I recently returned from an excellent stay at a tented safari camp in the Manyeleti Game Reserve, a private concession on the border with the more famous Kruger National Park. Honeyguide’s Mantobeni Camp was a great bush getaway, and perfect escape from winter’s chill. Although we saw some wonderful predators, general game was a bit more scarce, leaving me with plenty of time on the game drives for wandering thoughts. Having grown up visiting neighbouring Kruger frequently, I found myself pondering over my love-hate relationship with private game lodges.
The surprise factor
One of the excitement factors of a bush holiday is not knowing what you are going to see. Although there is the natural rhythm of the bush, there still is a lot of unpredictability. You can’t know if you are going to see a monitor lizard gripped in the talons of a brown snake eagle in flight*. Or a Thompsons gazelle mom chasing a jackal away from her baby**. Or the lioness eyeing the Zebra at a waterhole***. These things just happen when you least expect it. At private game lodges on the other hand, almost guaranteed sightings are generally the norm. Rangers are in constant radio contact with each other, sharing the big ticks. Once you’ve learnt their lingo, you’ll know what to expect, which can spoil the surprise factor, but is a big draw card for foreigners with limited time to “see Africa”.
* – Seen outside Letaba in the Kruger National Park
** – Seen in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania
*** – Seen at a waterhole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park
Setting the pace
Being in the bush should be a relaxing experience. Self-drive holidays allow you to go at your own pace. And the Kruger National Park is geared for this. At private game lodges, I’ve experienced rangers rushing past “smaller” sightings to get to the Big Five. This can be especially annoying if you’re trying to get that perfect shot of an ox pecker feeding on ticks on a muddy buffalo. That said, we’ve sometimes had luck being the only group on a game drive vehicle.
A great advantage of going on a game drive is the chance to go on restricted roads, satisfying the desire of exploring uncharted territory. Going on drives in Kruger as a child, I wondered if animals chose those “no-entry” roads to hide from the public. The drawback of private lodges is that they are often on a concession, and may themselves be restricted to certain areas. Depending on the reserve, some do go off-road to get a closer look at a special sighting. I looked on in horror as a ranger drove over bushes (although was surprised as spiky acacias sprang back upright). Even though we got close enough to hear a leopard crushing the bones of an impala, I wonder if it was worth the trampled bush.
The sounds of the bush
The bush sounds best when that’s the only sound; no diesel vehicle engines nor generators. Game drive vehicles can be noisy, so I’m hoping that electric-powered, silent 4x4s will become more mainstream. It’s also about time that rangers found an alternative way to share sightings (if they really must in the first place). Scratchy radio noise and static can be rather annoying. Headphones may be an option.
Private is not always so private
Many safari lodges afford the opportunity to connect with other guests. Dinners are generally communal, kick started by gathering around a crackling fire in the boma. Stories and travel experiences are shared and it’s a great way to learn about other countries and cultures. But small talk is not for everyone, so most lodges will give a private table if requested.
But a happy tummy wins
A visit to the bush is almost incomplete without a braai. Kruger’s camps come alive at dusk with most locals opting to make a braai. It’s a tradition I love, but having a three course dinner served to me, under the stars is just as great, without the effort. The general schedule at private lodges revolves around food and game drives. It’s just the perfect combination.