A day on a South African self drive safari

As I sip red wine under the enormous mounted head of a buffalo, I glance at the shattered window in the corner of our lodge’s lounge room. The spidery cracks that spread across the glass serve as a reminder that we are in a truly wild place. Franz, who has been caretaker of Masinda Lodge for 30 years, tells us the story of a guest who left the front door open as they went for a morning drive. The baboon that they discovered when they returned panicked and tried to escape, shattering this and another window in the roomy lodge.


Franz has even more stories than he has years living in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. He cannot read or write – he tells me that words just look like squiggles on a page – but he can spot a pride of lions that just looks like a series of specks to the naked eye.

We spend an evening watching these specks as they move from a distant ridge to a hill close by. We eat steak and sip wine and pass a pair of binoculars from one excited viewer to the next, and lap up Franz’s tales of years in this wildly beautiful park.

When I first heard that our accommodation was unfenced, I admit that I was a little nervous. But as soon as I arrive and see the incredible scene that unfolds before me, I am transfixed. The view can be admired from almost every corner of the 8 person lodge, with floor-to-ceiling windows that further remind me that there is almost no barrier between me and the surrounding wilderness.

I never want to leave.

We are here on a safari, however, so I manage to drag myself away for a few short periods in order to spot some of the wildlife that isn’t in the direct line of sight at Masinda Lodge. A day on a self drive safari in South Africa is a day like no other, and one that I would relive a thousand times over if I could.

4:30am

Self Drive Safari in South Africa

The beeping of my alarm shocks me from my slumber and I jump out of bed, peering into the darkness behind the curtain to see if any lions are sprawled on the lawn, as Franz assures me can happen. Disappointed, I shower and pad down the dark hall to the kitchen. A hot cup of tea is put into my hands by my alert Dad, who excitedly tells me about a hyena that just walked past him on the back deck. I grab a bag of snacks and water that I packed the previous night and knock on the doors of my siblings’ rooms, much to their annoyance.

5:00am

Self Drive Safari in South Africa

Packed into the van in the grey dawn light, we set off slowly along the bumpy dirt roads. We catch glimpses of giraffes’ graceful swaying gait above the thorny tree tops. We stop to admire a loping elephant as it topples a tree using nothing but its trunk. We laugh at the poor ugly warthogs as they upturn the red earth with their whiskery snouts.

6:00am

Self Drive Safari in South Africa

Arriving at Mpila, the main lodge in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, we check the board for the previous day’s wildlife sightings. We decide to venture towards a kill – a giraffe that fell victim to a pride of lions a few days previously – to see if we can spot the killers in the area. We spy a wake of vultures weighing down sparse tree branches and soon see what’s left of the giraffe. There is no lion in sight, but the vultures aren’t braving the carcass.

Self Drive Safari in South Africa

We move the car forward inch by inch, our camera shutters creating a chorus of clicks. And then we see him: the king of the jungle, lurking near his kill, confident in the knowledge that his mere presence will deter scavengers. He is right.

9:00am

Self Drive Safari in South Africa

We’re tired now, and weary of staying attentive for so long. Our snacks are gone and our chatter has trailed off, but we have hundreds of photos of some of the most beautiful animals on earth. Rhinos, wild dogs, hyenas, kudu and zebras cross our path throughout the morning, some in the distance and some so close that we can spot the wrinkles and scars that tell the tale of these wild creatures’ lives.

Self Drive Safari in South Africa

Self Drive Safari in South Africa

11:00am

Franz emerges from his house and animatedly fills us in on what we missed: a leopard stalking an impala just a stone’s throw from the lodge. I spend some time writing, reading and staring at the view I have fallen so deeply in love with. The others nap, but I’m too energised by my surroundings to miss a second of it.

Self Drive Safari in South Africa

3:00pm

I am drinking a crisp glass of white wine when Franz strolls over with a pair of binoculars, telling me to look at the lions. I can’t see anything. Eventually, even with the magnification I can only spy some light dots that seem to be slowly moving across the crest of a hill.

4:00pm

Self Drive Safari in South Africa

The lions are closer now. As they move over the horizon towards us, so does a dark mass of clouds, and we decide to forego an evening drive in favour of a braai with the drama of the pride unfolding before us. David Attenborough impressions are attempted, camera shutters trigger even faster than before and a true South African dinner of boerewors, steak and gem squash is prepared.

5:00pm

I chew a piece of steak and marvel at the lions as they teach their cubs to hunt a herd of buffalo. They’re unsuccessful, but I feel as though I’ve won the lottery. As they disappear over another crest and out of sight, huge droplets begin to fall and the wind whips the glowing ashes from our fire across the grass. There is panic, and lightning, and thunder. And then we pour some wine and retire to the living room where we play cards against the soundtrack of the whistling wind.

8:30pm

Self Drive Safari in South Africa

The generator has been turned off, and the room is dotted with lit oil lamps. We’re convinced it’s midnight as we sip the remains of our Amarula-spiked hot chocolate and we laugh as we discover the time, and yet we declare it time for bed. As I head towards a well-needed night’s sleep I catch another glimpse of that shattered window and I smile in anticipation of another day in South Africa’s untamed wilderness.

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