The ice cold air whipped against my face as I clutched the hot water bottle beneath my blanket. I sat high on the jeep as it drove through the reserve. My puffer was zipped all the way up as my exposed teary eyes were peeled to the bush looking for signs of movement. My legs below my knees were frozen, but the wildlife sightings in the icy dawn were worth it. This was what a real South African safari adventure in winter is like.
If you are looking to do an authentic somewhat more high end safari on a budget, then the winter season is the time to do it. The South African winter season is our low tourist season, and as many of us know, safaris especially the glamorous ones are aimed at tourists and their favourable exchange rate currencies!
South African safaris do offer a lot of citizen rates throughout the year, but overall a fancy safari that will include all the extras will cost a bit more as the money also goes into conservation fees. What you spend will depend greatly on your taste and needs for travel.
Ok, so I am definitely not prepared to rough it out in the wild. Electricity, a nice bathroom with hot showers, comfortable interiors and air-conditioning is what I consider the essentials. I also do not opt for self-catering, as I am coming from another city and province with no transport of my own. I therefore prefer to have an all-inclusive package that includes activities and meals. This is MY idea of an authentic South African safari adventure!
I wasn’t planning to go on another safari. I was actually looking to make plans to visit Kwa-Zulu Natal with a friend, go on a diving adventure and maybe venture into Hluhluwe. However, the recent floods had eliminated those chances this year.
I ended up finding a really good deal online that offered R2400 a night per person sharing, but R3400 for one person. You only need 2 or 3 nights in the bush as your lodging is overall limited to the reserve you are in. I booked 2 nights in the lodge’s luxury tents. The price included activities such as off road game drives, meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner), linens, well-furnished tent with air-conditioning (both heating and cooling) and nice bathroom with hot water.
So not being from Johannesburg nor being familiar with the roads, I had to book transfers. Getting lost was not going to be on my agenda and transfers are just safer for a lone female travelling in South Africa. I used the same transfer company a friend and I used before, however I felt the pinch as this time I was travelling alone.
Then there’s the flights. Overall, flights in South Africa are not cheap for such short distances, I think we pay a lot. Anyway, even during the winter season flights will range around ZAR 3000 to R3500 ZAR return trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Also if your trip is in the weekday, pre-book your return flight. Our airports are busy in the weekday as flight is the quickest and only way to travel between provinces.
Overall my transport came to just over ZAR 5000.
Glamping in the bushveld
The watering hole always attracts the wildlife. My tent was on the water front and next to me was the restaurant, and ranger/staff lodgings. Overall, it was very safe and I only saw some buck and wildebeest outside my tent.
I was thrilled to spot 3 giraffes coming to lean in for a drink and two hippos gliding past. The lake was home to a family of hippos who grunted relentlessly through the night and crocodiles who loved to bask on the rocks.
South African luxury safari tents are overall very comfortable. Besides the floor, the bathroom is the only concrete room in the tent while the canvas covers it. They have hot water showers, plumbing and electricity. It was so cold in June in the bushveld. The temperature dropped to just 3 degrees Celsius overnight and heating is an essential as far as I’m concerned. The bed was comfortable and the staff would heat my room up after my evening game drive.
The food was great, and portions this side of South Africa are always generous. I could never finish. The high teas for lunch were great comprising of sweet and savoury delights. Their breakfast flapjacks were amazing and for dinner I had steak and grilled chicken.
A South African Safari Adventure in Winter
As I pulled my tent zip down and entered the icy air from my heated tent, I was met with thick mist all around me. The colours of the rising sun at the break of dawn was stunning and all was still aside for a few waking birds.
It was freezing. The game ranger brought blankets and was kind enough to also give me a hot water bottle. You sit quite high up in the jeep and so diving in that icy air numbs your face. You’ll need your warmest jacket and a beanie.
We spotted rhino peacefully grazing, clashing male buffaloes, two male lions sleeping by a freshly killed zebra carcass, an aardvark hole and a lone male elephant. The elephant was in musk and kept a wary eye on our jeep.
The elephant eventually moved off and we slowly followed him at a decent distance, until he stopped to eat from a tree. He just suddenly turned around and charged at us! For a six ton animal he moved incredibly fast and he gained such speed as we reversed quickly to back off. He came right up onto the front of the jeep, ears out, trunk flat and eyes focused. I literally stopped breathing.
Luckily, I had my camera strap around my neck as I lost grip of it in my hand. He backed off and disappeared into the bush. We turned around and left him alone as elephants can charge from the side too. Eeek!
The evening drive was very chilled. I saw giraffes, wildebeest and a dazzle of zebras at sunset. I only heard the hyenas at night and a multitude of screeching frogs and birds.
The second evening I was offered to join a sunset boat cruise on the lake instead of a night game drive. I had hoped to spot some hippos but we could only hear them grunting in the reeds far away. We spotted lounging crocodiles as we glided through the reed-lined waterways. It was very tranquil and beautiful. The sunset that night was breath-taking as deep magentas, reds and oranges coloured in the chilly winter sky.
Reflect and Reset
There’s something undoubtedly special about spending time in nature, especially in a finely tuned eco-system with such rich biodiversity that has been running its course like this for millennia. When you are in the wild, you tune into a different time and space that forces you to submit to its natural ebb and flow. You become witness to what may be very small and random moments that create a stillness as you awe in its beauty. My feelings were only reaffirmed on this trip that animals and plants undoubtedly have a higher purpose on Earth as all living beings do. Their actions and lives maintain climates while preserving the natural world. It saddens me that we have encroached on their right to migrate.
I spent my days reading, resting and thinking about my own priorities and goals. I realised that regardless of the challenges and triumphs that blur into one another, they all form a harmonious ebb and flow that forms part of your own journey. Just being aware of it is liberating and exciting because you determine your goal, but so much is made up of your own actions and that of a greater power. Life truly is an adventure.
Would you do an African safari alone? Have you done it already and what was your experience?
Tips for a safari in winter
- Pack in your best outdoor and warmest jacket and a cap. The game drive jeeps are high and you’ll be racing through the cold dawn air and it gets COLD. Make sure your jacket is least wind resistant in this case. A padded jacket works for me.
- The days in the South African bushveld are warm to hot even in winter. Pack in lighter clothes for the day.
- Looking to stay in one of those South African safari luxury tents? Bring a pair of slip in shoes as the floor is not warm.
- Make sure your accommodation both lodge and tented camp offers indoor heating the nights are very cold.
- Pre-book your return flights if you are travelling during winter. South African are not on holiday and travel frequently during this time.
- You might be the few or only person at the lodge/camp. Rather bring your own alcohol if its is allowed and check for a corkage fee.