Travel Day

The next morning it had turned rainy and we went out for one last drive before we left. We went to see a Hyena den and saw a couple of pups, but because it was actively raining, we cut the drive short. This worked out well for us as we had more time to relax and pack up in preparation for our day of travel.

After a relaxed morning we were picked up by Johnny from Sable Tours to drive us to the airport in Hoedspruit, about an hour or so away. Johnny was very friendly and chatty and we had a good time discussing our respective cultures. We heard about when The A-Team was a popular tv show, along with Knight Rider. We remembered these shows as well from our youth. Johnny said that where he grew up, everyone knew when The A-Team was on, and if the only television was 6 miles away, they would make the journey to see it and be sure to get there on time.

We arrived at the Eastgate Airport, which serves the town of Hoedspruit, in plenty of time for our flight to Johannesburg. When we checked in they offered to check our bags all the way through to Port Elizabeth. At the time it sounded like a good idea, but later we realized that was a mistake. It was a small airport but the services were more than adequate with a café, restrooms and a gift shop. The security check of our carry-on baggage was more perfunctory than we are used to, but we had no complaints. Unfortunately the time for our flight came and went with no sign of a plane or any announcements. I'm not sure if they even had a PA system but I suppose they must have. There were plenty of other people waiting for the flight so we definitely weren't alone. At last there was some action on the runway and a plane arrived. By this time it was at least an hour late and I was beginning to think about our connection in Johannesburg with a bit of concern. Our plan in Johannesburg was to go out of the Domestic terminal to retrieve our stored luggage from the International terminal next door and return for our onward flight to Port Elizabeth. Originally we had two hours to accomplish this, which probably would have been plenty of time. However on the way to Jo'burg we realized we were only going to have about twenty or thirty minutes and that was going to pose a problem. We really didn't want to leave the bags in Jo'burg as we aren't returning there until the very end of our trip, and we didn't want the PE flight to think we just hadn't shown up, so we weren't sure what to do first. I asked the flight attendant on our plane what she recommended we do and she got some details and spoke to the captain. Though they tried to sort it out, we were told to speak with the agent when we got off the plane.

This was the sort of disembarkation where you descend the stairs and then get on a bus to go to the terminal. Clearly there was some fast action happening to try to get some of our passengers to their onward connections in time since the plane was so late. We explained our situation to the agent and she took us under her wing. Tshepo Lekwape, who works in Domestic Arrivals for South African Airways Express, was a godsend. What ensued was an hour or so of hair raising, sweat inducing, nail biting racing through the airport from place to place led by the ever-smiling, energetic, and expert problem solving Tshepo. Her first idea was to send me to the gate for our Port Elizabeth flight while she took Michael to get our bags and check them onwards. She felt we would have a better chance of holding the plane if I was there. This almost worked, but we just didn't have enough time. If we had not checked our other bags through to PE, Michael would not have had to pay for our stored bags to be checked (two separate lines to wait in), which would have saved some time. However that was water under the bridge. When they arrived at the gate the flight had already closed and they were removing our checked bags from the plane. Instead of abandoning us and telling us to go see the South African Airways people, whose plane we had missed and which was a different airline technically from South African Express for whom she worked, Tshepo took us backward through the crew security checkpoint and to the customer service manager for her airline. She explained our situation and pleaded our case. Part of the problem was that the next available flight was on South African Express, which had delivered us late to Jo'burg, but the flight we had missed was South African Airways, and their next flight wasn't until the next morning. I could tell she was working hard to convince the manager to help us. In the end she succeeded and off we went to the check-in to check our bags and exchange our tickets for the next flight on South African Express to PE. We were fortunate that our tickets were flexible or this would not have been possible. I can only thank Tanya, my agent, for that, as I had no idea of the tickets' status. That was not the end though. Our new flight was already starting to board and we had the issue of the bags that had been removed from the flight we missed. Back again we went, ushered through the crew security point by the intrepid Tshepo. She led us to the South African Airways baggage desk and convinced the attendant to find our bags and have them sent over to the new flight. Then it was a race to get to the gate and onto the plane, hoping that our bags would follow. When Tshepo finally handed us over to the boarding agent we thanked her profusely, gave her some money for her efforts, and asked her to write down her name so we could tell the airline what a good job she had done. Really it was extraordinary. In the States, we would have been dumped on our own almost immediately. At every turn, she encountered resistance and agents who were not too thrilled to do what she asked. However, she was persistent and persuasive and successful every time. We can only count ourselves lucky to have landed in her lap.

The flight to PE was uneventful. It turned out the bags sent over from the missed flight did not make it onto our plane. However, there was another flight coming in later in the evening and the baggage agent assured us they were on it and would be delivered in the morning to our B & B. This was just fine with us. We found our rental car and made our way to the Bayside Guest House, driving on the left side of the road in the dark. Needless to say we collapsed into bed that night thoroughly thrashed by the day's events, but thankful for our good fortune and the friendly people of South Africa.



The Big Boy

On our last evening at Ngala we went out on game drive a little early because Bernard said a male lion had been seen in the area and we wanted to see if we could find him. We had the vehicle to ourselves again and after driving to the part of the reserve in which the lion had last been seen, Bernard and Jimmy got out to track him on foot. They were successful! I had told Bernard in the beginning that I wanted to see a large male lion and he delivered. Jimmy knew where he was in the bush after their walk and so we drove in to get a closer look. It turned out he was not alone! Our big boy had found himself a lady friend. Not only did we get to see a large male lion in all his glory, but we got to see him mating with a lioness. We felt a little bad about intruding on their interlude but, Wow! It was really cool to see. This lion had clearly been in a scrap as you will see from the photos. We weren't sure if he had been in a fight with other males or females or what, but his left eye was pretty banged up and he had some wounds on his face. This is actually pretty common with lions. They can be very aggressive with one another as well as towards their prey. Jimmy thought this lion would recover just fine so that made me feel a bit better.

All cats have needs regardless of size!

This was an incredible sighting to cap off our time at Ngala. Ngala means lion in the local Shangaan language, so it was quite fitting. We were lucky to sit with these lions and observe them by ourselves for quite a while before anyone else showed up. By that time we were ready to go off to find the perfect spot for sundowners and the sunset.


Ngala Safari Lodge

Ngala's accommodations were very nice. We had the front half of a duplex cottage. They were arranged so that you really weren't aware of the other half. I trust that was true for the other side as well. The bed was comfortable and the bathroom spacious. Though not as luxurious as Londolozi, it was delightful and far more than adequate. I really enjoyed the porch. Ours looked out across a grassy area toward the watering hole and the dining and lounging decks. The watering hole drew many visitors, most notably herds of buffalo who came to drink and warthogs that grazed on the grass. There were monkeys in the trees as well as squirrels, and a small antelope called a Duiker which grazed on the forest floor. Here are some pictures of our room and the camp.


Baboon on the roof

Fever tree with green bark

Vervet monkey

At the watering hole


The food at Ngala was also very good. We enjoyed the buffet at lunch time which always included some wonderful salads. It's hard when you are traveling to try to keep a handle on one's diet. At the safari lodges they feed you so often it's very easy to over indulge. And then when you are traveling elsewhere, you eat out a lot. So salads were appreciated.

Each night we had a different experience at Ngala. The first night we ate dinner in the courtyard. This was a walled area lit with lanterns. It was quite beautiful, but as we discovered, Ngala does a nice job with the ambiance for every meal. The second night we were treated to a bush dinner. On the way back from our evening game drive, in the dark, Bernard detoured to a clearing in the bush where the staff had set up a bush dinner for all the guests. The clearing was lit by lots and lots of lanterns and there were wood fired barbeque's in use cooking our food. From a distance you just saw twinkling lights appearing out of the bush. It was quite a feat to set up a full dinner service buffet in the middle of the bush and it was executed flawlessly. One can't fault the staff for the the flying beatles attracted to the lights. We were protected from the hyenas by armed guards who patrolled just on the edge of darkness. It all felt very safe.

On the next night we returned from the evening game drive to find a romantic, lantern lit table set up on our porch for a private dinner. Given served us and it really was quite nice. He had already provided our preferred beverages waiting for our arrival. Our last evening turned out to be a Boma dinner. This was another enclosure off the main dining area and Bernard joined us for dinner. With a fire pit going and another buffet it was yet another lantern lit feast.

Our romantic dinner

Ngala has a nice pool which we used one afternoon. There were lovely chaise longues and umbrellas, bottled water and towels, all provided. Michael went over a bit sooner than I and he said an entire family of warthogs paraded past the pool before I arrived, one after the other like a little train. I enjoyed seeing them later on the grass by the watering hole. The warthogs kneel on their front legs while they root around in the dirt and grass with their bottoms sticking up in the air. They move around on their knees without getting up while they're doing this. A lot of times the most common view of the wildlife is from the backside, so I decided to start a collection of “African bum shots”. I'm working on photographing the backsides of as many animals as I can. The warthogs are quite obliging with this.


The people at Ngala were uniformly friendly and some of the most genuine and warm people we've met. Given, our butler, was always smiling. Mama Connie, whose official function I'm not quite sure of, was always making sure people were happy and cared for. The Rangers were all professional, polite, and eager to please. I would highly recommend Ngala Safari Lodge for a wonderful experience with superb game viewing. Their standards are vey high.


Ngala Private Game Reserve

The Ngala reserve is a little different than Londolozi. Ngala is a private reserve, but the majority of the territory they explore on game drives consists of land in the Kruger National Park on which they have exclusive traversing rights. It's rather a large area, so on each drive we started out by driving down the length of the private reserve and out into the park portion. Another difference is that there are fewer roads and tracks, so it becomes harder to track the animals. Kruger maintains the roads but doesn't want them making new ones. The area also has less water than Londolozi. The Timbavati river only runs seasonally through the reserve. There are several dams that have created ponds so the animals have water sources, which also attracts and keeps the animals in the area. However, in general, it seemed drier.

Our first evening we saw buffalo, zebra, and another leopard. Jimmy spotted her by the side of the road in the full dark and we followed her into the bush by spotlight and watched her scent-marking her territory. It was lovely to see zebra as we hadn't seen any yet. And there were lots of buffalo– bachelor herds of older bulls and large herds of cows and calves. Ngala has wonderful birds as well and we saw many including the Bateleur, African Fish-eagle, Double-banded Sandgrouse, Magpie Shrike, African Bee-eater, and the Red-crested Korhaan a bird that does a dramatic display of falling from the sky and pulling out of its “death spiral” at the last minute with a swoop. I guess this behavior is supposed to impress the ladies! We also saw Marula trees, the fruit of which is used to make a liqueur similar to Baily's. We had this in our coffee at our morning tea and snack stop on game drives. Quite yummy!

Bernard, though young, turned out to be a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable ranger. We really enjoyed exchanging stories and conversing over the 4 nights and 8 game drives we spent there. He hails from Pretoria, South Africa and clearly has an immense love and respect for the bush. He is particularly good at birding and so we enjoyed learning about a lot of the birds in the area. Jimmy, our tracker, was also very talented. He has been tracking for eleven years and has a keen eye and a quiet way. He spotted an African Wild Cat in the dark one evening and a Spotted Eagle-owl as well. This cat is the one to whom most house cats are likely the most closely related. It looks a lot like a slightly large house cat and is not often seen. Jimmy and Bernard together went off in the bush once to track down a male lion and were successful. We felt very fortunate to have such a fantastic team guiding us on safari, but more than that, we really enjoyed their company.

Another thing we were fortunate in is that we ended up having a virtually private safari vehicle for most of the time. This was the luck of the draw really. The Germans we met the first night had some unfortunate medical complications which took them away, and the German couple who joined us the following evening were leaving in the morning. We had one other delightful companion on one evening drive, a man named Devern, also from Pretoria. So for 5 out of 8 game drives we had the vehicle to ourselves. In fact, on one morning, I skipped the game drive because I wasn't feeling well, so Michael had a private tour all by himself! This is not the norm and we saw other vehicles with 6 and even 7 people. That isn't too bad, but what a treat it was to have such flexibility and a relaxed atmosphere with just us and our Ranger/Tracker team.

Here are some photos of the wonderful things we saw at Ngala including a pride of lions with cubs, a lovely leopard siting in a tree, a large male rhino, hippos, and beautiful African sunsets. There were so many things we saw that I can't recount them all. I think we saw 5 different leopards while we were there, but there were also lots of impala, zebra, birds, buffalo and so many other things.




Leopard orchid - an epiphyte

Bernard and Jimmy setting up sundownders



Onwards to Ngala

After our final game drive at Londolozi we had one more scrumptious breakfast, packed our bags, and said our goodbyes. Amos from Sable Tours picked us up and drove us the 3 and 1/4 hours to Ngala Private Game Reserve in the Timbavati region.


It took us an hour on dirt roads to get to the tarmac. Along the way we continued to see animals in the bush. As we left the Sabi Sand region behind we began to pass what felt like “real” Africa to us, the real world. Flying straight into Londolozi was magical, but it's a bit like being in Neverland. We saw square homes built of grey brick the size of cinderblocks. Many yards were fenced with wire to keep animals out. People were walking along the roads. One village we drove through showed signs of damage. We presumed it was from the recent hail storm. The corrugated tin roof of a church had been peeled back like a tin of sardines. I noticed a lot of laundry hanging on lines to dry. What stood out was the color coordination. There was a lot of pink and red clothing, however, uniformly, colors were grouped. You would see all the pinks together, all the whites, all the reds, blues etc. I found this color organization quite pleasing to my inner sense of order. After a couple of hours we entered the Krueger National Park through the Timbavati gate. All of a sudden there were giraffe and elephant appearing near the road. Ngala is a private reserve with unfenced borders to the rest of the Kruger National Park.

An hour or so later we arrived at Ngala Safari Lodge. We were greeted by the soft spoken Ruth with a cool towel to wipe the dust from our faces and a glass of juice. Given, a man with a ready and winning smile, showed us to our cottage– he was to be our waiter and butler for the remainder of our stay. We decided that we didn't need lunch since we'd had such a good breakfast, and it really wasn't that long until tea. We settled into #17 and a bit later, headed over to the main deck area to have tea and meet our Ranger. We discovered that the thatch roof of the cottage protruded rather dangerously into the walkway leading up to the entrance. It was all a matter of angles, but since Michael is 6'3″, we felt this would inevitably lead to a bleeding wound on his head. At tea we spoke with Stephen, the camp manager, who also happened to be at least that tall, and he agreed to move us to #16, which had an easier entrance. We did this in the morning.

Our Ranger was Bernard. He offered us some refreshment and gave us an overview of the reserve asking if there was anything in particular we wanted to see. We rather sheepishly explained that we'd had incredible luck at Londolozi and had already seen the Big Five, but I admitted I'd like to see a big male lion. We were joined by a family group of Germans, father with son and daughter, who had just arrived from their international flights. Another couple had not made it there yet, so it was just the 5 of us on the vehicle that first night. Our Tracker was a local Shangaan man named Jimmy. We set out in the late afternoon sunlight for our first Ngala safari.


Londolozi Finale

Our last morning at Londolozi we had one more game drive in which we saw more lions. This time it was the Tsalala pride with 3 lionesses and 4 cubs. As expected, they were enjoying a morning nap.

Sacked out

Scanning the horizon

We also saw a Jackal and an African Fish eagle that morning, and another Lilac-breasted roller.

Part of my African Bums collection

African Fish-Eagle

Lila-breasted roller

To finish our drive Kate parked the truck and led us on a walking safari back to camp. It was a beautiful morning with the Drakensberg mountains in the distance and it was really fun to get a totally different view of things. We saw a Stiletto snake crawling into a termite mound and marveled at all the details you don't see as well from a vehicle.

Stiletto snake - quite toxic!

Drakensberg mountains


Beauty and the Beast

Later that day on the evening game drive we saw a Goliath heron. He was magnificent! We thought perhaps he was injured because when he started to walk, he clearly had one leg that seemed bent backward the wrong way and walked with a funny gate. However, Life was of the opinion that it was a birth defect and not an injury. This seemed likely as otherwise he seemed quite healthy and obviously had been capable of feeding himself thus far.

Goliath heron

Further on we had a wonderful encounter with not one, but two leopards. The first was a young male who was resting underneath a great tree. After a bit he got up and moved off to another spot close by.

While moving around in that direction for a better view, we discovered there was another leopard very close by. It was an adult female. Usually leopards do not hang out together. Kate speculated as to whether perhaps the female was the young male's mother, but we weren't sure if they were aware of each other's presence. This created some excitement about a possible interaction between the two. The female was lying in the burn area of a recent fire and so was obligingly easy to photograph and view. She treated us to some typical cat behavior. What a magnificent animal!

The female leopard



Having a drink

After her stretching, she got up and moved off toward where we knew the young male was lying. We high tailed it around to the other side to get a better view and watched as the male became aware of the other's presence and moved down to join her. They were indeed mother and son. They also had a kill hidden in the bushes in a little gully. Probably it had been an impala. At any rate, the mother began to feed and the son lounged nearby waiting his turn. By this time the light was beginning to fade so we watched for a while and then moved off to enjoy a sundowner with the first semblance of a sunset we'd had yet.


Mom has an Impala snack. Yum!



The remainder of our time at Londolozi continued to awe and amaze. We were treated to sightings of two lion prides, two more leopards, countless antelope of varying types, rhino, hippo, buffalo, giraffe, birds galore and even some reptiles. The food and service were equally amazing. I will really miss those breakfasts! I particularly enjoyed the huge variety of birds. It was such a luxury to have a guide to point them out, describe their habits, and one who knew all the names and calls so well. Some of my favorites include the Lilac-breasted roller, the Goliath heron– largest in the world, and the various eagles. After the storms of the night before, the bush seemed refreshed, clean, and sparkly. It really is beautiful to be out just after sunrise to see everything just waking up. And a little bit of rain immediately makes everything spring to life. As the summer rains are about to start up in earnest, soon the bush will be lush and green with new growth everywhere. The weather improved and we had some sunshine mixed with clouds. In general it has been much cooler here than I expected. It's preferable to being scorching hot, but I never expected to be chilly! Still, the clothing I brought seems to have worked out just fine.

Kate and Life in the morning- see where he sits?


Red-billed Hornbill

Marshall eagle


The first lions we saw were from the Sparta pride. Quite a lot of time was spent tracking them down, narrowing down their location by searching for tracks along the roads, and eventually searching on foot in the bush. We knew they were close by but still hadn't found them when, along came a Land Rover full of Tracker trainees. The Tracker training program at Londolozi is quite well known and very comprehensive. It is led by a man named Rennius about whom we'd heard from Kate. She had called in The A-Team as they called themselves! Life went off with them into the bush and we drove off to find a suitable spot for tea and rusks. Not three minutes down the road we got the call the lions had been found! Life and Kate had tracked them to right under our noses it seemed. We turned around and raced back, bid adieu to the A-Team, and drove into the bush to see our first lions. We found 4 or 5 lionesses and one young male. You could see his mane was not fully developed but he looked distinctly different from the females. They were doing what lions do most of the time– lying around napping. It was a bit hard to photograph them through the tall grass but you get the idea.

The young male



White Rocks Falling from the Sky

When we met Kate that afternoon for tea before our evening game drive, the skies were gray and there was the rumble of thunder. Ironically, we asked Kate about storms and lightning in the area and discussed the weather in general. She told us about the floods they'd had in the last couple of years, something that was quite an unusual occurrence. When we set off in the vehicle the rumbling was quite clear and you could see some lightning activity off to one side of us. It wasn't socked in and it wasn't raining. So Kate headed off in the opposite direction from the storm which also appeared to be passing by and moving fairly quickly. As we drove along, the lightning activity intensified producing some spectacular cloud to ground strikes. It also seemed to be shifting around and coming from more directions. Still no rain. The clouds were quite dramatic.

Admittedly I was getting a little nervous. I'm not fond of being out in lightning storms and kept thinking of some fairly recent Lightning Safety training that had been circulated at my work where field personnel are often out in remote areas where they could be exposed to storms. When we reached Londolozi's airstrip it was getting pretty dramatic. Now The storm activity seems to be in most directions not just on one side. Life was sitting in the tracker's seat as usual and I think he saw some rain coming from behind because we stopped so he could jump down and fetch the ponchos for us from the back of the vehicle. Just as he handed them out it began to come down. I was desperately trying to get a large poncho over me with all speed when I was surprised to see a very large piece of hail land at my feet in the Land Rover. The next thing I know it was pelting down with large marble sized hail – we're talking pieces an inch wide. It was quite surreal. I had a moment of realization that we couldn't avoid this, there was no place to go. As I hunkered down in the seat, hugging my camera bag to me beneath the poncho, and trying to hold it out like a tarp so the hail wouldn't hit me directly, I wondered how Kate was able to withstand it without a poncho. In a moment she had backed us up under a tree to get some shelter, but it didn't help much. My disbelief at what was happening continued as there seemed no end in sight. Very soon Kate must have realized we had to get out of there and she began to drive. I could barely peek out of my shelter between yelps as the hail pelted my back, head, shoulder, any body parts facing up. I have no idea how she actually managed to drive in all that. You couldn't see the road. I felt like a turtle since I had pulled my head out of the hood of the poncho and retreated to as low and small a position as I could manage. We drove for a bit, enduring this onslaught with lightning and thunder all around. When I felt the vehicle stop I looked out to see where we were. The way ahead was blocked by fallen tree branches, but it appeared we weren't too far from camp as I could see some buildings. Kate said to get out and we grabbed our stuff and clambered off the vehicle and hurried as fast as we could toward the buildings which turned out to be the staff quarters. Before we got to any sort of shelter we were wading through shin deep water and avoiding fallen branches. We stopped briefly in an open area under a sheltering roof to catch our breath. At this point it was raining but the hail was gone. After a few minutes we jogged a bit further and found ourselves at Varty Camp. There were leaves scattered everywhere forming a carpet over everything. Fences, trees and branches had come down. Guests from various camps were gathering on the deck at Varty and being tended to by the staff. Dry towels, blankets, drinks (including brandy!) were handed out. First aid was administered. Kate went off to see how the rest of her rangers were fairing and to make sure everyone was getting in safely. Life was quite shaken by the whole episode. He had a few knots on his head from the hail and we later realized he had likely never seen hail in his life. To him, there must have been white rocks falling from the sky. Hail is a rare occurrence in that area, and certainly hail that size and in that volume had never been seen by most of the people who call Londolozi home. There were piles of hail which had drifted in spots to eight inches deep. Some guests had bruising from the hail, there were a few cuts and scrapes, and surely some camera equipment had been ruined, but all in all we came through it ok. The rain had stopped and as we looked out from the deck to the Sand river, we could see a group of Banded Mongoose had come out to investigate or perhaps to find a drier spot.

Banded Mongoose

The river swollen with rain after the storm

Soon Kate returned and led us back along the pathways past the Granite Suites and Founders Camp to our own Pioneer Camp. Along the way there were staff already out sweeping away the leaves that littered everything and clearing the branches blocking the way. Sadly we saw a whole bed of large aloe plants that were simply shredded, but closer to Pioneer Camp they weren't so damaged. Just as happens in Colorado, the damage was very localized. In Pioneer Camp we found Graeme sweeping leaves off the deck and were informed that Allan and Loraine's cottage had sustained some flooding. Ours was mercifully spared. After changing into some dry clothes, inspecting the bruises which would later bloom into a leopard-like pattern on part of my back, and getting our bearings, we went back to Pioneer's main deck for a drink. In all, from the time we got in the vehicle to the time we were back at Varty Camp assessing the damage, no more than 20 minutes could have passed. It was a violent but brief, freakish weather episode. One thing that really impressed me was the response at Londolozi. In no time the paths were clear and the damage was being repaired. I was amazed at the army of people clearing up debris and the way the staff were able to quickly adapt to our changed schedule. The next day Kate told us a special meeting was held and they had purchased special weather radios that would keep them apprised of weather happening in their close vicinity, like they might have for an airport. That evening, Kate joined us for drinks and dinner and we ate together with Allan and Loraine as well. We enjoyed hearing about her life at Londolozi and about the Ranger and Tracker training programs they have. There were good stories all around. As we went off to bed, the thunder and lightning had returned and rumbled in the distance for several hours in the night, but we were snug in our suite, unlike the animals in the bush.