By Mary-Frances W.
Lora Schapiro, a Tauck employee who has worked in our Connecticut office, on the road as a Tauck Director, and remotely from the southeastern U.S., has traveled on more than 20 Tauck tours. They’ve included land tours, cruises and Events, but never a safari – until she traveled on South Africa: An Elegant Adventure. Here are some thoughts and photos Lora enthusiastically shared with me about her first safari experience.
Given your many Tauck travel experiences, how was this one?
“It was my best-ever Tauck experience, expertly put together. Several times, at the end of a tour day, I heard my travel companions say, “It couldn’t get any better than this!” But inside, I was thinking… Well, with Tauck – yes, it can. Just wait for tomorrow! And that’s how the entire trip went.”
How did you decide upon a South Africa safari?
For me, South Africa was a great choice for a first safari because of the variety of the country’s indigenous wildlife: elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, buffalo, giraffe, hippo and more. I cannot say enough about the excitement I felt in seeing these amazing creatures with incredible closeness.
What made the trip stand out for you?
The bonds that I developed with my fellow safari-vehicle mates: six of us shared two days on safari drives in Kruger National Park and two days in Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. Although we were new to one another at the start of the tour, we had so much fun together that we chose to stick together for each of the game drives.
Just how close you get to the animals was a surprise… like a rhinoceros wandering just a few hundred yards outside our safari camp… a leopard walking nonchalantly right by our vehicle… a group of elephants fording the river right in front of our 4×4, while another group did the same just downstream.
Although these are wild animals, I never sensed any fear amongst our group because our Tauck Director and guides were so good at putting everyone at ease. They clearly explained what to expect and what to do each day, like making sure not to expose any arms or legs outside our 4×4 and keeping quiet when approaching an animal. Although we were a talkative and fun group, when we were told an animal was nearby, you could have heard a leaf drop.
At night, we returned to camp where dinner was served by candlelight in an open-air boma, a circular dining area. My group chose to sit together with our Ranger guide, sharing wonderful conversations about all that we had seen and experienced during the day. One of our guides was a young man from the eastern coast of South Africa; the other was from a rural village and had previously worked with an anti-poaching team. Learning about their backgrounds and how they were drawn to this work was fascinating.
You came away quite impressed by the safari guides. How so?
Every vehicle has a Ranger (who acts as both a driver and guide) and a Tracker (who sits in a jump seat in front, helping to navigate the terrain and locate the animals). They work together to ensure a high-caliber safari and are incredibly knowledgeable – able to navigate landscapes with no road signage or obvious landmarks, without getting lost. There are areas where they’re required to stay on the roads and others where it’s permissible to go off-road, driving right over certain plant species known to bounce right back. Knowing the difference is a part of their job. Even when English was not their first language, they were easy to understand.
What we didn’t discover through observation while out on a drive, we learned from talking with them. They are full of knowledge about animal behaviors, interpreting tracks, trails and droppings, local plants and geological features like mud hills, snakes and insects, bush safety and ecology – even the stars.
The guides are well aware that every safari-goer hopes to see the “Big Five” and they do everything possible to make that happen – although the truth is, it’s not always possible in the wild. To better the chances, the guides follow tracking signs. They also radio back and forth between vehicles to share directions and other information, like the freshness of tracks or whether to expect a female or male. They make sure that that no animal is ever surrounded by too many vehicles or humans and know how to judge when “close” is too close.
Any experiences you’ll never forget?
We once circled for some 45 minutes before finding three female lions that had been reported by another vehicle. The lionesses were just lying quietly in the grass, paying absolutely no attention to us. Then we heard by radio that there was a male nearby – and this was mating season. So we drove on to his location only to find him chewing heartily on a fleece blanket that had been inadvertently dropped from one of the vehicles. The lion was disturbed but simply walked away, but what we were thinking is that he chose the blanket with a human scent over the lionesses. That made the wildness of the situation very real.
After dark, the trackers who sit in the front of the safari vehicles (equipped with a big stick for lifting tree limbs or bushes out of the way) use a big spotlight to illuminate animals we might otherwise miss; it was awesome. And after dinner at the lodge, escorts are always provided on the walk back to your room. You could hear the rustling of animals wandering nearby.
The camp food was delicious – freshly prepared and much more diverse than I expected. There were plentiful choices for both meat-eaters and vegetarians and a ton of fresh vegetables and fruits.
Being on safari is only a part of this tour; how was the rest?
Capetown is now my new favorite city in the world. It’s so cosmopolitan, so beautiful! The views are spectacular in the same way as those of Italy’s Amalfi Coast or California’s Big Sur. I’d definitely recommend a pre-stay in Capetown because the weather can change very quickly. On my pre-stay I went to the top of Table Mountain by funicular and enjoyed fantastic views; the next day on tour, it was cloudy and the views were not the same.
Victoria Falls was spectacular; there was a constant rainbow above the falls and our guided walk, offering a series of views, gave us a really good perspective of their size. At roughly one mile wide and 328 feet high, they’re among the largest in the world.
Near the falls, we visited an elephant orphanage operated by a wildlife trust. Tauck’s private visit meant that we were able to spend time with a group of about eight elephants, feeding and petting them. It was here that I posed with a special paper lantern (brought from the U.S.) in honor of a friend whom I had lost to cancer last year; he was an avid elephant lover. The elephants were very curious about the lantern.
South Africa was a stunning destination, from its wildlife to the safari camp experience and the cities of Capetown and Johannesburg. I cannot recommend it highly enough!