Don’t Pet The Kitty: On Safari In South Africa

Cheetah South Africa

Young Cheetah On the Prowl

North Uthungulu, South Africa

As this magnificent cat passed within just a few feet of us, he suddenly looked up into the open Land Rover. Everyone froze. Make a wrong move now, and we’d be his afternoon snack.

We were on safari at Phinda Private Game Reserve, a 56,000 acre protected wilderness area in the KwaZulu-Natal provence of South Africa.

The giant male lion strolling past us was only one of the many incredible animal experiences we encountered here.

There is a good reason why “African Safari” is on many people’s bucket lists.

The wildlife you see on these trips is nothing short of astounding.

Spending 3 days and 2 nights deep in the African bush, I easily saw more wildlife than I’ve ever seen in my life. Everywhere you looked there was something new & exciting to witness. My jaw was literally in a perpetual state of being dropped.

Game Drive Phinda South Africa

Morning Game Drive at Phinda

Africa Safari Experience

South Africa has both public national parks (like Kruger) and private game reserves (like Phinda). Depending on where you are, you may have the option of a self-guided safari, which means that you can actually drive through in your own vehicle. Of course you can also hire a professional guide to take you exploring.

Because Phinda is a privately owned game reserve, the self-guided tour is not an option here. But let me tell you, our guides Matt & Dan were the most professional, fun, and knowledgeable guides I’ve ever had. I learned so much more with them than I ever would have on my own.

Also, their ability to track and spot wild animals was ridiculous.

We stayed at Phinda’s forest lodge, which is located inside the reserve itself. This meant we often found animals like monkeys and antelope hanging out right around camp. Because there are no fences, armed guards would escort us to our cabins at night.

You wouldn’t want to stumble upon a lion, elephant, or buffalo in the darkness on your own…

Monkey Phinda Safari South Africa

Monkey Outside My Cabin

Searching For Wildlife

Our safari group would wake up around 5am to grab some coffee & muffins at the camp lodge. We’d also plan out our adventure for the day.

What animals did we want to search for this morning?
Elephants? Lions? Cheetahs? Rhinos? Giraffes?

After the quick meeting, it was time to jump into our open-air Land Rover. This specially designed safari vehicle had neither roof nor doors. Three staggered bench seats in the back allowed for a huge 360 degree view of the wilderness around us.

Dan was our friendly professional tracker — a native Zulu man who’s been tracking animals in this area his whole life. Matt was our personable driver & experienced safari guide — he patiently explained interesting behaviors and facts about the wildlife we discovered throughout our journey.

The two of them worked together as a team to show us the best of South Africa’s natural beauty. Their trained eyes found things way before we could see them.

Sometimes they’d point out animals the rest of us wouldn’t see until we were right on top of them.

Giraffe Phinda Safari South Africa

Giraffes are Funny Looking

Don’t Startle The King!

Driving along a simple dirt track through the diverse South African landscape, Matt & Dan kept an eye out for very subtle signs of wildlife. Tracks in the dirt, other animals acting funny, even birds warning each other of danger.

When they found something of interest, we’d take the truck off-road to get as close as we possibly could.

Surprisingly most of the animals are not afraid of the Land Rover at all. They just see it as another creature.

This let’s you get incredibly close to the wildlife.

Closer than I ever thought we’d be able to get.

Lion Phinda Safari South Africa

The One-Eye King

This Is Not A Zoo…

Just because the wildlife here is not afraid of you doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. There are strict rules, and following the rules will ensure you make it out alive.

Don’t get out of the truck unless the guide says it’s ok. Don’t stand up in the truck near animals. Keep quiet around them.

And whatever you do — don’t reach out & pet the big kitty.

A hungry lion has no interest in a large vehicle, but once he notices that it’s full of individual snacks, that can quickly change. Doing something stupid will bring you plenty of unwanted attention!

This is something my friend Wandering Earl learned quickly when a gigantic lion strolled past our safari truck, looking him directly in the eyes from less than 5 feet away.

What was Earl guilty of? He forgot to ask the lion for permission to take a photo…

It’s not wise to play games with the King of the Jungle. Please be polite and ask first.

Elephants South Africa

African Elephants in a Mud Bath

Tracking Elephants

One morning we went looking for African elephants. They were spotted the previous day on the far side of the reserve, a 2 hour drive from camp. Once we arrived in the general area, everyone kept their eyes peeled for these giants. Despite their immense size they can be hard to spot in the thick brush.

We knew we were on the right path however — after finding a trail of broken trees. Young male elephants often take their aggression out on trees.

Soon the tree-murdering culprit was spotted. A huge male, all by himself. He was massive, and could have easily flipped our truck over if he wanted to — so we kept our distance. African elephants are the largest land animals in the world.

Then over the radio we learned that a whole herd of them were bathing in a mud hole nearby. Arriving on the scene along with another group, we discovered around 20 elephants playing & rolling around in the mud. Mostly females with their babies. It was quite a sight!

After one group cooled off, they’d saunter into the forest just as another group showed up. We probably saw almost 50 elephants in less than an hour that day…

Zebra Phinda Safari South Africa

Zebra Fight!

Safari Animals In South Africa

I could really go on for hours about all the things we saw on safari at Phinda. But to keep it short, here are a few quick highlights from the trip:

  • A family of cheetahs hunting antelope
  • Lions walking right up to the truck – close enough to touch
  • Getting stuck in the middle of a buffalo stampede
  • Twenty-foot tall giraffes blocking the road
  • Zebras playfully fighting with each other
  • Hilarious baby rhinoceroses & warthogs running around
  • Herds of elephants playing in the mud
  • Hyenas on the prowl at night
  • Eating grilled kudu (a type of antelope) under the stars
  • Sundowners (stoping for cocktails at sunset in the bush)

The whole safari experience in South Africa was very impressive. I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t realize just HOW good. I could have easily spent many weeks watching all those animals.

Sure, now I can cross it off my bucket list. But that doesn’t mean I won’t ever want to do it again. In fact, I really want to go back to South Africa as soon as possible.

Watch Video: South African Safari

(Click to watch South African Safari – Phinda on YouTube)

Location: North Uthungulu, South Africa
Company: &Beyond
Cost: $510 USD per night
Useful Notes: Phinda is a pretty high-end experience, but it’s important to note that a stay there included everything. Professionally guided game drives, tons of amazing food, and a private “cabin” in the woods with glass walls. There are lower-cost alternatives available in public national parks.

*This adventure was made possible with help from South African Tourism. However, as you probably know by now, all opinions & thoughts are my own. Learn More..

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Comments & Questions

  • John of Travel Rinse Repeat

    Wow this sounds incredible! You have some amazing photos too – I love the one of the one eyed lion.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      He lost his eye fighting with other lions over hunting territory…

  • http://www.travelswithtwo.com Melanie@TravelsWithTwo

    Matthew, what a great re-telling of your safari — and such a gorgeous video! (Who performs the wonderful song you used?)

    This all takes me right back to my 2010 safaris with &Beyond in Botswana and Tanzania — they were the most rewarding, exciting, educational trips I’ve ever taken in my life. I’d send any animal lover off into the wilderness with those folks!

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Thanks Melanie! &Beyond certainly know’s how to show people the beauty of Africa in a responsible & rewarding way.

      The song is by Issa Bagayogo. There is an iTunes link to the song on the video’s YouTube page.

  • http://www.backpackwithbrock.com Brock – Backpack With Brock

    What an amazing experience! Your photos are awesome.

  • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

    Thanks Brock, definitely one of the coolest things I’ve done. Getting so close to these giant wild animals is a lot of fun.

  • http://redhunttravel.com Red Hunt

    I never get tired of great safari photos and stories…makes me want to return to Africa. Loved the giraffe photo especially…they’re such majestic creatures.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      The giraffe is one of my favorites too. It’s crazy to look at one up close in the wild! They are majestic, but a bit funny looking too. It was amazing to sometimes only see their heads in the distance, amid a sea of green trees.

  • The Curmudgeon

    Jaw dropping! What’s that? This coming from the great white chipmunk hunter? Great photos, I’ll give you that. What is with the white horses in their PJ’s? Mud wrestling. We have that over here too. The Secret Service has several options on where to go. The king kitty is seen on many old movies just after the credits. I think it has two good eyes.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Hunting the deadly Timber Tiger is a wild experience, but I think safari in South Africa beats it. :D

  • Meg B

    Stumbled on your website and found your trip to Phinda. It looks AMAZING. Safari has been on the bucket list for far too long. Guess I better get planning :)

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      The trip to Phinda blew me away. Big beautiful animals in their natural element. And lots of them.

  • http://www.travellingking.com Sam D

    Love it! thanks for sharing Matt!
    Africa is my home! (or was – now living in Oz). Wild animals weren’t just in safaris or zoos where I lived – We had family friends who had hyenas as Guard dogs. Fence around the property… hyenas.. fence around the house. Needless to say, they never go broken into..

  • http://www.gaytravelherald.com/ Nathan @GayTravelHerald

    I came across this article while researching my trip to South Africa next year. I love the story and the photos, it’s definitely inspiration for my upcoming trip. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.acceleratedstall.com Maria

    Magnificent animals, every second must have been a huge “Wow!” moment

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      I had trouble keeping my jaw shut Maria. Africa is wild. Literally.

  • Priscilla

    Great pictures and video! I stumbled onto your site as I was researching for my trip! May I know what equipment did you use for the video?

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Glad you enjoyed it Priscilla! I used a GoPro & a Canon 7D for this trip. Rented a 70-300mm lens for the Canon too.

  • Jan T

    Planning a safari with friends sometime soon. Looking at Zulu Nyala and /or Phinda. We were thinking late April/early May but after reading travel guides we are wondering if we should postpone till August. What time of year were these videos shot? Have been told if foliage is too thick in summer, it can be hard to spot wildlife. Your videos are so good I find a renewed sense of excitement over visiting Africa!!

  • scottwharton

    So would this be over $2k/night for 4 people? It sounds amazing but wondering how to accomplish this without spending $10-$20k without losing the quality of the experience. Any thoughts?

    • leyla

      Scott, the more i look i am finding other places that are cheaper but you’re going to lose something in the mix. you can go to the Limpopo region (where it is not as established), see the big 5 but not be in such a populated area.

      i’m also looking at kichaka or addo — and finding much less expensive places than Kruger.

  • NZbackpacker

    Just a hint for anyone trying to do safari-ing on the cheap (ish), did a bit of travelling around africa recently on a student budget and SA and Namibia have so many national parks you can self drive and camp. Buy a cooler bin and stock up on food at supermarkets on the way to the parks to save on expensive food costs inside the parks. It’s also super easy to organise yourself. Highly recommend Kruger, it can be very crowded in some parts but it’s so big you can lose yourself easily, and the game viewing is great. While you aren’t as guaranteed to see all the big game compared to a private reserve, there is tons of game and I found it great fun planning what routes to take and spotting things yourself. Heard lots of people thinking you had to go on a tour to see the national parks, so thought I’d put it out there that it can be done by yourself cheaply and easily!