drove the Dutch settlers (Voortrekkers, or Boers) from the seacoast to the interior. The discovery of diamonds led to the Boer War at the turn of the century, after which the Union of South Africa became a member of the British Commonwealth. The Union broke away in 1961, becoming increasingly isolated as it pursued strict segregation of the black and "colored" races, known as apartheid.
Apartheid did not end until 1990, with the release of Nelson Mandela from long imprisonment, and there has only been a democratically elected government since 1994. South Africa is a nation of substantial economic progress for the upper classes that nonetheless has left approximately 40 percent of the black population unemployed. Many still live in the so-called "townships" and "informal settlements" - vast shantytowns that in some cases stretch for miles along the country's highways. AIDS and crime remain major problems, with daily murders, muggings and car-jackings in the major urban areas.
Yet just miles away from the cities are breathtaking landscapes and a more peaceful form of racial coexistence, if not full integration. From the winelands and woodlands (as locals call the bush) to savannahs and seacoast, South Africa presents the visitor with an unparalleled selection of flora and - most importantly - fauna. We saw the "Big Five" game (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and Cape buffalo) up close and personal, not to mention giraffes, zebras, kudus, impala, wart hogs, eagles, black mamba snakes and other wildlife too numerous to mention. Off the coast, we saw the southern right whale and the great white shark.
After arriving in Cape Town, our hearty band of travelers began Week One in Hermanus, a coastal community to the south and east known as the whale-watching capital of Africa. Our fall was their spring, and the mother whales had just given birth. They and their calves stayed close to the shore, to our constant delight. The baby whales attract the sharks, so we spent one morning at sea, "baiting" the sharp-toothed predators. One monster, in a fit of pique, bit the fiberglass side of our boat, which made for great picture-taking. Back in Cape Town, we took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain (a giant landmark dominating the city), spent too much money at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (Alfred having been Queen Victoria's son), toured the magnificent vineyards to the north of Cape Town and drove to the Cape of Good Hope, the fabled southernmost tip of Africa where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.
Week Two took us to the game preserves on the western border of Kruger National Park, with its millions of protected acres. We flew from Johannseburg in a tiny aircraft that reminded me of the days when Hemingway traveled Africa and eventually crashed. We arrived safely, however, at an airstrip in the middle of nowhere and rode by Land Rover to our first stop, Kings Camp at Timbavati Game Preserve. Three days later we flew to Sabi Sands Preserve, where we stayed at Leopard Hills lodge.
The drill never varied: Up at five a.m. for the morning game drive, which left promptly at six. Back to the camps around ten for breakfast, swimming, the occasional hike, lunch and sleeping. Out to the Land Rovers again at five for the evening drive. As both were timed for prime animal feeding, we never failed to spot abundant game. About eight we returned for the evening meal, on several occasions an outdoor barbecue known as the BOMA, believed to stand for British Officers Mess Area.
From the day they are born, animals in the bush see the funny green trucks and their khaki-clad inhabitants pulling up next to them twice a day. Over time, the animals learn that the green trucks won't attack or eat them, so they come to regard the vehicles as essentially non-existent. As long as passengers stay seated and don't set foot out of their truck, they can get within two to three feet of any animal in the bush. We did this repeatedly, day and night - the latter when the leopards sleep in trees with their daily kill (usually an impala), the lions wait patiently below, and elephants dig for tasty tree roots.
Each of us on the safari had our own favorite moments - whether rounding a bend in a dirt road and finding six giraffes atop a ledge, tracking a male lion early one morning as it stalked a female leopard, or being surrounded by a herd of over 30 elephants at dusk. It was all magnificent, and the digital photographers on our safari took at least a thousand photos each. Why not?
By the time we reached the game camps, our merry band of travelers were fast friends - in part due to the self-selective nature of our group. We were all in our 50s or 60s, most likely had fairly common incomes, loved to travel and certainly looked alike to the animals. Among us, for example, were a pediatric ophthalmologist and her engineer husband from Austin (Texas), a commercial developer and his wife from the British Virgin Islands, and a government official and his lawyer lady-friend from Washington, D.C. Ngaire, the travel agent, took great care of us all.
Will Nora and I return some year? The answer is quite likely. Out in the bush, away from the nightly news, one communes with a nature that is both fierce and majestic. Africa is the only trip we have taken that continues to find its way into our nightly dreams.
(George's email address is email@example.com.)