Perhaps it was working my way through college at the Milwaukee County Zoo, perhaps it was too many National Geographic specials, but I had wanted to visit Africa for many years.
So with great expectations, my husband and I and another couple boarded South African Airways for the 15-hour flight to Johannesburg in November.
I had researched different options for visiting Africa. Group travel seemed too limiting and the smaller private game parks were too expensive, costing upwards of $350 per person per day.
But South Africa -- with its extensive system of public game parks featuring affordable accommodations and its excellent system of roads -- allowed us to do a self-driven tour for 16 days with costs under $150 per person per day for land arrangements.
South Africa is a large country, and for our short visit we decided to visit the Northeastern Provinces to maximize game viewing.
We traveled from Pretoria to the Northern Province, down through Kruger National Park to the Kingdom of Swaziland, back into South Africa and the Province of KwaZulu-Natal and finally Mpumulanga Province.
Besides the bird-watching and game viewing, we were interested in the culture of South Africa. Three-fourths of the 40 million people in South Africa are black and there are more than eight ancestral groups. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, with most people able to speak one ancestral language plus Afrikaans and English.
The ancestral people in the area of our travels were Zulu, Ndebele and Swazi. Although many blacks live in the townships adjacent to the larger cities, many more make their living in villages or kraals as herders and farmers.
As we drove we passed many beehive dwellings with farmers hoeing the small communal plots by hand and herd boys watching the cattle all the day.
Arriving at the Johannesburg Airport, we picked up our Explorer-like vehicle, rented a cellular phone and headed 30 miles north to Pretoria.
We were told repeatedly by South Africans that it was unsafe in Johannesburg and not to drive at night. However, we felt safe driving during daylight hours in South Africa and Swaziland.
We shopped for basics in small towns, stopped for lunch in small restaurants and bought fruit from roadside stands.
In rural areas, begging was common.
When our car was parked by the side of the road, residents would approach, stick their hand in the open windows and ask for alms.
Alive with flowers
The first morning we made a visit to the Museum of the Transvaal to visit a friend and see the Austin Roberts Bird Hall. This was a good introduction to the new species of birds we could see in South Africa. Leaving Pretoria, we went north to Tzaneen and the Magoebaskloof Hotel and Pass of the same name.
This was a beautifully forested area surrounded by picturesque tea estates. The hotel attracted monkeys who came early in the morning and reached into the open guest-room windows and stole the complimentary bananas.
South Africa has more than a tenth of the world's flowering plants and with the abundant rainfall the landscape was alive with wild flowers. This was not the arid landscape of the TV specials.
Our goal was Kruger National Park, one of the top 10 parks of the world, and the Natal Provincial Parks. Kruger was established in 1903 by Paul Kruger and is the size of the state of Massachusetts. With Cape buffalo, lions, elephant, leopard and Rhino -- the big five according to old-time safari hunters -- Kruger is a very popular tourist area and is heavily visited by South Africans.
Accommodations ranged from simple tented camps to self-catering rondavels and cottages all with high-pitched thatched roofs. The main camps had restaurants, gift shops and stores called winkels, gasoline stations and laundry facilities. We entered through the northernmost Pafuri gate and saw large herds of Impala and elephants next to the road. This was the Africa I had come to see.
Staying with the group
Game park gates and the times they are open are important. Whether public park or private reserve, all have guarded gates. The gates were open from one hour before sunrise to sunset. The public is denied entry at all other times. Besides the main park gates, the camps were also gated and surrounded by an animal barrier. Guests were not allowed out of the residence area from sunset to sunrise unless they were on a supervised ranger-led game drive.
People on a group tour could only go into the game reserves with their tour group on formal game drives. Having our own car, we could drive anywhere in the parks during the daylight hours but still had to join an organized game drive for spotting animals at night. Visitors were not allowed to get out of their cars at any time unless they were at specific picnic spots, in game blinds or in camp.
As we left Punda Maria camp driving south toward Letaba camp, we saw elephants, buffalo hippos, giraffes and several antelope species. We arrived at camp 10 minutes before the gates closed. It had taken us more than eight hours to drive the 177 kilometers (about 110 miles) between camps. This was because there was so much game to view and so many birds to add to our bird list.
With large game so numerous and easy to see, we added birds, lizards, turtles and insects to our viewing. Birds with names such as lilac-breasted roller, Kori bustard, paradise whydah, purple-crested lourie and hoopoe were close enough to view without binoculars and were breathtaking in their beauty.
Everyone who goes to Africa wants to see lions and leopards. We never saw leopards, but we saw lions and hyenas on day and night drives. The night game drives are done in raised Jeep-like vehicles that hold about 20 people. Two passengers shine large bright lights into the veld while the driver/ranger looks for game. Dozens of eyes or a large herd of Cape buffalo dancing in the lights was an eerie sight. Photography wasn't hampered by having to stay in the car.
Baboons climbed onto the hood of the car at one point and we had to quickly roll up the windows. Our following days in Kruger and the Natal Parks were spent game viewing and getting to camp just as the gates closed.
Swaziland, independent since 1968, is one of only three monarchies in Africa and is the smallest country in Africa. After passing through the beautiful Piggs Peak area, we headed to the Ezulwini valley, which is a popular tourist area with South Africans. Swaziland is known for handicrafts, and we bought baskets and batiks. We also made a quick tour through Mlilwane Game Sanctuary, where we viewed Beesbok and sacred ibis.
We spent six nights in KwaZulu-Natal at parks administered by the Natal Parks Board. I wish we had stayed longer at Itala Park with its exquisite scenery, black rhinos and Blue wildebeest.
Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park is the crown jewel of the Natal Parks Board and offers the amenities of private luxury camps at Hilltop Camp. This park is credited with saving the white (or square-jawed) rhino from extinction. White rhinos were close when we took a game walk with two-armed park rangers. We were quite startled when a rhino hidden in bushes suddenly decided to run through our group of eight hikers. We all remembered the ranger's instructions and either stayed put or ran behind a tree.
For the next six days, I made all the reservations on a day-by-day basis. It was difficult to get the information I needed from the civil servants that made the park reservations.
At the Indian Ocean boundary of South Africa, a boat ride on the St. Lucia Estuary was a trip highlight. We came close to hippos, Nile crocodile and South African fish eagles. There were people fishing in the estuary, but swimming was banned because of crocodiles, occasional sharks and electric eels.
Our last night was spent at Bohm's Country House. Here we treated ourselves to a gourmet dinner and breakfast before our four-hour drive to Johannesburg and 17-hour flight back to the United States.
I wanted to move to Bohm's permanently -- it was one of the nicest places I have been in my travels. The German-born host couldn't do enough for us and the setting was ideal.
I wasn't ready to leave South Africa. It is a wonderful place, and the animals, diverse scenery and culture are special. It is a shame that more North Americans don't visit this area. Most tourists were European and the South Africans were surprised that we came from the United States; we were always identified as German.
U.S. citizens who travel to South Africa generally fly into and out of a private game reserve and do not visit the public parks or interact with the native people. Another area popular with U.S. tourists is Cape Town, which we hope to visit next year.
I found Africa to be very special; this will not be our last visit.