Guest post by Steve Ingraham
I have, for as long as I can remember, dreamed of Africa. Who hasn’t? I frequently find myself browsing African photo safari’s, and I always reach the same conclusion. I can travel to the Central American Tropics, Honduras or Panama, at least three times for the cost of one average photo safari to Africa.
But is that so? I was astounded to find a company in South Africa offering inexpensive safaris to Greater Kruger National Park. I managed to book 11 days (two separate safari packages) and airfare, including a non-stop South African Air flight from JFK to Johannesburg, for less than $2500…or about the same amount as one trip to Central America. Too good to be true? I just had to find out for myself.
Viva Safaris is a unique company. They own lodges in Balule Game Reserve and Motlala Game Reserve, both “inside” the Greater Kruger fence so that wildlife flows freely. They own their own Game Viewers (Land Cruisers or Helix trucks with high seats and open sides) and they employ all their own rangers, drivers, and guides. They are one-stop-shopping when it comes to your safari needs. I booked a six day Kruger Safari package at Tremisana Lodge, a comfortable lodge with a guest house and many room options, located inside the Balule Game Reserve, and, just for contrast, a four day package at Marc’s Treehouse Lodge, a rustic camp with small reed cabins in trees or on stilts high above the Klaserie River (or in permanent tents if you prefer) inside the Motlala Game Reserve. Marc’s Camp is unfenced, so there is little to separate you from the sights and sounds, or the wildlife, of the African bush.
Between the two packages, I got transport from airport to lodge, two bush walks, a night game drive which included a traditional South African braai (barbeque) under a spreading tree in the bush, a sunrise game drive, an afternoon game drive, and a sunset drive, all at Balule, as well as two sunset drives at a neighboring fenced reserve, Tshukudu…and four full day game drives in Kruger National Park. On the trip back to Johannesburg they take you up the famous Panorama Route to the Three Rondavels. Blyde Canyon Overlook, without doubt is one of the most amazing views in South Africa. If that sounds like a full schedule to you…it was indeed a full schedule in practice!
If you are looking for a personalized, customizable, private or semi-private safari experience, or for luxury bush camps, then Viva Safaris is not for you. They keep the price low by offering one set of activities, common to both lodges, and keeping both lodges and all their game viewers full. Though they were wonderfully cooperative, my two packages back to back was unique enough to stretch their creativity. Tremisana lodge is comfortable, but certainly not luxurious. The rooms are clean and well appointed, and the meals, served family style, are good, and nourishing, but not gourmet. (Vegetarian options are limited, and if you require gluten-free, you would be well advised to being supplemental supplies.) Marc’s Treehouse Lodge is even more basic, with an authentic bush feel, and all the rough edges that go with it (every cabin has “private” facilities, including shower, but some of them are separate from your cabin, and some are open to the sky :). If wind blowing through the cabin walls, along with the scents and sounds of the bush, appeals to you, you will find Marc’s Camp adventuresome, and comfortable enough. And certainly beautiful.
There is no doubt that the round of Viva activities is of the highest quality. The Bush Walks with an armed ranger are something you will not get on many more expensive safaris. The Game Drives on Balule are excellent, with experienced, knowledgeable, and helpful driver/rangers. When I expressed a special interest in birds, the rangers went out of their way (literally) to find me the species I was after, and to show me other interesting birds. Tshukudu Game Lodge is a more managed experience. It is a fenced reserve, but you get to see some of the animals, especially the lions, much closer than elsewhere. The day long Game Drives in Kruger are everything you might hope for. The high open vehicles make for great views and photo opportunities…the driver/guides are in the park every day and share information, so they find just about any animal that is showing. They repeatedly spotted animals that I would never have seen on my own. And even though they visit the same area of the park each day, they clearly still enjoy showing the wildlife to their customers. That makes all the difference!
If you measure safari quality by the numbers of animals seen and enjoyed, then I certainly got full value for my money…and then some. I am convinced I saw as much, or more, thanks to the skill of the Viva rangers, than those paying four times what I was paying. I saw and photographed many lions, a cheetah, a leopard, hundreds of giraffes and elephants, Cape Buffalo, Wildebeest, Zebras, Kudu, Nyala, Impala (thousands), Waterbuck, Duiker, Bushbuck, Steenbok, Spotted Hyena, Jackal, Vervet Monkey, Baboons, Honeybadger (spotlighted on the night drive…very rare), Striped and Dwarf Mongoose, Tree Squirrels, and more. And though it was not a birding trip, I photographed three hornbills (including the Southern Ground Hornbill), Ostrich, Kori Bustards (a surprise, even for our guide), several Eagles, Yellow-billed Kite, Brown-headed Parrot, Woolly-necked, Malabo, and Yellow-billed Storks, Thick-knees, Stilts, Herons, Hadada Ibis, Hamerkops, Wood Hoopies, Scimitarbill, Pied Kingfishers, two Sunbirds, Lilac-breasted and Purple Rollers, and both White-fronted and Little Bee-eaters (I really wanted the Sunbirds, Rollers, and Bee-eaters), and lots more. I came back with 5000 exposures, edited down to 851 keepers. I saw and photographed everything I had hoped to see and photograph and so much more!
So, too good to be true? Not at all. If your dream is to see the wildlife of Africa and Greater Kruger National Park, and you don’t think your budget is a match for your dreams, think again then check out Viva Safaris.
Stephen Ingraham is a nature photographer and recently retired as field representative for Carl Zeiss Sports Optics. You can see more of his photography at http://www.lightshedder.com/.