We left J-Bay at around 10:30am and drove back the way we came for 3 hours to Natures Valley. Almost every local we’ve met has recommended that we stay in a place called Wild Spirit Backpackers. Originally a travellers lodge built in 1983, Wild Spirit was lucky enough to be on land reclaimed as a national park so the indigenous trees and animals have flourished here. We stayed in a cottage with a beautiful view of the valley and everywhere we looked was a new hiking trail leaving the property.
We did a couple hikes in the area and we also went down to the lagoon where the ocean meets a slow-moving jungle river. The backpackers provided free canoes so we got in and paddled around through the jungle surroundings for a few hours before heading back to the backpackers as the sun went down. We hungout with other travellers from all over the world and drank wine by the fire, talking about life while the stars twinkled unimaginably bright in the sky.
When we left Wild Spirit, we gave one of their volunteers, Liz from California, a ride because she was going our way. Dariece and I stopped in Tsitsikamma National Park to do a zip-lining tour through the jungle canopy 30 meters above the ground. Dariece was a little nervous about the heights at first but after the first couple of zips she was having a blast. The lines actually got going really fast and while we were waiting on the platforms in between rides, the enthusiastic guide explained the local flora and fauna to the group. In total we were in the jungle for about three hours and we got some pretty cool videos (which we’ll post another time).
After our exhilarating jungle tour we hit the highway again and drove to Addo National Park dropping Liz off on the way. Needless to say our Backpackers was the same funky, communal, travellers hangout as usual and because we arrived late we had to just make dinner and get to bed early for our next day of AFRICAN SAFARI!!!
Originally we were planning on doing a guided tour on the safari that our Backpackers offered, but when we spoke with the guide, John, he was extremely helpful and said that because we have our own car, we can just follow the gravel roads and won’t need to spend the extra money. He showed us on the best places to spot the big five (lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and rhino) on the map in the lobby. He told us that we would be very lucky to see a lion, buffalos are hard to see, nobody sees the leopard or the elusive caracal (a lynx-like cat) but there would be lots of elephants, kudu, antelopes, warthog, etc. We were so excited after talking to John that the whole night I couldn’t sleep I was just thinking about seeing lions and elephants.
The next morning we woke up at 6:30 am, made breakfast and got to the park by 7:30. We paid the entrance fee of R140/pp ($20), received a park map with an animal checklist, and drove our little car into the African bush. The first thing we saw was a kudu, a deer-like animal with long spiralled horns. (See photos for all animal identifications). Then a jackal. Within the first 1/2 hour we were feeling pretty lucky.
We drove to one of the watering holes where John recommended we look for lions. When we pulled up there was two zebras drinking and walking around. We had seen zebras at Cape Point but they were too far away, these zebras were only about 50 feet from our car. The animals in Addo are completely wild and they have 180,000 hectares of poacher free, protected forest and plains to wonder through. They would be completely spooked by humans walking around, but they have become accustomed to the vehicles at the watering holes and just see them as harmless animals, that smell like fumes. The sight of 4 cars sitting 10 feet from their drinking hole doesn’t frighten them in the least.
Dariece and I took a few pictures of the zebras before Dariece pointed out something WAY back in the distance, laying in the grass. She said “I don’t want to get you too excited but that thing is laying like a kitty”. So we took our 30X zoom camera and sure enough a big male lion was sleeping in the field. After scanning the area with the camera we spotted 2 more, one female and another male, yawning and sleeping together. We sat there waiting and watching for a while after the other 3 cars drove off.
The lions were pretty far away so the other spectators probably lost interest. Then, just as the guide from our hotel pulled up in his safari van with his tour group, the big female got up and sauntered over to the watering hole. Dariece and I were so excited that we couldn’t even hold the camera still. At one point she crossed the road right between us and the safari van. She went over and had a look at some very alert zebras and spooked a hare from its hiding spot in the bush before crossing back and having a drink not 15 feet from our car.
A few times she looked right at us and growled, clearly frustrated that we were near her watering hole. Hardly anyone sees lions at Addo because there are only 9 in the public park, so we knew that seeing 3, and one VERY close was extremely lucky. All females in the park wear a collar so that the conservationists can track their movements and mating habits. Don’t let the collar fool you, she is a very wild animal and being 15 feet from her was nerve-racking. We left Carol’s Rest drinking hole with our hearts racing and our eyes scanning the grass for more animals.
We passed by plenty of other deer like beasts grazing in the plains including dozens more Kudu and Zebra, some Eland, Red Hartebeest, Bush Buck, Cape Grysbok, Common Duiker and Warthogs. We never went 15 minutes without seeing a new species. After seeing so much of what we were hoping to see, and knowing we were on a lucky streak after seeing the rare lions, we had our eyes peeled for the giant African Elephants which we thought should have been the easiest to spot.
We continued on the sign posted Gorah Loop and came over a hill when Dariece gasped and yelled ELEPHANT!!! Just 20 feet or so from the road, the massive pachyderm was tearing up the jungle and munching of leaves and sticks. We sat there and watched him for a while before continuing on our safari, again recharged with excitement.
For the next few hours the car was filled with the sound of our gasps and screams as we both spotted new animals. We would holler their names, I would slam on the brakes, and we would photograph them before continuing on. The entire drive through the park our eyes were darting around the surrounding brush and grass. My fists remained clutched, white knuckled on the steering wheel and my heart was pounding in my chest. When we saw a new animal the ritualistic gasp, yell, brake, photograph and check off the list repeated itself over and over again.
Next up was the buffalo. We knew that there was some luck involved, but we had plenty of that with us that day so we pulled onto Harvey’s Loop, another route recommended by John. Not 10 minutes into the dirt path we spotted a huge buffalo scratching himself on a tree. He wasn’t the last one we would see that day either, we saw 2 more!!
Next we were on the lookout for the rhino, which unfortunately we wouldn’t find, but while looking for him on the Vukani Loop, we saw something crossing the road about 50 meters in front of the car. I slammed on the brakes and the animal froze. As I slowly crept the car closer we could tell by the way it was walking that it was a cat. Its tan coloring made it obvious, even from that distance, that it was a caracal (lynx-like cat). The medium-sized feline hid in the bushes just beside the road so as we pulled up to where we had last saw it, we thought that the distant spotting was all we would see of the incredibly rare cat. Then when we got close enough we must have spooked him because he jumped up on the bank opposite our car and trotted off into the forest. We got a photo that was enough to prove later that we saw him, but too blurry to post here.
Now we knew we have had one of the best safari days imaginable so we just couldn’t stop. This was definitely going to be a full day affair. We stopped at the gated off “Jacks Picnic Spot” and ate the lunch we had packed in our cooler, before setting back out on our self guided safari, hoping that our luck would continue. By three o’clock in the afternoon, we had seen most of what we came to see and more than most people would ever see on one drive through the park.
But it was so exciting spotting animals that we continued on. We were hesitant to go on the Mbotyi Loop because we had to do the Ngulube Loop as well and it was 10km long, driving extremely slow, so at 4:30 we were pushing it to reach the gates before they closed an hour later. But we pressed on and I’m glad we did. About half way through the Mbotyi Loop, Dariece yelled for me to brake and because we were rushing, going about 30km/hour, (twice as fast as we were going all day) I went way past where she wanted me to stop.
She said “Don’t be disappointed if I’m wrong but I think I just saw 2 lions back there.” So again my heart picked up as I put the car into reverse and backed up to where she thought she spotted them. Sure enough there was two adolescent lions lazing in the grass about 100 feet from the road. UNBELIEVABLE… I don’t know how she saw them while we were driving past but she did.We took a couple of pictures but had to keep going to make it to the gates. By this time we hadn’t seen another car for a couple of hours because everyone was leaving, so the sightings were just us and the animals.
When we finished the loop we were revved up again, but we contemplated skipping the 10km Ngulube loop to save time. No way! We just couldn’t quit yet. Thank God we pressed on because it turned out to be the best part of the safari, and undoubtedly the best moment of this entire trip so far. I was moving at a fair clip (about 30Km/hr) trying to leave the park in time.
Dariece and I were both looking out either window trying to spot a rhino, a leopard (ya right), a hyena, or something new to check off our list. With both of us looking out either window and only watching the road 1/2 the time, I was lucky not to hit our next sighting. ANOTHER LION!!!! Right on the road! I slammed on the brakes as the beautiful cat slowly walked across the road and into the jungle to the left of us.
I pulled the car right up to the path the lioness had taken and we watched her rear end start to disappear into the jungle. All of a sudden Dariece gasped and was so shocked she could barely udder the words “loooook”. As I looked back to the road, I saw two massive male lions heading right for us in a slow, confident stroll. It probably took 10 full seconds before my mind could function enough to pick up the camera and take a video and few pictures.
The males were following the female down the same path she had taken so we were right in their way. I remembered what John said about not making sudden movements in their presence, so I just left the car parked. We looked back through the rear windshield, and of course, as it had been for over 2 hours, we were completely alone, not another car for probably an hours drive in both directions. We looked back at the road in front of us as the two massive, powerful cats passed right in front of the car so close that they could have put a paw on the hood without even side-stepping.
One of the males stopped briefly and stared through the windshield at Dariece, then panned his ominous glare to me, then back to Dariece before grunting and slowly retreating into the jungle. For the entire time that the Lions were passing in front of us I had put the camera down for a couple of reasons fueled by excitement, awe, and confusion.
On one hand I wanted to catch the whole thing on camera, but on the other, I wanted to experience it first hand, not through a lens. Travelling for over a year and a half has taught me that a lens can capture a moment, but the mind’s eye can brand it in one’s memory far better than looking back on a photograph. So, with the camera at my lap for 30 seconds of pure silence, Dariece and I watched the majestic creatures pass by us with our chests heaving, adrenaline rushing, and hearts pounding. It wasn’t until the male made its last glance at Dariece and walked off, that I was able to pick up the camera and snap a couple of pictures of Dariece looking out at the back-end of the lions not 10 feet from our car as they sauntered off into the jungle.
So that was the perfect finish to quite possibly the best day in all of our world travels. By the time we got back to our Backpackers our nerves were still twitching. I raced into reception to talk to John and the other safari guides about our day. At first we talked about the lions that we had seen together at Carol’s Rest, then, when I told him that we saw 5 more lions, he didn’t believe me until I showed him pictures.
Then I told him we saw a caracal and showed him the blurry picture which he clearly identified the cat in. He said that he’s been doing that same safari drive for 2 years and has only seen the caracal twice! He and the other guides were absolutely blown away as I showed them the photos of our other sightings. Buffalos, jackals, and eland.
It wasn’t until then that we found out that there was only 9 lions in the entire park and of those we saw, and photographed 8! Of those eight, four were so close we could hear them breath! To say that we were lucky that day would be a huge understatement. Seeing almost all of the rarest creatures on our list in a park that spans 180 000 hectares was insane.
Our stories and pictures even had the guides buzzing and chatting away like school kids, making us feel even better about our self-guided safari. I thanked John immensely for his recommended route and by the time we left, he was asking me to pick 6 numbers off the top of my head so he could win the lottery.
That day, just Dariece and I, driving through the African bush spotting elephants, caracols, buffalos and lions on our own safari, will be one that we will never forget and ranks at the top of the list of experiences we’ve had in our lives. My heart still races when I think of that moment on Ngulube Loop when we first saw the two male lions walking towards us. It’s been nearly a week since it happened and the menacing stare from that massive, predatory cat, still finds its way to my dreams every night.
These are the moments I have come to live for. In case I had forgotten, the world reminded me of why I travel.