We drove slowly along a long, lonely dirt road. It started to rain, lightly at first, but then more insistently. We hadn’t seen another car for some time. How long had it been? An hour, two? We pressed on, the wipers keeping pace with the steady rain. Ahead, I spotted a herd of four rhinos crossing the road. I pulled up to where they crossed and turned off the tiny Toyota hatchback to watch them move away. The rain slowed slightly as they ambled into the bush. Suddenly, a fifth rhino appeared 50 feet in front of us. I leaned out the window to get a clear picture, and as I leaned back in, he noticed the movement. He stared. He moved closer, slowly, stopped, and stared some more. For 10 minutes, he intermittently stared and moved closer, curious. Meanwhile, I had my hand on the ignition, ready to turn on the car and bolt if he got aggressive. I don’t know where we would have gone; it was almost certainly a losing battle. Finally, when he was less than 20 feet away, he lost interest and followed his friends. My heart was going about 120 beats per minute as the adrenaline surge faded.
Look, I’m not here to argue that a do-it-yourself safari is better than a guided safari. That would be ridiculous. The rhino encounter and other experiences like it are unique, though. Isolated, far from camp, all alone, underprepared, maybe a little scared: real emotions flow in the bush without the comfort of a professional by your side. With its true power nearer at hand, the spirit of the Kruger is easier to find.
In all honesty, we had our doubts. We’re sold the idea that safaris are lavish, otherworldly, and expensive. Budget travel works really well for many things, we thought, but a safari? As we loaded up our car with camping gear and food in Johannesburg, South Africa, we doubted. All along our 7-hour drive to the Phalaborwa gate of Kruger National Park, we doubted. We sang along to the radio, and I tried to hide my terror at driving on the wrong side of the road at 70mph. Still, I found time to doubt. As we entered the gate around 4pm, we started the hour-long drive to our first camp. A few minutes in, we saw a group of cars stopped on the side of the road.
“Whoa,” Jacque said, “there’s a lioness sleeping on that rock.”
And so there was. She was a good distance off, but no matter: we saw a lion! Eventually, we drove on to avoid missing the gate closing time at Letaba camp. We hadn’t even pulled out the camera when I almost ran over a family of warthogs.
“Whoa,” I said, “it’s Pumbaa!”
We drove on. The hits kept on coming. “Whoa, zebras! Whoa, buffalo! Whoa, elephants!” And so on and so forth. We finally decided to get out the camera and take some pictures. In the first two hours in Kruger, we saw 3 of the Big 5. We figured our first day would just be a drive to the camp for the evening since it was already late in the day, but instead the Kruger threw animals at us like they were going out of style.
Over the next few days in the park – we spent three nights – we saw every type of animal you might hope to see on safari. Monkeys and baboons, hyenas, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, ostriches, cheetahs, leopards, a pride of lions, many kinds of deer- or elk-like animals. The antlers on the grazing animals are totally different: they spiral upwards rather than branching outwards like elk. I had to fight a monkey at a rest stop for my lunch; we saw an amazing variety of colorful, noisy birds; and I can’t count the number of times we drove through a herd of buffalo. They’re dumb, like cows, and won’t move unless you drive right at them.
Far from a disappointment, driving ourselves actually added to the experience. To boot: in our morning drive, a mother cheetah and her two nearly grown-up cubs trotted along the road. We drove with them for 45 minutes, trailing them slowly and taking pictures. Cheetahs are odd cats; they move more like dogs. Their gait is bouncy like a dog rather than slinky like a cat. They even bark to communicate. Later that same day, we saw leopards. We heard from another car that there was a leopard with her cub ahead. After driving past where we thought they were, we decided to turn around and take another pass. As I turned my head to swing the car around, my eyes fell on the leopard. Lucky. We never would have seen her unless we chose that exact point to turn. I switched off the car and watched. Cautiously, slowly, the leopard came out of the bushes and crossed just in front of our car. Then a cub appeared behind her, even more cautiously, and leaped across. Then another cub. Their pure feline grace was striking as they stealthily disappeared into the forest. They move nothing like the cheetahs.
We had amazing animal encounters, but our safari definitely wasn’t luxurious. We camped in our tiny 2-person backpacking tent and cooked our own food. Surprisingly, the camps were very nice. All had stores with food for purchase, braai (bbq) facilities, shared kitchens, real toilets and showers, and restaurants. Some even had swimming pools to cool off after a long morning game drive. They’re fenced, so we didn’t have to worry about hyenas in the middle of the night. Plus, the camps are a perfect place to meet locals, because they all drive their own safaris as well. Every night ended with nice conversation in the communal kitchen as we cleaned up our dishes. Luxury wasn’t needed, we found, as the camps provide everything you could ever want.
Looking back, I wouldn’t want to do a safari any other way. The freedom afforded by driving is priceless. Sure, a professional guide will probably get you to see more animals. Often, though, the professional guides clump together. When one makes a sighting, he tells his buddies and creates a traffic jam. Driving put us in control and created opportunities for one-on-one time with any animals we came across. In the end, our safari was just as otherworldly as we envisioned; no expensive, lavish accoutrement needed. Besides, who wouldn’t want to have a staring contest with a one-ton rhino miles from help in a tiny Toyota hatchback?
How to do your own safari
Guys, this is super easy. Gather your camping gear: tent, sleeping bags, plates/cups/utensils, pots/pans. No need for a stove because there are cooking facilities. Make a reservation at the Kruger campgrounds on the SANParks website (www.sanparks.org). The camp sites are only about $20 per night and the conservation fee is $25 per person per day. (There are also huts; I think they run about $40 per night.) Fly to Johannesburg – there’s a direct flight from Atlanta on Delta – and rent a car from Budget, Hertz, whatever. It’ll cost you $20 a day or less for a tiny car, which is all you need. Buy a cheap cooler and some food. Drive to Kruger, taking care to stay on the left side of the road. Boom: safari on the cheap!