When you visit Africa, it comes back with you (with slideshow)

Life in South Africa is lived with such breathtaking intensity that every moment is a celebration. For the people and animals in this region of the African continent, it is a place of remarkable beauty and ferocity experienced amidst incredible hardships. Perhaps that is why a journey there is seldom simply a visit — there is something about South Africa that makes it become a part of you forever.

Tourists looking to get photos of big game animals of South Africa find Kruger National Park a treasure. Here a kudu gazes back at observers.

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle . . . when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

— Unknown source

Life in South Africa is lived with such breathtaking intensity that every moment is a celebration. For the people and animals in this region of the African continent, it is a place of remarkable beauty and ferocity experienced amidst incredible hardships.

Perhaps that is why a journey there is seldom simply a visit — there is something about South Africa that makes it become a part of you forever.

Last March, Tom and Debbie Stockdale of Olds travelled to South Africa for several weeks to experience the cultures of the people and see wildlife up close. It was a dream trip for the couple and gave them experiences that have stuck with them and become a part of who they are.

After arriving in Johannesburg, their first stop was Lesedi African Lodge and Cultural Village located at Broederstroom, just north of Johannesburg.

Established in 1993, the village is designed to showcase the traditional cultures of some of the well-known tribes that live in South Africa. Members of these historical communities live at Lesedi in one of five homesteads and visitors can observe their traditional way of life by either enjoying a short tour or by staying overnight.

“Lesedi was definitely one of the highlights of our visit to Africa,” said Debbie. “We stayed overnight, so we had two days and one night to experience the village. We found the African tribal cultures absolutely fascinating and the people we met treated us so well. They cooked for us, they danced for us and they shared their culture with us. Sleeping in a boma in a village was also a unique experience.”

Getting to meet people from the different African cultures and talking to them about their families and their cultural values was also fascinating.

“Lesedi is wonderful, because you get so much of Africa in one place,” explained Tom.

“It was great to get a taste of so many different tribal cultures. You get to see how these cultures interact with each other and even come to understand a little bit why they don’t get along at times.”

After their stay in Lesedi, the couple drove about six hours to Kruger National Park, the jewel of South African game parks, to experience African wildlife on a self-drive tour. Covering a vast expanse of nearly two million hectares of land, Kruger National Park is home to an impressive number of species: 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals. There are also several significant archeological sites that chronicle man’s interaction with the animals and the environment within the park.

Game viewing is best in the early mornings and they drove through the park gates shortly after sunrise. “We hadn’t been in the park long before we spotted some giraffes,” said Debbie. “We also saw a hippopotamus, crocodiles, elephants and zebras. We stayed at Protea Hotel in a self-catering chalet just inside the Kruger Park gates. At night, you could hear the park come alive. The animal sounds were so loud, it was incredible.”

Seeing wildlife in their natural environment was a surreal experience for Tom. “I used to wonder how tourists could be so foolish when it comes to bears in our Canadian national parks, but when we saw lions and elephants walking right across the road in front of us, we were tempted to get out and take pictures,” said Tom. “It was an incredibly awesome feeling to be on the other side of the world and see the wildlife there.”

After their visit to Kruger, they travelled to Goma Goma Game Lodge in Klaserie Private Game Reserve, which is part of Greater Kruger National Park. Goma Goma is a smaller, more intimate lodge, but the traversing area for game drives is spread over 6,000 hectares of land and the reserve contains all of the animals that make up the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino) as well as many other species of mammals and birds.

A typical day at Goma Goma begins at 5 a.m. when you are awoken by a game ranger. After a quick snack, you leave the lodge at 5:45 and travel in an open-air land rover with a game ranger and an animal tracker. “Our game ranger Johan and our tracker Andries were absolutely wonderful,” said Debbie. “We followed a pride of 14 lions called the Ross Pride every day and saw all of the big five except for a leopard. Andries found leopard tracks but we weren’t able to track the leopard down. There was a herd of 39 elephants and about 15 baboons that we also saw regularly.”

Being in an open-air vehicle, so close to some of Africa’s most ferocious animals, was very exciting at times. “I kind of liked the sense of danger and excitement,” said Tom. “There were times when we were completely surrounded by lions. Another time, we spotted a snake by the side of the road. When we stopped to take a closer look, our game ranger came face to face with an enormous seven-metre black mamba. The black mamba is a very dangerous venomous snake. I’ve never seen anyone move so fast. He jumped right off his seat and moved over to the other side of the vehicle.”

There were other stops on the journey for the couple, but the highlights were the people they met and the wildlife they saw. “We’ve stayed in touch with some of the people we met on our trip,” said Debbie. “Visiting Africa was an amazing experience for us and one that we’d like to repeat. I still think about it almost every day — once you go to Africa, it becomes a part of you.”

If you go:

• The Stockdales found out that Africa was less costly than they had imagined prior to their visit. Lesedi (www.lesedi.com) cost about Cdn$125 per person per night including two meals and entertainment. The Protea Hotel in Kruger National Park (www.proteahotels.com/protea-hotel-kruger-gate.html) worked out to about Cdn$150 per night for a self-catering chalet that accommodates five people. The Gomo Gomo Game Lodge (www.gomogomo.co.za) cost about Cdn$200 per person per night, including all meals, daily guided game drives and bush walks.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

To see once is worth more than hearing a hundred times.

— African proverb

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