Karen's Blog

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Part 12: African Adventure 2022

Sabi Sabi and Umkumbe Lodge

We left Maun and flew to Johannesburg where we spent the night at the Protea Hotel O.R.Tambo. It was quite a fun hotel as the entire thing was decorated with airplane parts. 

Our only purpose here was a stopover on our flight from Johannesburg to Nelspruit to get to Sabi Sands. When we arrived at the gate at the airport, I was quite surprised to see this sign. Not gonna see that in the Atlanta Airport!

We arrived at the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport at 11am and quickly made our way to the exit where our driver was waiting to take us to the Umkumbe River Lodge. As a reminder, Umkumbe means rhinoceros and that was the only animal we had not observed in the wild. We hoped the name of the lodge was a good sign as we were on a mission to see a rhinoceros, painted dogs and hyenas.

Choosing Sabi Sands was intentional because it shares a no-fence border with Kruger National Park. Since the Big 5 don’t know about invisible borders, the animals roam freely into Sabi Sands.The difference is that Kruger often has long lines of jeeps with drivers required to stay on roads. Sabi Sands is private land so jeeps can go off-road and there are often no vehicles anywhere nearby.

As we drove the bumpy dirt road to Sabi Sands and Umkumbe Lodge, the animals began to appear out of nowhere, First, there was a kudu, then some zebras, then a giant giraffe looking down on us and we hadn’t even reached the lodge!

We are in the car looking up!

Hopes were high for animal sightings on our drive. We were greeted by Sam, who would become our guide, and taken to our room through an arbor of bougainvillea. It was in full bloom and beautiful!  Our room was HUGE with two beds, a sitting area, an enormous bathroom with an outdoor shower and indoor tub. The patio looked out over the river and elephants and other wildlife were out there just walking by our room and checking us out. Our room was the Wild Dog room and there were rhinoceros cookies on our beds.  More signs that MAYBE we would get to see our rhinoceros, painted dogs, and hyenas. We had just enough time to eat some lunch and get ready for our first game drive.

At 4pm, we headed out to see what animals we could find. We hadn’t been on the drive more than 5 minutes before we saw the most amazing sight: a brand new baby elephant born just hours before. The baby still had afterbirth on it and her skin was pinkish in places. The mother had afterbirth on her rear and legs. The little baby was so precious. She kept trying to suckle the mother but she was too short!  The mother finally stopped where the baby could reach the nipples. It was fun watching the baby trying to keep up, but kept bumping into the mother. She couldn’t get the speed right. It was such an amazing sight and the guide said the baby couldn’t be more than a few hours old. In fact, the guide said she’d never seen a newborn this young and kept taking picture after picture documenting the event. You can hear her commentary in the 2nd video. She is in awe of what she is seeing.

We finally left the baby and mother and of course the aunts who protect the mom and baby to have some quiet time to themselves. As we continued to drive, we immediately saw fields of impala, lots of kudus, giraffes, zebras and the cutest little wart hogs. They looked just like Pumba!  

As the sun sank lower in the sky, it was time for a traditional sundowner. This time the sun really showed out and gave us a marvelous sunset.

As we were headed back to the lodge, our guide and tracker spotted a hyena. This was one of David’s top requests. He wanted to see hyena in the wild. The hyena crossed the road just in front of us, stopped to lay down on the edge of the road, looked at us a while and then stood up and took off into the bush.

We headed back to the lodge where we were greeted with a nice dinner and a roaring fire. Then it was off to bed for another early and cold morning game drive.

On the morning game drive, we were first greeted by a rare sighting of a grey Duiker. David spotted it in the brush where they like to stay since they are small and hunted for their meat. They are solitary animals and a member of the antelope family. We felt fortunate to see one.

Then we spotted giraffes and wildebeest having breakfast on the plains as well as a pack of zebras and herd of elephant. 

We also spotted one of my favorite birds several times…the lilac breasted roller. The photos below were taken by one of our Safari group members, Ashley. She is so talented and shared these photos with me because she knows how much I love this bird.

We witnessed a small bird that seemed to be on all the animals hides. This is when we were told about the importance of the oxpecker bird. He is responsible for eating all the insects and bugs that could cause disease among the animals. They eat from the animals ear, their rear, or anywhere there are tasty bugs. Oxpeckers are extremely important to the stability of nature.

After driving for a while we stopped for coffee, tea, and biscuits out in the bush. Just as we have sundowners, we have sunrise tea/coffee and biscuits. After a light pre-breakfast, we drove along and encountered two hyenas that were not happy with each other, They had a little snarky exchange with each other a couple of times and then went their separate ways.  I guess hyenas can wake up on the wrong side of the bed too.

As we made our way back toward camp for “real” breakfast, we came across the same little family of warthogs. They are very skittish so have the camera ready and rolling if a picture or video is desired.

Our next sightings were of kudu and wildebeest. One little wildebeest did NOT like us being there and had a staring match with us. We also came up another hyena so David definitely got his wish of seeing hyena in the wild.

After breakfast, David and I showered and enjoyed some free time by the pool just reading and enjoying the beautiful day. We also spent some time on our back porch watching the elephants, monkeys, and impala as they grazed and played right outside our back door.

Then it was time for the afternoon game drive. We enjoyed a little birding and found a Burchell’s Coucal, another Lilac Breasted Roller and aYellow Billed Hornbill. The ever present impala showed themselves and I got a picture of their rear end. They are lovingly called the McDonalds of the bush because their backside looks like the McDonalds Arch.

See the McDonalds Arch?

And then it happened. We began to see signs of a rhinoceros in the area. I didn’t want to get my hopes up but I just couldn’t help it. The anticipation grew as we saw piles of dung. Rhinos leave “messages” for other rhinos. The uniqueness of the smell in poop can tell a rhino about other rhinos in the area. A rhino will sniff the dung pile deeply, shuffle through it, then defecate in the same spot. This marks his dominance. We also saw evidence of a rhino mud bath. And then, as we rounded the corner, there he was…Mr. Umkumbe himself….a rhino!

Rhino with Oxpeckers on his back

We had officially seen all of the Big 5 in the wild! I was a happy girl! I don’t think Mr. Umkumbe was too happy with us being there though. He let us gawk at him, then he stood up and walked away. Be sure to watch the video. He does give us one sign that he was excited to see us.

As we drove away, the water buffalo made themselves known as we headed to a beautiful spot by the lake for our last Sundowner. These Sundowner stops with beverages and snacks had become a very special part of our safari. It was a time to enjoy chatting with the jeep mates and reflect about what had  been seen on that day’s drive. Most importantly, it was a chance to stop and truly enjoy those amazing African sunsets. 

A toast to Africa

As we drove back towards the lodge, Africa gave us one last thrill. Another opportunity to see the elusive leopard! She was scent marking at the time we saw her.The tracker was very careful not to shine the light in her eyes because it can limit an animal’s ability to protect themselves if their sight is temporarily impaired. These trackers and guides care deeply about these animals.

Back at Umkumbe Lodge, we enjoyed our last dinner in Africa. As we arrived back at camp, I invited our guide, Sam, to sit with us. Then another family of 4 asked us to sit with them. So, we moved our tables and chairs together. As we began talking, another couple joined in the conversation and we invited them to join their table with ours. Pretty soon, we had one long table and enjoyed the evening sharing stories and memories and scenes from the day. It was a heartwarming “last supper” in Africa. It’s interesting how the people we met on Safari bonded so quickly. We all felt so blessed to be in the middle of this amazing land.

As we stood to leave the table, two gentlemen from the Netherlands asked us if we’d like to joining them at the fire and share some wine. We accepted and then an offer was made to David to try a Netherlands cigar. He accepted and the men sat smoking a cigar while I enjoyed the conversation. Then, the inevitable happened. The fire slowly died and it was time to return to the room and pack for an early morning departure. What a day…a rhino and a leopard!

We took one last opportunity to visit with our guide, Sam, before we left the following morning. It was her birthday and she had the day off. We asked to see her to give her a nice tip and share how much we had enjoyed our experience. She was a great guide, a knowledgeable guide and a sincere animal conservator.

Final thoughts:

I dreamed of going on an African Safari for more years than I can count. Two travel folders bulged at the seams with ideas, thoughts, pictures, and plans for this amazing trip. David and I labored over where, when, how, and how long throughout several months. All I can say is “Wow! We made some good choices”. The Big 5 were seen in multiples. The guides and trackers were true professionals. The lodges put us up close and personal to the wildlife and the people we encountered were so special. I have traveled all over the world and this trip touched parts of my soul that I didn’t know existed. It opened my eyes to the REAL Africa…not the one portrayed in books and on television. I experienced the REAL people…not just the tour guides and hotel personnel.  A friend who has been to Africa many times said, “This won’t be your last visit to Africa”. I’m ready. I want to see more, experience more, feel more and be in tune with nature in a way that can never be described. A way that can only be experienced.  Africa awaits and I am ready.

Still my favorite African animal.


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