African Safari Vacation – Ezulwini Lodges

I miss the RAAAIIINNNSS down in Africa! — That was the refrain for the week in South Africa; thank you, Toto.

A safari is a must-have bucket list item

If you don’t have an African safari trip on your bucket list, you really need to add it right now.  This is the experience that can really enrich your life.  Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but if you like traveling you should put this high on the list.

We purchased this vacation package through a fundraiser, like every other American couple at this lodge, for Ezulwini Resorts Lodges.  We both volunteered for the Louisville Zoo’s annual Zoofari, and we were lucky enough to win the bid for this via the silent auction items.  We couldn’t pass up on the opportunity.  You should check if there are any auctions with this package in your area.  What a trip!  Even better was that it became our honeymoon adventure.

We had the 7-day package, which included 2 nights just outside Johannesburg, South Africa at the rural Maritime Bushveld Estate and 5 nights in the Balule Nature Reserve where we split time between Billy’s Lodge and River Lodge, all of them part of the Ezulwini Lodge.  The 2 nights in Johannesburg were nice to give us time to adjust to the 8 hour time difference and recover from the roughly 24 hours of traveling to arrive–not to forget to mention Brenda and Conrad were wonderful hosts for us while we were there.  The estate is a nice place to get an initial feel for the safari adventure that lies ahead, since there are wild springbok roaming all over the 200 or so acres.

Our time in Africa was luxurious

The main event, however, happens once we took a quick flight from Johannesburg North and West to the tiny town of Hoedspruit.  As we flew in to Hoedspruit, we took a look out the window and it became obvious we were “not in Kansas anymore.”  The bush starts here!  As we left the airport we passed many a warthog eating something along the roadside, probably even kudu and zebra, and definitely an impala or two dozen.  We got transported directly to the lodge and felt a bit lower on the food chain than when we started.  We got in at 13:00 and took some time to rest before lunch.  Maybe the best way to tell you about the lodge would be to take it step by step.

Before we begin the day trip; it’s worth mentioning that this is by no means a roughing-it outing.  In fact, it’s much closer to your 4-star resort feel including plush accommodations, three wonderful meals a day, great staff, and of course beautiful grounds.  The standard housing is a nice 1-room, thatch roof bungalow that would rival most hotels for space, décor, and comfort.  When you add in the fact that is it is absolutely dark and quiet at night, you’d be hard-pressed for a better night’s sleep.  If you get the chance to upgrade to the suites, TAKE IT!  We were lucky enough to stay in one at Billy’s Lodge that had a modern concrete and wood feel with an indoor-outdoor shower, private pool, and gorgeous interior–I could happily live year round in that place.

 

A typical day at either of the Ezulwini Lodge locations

05:00 – Expect an early wake-up call from one of the game rangers for the morning game drive.  During winter the sun may not be up, but there is hot coffee, tea, and a variety of cookies to grab before jumping onto the truck.  You may opt to skip the game drive, but if you’re like us, the one day you decide to sleep in you will probably miss a jaguar sighting or some other rare and beautiful event!  Though, sleeping in did feel really good.  🙂

05:30 – Grab your camera and a few extra layers and head to the truck for the drive!  Bring along the good camera, because the early morning light makes it tough for anything but the bigger DSLR cameras with the proper settings.  And you should be able to catch some rhinos, hippos, and giraffes eating breakfast.

08:00 – Find an open area to stretch your legs and take some morning coffee and cookies in the bush.  The sun will be getting high enough in the air to begin to warm you, so shed a layer and take in the warmth.  Don’t forget to take a moment for some pictures with the rangers or some selfies next to some giant termite hills.

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Morning coffee in the bush

09:00 – After a game drive grab a hot towel, put in your breakfast order, and take a few minutes to refresh yourself before breakfast.

09:30 – Time to fuel up!  There is a variety of juices, yogurt, cereals, and of course the order of eggs, sausage, bacon, the list goes on.  After lunch it’s free time at the lodge.  Hang out on one of the decks, take a dip in the pool, or head back to the room for a late morning nap–because you earned it. 🙂

14:00 – Now that you’ve had the morning to recover from the early drive, it’s time for lunch!  They definitely don’t let you go hungry here.  Lunch was usually a lighter meal of salad, cheese, crackers, and maybe crispy crust pizza or bruschetta.  Lunch was a lot of work, so why don’t you take an afternoon siesta!  Or maybe spot some local wildlife that meanders around the lodge area–you are in the middle of the bush after all!  Don’t forget to put in your selection for dinner because you will be hungry again soon.

15:30 – Ready for another game drive??  This is why you came! Make sure you have an empty camera card, because you will need it for all the memories you will undoubtedly have to capture.  This is really the best time to shoot pictures- the light is very forgiving and you can get clear shots with even a point-and-shoot.

17:30 – It’s dusk, the sun a bright red ball near the horizon.  What could be better except maybe getting out of the truck to stretch your legs and have a drink!  Have a nice double-double of Jack and cheers to the great game rangers and trackers for showing you all the critters of the bush.  After the drink the sun will be down and the trackers will pull out the spotlights for some night-sightings.  Though no common, keep an eye out for the variety of cats that come out to hunt when the sky goes dark.

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18:45 – Grab another hot towel and rub that dust off your face.  Grab a shot of whatever the house is serving and cheers to the adventure!  Head back to your room to clean up because dinner will soon start.

19:30 – They know you’re a hungry bush critter.  Your table will be set with candles and a tablecloth, so select an amazing South African wine and enjoy dinner under the stars.  The food will be enough for a hungry lion, so bring your appetite.  If you get the chance to try the kudu steak, do not miss it.  Although it’s lean with a lot of bones, you’ll feel much more like an animal by the time you’re done.

20:45 – You’re full and ready for bed??  What’s your hurry?  The stars are just starting to fill out the sky.  Grab another drink- maybe the Black Label beer and grab your camera for some night shooting.  If you’re from North America, better bring a star map because it is very different down here.  Orient yourself with the Southern Cross and behold the glory of the Milky Way in an area with very little light pollution.  You might want to bring along a jacket or cuddle up with a friendly person because it cools off quite nicely in the winter when the sun goes down.

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Long exposure with foreground image; Beth reflecting on the stars
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Long exposure with foreground image, playful, right?  See the shooting star just above me?

22:30 – What, you’re not yet in bed??  You have a game drive at 0500!  Take a hot shower under the stars in the outdoor shower if you’re lucky enough to stay in the suites that have them and then head to bed.  Enjoy the absolutely dark and silent night.  Don’t be afraid if you hear roars, howls, crunching, or pattering noises in the dark- it’s just Africa saying good night.

Thank you to everyone at Ezulwini for the wonderful time!

The staff did a splendid job and made it a memorable experience.  Upon arriving we were treated to a warm welcome, a refreshing lemonade, and shown to our lodging to relax.  That about sets the tone for the rest of the trip.

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The game rangers and trackers are so good at what they do!  They work well together and make sure everyone- both in the vehicle and other vehicles have a good time and are able to get an up-close-and-personal view of the animals.  Most of the rangers and trackers grew up in the surrounding area, so not only are they well-trained but they live and breathe the bush.

I want to give shout-outs in particular to several people who made the trip so special for us:

  • Josh Duffus!  What can I say?  You made it a trip we will surely never forget.  Everything from the impeccable hospitality, to the hilarious and intriguing stories, to the life-changing camera tips.  There are so many more great things, but let’s leave it there for the blog.  Stay in touch, and we hope to see you state-side!
  • Jim and Cathy – Fate put us in the same lodge at the same time.  You guys made the meals more enjoying, the game drives more interesting, and the drinks go down way too easy.  Keep in touch!
  • Frans and Hector– The two of you made being in the bush look easy!  You did a masterful job of tracking, getting up close and personal with the animals, and giving us amazing views and photos.
  • Lawrence and Edward – You guys were more than just a great game ranger and tracker:  The heart and enjoyment you put into the drive and back at the lodge is awesome.  And… the magic you guys performed to make the lions come out and pose for us was mysterious and wonderful!
  • Su, Knox, and all the Billy’s Lodge staff – You really gave us the honeymoon of which we hadn’t even dreamed!  Including the avalanche of flower petals in our room and the amazing dinners.
  • Jochan, Glori and the River Lodge staff – You added to one of the greatest adventures of our lives with the spectacular and romantic in-the-trees, candlelit dinner and wonderful last few days of our trip.

Gorgeous pictures will require an a higher-level camera

Josh is without a doubt a resident camera expert.  He has a vast well of knowledge including shooting tips, essential editing tricks, and even recommended the camera I purchased.  A few minutes talking cameras with him is gold.

I went with the Canon EOS 700D / Rebel T5i kit, which included 2 lenses- a 18-55 mm lens (wide angle) and a 75-300 mm lens (telephoto), an 8 GB SD card, and a carrying backpack.  I also opted for a tripod and remote/bulb (both required for night shots), a cleaning kit, and an extra 8 GB SD card.  I chose the 700D over the 1200D because the 700 offered more ISO settings (better for low-light shots) and faster continuous shooting (for catching anything the animals might do).  I will have to get into specifics in another post but just know the bigger lens stayed on for almost all the game drives.

OK- queue some more photos!

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