South African Safari Day 3: From Kruger National Park to Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Aiming for another early departure from our rondavel in Satara Rest Camp, we set the alarm for 330am and finish our packing in preparation for the move this afternoon to Arathusa Safari Lodge in the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. Before we leave Kruger this morning, though, we still have about 6 hours of prime animal spotting time, and we intend to make use of every second. Our ever-eager private guide, Mary-Anne, is already waiting for us outside when we bring the bags out at 430am, so we make a swift departure from the camp and start scanning for furry friends.

We see some of the usual suspects right away— little grey duikers milling about below a tree full of baboons— but Mary-Anne goes positively ballistic over what at first glance appears to be just a hole in a tree, but is apparently the nest of a Southern Ground Hornbill. She’s very into birds.

The early mornings (330am is more like the middle of the night, actually) are really starting to get me, so I stick my head out the window for the next few hours, hoping the fresh air will keep me awake and alert for cats. We’ve technically managed to tick off all of the Big 5 already, with our rhino on the first day, our many elephants and buffalo, the leopard we saw yesterday, and the lion cubs on the river bank that we spotted from a distance, but I certainly won’t be satisfied until I get lions up close, more leopards, and maybe even some cheetahs. It’s all about the cats, so I’m crossing my toes that they will be out and about this morning.

We pass a dam with black storks, a few crocodile, and an elephant who is very kindly posing for me before continuing on our way. Not long after, there is some excited shouting from Mary-Anne and I get my zoom up in time to see a civet prancing around the grass. The so-called “tabby of Africa”, the civet is a little wild cat with somewhat racoon-like markings that is apparently one of the only animals to eat the giant sluggy millipedes we’ve been seeing on the road. Since they are nocturnal, it’s pretty exciting to see a civet in the day, but additional excitement comes when a group of jackal spot the civet and give chase for about a kilometre. Mary-Anne slams the car into reverse so I can film the pursuit, and thankfully the kitty gets far enough ahead that the jackals decide it’s too much work to continue, so we don’t have to witness a kill.

Rejuvenated by the excitement of our civet spotting, I don’t even need to worry about staying awake on the drive back to Satara for breakfast. We enjoy bobotie (mince made from a variety of braai meats) sandwiches and juice while trying not to engage Mary-Anne in her spirited rant about how she is being personally victimised by the government.

Back on the road, we spot a pack of wild dogs sleeping beneath a tree (or, rather, Mary-Anne spots them and it takes me 5 minutes just to see where she’s pointing because they look like a pile of dirt from a distance, which I suppose is the point). The “African Painted Wolf” is another rare find, so we exit the Kruger through the Orpen Gate feeling very excited to have seen something special this morning. And I guess it is a ringing endorsement of Kruger that we no longer find herds of elephants or giraffes or zebras out of the ordinary!

After an exhilarating two and a half days in Kruger National Park, we now have a 2 hour drive to Sabi Sands where we’ll say farewell to Mary-Anne and check into Aruthusa Safari Lodge for the next 2 nights. On the drive, I take the opportunity to sort through some of my photos, since I’ve already taken hundreds and it’s quickly spirally into excess, but much of the drive is on uneven dirt roads that throw the car around, so it’s harder than it should be.

Finally, we arrive at Arathusa and are immediately blown away. Anelle from reception meets us at the front with hot towels and glasses of juice, and has someone take our bags while she shows us the property. Every detail is amazing, and I can’t wait to swim in the infinity pool that overlooks a huge grass flat where elephants and impala are nibbling. There are only 4 other guests here today, which is practically unheard of, so we have the place largely to ourselves.

We indulge in gin and tonics from the bar (everything is included, so why not) before being shown out to our chalet. Since the property is unfenced from the reserve, we can’t walk out to our room alone in the dark and Anelle gives us instructions on what to do if we cross paths with an elephant in the day time, which is basically don’t run but get to your room quick smart. It’s a few minutes’ walk to reach our chalet since it’s positioned out in the bush, but when we arrive, we are suitably stunned. It’s an open space with a towering ceiling, decorated with leather chairs and animal hide rugs. The large outdoor area has lounge chairs and a private plunge pool (which has to be frequently refilled because the elephants and cats love drinking from it), and without a doubt it is the nicest place I’ve ever stayed in my life. The bathtub looks out over the bush and the pool, so I am desperately hoping to get an elephant or leopard visitor while I’m relaxing in the tub.

After running around in excitement and photographing every inch of the room, mum and I walk back to the main lodge for lunch with the other guests. We all sit on a table in the grass overlooking the dried watering hole and watch dozens of impala prancing around while we make friendly conversation with a couple from Texas and a couple from the Gold Coast, both newlyweds. The chef comes out and tells us today’s options, and not long after we are being served some truly incredible food in the most scenic of locations. After lunch, I have a little time to continue my photo sorting before reconvening with the group for afternoon tea where we are split into 2 cars (another couple has just arrived, so 4 total in each vehicle). Our ranger, Sabastion, and our tracker, Riforce, introduce themselves and then we hop into the open-top safari vehicles, giddy with excitement.

Unlike Kruger, where you need to stay on the road at all times, game driving in Sabi Sands is mostly off-road, so it will definitely offer a different perspective. We will actually be able to track animals through the bush, and all the lodges in Sabi Sands communicate over radio to share their finds and make sure there are never more than one or two cars, depending on the animal, at a single sighting so we aren’t jostling for a view. It’s also a fraction of the size of Kruger, so the rangers know almost all of the animals personally and can tell us about each specific herd or cat, but the animals are also familiar with the vehicles and will let you get incredibly close without any fear. We are instructed to sit at all times, because animals have become familiar with the profile shape of the vehicle and view us as one large animal, but as soon as we stand, we single ourselves out and can either frighten animals away or draw unwanted attention. The Reserve’s policy is to have as little impact upon the animals as possible, so it’s important that we don’t distress or aggravate them with our presence.

We set off into the bush and within a few minutes, we are face-to-bum with a white rhino. The guide tells us that he’s about 30 years old and blind in one eye, but still healthy for an older rhino. He is absolutely unbothered by the car, so we position ourselves a little closer and watch him as he settles down for his nap, finally giving us a better view of his gigantic head and horns. Rhino poaching is still a huge problem in South Africa, as there is a thriving black market and rhino are being killed just for their horns. We saw anti-poaching squads patrolling through Kruger, but the guide tells us that many parks and reserves have started de-horning their rhinos to discourage poaching. If done properly, it won’t actually affect the rhino, but poachers often still kill the rhinos for the miniscule amount of horn that can’t be removed. The whole thing is incredibly sad, but thankfully Sabi Sands is tiny and has a very vigilant poaching squad, so their rhinos are usually safe and also don’t need to be proactively de-horned.

After leaving our rhino friend, we are cruising along a sandy river bed when the tracker spots something and we back up to find a leopard curled up on the opposite side of the bank. She watches as we approach, but doesn’t appear at all startled by us. I’m practically wetting myself at this point. Even though we saw a leopard yesterday, it was no where near this close, there were a dozen cars blocking the entire road, and obviously one was never enough in the first place. Our ranger explains that lions are really the only social big cat (male cheetahs can form small “coalitions” to patrol territory, but usually only 2-3 cats), but leopards are completely solitary. The territory of male leopards usually encompasses the territory of half a dozen female leopards, so a lady cat will call out for a male leopard when she is ready to mate, and as soon as she falls pregnant she will go off on her own again to raise the cubs. A truly independent woman!

This female leopard is honestly so beautiful I want to cry, so I’m sad to leave her after a good half hour of just sitting and watching, but our ranger has radioed the other car and we want to give them an opportunity to see her. I’m wondering how the day can possibly get any better when we spot a huge pride of lions lounging in the grass.

Our guide tells us that this pride had two cubs, but one did not make it, so we see only one baby lion feeding and playing with the lionesses, although he also looks quite thin. It’s heartbreaking to know that baby lions are dying from malnutrition so close to the camp, but the Reserve has a strict policy that everything must be left to nature and that people shouldn’t intervene, which I can definitely respect. We see the cub feeding with its mother and playing with the older lions, some of the adolescents tussling, and plenty of beautiful lionesses having an afternoon cat nap, and I am going bananas taking photos. They all remind me of my little Henri back home, lions are just big kittens.

After a long time with the lions, we continue our drive and see baby wildebeest before stopping and getting out of the car for sundowners with our ranger and the Australian couple with us in the vehicle. We all chat and enjoy our wines as the sun sets, enjoying the novelty of being out of the vehicle, and then hop back in for the drive back to camp. On the way, our tracker manages to spot the Leopardess from earlier in the afternoon, asleep on a termite mound, and (I still don’t understand how) a chameleon in a tree.

It’s approaching 9pm by the time we get back to camp, so we order a few drinks and watch as the kitchen staff perform an impromptu local dance and song, a bit merry after their own staff holiday party in the afternoon. We have an absolutely incredible meal and then retire to the lounges for more wine and fun chats, losing track of time and not making it back to our room until 11pm. I immediately pass out, beyond blissed out from the day we’ve just had.

Read more about our South African safari