Hildy Rubin, who is based in our New York office, is a passionate wildlife lover who has spent many hours on safari in East Africa.  She recently went on safari in South Africa to see experience the different properties and to compare a South Africa safari with an East Africa safari.

Here is her trip report:

“First stop, Cape Town: I  had heard so much about how beautiful Cape Town was, and how much there was to see and do there, and so I was looking forward to spending at least a few days there… to find out what all the fuss was about. In East Africa there are few, if any, cities you want to spend time in. Most people are in and out of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as quickly as possible.

Even though I am partial to sightseeing where the “sights” are leopards and lions, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting this lovely city, with its dramatic, picturesque mountains and oceans, a bustling Waterfront where local musicians entertain you as you wander the shops and restaurants and limitless choices for fine dining and wine, both in the city and out.

In the nearby Winelands:  Although I don’t drink, I did observe a “tasting” and could tell that people really enjoyed themselves learning how to pair a Merlot with the perfect cheese or chocolate.  A Winelands Tour is a great way to spend a day, even for a “teatotaler” like me…but especially if you love food and wine!

So, I really liked Cape Town. Most people do. That’s why it’s often added onto a safari in South Africa. It’s a city full of life, and a wide variety of activities close by. I included as many as I had time for – the V & A Waterfront, the Penguin Colony (wildlife!), gorgeous scenic drives, the spectacular views from Cape Point and from the top of Table Mountain. I know that I have barely scratched the surface. Next time, shark diving?

cape town arial_146611481
Everybody likes Cape Town. Thats why it’s almost always added onto a safari

My accommodations in the city varied from lovely little boutique guest houses to 5+ star luxury. Although I do like the “homey”, intimate, personal atmosphere of B&Bs, I won’t complain about all the amenities I experienced in the luxury hotels – rooms bigger than NYC apartments, bathrooms even bigger than the enormous rooms, sleeping in beds so comfortable you feel like you are lying on a cloud, welcome baskets, thick bathrobes ordered to size (rather than the typical size of falling-off-me), swimming pools, spas, gyms, pastries that you cant resist, even if you don’t like sweets, just to experience the artistry of the food, etc. etc. And there’s always the nice surprise of realizing you have a room with a view, to watch the sun set over Table Mountain.

Off to the Sabi Sands and Kruger:  I was so happy to be on safari again! Wildlife never disappoints.  Even though I had seen many of the animals before, for me it’s always a thrill to be observing animals in the wild…from the tiny dwarf mongoose scampering away from the vehicle, to the massive elephant mother running straight towards it instead, with a mock charge to tell us to leave her kid alone. I could watch elephants all day! Each animal has a story to tell and there’s always something new to learn…. and the guides are so knowledgeable and enthusiastic they are always happy to share as many interesting facts and figures as you will listen to.

Elephants bunching at a water hole.
I could watch elephants all day!

OK, there’s one exception to “enjoying every animal I see”, and that is spiders. It seems that Sabi has alot of them, and they are quite large! It doesn’t matter that they aren’t poisonous. As the landrover passes under their webs they start crawling away as fast as they can. And then there’s the sight of thousands of spiderwebs being revealed glistening with dew in the early morning light across the landscape…yuk. I suppose one could get used to them…but probably not.

One major aspect of the safari that was important to me was to gain some insight into the similarities and differences between a safari in South vs. East Africa. This will be helpful when advising clients where to go and when, and in helping them choose which destination fits them best. Here are some of my observations.

East Africa vs South Africa

  • All the safaris were in open vehicles, a much more exciting way to see the wildlife…the feeling that there’s nothing between you and the approaching lion, who looks like he’s headed right for you, and staring you down, then just walking around the vehicle, so close you could reach out and touch it, if that wasn’t such a bad idea. The only negative is that you are totally exposed to the elements- hot, cold and rain, all of which I experienced on safari. It’s much colder in the morning and evening than when you are in a “regular” closed landrover, especially if you are traveling fast to try and get to a sighting… so cold for me that you could have actually caught me with my down jacket on once or twice at 5.30am. But it warms up, and then heats up, very quickly. So then I had to make sure I was covered in sunscreen and wearing a hat, as I burn easily.   That sun was strong! And then when it rains, it pours, although briefly, so you do get quite wet.  But its still great to be in an open vehicle!
Typical game drive scenario in South Africa
  • Unlike the open plains of Kenya and Tanzania, a lot of the habitat is thick bush, so the animals are harder to find. This means the guides and trackers must read the wilderness as if it was a book of clues. One of the most impressive things I saw on safari was the amazing tracking abilities of the guides and trackers who worked together to find wildlife for their guests. Not only can they identify the species which left the paw prints on the ground, somehow sorting through a dozen of them on top of each other, like jigsaw puzzle pieces thrown about, but they can analyze them like they were a looking at a Safari MapQuest. There were other clues as well, a pile of dung – the freshness indicating when the animal was there, and what it ate for dinner, the broken blades of glass showing its direction of travel after it left the road, the sounds of wildlife nearby giving alarm calls –a specific call of the monkey’s repertoire revealing which predator was on the prowl, and when it had passed by, based on how loud and excited the animals were calling…all of these clues would be woven together, telling them a story about where the animal came from , where it was going, what it was hunting… perhaps even what it was thinking (I wouldn’t be surprised). I’ve never seen tracking in East Africa (although, to be fair, it’s not really needed on the open savannah) and so it was fascinating to be able to watch these South African trackers as they put the all the puzzle pieces together.
Typical game drive scenario in East Africa
  • The tracker and guide work together as a team, often with other teams from other camps, communicating by walkie talkie – spreading out in all directions to cover more  territory, sharing the news when they find what they were looking for… everyone  benefits in the end and this “cooperative hunt” of theirs worked very well.
  • It could be hours of searching and analyzing all the clues to find a particular animal that a guest has flown 10,000 miles to see, whether it’s a lion, leopard, elephant, or giraffe. So when on safari in South Africa, just let your guide and tracker know what you want and they will do everything they can to make it happen. They don’t give up! Sometimes they would reluctantly end the quest at sundown, only to pick up the trail where they left off early the next day. All the hard work almost always results in a sighting..and because of all this effort, it’s even more exciting for everyone. This was rare in East Africa, the search and build up to finding a leopard …a typical game drive is so much more straightforward..it can be a lot of driving, but its not tracking.
  • Another aspect about the guides that I noticed is how passionate they are about the wildlife and their jobs. They are almost as excited as their guests when they see a lion, because they know that it’s what we came all this way to see, and they also really seem to just enjoy seeing wildlife too. It’s why they choose to become guides and it’s very obvious, among most of the guides I met, that they really do love what they do. They’ll stop the vehicle when they see something interesting and tell you everything they know about its behavior, adaptations, what it eats, how it defends itself, finds a mate, hunts in a pack, hunts alone, lives in a bachelor herd, mimics a poisonous animal, uses a “babysitter” to watch a group of kids, conserves water, etc., etc.   This sharing of knowledge and enthusiasm of course happens in East Africa too, but I found it very noticeable with nearly every guide I met, perhaps because I changed guides so often when I switched camps that I got to see many different guides in action…not a single dud amongst them.
A guide AND tracker team on a South Africa safari
  • There also always tends to be a guide AND a tracker, whereas in East Africa there is usually one driver/ guide taking you on your game drives. (Although on conservancies there is often a guide and a spotter).   4 eyes are much better than 2 for spotting wildlife. Interesting that the guides walk into the bush to track with their rifles as protenction, the trackers have no interest in carrying one.
  • The guides are highly educated with very in-depth and academic knowledge compared to many guides in East Africa, as they have access to a very intense education and keep adding to that constantly. They are not driver-guides but guides who also drive. There’s a big difference.   There are many great guides in East Africa but I just was impressed by the great wealth of knowledge that I experienced.
  • No minibus safaris here. You really do need 4wheel drive. Rocks, trees, bushes, gulleys, riverbeds. These vehicles can handle it all. A dry riverbed becomes a road with a good landrover. It does seem a bit rough on the environment though, crashing down bushes and taking a machete to trees, driving over anything that got in our way in order to follow a leopard.
  • Chances of seeing a kill on safari: Due to the thick bush it’s a lot harder to see a kill, (compared to East Africa) which many people seem to want to do. It’s sometimes so difficult just to get near a predator, much less follow the hunter through the thick bush, unlike on the open plains.

So, I did not see a kill or much hunting, but I actually didn’t want to. There are three kinds of people on game drives when it comes to watching predators vs. prey- those who really want to see a kill, those who really don’t want to, and those who thought they did but upon doing so, realize they really don’t! If you don’t see a kill, you’ll still observe plenty of kill related activities…a full-bellied lion, mouth still dripping blood, exchanging places at the kill with a hungry female, a cheetah feasting on a gory head, a crocodile sneaking up a unsuspecting drinking giraffe, who caught a glimpse of its eyes above the surface just in time.

leopard kill
Magnificent leopard with her kill
  • South Africa’s Private Reserve vs East Africa’s Conservancies

Fewer Tourists: As I spent a lot of time in the Sabi Sands there was never the feeling of too many tourists. East Africa has private conservancies as well, but I think many people just visit the Mara so they never experience what it’s like to be on safari without lots of vehicles surrounding a lion, talking, and even harassing it.

Maximum Number of Vehicles: There was also an elaborate system of allowing only two vehicles around an animal at any one time, waiting on standby for your turn, so the animal is never surrounded and always has room to move, etc. This was a welcome sight. This doesn’t happen in the Mara, (Or in the actual Kruger National Park) where you could have 10 vehicles around a cheetah, but it’s a rule on the private conservancies.

On the flip side, there seemed to be a competition” between some of the private game reserves. This became evident in an incident where our vehicle started following a lion….until the moment its paw stepped onto another property, and we couldn’t go any further. He was only about 6 feet away under a bush but our guide said he would be fired if he entered that particular reserve. For people on safari, this seems a bit unfair and probably annoying. I had never experienced this in East Africa…and it may only be a rivalry between a few camps, but it’s was very odd. So having private land for safaris has its pros and cons….

Whether in East or South Africa, staying outside Kruger and the Mara, on private conservancies, for all or part of the time, does provide a very different safari that everyone should experience if they can afford to.

  • I didn’t take any malaria medication this trip, which some would see as a real plus compared to safaris in Kenya and Tanzania (most people probably do take this precaution I just decided not to based on the low risk factors.)
  • I passed a reserve that had an Elephant Encounter (Jubalani). There seem to be quite a few opportunities to interact with elephants in South Africa and this is a real attraction for many people.   In East Africa there is an elephant orphanage but it’s nowhere close to a similar experience.
  • Of course, last but not least, East Africa has the Great Migration. The scenes people see on National Geographic of river crossings and crocodiles….if this is something people want to experience, then there’s nothing similar in South Africa. Although it’s impossible to ensure that someone will see a river crossing, the migration itself is still pretty great!

This trip was a great combination of city life and wildlife.

I cannot wait to go back again!”

Sunset over Africa!