At over 11,000 kilometres away, South Africa is an oft-overlooked destination for travellers from Hong Kong. The lack of frequent direct flights generally means 19-plus hours of travel time, brutal layovers, and precious holiday time lost that would bother most residents of a city that prides itself in its efficiency. However, the bounties that await you in South Africa will allow you to brush these off as mild inconveniences.
In the summer of 2008, my family and I managed to put together a trip to South Africa. As my first time going to Africa, I was unsure of what to expect. After a couple of long flights and a layover, we arrived and were greeted with the brisk morning air immediately upon exiting the plane.
We had prepared warm clothes, recognising that the seasons would be flipped, but it was still surprising. The continent that often conjured up images of wild landscapes and harsh heat was as cold as Japan in the winter, rendering visible our stale breath from the flight.
After allowing the fresh air to wake us up a bit, we hopped into a car and started heading to our first destination, a private game reserve within Krueger National Park called Sabi Sabi. We arrived in the early afternoon and checked-in. We planned to stay at two of their four locations named Selati Camp and Earth Lodge, with three safaris on a day’s itinerary, one each in the morning, early afternoon, and evening.
First up was Selati Camp. Nestled amongst a clearing, inconspicuous, open-air buildings were hidden between the trees, designed with muted tones and built with wood and straw to mimic traditional construction methods, all while providing modern-day luxuries.
The rooms, each looking like unassuming straw huts from the outside, boasted of amenities that would rival the top luxury resorts, with comfortable canopy beds, marble countertops, and indoor and outdoor showers and bathtubs. The only thing missing was a television, but that served to help us focus more on the experience and our surroundings.
When we checked-in, the receptionist had told us to call ahead when travelling between rooms, the dining area, and the reception, as their hotel was designed to be as harmonious as possible with the surrounding nature, so there was the possibility of roaming animals posing a threat to our safety as we passed through. In my mind, I brushed it off as a marketing pitch, something to add a touch of fear and create an authentic African atmosphere to these city-slickers who lived so far away from the wild.
I was wrong.
Five minutes after leaving on our first safari in an open-air Jeep, we immediately saw a pride of lions. They lounged in the tall dry grass, yawning, napping, and occasionally batting at a branch or blade of grass. It was breathtaking and, given the lack of cover in the Jeep, a little alarming.
Our guide explained that animals in the region had become accustomed to the shape of the Jeep—they understood it to be some sort of animal that was neither tasty nor a threat. The only problems they ever had were when tourists thought the animals were tame and would wander out of the car, which is why they also carried a rifle. When you’re less than 50 metres away from a group of predators at the top of the food chain, the reassurance was nice, but not completely comforting.
We spent about half an hour observing the big cats, our breath the only sound in the quiet winter air, each of us trying to breathe lightly so as to not disturb their respite. It was amusing to see a lot of similar movements to the miniature, domesticated versions we had at home, and certainly, some cat owners would claim their precious pets had the same wild looks in their eyes, but most would have to admit that these kings and queens of Africa were a different breed, with scars expressing a personal history of hunting or fighting. At ease, they lay in piles, resting on each other and bothering each other to play.
Next up were different types of antelopes. They would appear often in groups and were always attentive and on the lookout, emitting a somewhat nervous energy. There were a number of different varieties, such as the kudu, the impala, and the springbok, each with different markings and characteristics, but all seemed fairly undisturbed by our presence, and much more focused on grazing and keeping an eye out for real threats.
Thoroughly satisfied with our first safari, and in need of a nap, we eventually returned to the hotel. With the lions in mind, we quickly checked with the receptionist if it was okay to walk back to our respective huts (it was), and headed back.
When I got close to my hut, I noticed a warthog darting around the clearing by my hut. I stopped and saw that there was a family of warthogs, who had decided that the lightly manicured grass by the huts were much preferable to the dry winter grass. The larger of the three kept an eye on me and would back away quickly whenever I moved. I tried to approach patiently with slow movements, but whenever I got within a certain distance, they would back away again. Nobody likes being disturbed during a good meal, so I decided to leave them alone.
As I was entering my hut, a staff member who was passing by smiled and pointed up towards the roof of my hut. Right above the canopy was a giraffe. It towered above my hut, its eyes looking at me apathetically as it chewed on leaves from a branch that dipped towards my quarters. As it chewed, a line of drool dripped from its mouth. I quickly took a photo, and after admiring it for a couple of minutes, finally went for my nap.
The list of astonishing experiences while staying at Sabi Sabi runs long. Already on our first day, we had a number of close encounters, and the rest of the trip did not disappoint. What followed included seeing the same pride of lions out hunting at night (a very different atmosphere), the rare sighting of a leopard on the prowl, wildebeest in a butt-to-butt position to maintain a 360-degree of vision, and an elephant with six legs (so my dad likes to say).
Earth Lodge was just as spectacular as Selati Camp. Built by a watering hole with a resident hippo, we would wake up to views of animals trying to drink without being attacked. The food throughout the trip was incredible, but perhaps not for the unadventurous (or vegetarian-inclined, although I’m sure they had options—I just didn’t notice). Cuts of meat from the various animals we saw were cooked to perfection, such as kudu and impala, and sundowners during the evening safaris gave us a chance to enjoy cocktails and snacks while admiring the sunsets.
Besides safaris, South Africa has much more to offer. The history and culture are incredibly interesting given the tumultuous history that it had faced, and is continuing to try to reconcile with today. The clash of cultures has led to the development of unique experiences that combine aspects from Europe and Africa and created wonderful new foods and experiences.
For the remaining part of the trip, we were able to enjoy a multitude of experiences, such as whale-watching from a tiny seaplane, shark cage diving while covered in fish oil and guts, wine tasting amongst beautiful exotic flowers, and more. Every bit was the worth the long journey, but the part that stood out to me the most were the safaris and our stay at the private reserve, thoughtfully organised and curated by Sabi Sabi.
For someone who spent most of his life around concrete jungles and animals of a different kind, there was something beautiful, thrilling, and somehow calming to get close to our natural origins where, from a safe enough distance, unobscured by glass and captivity, we could come face-to-face with animals that in different circumstances would be hunting or hunted by us. South Africa has been, without a doubt, my favourite travel destination, and I look forward to visiting again.