South Africa: The Kruger Area Edition.

With all of our things loaded in the back of Neil’s truck, we were off on a new adventure and our itinerary had begun.  (Neil & his father own and operate Jewel of Africa Safaris & I found them on Safari Bookings. I picked them because our trip was customizable, Neil was very prompt in responding to my all my emails, and the price was reasonable. Not to mention, they booked us at a sweet hotel just outside of Kruger National Park!) You can view our 5 day itinerary here (it will open in a separate tab): Kruger-itinerary.

africa-2016-058With the road trip underway, Neil started us out by sharing about the history of Johannesburg, Pretoria, and on towards Kruger. It was very informative, and I’m sure that Brad loved it far more than I did. The drive lasted close to five and half hours, but had some beautiful sights along the way. Halfway between Joburg and the Kruger area, we stopped at a rest stop that had a few different fast food restaurants, and a great view of a small man-made watering hole and a small gathering of animals which included rhinos.

africa-extras-100Eventually, our drive did continue, and we made our way to our hotel, Pezulu Treehouse Lodge. Sadly, we did find out that we would have to stay in 2 separate “rooms” while we were there due to a booking issue, but we didn’t care because we were stoked about the hotel in general! FACT: The Pezulu Treehouses were awesome. They were literally tree houses, off the ground with room for animals to walk underneath! …and the food…. the food was some of the best that I had on the entire trip.  Our first adventure was a bush walk around our hotel. It was so cool. We were able to get in close proximity to the giraffes, we saw ostrich, zebra, buffalo… ….and lions… Well, when I say that we saw lions… It was one of the local residents who offers walks africa-extras-062with his “pet” lion sisters… Funny enough, they caught glimpse of the giraffes, and due to their natural instincts took off on a chase after the long-legged & long-necked mammals.  Neil instructed us on what to do should we get charged by the lion (stick your arm out in front of you & wave your hand back and forth to disorient it), and we laughed because we weren’t sure how serious he could be. Once the lions were back on track and we round out our bush walk, we headed back to camp. We relaxed for a little bit, and then headed to the outdoor dining area, which was complete with a campfire surrounded by the amazing cuisine.

We were off to bed early, because we had to be up before the sun for our Kruger NP safari. We were picked up by the entrance of the hotel, and thankfully the staff had packed us a light breakfast. africa-extras-063It was a long & cold drive into the park, but we got to experience a beautiful sunrise, and even had the exciting experience of seeing a dead honey badger on the side of the road… When I say “exciting” I am being sarcastic… It was both sad & unfortunate… Once we were to the park gates we had to fill out an informational form for the park records, we were able to grab a quick snack and coffee, and then we were back in our safari vehicle for our big adventure. Right off the bat, we were seeing Impala, Kudu, zebra, giraffes…. A while later we saw many elephants, we saw a couple rhino… and from a far distance, we were able to see lions through binoculars. To be honest, our day in Kruger wasn’t what we hoped for. We did not see any lions on the move, we saw no cheetahs or leopards either… basically, no cats… but tons of everything else!  FACT: Animals live by their own rules and will do their own thing… There are no guarantees in nature. During the middle of the day, we stopped at the “food court” in the park for lunch. The options are all fairly basic. Several quick order and go places with decent food, but nothing to brag about. Either way, it was nice to be out of the car for a while! We chose  Debonairs Pizza, which was marginal to say the least.

By the end of the day we were ready to be done, the lack of exciting sites, and the chatty Canadians that we were sharing a vehicle with pushed us into the “ready to go back” mood. When we got back to the hotel, the staff had taken care of moving our bags to our next tree house, which was a little smaller than our original. (Because of the inconvenience, Neil had arranged a surprise for us early the next morning.)  Dinner was delicious once again, and the pleasantries exchanged with Neil over dinner were enjoyable. It was like having a friend at our table each night… In fact, he does remind me a lot of one of my better friends.

Africa 2016 153.JPGThe next morning we were up early, but thankfully after the sun. We met Neil down on the main patio for  breakfast that consisted of eggs, toast, fruit, and coffee/tea or juice. It was simple, but sufficient! The big surprise was that Neil had arranged for us to walk with the lions, the ones mentioned above. We were so excited! Being the animal lovers we are and because of the limited interaction that can typically be had between men and lions, this was a true thrill for us! We walked through the bush to West’s house ( They also own Lion Treetop Lodge) where he walked us through some information, we signed a waiver… and we headed out.  Africa 2016 167 2.jpgWest is armed with an automatic weapon on his back, in the event of another lion coming into attack, not because he fears his well-fed lions are a threat. FACT: These lions are not drugged. They are loved, well cared for, well fed, and definitely treated with the utmost respect. He also, has 2 game keepers with him to help keep tabs on the lions, and we were also accompanied by his dogs… A Golden, and a Jack Russell named Sam who was clearly the alpha over everyone (We heard a brief story about how he once grabbed onto one of the lions lips out of fury, and the Lion ended up just shaking back and forth in attempted to fling him off) . The walk seemed like it flew by. All I could do was admire the beauty and majesty of these beautiful adolescent white lions. They walked with such intent, and played with a inquisitive ferocity. They were stunning, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. We were encouraged to pet them, hold their tails, and walk beside them, but I would be lying to say that it wasn’t in the least bit a little intimidating, and I was definitely cautious about being overly handsy… After all, I want to keep my hands.. The walk was amazing, and Neil acted as our personal photographer, and held onto my Nikon the entire walk while snapping some amazing photos. After we walked them back to the house, we were able to enter their enclosure, and discuss the nature of the lions more, as well as grab some additional photos. You can view a series of our photos here:

After the lion walk, we all went back to get spruced up, and rest for a few minutes, before we headed on to visit Jessica the Hippo. Perhaps, you have heard of her??? She is famous…  There was even a short documentary made about her. Apparently, she has been on Friends, and she is one of the only hippos to constantly interact with people… so much so, that I even got to give her a kiss. Jessica’s owner told us the story, that after a massive storm, the baby hippo was found on the river bed near their home. They did what they had to, which was take her in as one of their own. Jessica & her new human parents fell in love with each other. Jessica was raised in the home, and has adjusted to her “human” life quite well. She allows her humans to swim with her in the river, and has no problem receiving their love. It’s 100% pure trust. FUN FACT: In Africa, Hippos kill more people than any other mammal… but not this tame lady!

Africa 2016 358.JPGAfter feeding and loving the big girl, it was on to the next… We were headed onto the next event… a boat ride on the Blyde River. However, when we got to the main gate, we found out that we had missed the boat. We continued on a little ways anyways just to check out the views… They were stunning… Once we had enough, we headed back to the hotel because Neil had rearranged our schedule, so that our Safari game drive was that night opposed to the following day… However, apparently our driver from that Reserve kind of, sort of forgot to pick us up. Realizing that they should have been their a while ago, Neil reacted. He called the company & pointed the mistake. Within minutes, we were in Neils truck, & we were flying down dirt roads with the intent to meet another driver who would then transport us to the Reserve. OH BOY! What a drive. I don’t know if you have ever ridden in an open safari vehicle flying down the pavement at God knows what speed, but it was the first time I was truly committed to wearing my seat belt. It was like a thrilling amusement park ride, but where you are actually thinking you could die if I Gazelle walks out in front of the car.

africa-2016-361-1When we reached the gates, we hopped out quickly, just to have to wait. We filled the necessary paperwork, and explored the grounds where we got to admire the cheetahs in their habitat on the grounds TIP: The next time you see a cheetah up close, look at its paws. They have paws like dogs, even though they are part of the cat family. Eventually, we were directed to the next safari vehicle which was already filled with a group that was probably waiting on us, the ones who got left behind. Finally, our evening game drive was happening. It was similar to Kruger… Lots of long, four-legged animals just chilling around the park. The skies had become cloudy, and the air had become chilly, but it was still exciting. All we wanted though, was a cat, and finally we got it! With direction, our driver found his way into a lion’s den… Thankfully, it was clear by their bulging bellies that they had recently feasted and had no interest in us. They just laid there, practically comatose and went about their day.

Finally, we backed out, which was an art form of its own. We drove around a while longer, and got to admire a beautiful African sunset over the treeline. It then became a night safari. But first, we stopped… We stopped off in a clearing for drinks and snacks for about 20 minutes. It was nice to stand for a while, but standing in a wildlife reserve in the dark, is a little creepy… I mean, who knows what might jump out from the bushes at you…  I made the mistake of drinking a beer which caused me to become a exhausted. The final leg of the drive (in the dark) is a blur… I just remember wanting to go to bed, and hardly being able to keep my eyes open. It was dinner time when we got back to the hotel. I was cold, exhausted, and very quiet… I ate my dinner, and then we headed back early for bed.

Africa 2016 412 1.jpgThe next morning, we got to sleep in just a little bit later, and enjoy a breakfast without feeling rushed. I was also able to get some  photos of the wildlife that enjoyed feeding on the hotel grounds. The nice thing was it was just going to be a mellow day, but sadly we were going to be in the car for a while. This was the day that we were truly going to get to experience the Blyde River
Canyon & God’s Window. It was a long drive up & along the mountains to visit God’s window, but it was worth it. It was also, quite cold… So armed, in Ugg boots (I brought other shoes too as back up) & a sweatshirt, we jumped out africa-extras-163of the car to admire the view. It was stunning! We were there for about 15 minutes, taking photos & following small short trails. It was like we were in another land… From the mountain top, you could see the vast valley & paper farms. It was foggy when we were there, but even then you could understand why it was called God’s Window. From there we headed back down to Lisbon Falls, the local waterfalls. We spent probably 30 minutes there, and Brad and I were able to climb down the mountain a bit to get some great photos, and realized it was time for some cooler footwear… It was difficult, but worth it. Then from there we headed to Three Rondavels View Point, which overlooks the Blyde River Canyon. The view was truly breathtaking.. Neil being the fabulous guide that he was, encouraged us to climb under the fence that was installed, and climb out onto the rock to get some great photos. Although we joked at the time, about how this is how Neil kills his clients… He was right! The photos were AMAZING, and worth the nerve racking thrill. It was just crucial to not look down.

Eventually, after a quick bathroom break, we made our way back to the small town of Graskop, which is mostly for tourists. The streets are lined with restaurants gift shops, but it was a great spot to stop, grab a bite to eat, and stretch our legs. We popped into the local chocolate shop to see if there were any goodies we needed, and then headed to Harrie’s Pancakes, where Neil had made a lunch reservation for Brad & I. Apparently, pancakes there very different than pancakes here. It is sort of like a crepe, but not… It actually kind of reminded me of a tamale (a Mexican dish), a little bit. It was different, and not my favorite. But it was a good experience!

africa-2016-512After a good meal, we were ready to begin our descent back down the mountain, and around to the other side for our boat ride. Neil winded around the rough South African roads, and got us to the boat dock. We all gathered to the front seats of the boat, and eventually our captain & crew were there to accompany us. The boat was filled with fuel, and we were off. We got to see the small little groups of monkeys play on the nearby rocks, and got to take in the breathtaking views of the canyon. The clouds had partially cleared, and the temperature had warmed up a bit. It was beautiful weather for a stunning environment. They took us to see skull rock, and then back around into the lake where we were able to spot, kudu, hippos, and a beautiful kingfisher. There after, the boat was turned around, and we were docked. Our fun was over, but it was a full day.

africa & extras 238.JPGWhen we got back to the hotel late that afternoon, we had to start getting our things together because we were leaving early the next morning. However, we mostly just laid around, I posted pics on instagram and perused social media, and Brad read CNBC… typical… Neil had made arrangements for us to go over to one of the other hotels for a little while for drinks and to meet his friends that owned the place. A charming German couple who made us feel right at home. We all sat around one of the “picnic” tables and chatted, as we watched the sun set over the horizon line. After spending an hour or so there we headed back to our hotel. Finally, it was time for our last supper & well, that food, that chef, that service, it would all be missed. I still miss it!  After dinner, it was time to get serious about packing. We packed all we could, and were off to bed for another 5 AM wake-up was ahead of us.

africa-2016-525-1With packing final, and groggy eyes, Neil picked us up at the bottom of the stairs below our tree house in the dark. We were off to one more game drive. Conveniently on this early morning, we ended up being the only ones in the car, and Neil came along with us. It was cold and cloudy, so it ended up being another very calm drive… TIP: Always bring a jacket, even in Africa it gets cold, thankfully safari companies do have blankets for the cold rides.  We didn’t get to see much more than we already had, with the exception of the stunning Guinea Fowl. I am sort of obsessed with the Guinea Fowl… You can see his picture above. We were able to get a few beautiful photos of warthogs, giraffes, and guinea fowl, but not much more. After a few hours our drive came to a close, and were back in Neil’s truck headed for Joburg so that we could catch our flight Capetown. It was a really fun final drive with Neil. He was definitely a great guide, that I would love to have him again should we go back… or even just grab drinks with if we are in the area. FACT: BOOKING WITH NEIL’S COMPANY IS A GOOD IDEA IF YOU WANT TO HAVE A FUN EXPERIENCE IN SOUTH AFRICA!

Finally, we were dropped off at the Johannesburg airport, and it was time to move on… Capetown was calling our name, along with all the wonderful adventures that would follow!

africa-2016-526-2LESSONS LEARNED: 

1) pancakes here aren’t the same as pancakes everywhere

2) Big cats are hard to find

3) A full cat is a lazy cat

4) Treehouses make the best hotel rooms hands down… even if the shower situation sucks!

5) I want to move to the Kruger area… I’m in love with it!


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The Compulsive Traveler

out to see the world, and snap beautiful photos while doing so.

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