Can you go it alone on safari and live to tell the tale, or should you play it safe while you search for the Big Five, asks Pamela Wade.

An hour can pass as you sit watching three lionesses inch towards a resting giraffe.
Kiwis can do anything, we know that. We're intrepid travellers, we go everywhere, rough it, get hands-on and authentic. We don't need to be guided and cosseted. We can do it ourselves.

An African safari, though? Spoiled by growing up in an environment where the most dangerous creature is a tiny spider hardly anyone has ever seen, taking on lions, leopards, rhino and hyenas is a different story. Can you do a DIY safari and live to tell the tale? Or should you play it safe and take the khaki guide/clinking sundowner/billowing white curtain option?

Having done it both ways in South Africa, I can report that the DIY option is, unsurprisingly, cheaper. It's also pretty easy. Hire a car at Durban Airport, head north on the N2, and less than three hours later you're at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Reserve, the oldest in Africa: 96,000ha of savannah cut through by rivers, and home to the Big Five plus all their smaller hangers-on, including 400 bird species — that's twice what we've got here in Birdland.

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There are several places to stay: we rented a tent at Mpila. This is, fortunately, more substantial than it sounds, particularly since our arrival was greeted by a spray of dirt from under the raised wooden floor where four warthogs were preparing to spend the night. They scooted off, leaving us to our fortified tent, complete with comfortable beds, en suite and separate kitchen. The kitchen was secured by a mesh door behind a metal screen with a bolt plus a clip to protect it from the vervet and samango monkeys poised in the trees and ready to seize any chance for a feed.

Most of the cooking took place on the braai, down on the grass. There's a fine balance for marauding wildlife between the smell of barbecuing meat and the deterrent of the flames; but once the boerewors is plated, it's vital to scuttle back up the stairs and shut the gate before the hyenas arrive. As they did, every night: furry, spotted and surprisingly cute — from a safe distance. "Stick your hand through those railings and you'll lose it," Shelley warned.

An African Elephant at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, South Africa. Photo / Getty Images
An African Elephant at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, South Africa. Photo / Getty Images

Confession: Shelley was our DIY cheat. A friend and a local, she knew everything about wildlife, could spot a tiny bird from 50m, and had a vast repository of great safari stories. The most dramatic was about a man staying at a chalet up the hill who went out to check on his braai, and ended up scalped by a leopard. She also recognised that the bull elephant in the road next day was in musth — raging hormones making him unpredictable and aggressive, a condition familiar to any parent of teenage boys — and best backed away from.

Game drives are slow affairs. An hour can pass as you sit watching three lionesses inch towards a resting giraffe. A trip out of the park to the nearest supermarket, a distance of 30km, can take three hours as you creep along, stopping frequently, delighting in watching wild animals going about their daily business. A buffalo carcass becomes a daily must-visit to watch the progression of diners, from the original lion tearing off the flesh to the hyenas crunching the bones with their fearsome jaws.

Our DIY safari was a fabulous experience.

Hluhluwe is rich with wildlife; and nearby iSimangaliso Wetlands Park provided the unforgettable sights of a rhino on a hillside with a humpback whale breaching in the sea beyond, and later, a leopard marking his territory on the welcome sign outside the park's reception office. The whole visit was exciting and fun and full of wonders.

Independent safaris can be frustrating. Apart from a few lookouts and hides, the car is your cage on game drives, and you must keep to the road. There may be traffic jams. It can be hot and uncomfortable and, low down, your view can be limited. If you don't have a Shelley, you can miss a lot of sightings, be puzzled about behaviours you observe, and fail to identify what you're looking at. It can also, quite honestly, sometimes be scary.

That is the advantage of staying at &Beyond Phinda, in the same area. This is a private game reserve with six separate lodges, each in a different ecosystem, but all providing the classic luxury experience. The rooms are comfortable with big views, elegant dining, solicitous staff and every whim is catered to, but it's the game drives that win the day.

Crows associate with rhinos to feed on skin parasites. In return, they provide an early warning system for the poor eye sighted rhino. Photo / Getty Images
Crows associate with rhinos to feed on skin parasites. In return, they provide an early warning system for the poor eye sighted rhino. Photo / Getty Images

At dawn and dusk, sitting on tiered seats in an open Land Cruiser, we were driven through the reserve's 23,000ha. A spotter with laser vision perched above the front bumper and a personable, uniformed (and armed) guide behind the wheel had an intimate knowledge of the reserve and its wildlife.

In radio contact with the other vehicles, any action was relayed immediately, followed by an exciting taste of bundu-bashing: off-road bouncing through the bush.

Thus, we were just metres behind a family of cheetahs running down a nyala — a spiral-horned antelope — and were there at the kill.

We saw a black rhino charge in a cloud of dust, looked into the eyes of a magnificent lion just a few metres away, and watched giraffes sparring, thumping each other with their heads. Despite our being so close, none of these animals took any notice of us in the vehicle. We felt invisible, and as though we were right in the middle of a David Attenborough documentary.

It was, of course, considerably more expensive than the DIY version; but the VIP safari delivered a richer experience, and much closer contact with the wildlife, which was the whole reason for our being there.

As our guide, Matt, said, escorting us out into the pre-dawn dark for our first game drive: "This isn't a holiday — it's an adventure!"

Checklist

SOUTH AFRICA

GETTING THERE

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has Qantas fares to Johannesburg or Cape Town from $1499 for Economy and $2999 for Premium Economy.

ACCOMMODATION: hluhluwe.info isimangaliso.com
phindagamereserve.co.za