There it was up in the tree – the most beautiful animal I’ve ever laid eyes on, ripping apart the flesh of its freshly caught prey. The leopard looked up briefly, seemingly peering defiantly into my camera. This was the safari moment I’d been waiting for.
Let’s back up a few steps. Planning a safari can be intimidating and daunting, although it is so high on so many of our bucket lists. It was something I had dreamt of doing for ages.
But it always felt so far away – how could we even begin planning a safari or know how to plan a safari? Before we went on safari we were completely clueless. How could we choose a safari? Should we drive ourselves or get a guided safari? How long should we go on safari?
We ultimately chose to go on a 6 day safari with Viva Safaris and it ended up being the best trip we’ve ever taken and has given us memories to last a lifetime.
So, before you take the plunge and book it, you’re probably wondering what its like. Look no further, I’ve got you covered.
- Itinerary with Viva Safaris
- How we chose Viva Safaris
- Guided v. Unguided Safaris
- How long should you go on safari?
- Looking for more adventures in South Africa? Check out my other posts:
Itinerary with Viva Safaris
Day 1: Jo’burg to Tremisana
It was only 8:30am and I was already nervous to be picked up in Johannesburg. Would we like the other people on our safari? Would the pick up be on time? Would I somehow be scared on safari?
All of these questions ran through my head as we waited for our pick up. When the van arrived, I already started feeling like I had much less to worry about and settled in to feeling excited about our trip. We were in a van with about 10 other people, all headed to start our safari together. On day 1, you’ll drive from Jo’burg to the first lodge you stay in, Tremisana. The journey between Jo’burg and Tremisana is pretty long, (about 5-6 hours of driving), so be sure to get comfy and take a nap on the way there.
After a stop for lunch and a few bathroom breaks, we arrived at Tremisana around 4pm, at which point we needed to drop our luggage in our rooms and quickly change for our first chance to see animals on our evening game drive, ending with a bush braai (braai is Afrikaans for BBQ).
“They call me Dusty,” our guide told us as 9 of us hopped into the back of the truck to start our sundowner drive. “You’ll find out soon why they call me that,” she continued. I was nervous. I can’t even explain why. I guess because I just had no idea of what to expect … it just seemed surreal that we were finally doing the safari we had dreamed about for so long. And, soon I did figure out why she had the nickname Dusty.
As soon as we pulled away from our camp, I saw it. A giraffe, gracefully loping through the bush. Suddenly everything was getting real. Tremisana is a private game reserve that is host to all of the big 5. The grounds here are the real bush – huge dry branches poking out from all sides as you bounce along dirt roads – the ground had a whitish brown color, while in the distance the mountains of the Drakensberg Range loomed purple.
We already spotted giraffes, zebras, and of course, impalas. After just a short period of our drive I was immediately happy we had chosen a guided safari – already Dusty was sharing so much knowledge about the animals with us that I never would have known myself.
As the sun set and the bush was enveloped in darkness, we drove on toward our braai and Dusty pulled out the huge bush torch. I don’t know how all the guides do it, but they steer with one hand on the wheel (seemingly having memorized the dirt paths of the reserve), while their other hand is held up high, swinging the huge bush torch from side to side in hopes of catching some beady eyes reflected in the light. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t catch any lions or leopards that night on our drive, but at our braai, we did have a visitor.
We arrived to our braai in near pitch darkness, and I realized we were really out in the bush. The only light came from the fire they used to cook our meat and a few camping lanterns on our picnic benches. The guides pointed toward our bathroom to which the path was lit with tealight candles – but that light didn’t make me feel brave enough to walk over the in dark, so I elected to wait for a toilet until we were back at camp.
Across the small cookout camp I noticed something moving on a picnic table about 20 feet away. “Is that a… skunk?” I asked. It wasn’t – this was to be my first and only encounter with the notorious honey badger, which I only knew previously from YouTube fame.
After the braai, we drove back to Tremisana and immediately went to sleep – or at least tried to despite our excitement. The next day we’d wake up early for our bush walk.
Day 2: Morning Bush Walk and moving to Katekani Lodge
The alarm went at 4:30, and truthfully, I hadn’t slept much. The thought of a morning bush walk kept me up all night imagining what we might come across the next day. We got up, got ready, and joined the group for biscuits and coffee before we set off.
Once we arrived at our starting point for our bush walk, I was slightly relieved to see they had brought a rifle along with them. They strictly instructed us to follow their instructions, walk in a single file line, and by all means, try not to get cut and bleed on anything. The danger of getting cut was not necessarily immediate for our group, but in case one of us snagged ourselves on a branch and bled, we could be leaving behind blood that an animal would track down the next day when the guide was out again. Ok, noted, I thought. No bleeding!
The bush walk mainly involves checking out animal tracks and scat, and learning some basic survival techniques of the bush, which leaves could be used to brush your teeth, and which leaves could be used as toilet paper. Oh, and smoking elephant dung to get a natural high.
The most exciting part of the walk was when we were led out on some large rocks on the Olifants River to view nearby hippos. If you don’t know already, hippos are the most dangerous animal in the bush for humans, and are known to be extremely aggressive. Luckily these hippos were pretty far away, but still I wasn’t too keen on getting close to them.
We also spotted some crocodiles lounging along the river and patiently waiting for a chance at food. Luckily, we did not become the food.
After our bushwalk, which lasted about 2 hours, we headed back to camp where we had breakfast, and the two of us packed up our things to be brought to Katekani Lodge, where we would stay for the rest of our safari. All of the other guests on our safari were staying in Marc’s Treehouse, also owned by Viva Safaris. Truthfully, Marc’s Treehouse had been our first choice, but when it was sold out we opted for the more expensive option which was Katekani Lodge.
As soon as we arrived to Katekani Lodge however, we knew we made the right choice! It is called semi-luxe, but for us this was a pretty luxurious stay. It is a safari tent in the sense that one side of it is indeed canvas, but it was raised about 8 steps off of the ground, with our own deck, lounge chairs, private splash pool, outdoor dining table and outdoor shower. Inside, our room was practically the size of our Amsterdam apartment. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but it was huge, and included an indoor shower and bathtub. We felt like royalty.
At 1pm, Mama, the chef at Katekani, came to inform us lunch was ready. When we arrived to the dining area we discovered we were the only ones there! The only other guests staying at Katekani that night were a mother and daughter, who were on safari at Kruger that day. It was so lovely to have the place to ourselves. The food at Katekani was fantastic.
Expect three course meals, and to gain a bit of weight from all the incredible food. But hey, you’re on vacation, enjoy it!
After lounging around most of the day and enjoying the splash pool, we headed out for our sundowner game drive in a nearby game reserve. The sunset there was spectacular. I was completely amazed by the colors of South Africa the whole time… the purple color of the mountains was mesmerizing.
That evening it was just the two of us plus a guide on our sundowner. As darkness fell, our guide thought he could take a short cut across a creek. Just as we were driving over huge boulders we saw two huge male buffalo head of us. “Stop! There’s something there!” we cried to him, as he braked just before we could have hit them.
“Oh, those guys. Two male buffalo. Wow, just look at them. They are huge. These two are older, probably separated from the group. They won’t do anything you know. But… buffalo can be really aggressive out of nowhere,”
the guide told us as we sat in the back of the truck, shrouded by darkness except for the pair of headlights beaming on the two buffalo just a few feet before the truck.
Uh… maybe this was a good time to back up and drive away? Luckily our guide agreed and we backed out without finding out what an angry buffalo is like.
Day 3: Full day in Kruger Park
The big day was finally here. We were finally going to enter Kruger. As usual, I was excited but somehow nervous. Nervous, I guess about what we would or wouldn’t see. We drove the hour to the Orpen Gate, made a short stop for snacks, and started our 6 hour drive through Kruger Park. The day was hot. Like really hot. It was 42 degrees celsius.
Kruger is an incredible park. I’m sure everyone will tell you that, but seeing is believing. The landscape is so varied and the park just seems endless. Its also huge – seriously, its the same sizes as Wales. We spent about 7 hours just driving around the middle section of the park, if that gives any indication of how large it is.
It was especially in Kruger Park that I was so pleased we had decided to go with a guided tour. We had, what I still stand by, was the best guide out of all of Viva Safaris. If reincarnation is real, then I firmly believe that our guide was a hawk in his past life. We would be driving along at 40km an hour when he would suddenly hit the brakes, shift to reverse and point to an animal 150 meters in the distance. Even he had to admit, his eyesight was pretty incredible. Without him, we would never have spotted so many animals on our drive, nor would we have learned so much about the animals.
I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, because seeing is believing.
After an incredible day of driving we headed toward the Orpen Gate. We had seen countless giraffes, a herd of elephants with calves (aww!), two lionesses, hippos, and so much more. I just kept feeling a little nagging that we hadn’t seen rhinos yet. Of course, I knew how hard they were to spot so I told myself I was ok with it, and hoped to see them on our second visit to Kruger.
As we approached the Orpen Gate, literally after we had already passed the welcome sign and we nearly to the exit, our guide slammed on the brakes again. At least a football field’s distance away, were two huge rhinos, right before the exit of the gate. I felt like the safari gods heard my thoughts and granted me my rhino wish! It was incredible. We also had incredible luck.
Day 4: Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center + Game drive
Waking up on day 4 was a bit tough, I’ll admit it. Alright, no one is feeling sad for me for having to wake up early on safari (boo-hoo!), but after driving around in 42 degree heat for 8 hours the day before, I was still feeling pretty tired. Somehow, my expectations of the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center were low. I guess part of that was more that I just wanted to lounge on our deck and read a book for the day, but in the end I was so glad we went to the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center.
What is fantastic about this rehabilitation center, is that none of the animals which will ever be released back into the wild are ever exposed to humans, to increase their chances of successful re-entry. Animals who come to the rehabilitation center have been caught in traps, been poisoned, or stuck in fences, amongst various other reasons. The animals you see at the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center all have (unfortunately) no chance of surviving on their own in the wild, so they are used to educate visitors about the animals and how important the work of the rehabilitation center is. What most impressed me, was how meaningful the work on the ground there was. They made a big point of explaining why seemingly small projects like this are much more impactful than the high-profile animal NGO’s you see advertising on TV. Due to it working independently, the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center has a great success rate and doesn’t have to deal with the politics that the big NGO’s deal with.
Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center also has one very famous animal living there: Stoffel the Honey Badger. Check out this video of him and all of his clever escapes from the rehabilitation center.
They also do a great job of educating guests on poaching and animal smuggling For example, did you know that the armadillo is the most commonly smuggled animal? I didn’t either until we visited. I really appreciated that they told guests that the “ugly”, less glamorous animals also deserve as much attention as the rhinos.
I got one of the most beautiful photos from our trip here, of the leopard in the rehabilitation center. I look at this photo daily and am in awe of how beautiful leopards are… just absolutely gorgeous.
I don’t want to spoil all the fun for you before you go, but I will say, you will can get pretty hands on with some of the animals.
That afternoon we headed to Tshukudu Game Reserve for another evening game drive. As we pulled in and drove toward the camp where we would set off from our guide pointed out all the toppled trees in the area. “See those?,” he asked. ” There’s a male elephant in heat running around here, knocking down everything in sight. You do not want to run into him.” Ok… good way to get us excited about our drive. I really hoped we would not come across this sexually frustrated elephant on our drive.
After we arrived to camp we had a bit of time before the drive began, and our guide from Viva Safaris called us over near the edge of the camp.
Come here! There’s a cheetah here I want you to see!
“Is it uh… safe??”, I asked him. Of course it was safe, he said! Cheetahs are “tame” compared to leopards for example, because they need to be taught to hunt. He convinced us this cheetah was known around camp and was almost as friendly as a house cat.
Well, if he insisted, I was DEFINITELY gonna get as close as possible to that cheetah. It was literally just chilling under a staircase, blood around its mouth from its fresh kill, lazily lounging about. So yes, that is how we got this picture with the cheetah below.
Our game drive at Tshukudu was another unforgettable experience. After posing with the cheetah, we hopped aboard was seemed like a retired military truck (this thing could knock down almost anything in its path), and set off on our drive. Almost immediately we came across a lion family, the two parents with their “teenage” sons, and the driver revved the engine to get the male lion to “talk back.”
I expected that seeing a lion would be incredible. And don’t get me wrong, it was. But… they are very lazy! The only times we saw lions they were “lion around”, taking a cat nap. Of course you’d have to be pretty lucky to see one in action, but it was pretty funny to see how much they conserve their energy when they’re not out on a hunt.
Visiting South Africa in their spring time had one distinct advantage: it was baby season. There were newborns all over the place, and lucky enough for us, we got to see a baby rhino. I never really thought rhinos were cute until I saw this little guy. Just look at the gif I made below of him running… no hopping, around. Seriously one of the most precious and exciting parts of our trip was seeing this little guy.
Before we ended our drive, we watched the storm clouds roll in over the Drakensberg Mountain Range in the distance. The sky darkened to purple with a pink pocket where the sun had been. On the horizon lightening bolts lit up the sky at dusk and thunder rumbled in the distance. This was one of those “I can’t believe I’m seeing this in Africa” types of moments. I hope I won’t forget it.
Day 5: Our second full day in Kruger Park
After the storm rolled in, in rained all night over our tent. Falling asleep at Katekani Lodge to the sounds or thunder clapping and rain hitting the roof had an unreal and magical feel to it. We woke up the next morning so excited to have our second full day in Kruger, and secretly hoping that we would see different and more animals now that the temperature had substantially dropped from the day prior. We’d seen four out of the big 5 so far, excluding the notoriously hard to spot leopard. I so hoped to see a leopard in the wild after seeing one at the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center.
That day we were lucky enough to have the same hawk-eyed guide as the day before. As I mentioned earlier, one of the best parts of having a guided tour is that most of the guides are in a WhatsApp group where they share their sightings with each other. Without this type of knowledge you’re bound to see a lot less in the park than if you go with a guide who knows where to take you, and when to take you there. Our first major sighting was at a large water hole.
There we saw two male lions lounging under a tree across the water hole, a herd of elephants drinking along the bank, and a herd of buffalo crossing the water. It felt a bit like our Nat Geo moment, but little did I know an even better Nat Geo moment was yet to come.
After our lunch we headed back on the main road toward the Orpen exit. We had some great sightings already that day, but just like two days prior, I had a nagging hope that we would still see a leopard. After driving for about 20 minutes we saw something in the trees. The road ahead of us was stalled with others who had stopped to look in the trees – normally you cross another car about once every 20 minutes in Kruger, at the most, so this traffic jam was pretty impressive.
What was it in the tree? Was it a leopard? No, it wasn’t moving. It was… a dead impala. And then we realized there was another tree, with another dead impala draped over it. And finally as we managed to pull forward – the most impactful sight from our entire safari – a leopard in the third tree, eating an impala.
I went absolutely nuts. We all did. With my camera in sports mode I probably snapped 60 photos of the leopard in action, tearing apart the impala and feasting on its lunch. At the base of the tree a hyena lurked below hoping for impala scraps to fall down.
This was more than we ever could have hoped for. Not only did we see a leopard, but a leopard with 3 fresh kills. We felt so lucky.
And we were. Thanks to the change of weather, and the wind, it was a great day to find kills. There are many more kills during a storm for a few reasons. First of all, the prey can’t hear their predators coming as easily when it is windy outside. Secondly, the wind stirs up all the scents, making it hard for the prey to smell the predators approaching as well.
I have to admit, there was one other thing that made this day very special. After we went back to our tent, Marcel proposed and I, of course, said yes! It was the perfect day on safari with the perfect ending. I couldn’t have ever asked for anything better or more special.
Day 6: Return back to Jo’burg
We woke up the last morning sad to leave our epic trip with Viva Safaris, but filled with incredible memories and excitement for our engagement. Although the ride back to Jo’burg is pretty lengthy, you will be treated to an breathtaking stop at Blyde River Canyon on the way back.
Blyde River Canyon is one of the largest canyons on earth, and is the largest “green” canyon. Of course its size doesn’t come close to the Grand Canyon, but it is still very impresssive nonetheless. Here you’ll also see the Three Rondawels – three cone-like rock formations at the top of the canyon ledge.
There are dozens of locals hawking souvenirs here, so remember to bring some cash if you think you want to purchase something. Just don’t expect that any of this loot is authentically made – everything we saw here, we also saw at the airport. But that never really discourages me from making a purchase anyways!
Keep in mind that since you are driving back to Jo’burg and arriving in the afternoon, you’ll very likely hit bad traffic if you’re traveling between Monday-Friday.
Depending on what your plans are in Jo’burg afterward, I would recommend staying close to the airport. We were flying to Port Elizabeth the next morning and made the mistake of staying near Stanton, which added about 45 mins of driving in traffic that afternoon. If you are planning to get out of Jo’burg relatively quickly, I’d recommend to stay close to the airport since the city is pretty huge, and the airport is one of the first stops you’ll make when you get into Jo’burg so Viva Safaris can drop other guests off who are flying that evening.
How we chose Viva Safaris
As I mentioned, we were pretty clueless about how to book a safari. A simple google search of “South Africa safari” led me to africanbudgetsafaris.com. After a lengthy search in our price range, we finally found both Marc’s Tree House and the Katekani Lodge, little did we know that both were offered by Viva Safaris. After some back and forth with one of the agents from African Budget Safaris, we finally booked our trip with Viva Safaris including our say at Katekani Lodge.
Why I recommend Viva Safaris
First of all, my trip with Viva Safaris was the best trip I’ve ever taken. It was really relaxing and reassuring to know that they had planned all six days of our safari, including meals, meaning that all we had to do was arrive to Jo’burg and relax.
Secondly, everything with Viva Safaris went seamlessly. From the first pick up in Jo’burg to the drop off, everything went according to plan.
And finally, the staff and guides are awesome. All of the guides are clearly interested in giving you the best experience possible, and in helping you make your safari dreams come true. On top of the guides, all of the staff at the lodges are very friendly and kind – not to mention spectacular cooks! We always felt welcome at Katekani Lodge and also enjoyed spending a few nights having a beer and swapping safari stories with our guide.
When to book your safari
In my opinion, it is best to book as soon as possible. We booked only about 8 weeks in advance, with Viva Safaris and were lucky enough that Katekani Lodge is still so new that it wasn’t yet receiving many bookings. In the future though, I’d book my safari at least 3 months in advance. The only problem I have is that I typically don’t plan my trip until a few months before, so I hope I can follow my own advice!
Guided v. Unguided Safaris
For me it is clear: guided. Unless you live in the area and have the opportunity to go on safari often, you should get a guided one, and of course if you’re visiting South Africa I recommend Viva Safaris.
Our guides were incredible and had an amazing ability to spot the animals. Plus, they are in constant contact with the other guides from different companies so they know when and where to find the animals. When we came across the leopard on day 2 it was no accident: our guide had purposely chosen to taken us to the watering hole first, which he heard was crowded with animals, then only took us to the leopard when he got word from the other guides that it had been spotted. Already that morning he had spotted the 3 impalas up in the trees – but he didn’t mention it, because he didn’t want to get our hopes up for a leopard sighting. These types of details are really impossible on your own in my opinion.
How long should you go on safari?
I would recommend a 6 day safari if you visit Kruger. This gave us 2 full days in Kruger, plus 2 days of other game drives. You will likely see more animals, the longer you visit.
If we wouldn’t have taken such a long safari we never would have gone to Tshukudu Game Reserve, Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center or Kruger for the second day. If your budget allows, stay as long as you can on this incredible experience!
Whew! that was a long one! I hope this helped you get some insight into what a trip with Viva Safaris is like. If this post helped you, please leave me a comment below!
Looking for more adventures in South Africa? Check out my other posts: