You know that saying, “Never meet your idol,”? Sometimes I apply that to travel. I worry all the places I’ve dreamed of visiting for years are far better in my dreams and, because I’ve been imagining them for so long, there’s no way they could live up to the hype. Truth be told, I was a little nervous this would be the case with our safari in South Africa. I had been dreaming of it for years so I just didn’t know if it could be as good as I wanted it to be. Well, it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. It was better. The entire experience, from start to finish, was incredible and it far exceeded my expectations. Mostly because I had set the bar way too low in my own mind and there were loads of things I didn’t even know I could expect!
It’s hard to put into words just how amazing it was and why but I’m going to do my best today as I share with you 16 of my favourite photos from our South African safari. Trust me, it was so hard to choose just 16, I have hundreds of photos and whittling it down to these few has required all of my self-control. I really hope you enjoy the photos and the stories that go with them. I’d love to know if you’ve ever wanted to do a safari and which animal you’d want to see most! Let me know in the comments.
We arrived at Skukuza Airport just after midday. Our guide met us at the airport and we drove the short distance to Lion Sands River Lodge where we checked in, ate lunch and got ready to head out on our very first game drive. We weren’t really sure what to expect but I guess both Matt and I thought we’d be lucky to see one or two really special animals during our stay. Well, on our first game drive the first animal we saw was this stunning male leopard, resting quietly under a tree with his latest kill tucked safely away in the branches above.
I didn’t see him at first because I was too busy looking in the tree for him then my eyes looked down at the ground and I realised we were only a few metres away at most. He took my breath away. This photo doesn’t do justice to how powerful the moment was. I can’t really describe it but I’ll try – it’s a rush of excitement, wonder and a little bit of danger too. You see photos and you think you’re prepared for what a leopard up-close will look like but it’s so much more intense than that. We were lucky enough to see him a few more times during our game drives and he even popped up on the road we were driving along on our very last game drive. It felt like a sign of some sort.
This was another really big moment for me. Not just a big travel or safari moment but a big life moment. On our last morning game drive, a few hours before we had to leave Lion Sands for our next destination, our amazing guide Morné asked us what animals we wanted to see most. I told him I really wanted to see a male lion and he said, “Okay.” So, he radioed out to see where we may find one and quickly got an answer back that two brothers had been spotted that morning. We set off in search of one closest to our location.
We pulled up to the area and our tracker, Rector, pointed toward the bush. Seemingly out of nowhere, without a care in the world, the Lion came strolling out. He was so incredibly beautiful and I felt so overwhelmed I started crying happy tears (which never happens to me because, as Matt jokingly says, I have a heart of ice hahaha – it takes a lot to get me to cry). I just felt so grateful to be there seeing a Lion in the wild, in Africa, on safari and have it be part of my dream job. Our lives aren’t perfect, we’re always working hard to stay relevant and up-to-date, to earn enough to pay our bills and maintain faith in our dreams. In that moment, it all felt worth it and I was just so purely happy I couldn’t contain it. My outpouring of emotion and sharing what it meant to me stirred Matt and Morné and in a heartbeat, we were all crying with joy and gratitude! It was an incredible life moment.
This awesome selfie was taken on our last day on Safari. You’ve got your faves, me and Matt, of course! Then, you’ve got Charlotte on the left there, Lion Sands’ resident social media expert, our epic guide Morné in front with the cap and our local tracker, Rector looking calm, cool and collected as always in the back. This photo is the perfect example of how much fun we had on safari. You hear people say that happiness should be shared and travel is made better by the people you meet along the way. I don’t always agree with that because sometimes other people can spoil stuff. But, on this occasion, these three people made our safari experience so very special. We all just had the best time together, we got on so well, we opened up and talked about ourselves and our lives, we really connected and, man, did we laugh!
I’ve never met anyone quite like our tracker, Rector, or seen someone be able to do what he does. The photo in the middle, you can see where he sits hanging off the front of the Land Rover and the photo on the right, you can see the lioness is going to walk right up to him. I love the big smile on his face! The photo on the left, you can see a few of the other trackers hanging out, having a chat before heading off on a game drive. Rector and the trackers know the Sabi Sands like the back of their hand and are able to spot things most people would miss like tracks in the sand, a broken twig, a hidden animal, the sound of something small or a single feather.
I asked our guide, Morné, how Rector’s able to do it and he explained that Rector has spent so much time in the Sabi Sands, it really is his home and the way he spots things is by seeing or sensing what’s out of place. Kind of like that feeling when you know someone has been in your room because something feels off, something’s moved. It’s like that! Morné told us an amazing story of Rector spotting a leopard that was very far away by noticing one of his paws hanging from a tree. Morné, a highly experienced guide, could only see it through binoculars. It still gives him chills to tell the story.
I had to share these two photos with you to show just how close you get to the animals. I really wasn’t expecting it, I thought we’d be quite a few metres away with binoculars out, squinting into the distance. But time and time again we had these amazing up-close experiences with the animals. On the left, you’ve got our encounter with a white rhinoceros and on the right, a huge elephant! What I love about the safari experience is you never disturb the animal. They’re free to roam and do whatever they want, whenever they want. We had to be quiet and stay still so as not to spook them and at no point did we scare an animal or stress it out. We were visitors in their home and they seemed totally unfazed by our big, goofy smiles! The team at Lion Sands work really hard to make sure the animals know the sound of the Land Rover and don’t endure any stress, fear or interruption caused by our presence.
Look at that yawn! We were told by our guide it was unlikely we would see a cheetah as they’re quite paranoid and prefer to stay well hidden. Well, Morné was right because we didn’t see a cheetah… we saw three! He was so excited when he got the update on the radio that three brothers had been spotted. Our morning game drive end time was rapidly approaching and Morné was unsure if we should drive to where they were spotted or head back to Lion Sands and hopefully catch up with them on our afternoon game drive. He and Rector decided we should seize the opportunity so we tore off through the Sabi Sands hoping to find them. When we saw them, I forgot to breathe for a moment and found myself frozen, just gawking at them.
It was such a special moment because we knew how rare it was to see one, let alone three, cheetah! We got to sit and watch them for a moment as they walked through the bush and, eventually, settled down for a nap under a shady tree. Interestingly, they settled down to nap in a triangle formation, each looking out a different way with their backs to each other. As paranoid creatures, this helps increase their chances of survival.
One thing my mum said to me before I left for South Africa was, “Phoebe, don’t go anywhere near the hippos. They’re incredibly dangerous – they move fast and they eat people. So, don’t go near the hippos, okay? I mean it. NO. HIPPOS.” ……. Sorry, mum! I couldn’t resist and, if I’m honest, the warning not to do it made the desire much stronger. But, don’t worry, we were under the ever watchful eyes of Rector and Morné who escorted us down to the water’s edge, told us where we could stand and looked out for us while we got some photos. Look at those lil’ hippo heads keeping an eye on us!
There are two game drives each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. For a morning game drive, you wake up before first light and set off around 5:30am. You get to watch the Sabi Sands come to life with the first touch of orange light over the horizon. For the afternoon game drive, you head out later in the day and get to spot animals under the glorious glow of golden hour. On our last afternoon game drive, Morné and Rector took us here to this incredible lookout spot. They also brought snacks and an assortment of drinks so we could enjoy cold cocktails and guacamole with corn chips while we watched our last sunset. It was unforgettable.
Matt and I don’t take many photos together. We’re both a bit awkward when it comes to public displays of affection and we aren’t the type to get super lovey-dovey when we see a camera come out. I think our preference would be to do a fist-bump then awkwardly moonwalk away rather than pose for a photo. Morné drove us to this spot, aptly named The Tree Of Life, and Charlotte offered to take a photo of us. We’ve been trying to make an effort to get more photos of us together when we’re travelling, so we have them to look back on in 40 years. Low and behold, Charlotte nailed it! We felt comfortable because we were just so happy and managed to get this awesome photo together. P.S I want one of those Lion Sands Land Rovers! I could be the Boss of Brisbane!
Oof! This was another really powerful moment for all of us! After my tears of joy at the first Lion, we went in search of his brother who had been spotted getting cosy with a lovely lady. When we found them they were in the midst of their courtship. As Morné explained, the lioness was in full control and the lion was hovering around with determination and dedication. Everywhere she went, he went! They growled and roared at each other as they prowled around and the sound just kind of moves straight through your chest. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced in my life – you feel it, right in your bones. It’s terrifying, exciting and just the most overwhelmingly awesome sensory experience! We watched them for a while, though they never got down to business in front of us, and we had an encounter where they came incredibly close enough to the Land Rover. I stopped breathing for a while – it was awesome!
I have so many photos I want to share in this post, I could easily sit here for days writing about all the incredible moments we had. But, I’ll save some for the story I want to write detailing our experience at Lion Sands River Lodge. That said, I feel like this photo sums it all up for me. This was my safari experience – smiling the entire time, buzzing around in a Land Rover with awesome people, having once-in-a-lifetime encounters with beautiful animals and loving every last second of it! I don’t know how to express it other than to say I’m just so deeply thankful.
Doing a safari is something I’ve dreamed of for a very long time but I made a promise to myself that I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do it the best way I possibly could because I know I’d only get that ‘first experience’ once and I knew my job was the best way for that to happen. So, I’ve been waiting patiently for a long time and, over three incredible, life-changing days, my patience paid off. It’s a reminder to keep working hard, stay focused, remember what really matters in life and be appreciative of it all.
I just want to say a huge thank you to Morné, Rector and Charlotte for three of the best days of our lives. I also want to say thank you to Lion Sands River Lodge for having us – every member of your staff was amazing and made our stay so enjoyable. Thank you to South Africa Tourism for everything you did to make this happen and for your generosity. Last but definitely not least, thank you to Singapore Airlines for making us part of the first ever #SquadSQ – the experience has brought so much goodness into our lives and we loved every moment of it.
If you’re thinking of visiting South Africa and doing a safari of your own, I cannot recommend Lion Sands River Lodge highly enough. We loved every moment and every aspect of our experience from the accommodation and food to the game drives and each person who works there. It was, simply put, perfect. I also highly recommend getting there with Singapore Airlines. They really are a fantastic airline to travel with! The service is unbeatable, the food is delicious, there’s loads of onboard entertainment and their cabin products (seats etc) are always comfy. Visit Singapore Airlines here.