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Saturday, August 15, 2020

Into the Wild

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By Darcy Grimes

When you think of an African safari do you imagine roaming the vast African savannahs holding your breath as you anxiously await that chance encounter with the wild? Do you assume that viewing the “Big Five” is guaranteed or that you may come home with only two of those animals checked off your encountered list? Going in, I imagined some strange cross between “The African Queen” and “Out of Africa.” What I didn’t understand was that there is more than one way to experience a safari in Africa.

As part of trip to South Africa, my friends and I decided to experience Karongwe Private Game Reserve through the guidance of African Travel and AAA. Following a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, we boarded a quick one-hour flight to Hoedspruit.

Located just 45 miles from the famous Kruger National Park, Karongwe boasts 22,000 acres of pristine and protected African bush interspersed and bordered by the Makutswe, Kubjename, Mafunyane, Karongwe and Matumi rivers. The picturesque Drakensberg Mountains loom in the distance and offer stunning views. Precipitation is low and erratic offering a hot, wet season from October to April, with the rest of the year being dry.

The history of the area is dire with gold being discovered in the 1890s, which of course brought more people. Miners and laborers hunted, snared and trapped the once-abundant wildlife for both sport and food. Once the gold ran out, unsuccessful attempts at farming the area continued to occur. In the 1940s, after aerial spraying of DDT to wipe out the tsetse fly and to control mosquitos, the land was handed out to destitute soldiers returning from World War II. Due to excessive hunting and poor land management, the natural game in the area was decimated. The decades between 1950 and 1980 brought more mining, this time for mica and feldspar, which today results in hundreds of abandoned mines littering the area. It was during the late 1990s that a group of farmers dropped the fences separating their land and the Karongwe Private Game Reserve was established with the goal of rehabilitating the land and reintroducing indigenous species.

Upon arrival at the airport we were met and transferred to Kuname Lodge, our home for the next few days. This small, exclusive luxury lodge was the epitome of comfort and tranquil beauty. With stunning views from the huge wooden deck of the main hall and from our private outdoor bath of our private chalets this lodge offers a feast for the visual sense. Our days were comprised of a 5 a.m. wake-up knock, at which point we would jump out of bed, dress and go to the main lodge for coffee before heading out on our morning drive.

Accompanied by the exuberant and very funny game ranger Morris and the shy yet engaging tracker Connie, we set off in search of exotic animals. On each drive, Morris asked us what we wanted to go after first, and the six of us in the open-air Jeep would discuss and announce. Then Connie took over looking for the appropriate tracks until the animal of choice came in to view. Within our first two drives we had sighted each of the Big Five and couldn’t wait to go out and see them again.

Each morning upon our return, we were treated to an enormous breakfast featuring made-to-order eggs, homemade breads and preserves, and anything else you could possibly desire. South Africans take their breakfast seriously. The rest of the morning was free to explore, read, swim or just relax in the beautiful lodge.

At 2 p.m. we would all gather back at the lodge for “high tea,” which was more like a mini-lunch buffet with sweet and savory eats, fresh-squeezed juice, coffee and, of course, tea. Following, we would head out for our evening drive, which would begin in the early evening twilight and end after dark.

A highlight was the sundowner. Morris would inquire as to your beverage of choice before leaving the lodge and he and Connie would find a beautiful spot to stop and watch the sunset while enjoying a cocktail out in the middle of the reserve. Each evening the location they would choose to experience the sunset was more beautiful than the last.

Once the sun had disappeared and the last sip savored, it was back in the Jeep. The lights would come on and nighttime tracking would begin. One evening we were lucky enough to go on foot into the brush and find two cheetahs that were just waking up from their afternoon naps and cleaning each other in preparation for their evening hunt. We carefully and quietly got some photos.

Following our evening drives we would retire to our rooms to freshen up before dinner. Always a gastronomic treat with regional cuisine, the venue for dinner was as wonderful as the menu itself. Whether in the more formal dining room of the lodge or on the deck under the stars, the meal was a wonderful way to share the adventures of the day with good friends both new and old. I came home with some wonderful recipes that the chef of Kuname was kind enough to share.

I like to think of Karongwe as a “sure thing” or a managed safari experience. Although it’s private and gated, the animals still roam freely with little to no intervention on the part of the humans who work there. I highly recommend the experience for those with limited time to spend who want to be guaranteed (again thanks to exceptional game rangers) they don’t leave Africa without seeing the wildlife it is known for.

Call 800-398-0379 to book a vacation to Africa.

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