A South African Safari to Remember

These three Canadian adventurers shoot photos, not bullets, capturing the lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, and leopard in their native habitat.

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Geoff, his wife and mother-in-law in South Africa
Photo: Geoff Allen

This is What’s It’s Like Going on a South African Safari

Our South African safari adventure started during the winter of 2015 in Calgary, sitting in my doctor’s office. During a regular checkup, he asked me how my fall trip to southern Alaska to photograph the grizzlies of Great Bear Rainforest had been. I explained that it was a very successful trip and I was able to get some great shots. He then asked me when I was planning to go to Africa to experience the “African Big Five.” Without much thought, I replied that Africa wasn’t even on my travel list, mainly because of concerns about safety and potential illness. Then, in a perhaps annoyed tone, he reminded me that he had grown up in South Africa. I left his office with a clean checkup and one name—Kapama Private Game Reserve.

So, 18 months later, in September 2016, I was on a plane with my wife Wendy and mother-in-law Karen Lambden, headed to Cape Town for a three-week South African safari adventure! We had done our homework on what we wanted to see and do while there, but as you can well imagine, we still really didn’t know what to expect once we landed after 20 hours of flying on two airplanes to the other side of the planet.

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Rhinoceros in South Africa
Photo: Geoff Allen

What to Do in Cape Town, South Africa

Our first week was spent in Cape Town, taking in all the things a first-time visitor would want to see: the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Table Mountain, Stellenbosch wine country, Simon’s Town (to see the penguins), Langa Township of Cape Town, Robben Island Museum, The Company’s Garden, and Cape of Good Hope.

All these stops were much more than we had ever expected; the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean coastline, coupled with the scenery of the Table Mountain range at the foot of Cape Town City exceeded our expectations. (Check out more awe-inspiring destinations that make you feel small next to nature.) Our inhibitions and concerns about travelling to southern Africa were quickly subdued by the friendly, happy, welcoming South African people. Any of the above-mentioned attractions are due their time; we particularly enjoyed the visit to Robben Island and learning of the history and hardships the African people faced during apartheid.

For our next eight days, we were headed to the northeastern corner of South Africa to visit the Kapama Private Game Reserve, as per my doctor’s orders. To get there, we flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg to Hoedspruit, which is a small town situated at the foot of the Klein Drakensberg mountain range in South Africa’s Limpopo province. Upon arrival at the airstrip, we were met by our ranger, who would be taking us on safari during our stay there. We were welcomed with smiles and pleasant greetings in the full sun of a +30°C afternoon.

And so it began—the portion of our South African safari that I didn’t realize would change me for the rest of my life.

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Leopard in South Africa
Photo: Geoff Allen

Our South African Safari Begins

As we jumped into the open-back, eight-passenger Toyota Land Cruiser, our South African safari was about to start, all thanks to a suggestion from my doctor. As soon as we left the airstrip, we drove across a secondary road and entered into Kapama Private Game Reserve. Within three minutes of the 30-minute drive to get to the river lodge where we’d be staying, our cruiser was surrounded by a troop of elephants heading to a small pond to cool off. Surrounding the pond were six to ten giraffes! It was like a planned setup, but it wasn’t—Wendy, Karen and I were completely taken by surprise by the sight. I mean, really!

Once we arrived at the lodge, we were greeted by the management, who were so welcoming and friendly. With “We love the Canadians!” ringing in our ears, we were served cold, refreshing fruit drinks as the procedures and amenities of the lodge were explained to us. (Check out 13 more reasons it’s great living in Canada!)

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Elephants in South Africa
Photo: Geoff Allen

Spotting Elephants on Our South African Safari

The lodge is a quaint, 64-room building situated in the heart of the reserve. We would get a wakeup call every morning at 5 a.m., as our morning safari started at 6:30 a.m. sharp!

It was cold in the morning, around 10°C, and the sun was just rising over the savannah as we drove off in the open-back cruiser for the first time. Within minutes of leaving the lodge, we spotted rhinoceros, water buffalo, elephants, giraffes, warthogs and lions, most having a morning feed of vegetation—well, maybe not the lions. But what cool temperatures! I honestly had to hold my breath to try and stay relaxed as I snapped away with my camera. Such views through my viewfinder! And this was just the first of 15 3½-hour safaris we had booked. We’d be at it seven hours a day, morning and afternoon, for the next eight days! No sleeping in or staying up late for us, not when we had the opportunity to go on safari and spend time with such remarkable creatures. Kapama took excellent care of us with their friendly staff, amazing food and comfortable rooms—the spa treatments weren’t too bad, either! The culture in general is something you need to experience firsthand; it has such a calming effect.

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South African penguins
Photo: Geoff Allen

Planning Our Return

As I look back now, in the planning stages for our next trip to the African continent, I realize how fortunate we were to be there among all the wild animals, many of which are in jeopardy of extinction. (Check out these wild animal species you didn’t realize were endangered.) On many occasions, we were able to get so close that we could hear them breathing or snoring and, in the case of one leopard we encountered, crunching bones.

This amazing land on our vast planet truly makes one understand how small we are in relation to the big picture; how, if we could make even one small change in our lives to help the less fortunate, it would make a difference in the world.

As Canadians travelling to a place that is a world away from our everyday realities, we were treated with respect and shared a feeling of happiness that I can’t really describe. We look forward to experiencing the same feeling again.

Thank you, South Africa!

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Originally Published in Our Canada

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