On August 7, 1998 I headed to Ngala for a safari. Safari means, "trip or long journey" in Swahili. Ngala is a private game reserve north east of Johannesburg in Mpumalanga. It was a one-hour flight and then a 45-minute drive due east over mostly dirt roads to get to camp. The camp was not really a camp as you might think, it has 21 private chalets complete with thatched roofs and mosquito nets. There were no locks on the door except for a simple latch to keep the monkeys out. However, there were no fences surrounding the camp so you are truly in the wild. During the night you are advised not to walk without assistance. There was a small pond that the water buffalo visited each night for drinking. I should say 300 water buffalo visited each night. There was a fence between the chalets and the housing for the employees that had a big hole in it from an elephant pushing it down a few days before I arrived. They called him Justin because he was just in side of the camp. Justin was a pain because he was in season and this is when an elephant can be most dangerous. It would be this elephant that would bring me fame as "The Jungle Devil", but I digress.
The first day at camp I went out on the first game drive. We were in a Land Rover and traveled all dirt roads with the driver/ranger behind the wheel and the tracker riding on a seat attached to the front bumper. We drove off road to track animals and if we were tracking lions the tracker would eventually ride in back so as not to be eaten. Just as a side bar, there are lots of barbed trees that are sharp and in some cases hard enough to penetrate a tire. If the driver isn’t careful he might run the tracker into a few of these barbs. If the tracker isn’t talking to the driver it might be because he has a few extra holes in his body from the day before. Okay, back to the safari. Basically the big cats do not see the vehicle as a threat and so they ignore it. They don’t see the people in a truck, they just see the truck. That is not true of most of the other animals. There were a great number of birds and animals that I have never seen before. The best part of the game drives was that the animals were free to roam, eat and drink without restriction. They are not caged or tagged nor have contact with people in anyway other than the game drives. If they get sick they are not drugged and treated. Everything is left as a natural process. It is totally different than a zoo. While traveling the roads we would have to stop for elephants in the road and be careful that the pachyderm wasn't contemplating charge our Land Rover.
The evening drives left at 3:30pm and got back at approximately 7:30pm (after dark). The first night out was a full moon and we stopped and had drinks and snacks in the dark under the moonlight. July and August are the winter months in South Africa so most of the trees and grass were brown. That is both good and bad. Good because you can see the animals much better and there are no malaria carrying mosquitoes, but bad because you do not get to see the look of the bush during the spring and summer when everything is green. Dinner was at 8pm and always outside with several fires burning and excellent meals and service. Each night you eat with the ranger and other members of your drives. It was an excellent time to talk about the day and learn more about the people who were also here from other areas of the world or Africa.
The morning started at 5:30am with a knock at the door. No phones or clocks here! A drink and pastry starts the morning at 6am and the first game drive begins at 6:15am. One morning drive we saw an Eagle Owl eating a Franklin (small bird) that he had caught. He was a magnificent bird with a huge wingspan. He flew to a near by tree after we had passed under him and watched us before flying off again. Unfortunately at that early hour I wasn't able to get a picture.
A brief overview of what I saw on my safari; a pride of lions (13) resting in the afternoon sun, 300 water buffalo leaving the camp watering hole in the early morning mist, elephants ripping down small trees and eating the bark, two 20 month old leopards with their breakfast up a tree, two 4 year old male lions marking their territory, we tracked 3 rhinos on foot, giraffes, zebras, impalas, warthogs, Kudu, hornbill birds, huge crocodiles, an occasional water buffalo skull, wildebeest (pretty dumb animals), and much more.
A safari, by far, is one of the best adventures you will ever take. What made Ngala so special was that I was riding in an open Land Rover with a small group of people and a personal guide and tracker. You could decide on what you wanted to see and the ranger would then take you to the areas to provide you with the best experience. I was at Ngala for three days but experienced an adventure that cannot be measured in time alone.