Updated: Oct 13, 2021
Exhilarating encounters with all the animals at Karongwe Private Game Reserve.
The open-topped, open-sided Land Rover tore through the thick, tall grasses of the African bush. Bouncing over rough, dirt roads, I grabbed the handle bar in front of me to avoid being tossed out of the vehicle. “Duck!”, the driver yelled. Row-by-row, we buried our heads into the seats to hide from the low hanging thorny branches above. It felt like we were in a roller coaster car that had gone off the rails. A moment of what-did-I-get-myself-into combined with adrenaline-pumping excitement. I sat up just in time to see a vehicle-sized, thorny tree ahead. Are we going to hit it? The Land Rover lunged forward with a rocking grind. Oh, we’ll just drive over it, I realized. Bump. Scratch. Crunch. Leafless branches scraped under and around the vehicle as we flattened the tree in our path. Thank goodness for big tires. I looked around and shared a relieved smile with my fellow passengers as the tree sprung back into place in our wake. We were on a mission.
The Land Rover slowed to a stop as a cloud of dirt settled around us. We could see a golden-colored mane low to the ground, blending in with the straw-colored grasses. Whoa. We were thrilled to come across one of the “Big Five”, even if it was just the back of his head. The lion wasn’t doing much of anything, just hanging out. Camera lenses clicked as we watched in speechless awe. It was magnificent. But our driver wasn’t so impressed, he knew he could get us a better view.
The Land Rover was back in action, whipping around to bring us even closer to not just the male lion, but a lioness too. We were now about fifteen feet away - from two lions - without any windows or a roof. With the vehicle re-oriented, I was now in the seat closest to the lions. My heart was thumping. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the vulnerability of sharing this suddenly small space with lions. I felt utterly terrified, yet exhilarated at the same time. We watched quietly, motionless. The lions stood up, as the male walked around the female and moved in closer to her. Thump, thump, thump. I was pretty sure the lions could hear my heart pounding. Suddenly it was much less quiet as they got to know each other better. With a guttural roar and a brief snarl, their mating session was quickly over. We were not expecting such a primal show. They didn’t seem to mind an audience.
We later learned that lions mate about once every fifteen minutes for up to five days at a time. The driver of another vehicle had alerted our driver of the lions’ whereabouts and the approximate timing of the next act. We didn’t care that it wasn’t luck that brought us to this location at the right time. Seeing these animals do what they they do was the reason we were traveling with a group of expert guides.
Our guides were, in a word, amazing. We had a crew of wildlife gurus, including a driver skilled in navigating the bumpy terrain and a spotter who sat perched on the front of the vehicle so he could scan the bush for wildlife. These guys knew their stuff. They searched the dirt for paw prints, hoof tracks, and other evidence of wildlife (aka poop). The only rules were: 1) stay seated in the vehicle at all times and 2) don’t make any loud sounds. The animals see the vehicle as one unit, not a thing made up of many things (aka a lunch buffet).
The tour included fifteen people from all over the world. There were seven of us in this particular Land Rover. Four of us had come to Africa together to celebrate the beginning of a new era in our lives, while also getting away from those lives for a little while. We were turning forty with mixed feelings about it and we needed to wrap our brains around all of it. There was also a charismatic Russian woman from New Zealand who was traveling solo and quickly became a welcomed addition to our group, along with a delightful mother and daughter duo from the UK. It’s easy to make new friends when everyone starts to feel the same unique combination of terror and excitement.
During our stay, we went on two game drives each day - one at sunrise and one in late afternoon. We spotted elephants, giraffes, and zebras regularly. At one point we found ourselves in a herd of cape buffalo while we sat silently, stunned to be surrounded by some of the most dangerous wildlife in the world. We would stop to watch everything in the beginning, although as the drives continued we stopped stopping for zebras and giraffes. Surprisingly, those animals were everywhere! We never stopped stopping for elephants though, which were always among my favorites. Watching them maneuver their trunks and gracefully wander across the road in front of us was mesmerizing. We even spotted a couple of white rhinos on separate occasions. One day we tracked a leopard with its lunch (aka an impala) and watched another leopard steal it for himself. We saw crocodiles lounging by the river bank while hippos popped their heads out of the water. Our driver would ask what we wanted to see next and the crew would deliver each time. We were happy and content, we had seen it all. Each night when the sun started to set, we made our way to an open spot where we’d toast to another incredible day and recap our wildlife sightings. Driving back to camp, we’d spot monkeys jumping through the trees, silhouetted by the rising moonlight. We’d put our heads back and look up in awe as all the stars came out to say goodnight.
When we weren’t tracking wildlife, we passed the time at the lodge, enjoying a glass or two of wine, while warthogs and kudu gathered at the nearby watering hole. It seemed to be happy hour for everyone. Each meal was thoughtfully prepared with local ingredients, often including a selection of game meat for the adventurous diners among us. The tented safari rooms blended the elements of nature with the creature comforts I’ve come to prefer. Each room was built as its own structure on stilts with canvas tented walls, thatched roofs, comfy bedding, mosquito netting, a luxurious bathroom (with an amazing rain shower), and a balcony. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect setting for a wildlife safari adventure.
On one of our last drives, we received word that there were cheetahs nearby. Back on the bumpy roads, the driver used a walker talkie and the native language to communicate with other drivers to track our next encounter. The vehicle came to an abrupt stop. We were on high-alert, scouring the bush as expert wildlife scanners at this point. The driver turned around and told us we were close, just a little further ahead. He then said, “if the cheetahs aren’t by the road when we get there, we get out and walk.” Gulp. Once again, I felt that newly familiar mix of fear and exhilaration. We drove a little further. The driver stopped and turned off the vehicle. He opened the door and stepped out. The other guides did the same. Wait, I thought we weren’t supposed to get out of the vehicle. Wasn’t that rule number one? I was straight-up terrified. But I also figured they were the experts. So we followed them. In a silent, single-file line, we headed into the bush, farther and farther away from the safety of our trusty Land Rover. We walked for ten minutes, hearts racing, wondering what in the world was going to happen next.
We arrived at a small clearing. We were no longer alone. The distinctive black spots on his back were hard to miss. He was sitting upright, tail swaying back and forth. Yep, this is terrifying. But it also felt oddly... ok. We crept closer. We were about twenty feet away when we saw the others. We learned earlier about three cheetah brothers that lived in the area - and then there they were - with nothing between us and them except some wispy grasses. The orchestra of camera clicks began as we watched in utter amazement. The cheetahs began to stalk something ahead. We followed. Every once in awhile, they stopped to look back at us, and then carried on with their stalking. They didn’t mind being followed. It was as if they had an understanding with our guides - the guides made sure they had a safe place to live, no eating the visitors. It really was a win-win for everyone.
By the end of our visit, it felt like we had witnessed all of the wildlife in the vast game reserve. I had discovered a new appreciation and respect for every living thing. Watching wild animals in their natural world, surrounded by nothingness made me feel sort of wild and free too. We came to Africa to celebrate life and experience it beyond ourselves. But we also learned how to be still and take it all in, one moment at a time. To sit with the unavoidable feelings of uncertainty and fear and move forward. We finally felt like we were ready for whatever was going to happen next.
About Karongwe Private Game Reserve:
Karongwe is located on the eastern side of South Africa in Limpopo, about a 5 hour drive from Johannesburg. It’s not far from Kruger National Park, but provides a better safari experience in my opinion since you can get much closer to the wildlife here. They offer a variety of lodging options and packages with a range of pricing. Check out their website for the latest details.
About G Adventures:
My friends and I visited Karongwe as part of a larger tour of Southern Africa through G Adventures in partnership with National Geographic Journeys. They specialize in solo and small group adventures with local guides all over the world and do a fantastic job at it. You can learn more at gadventures.com.
African safari planning resources:
Check out Condé Nast's Complete Guide to Safari for answers to all your safari questions.
Learn more about how to choose the right safari for you.
Explore all about Africa from my go-to travel resource, Lonely Planet.
Consult the CDC for the latest on recommended vaccines.
It's always a good idea to be mindful of any current travel advisories.
Here's a handy guide on what to pack (and what to leave behind).
It's not a bad idea to peruse these tips for photographing wildlife.
Until next time, happy travels!
Author's note: I've recommended a few companies in this article and I want you to know that this is my unbiased opinion and no compensation was given.