Africa, South Africa

From Safari Self-Drive to Private Sabi Sands Game Reserve

After 1.5 days of self-drive around Kruger National Park, we spent 2 days to experience the luxury safari game drive at the Arathusa Safari Lodge in the private Sabi Sands Game Reserve. We were thinking if we failed to find animals in self-drive since it was our first time, our backup plan is the private lodge’s safari game drive. We didn’t expect to see so many animals by ourselves with self-drive! Another big difference of self-drive versus private lodge is that you are not allowed to go off-road in Kruger National Park so you can’t follow the animals closely. Our car rental return to the airport was at 10 am where I arranged a pickup to Arathusa Safari Lodge. At first, we were thinking to drive ourselves to Arathusa but after looking at the map (Google Maps is inaccurate and I confirmed with the contributors in TripAdvisor that the direction required us to drive across a river LOL) and direction on Arathusa’s website, we decided it was worth the extra money ($431 roundtrip for 4 people, it was expensive) to avoid the hassle.

Since our pick up was at 10 am, we didn’t waste a minute of it! We got ready and lined up at the gate before the park opens and I ran to the office to pay our gate fees haha. We made it before sunrise this time woohooo! However, we had no luck with locating the animals today for the first hour 🙁 We turned into this dirt road where we managed to see half a buffalo’s head.

But the sunrise was spectacular, look at that African sunrise!!!

The colors were very vibrant, just like how I pictured it in my mind with the exception of no giraffe silhouette.

With not much luck, we drove to Skukuza camp to have breakfast at Cattle Baron. It was chilly outside and no animals around the river so we decided to sit indoor instead.

Our breakfast:

 

Breakfast cost only 364 Rands for 4 of us so less than $7 per person. After breakfast, we tried a new road that we haven’t driven on before; H4 toward Berg-En-Dal, to try our luck. With limited time that we need to get back to the airport by 10 am, we timed ourselves that we need to turn back after 1 hour. The road was very quiet, we didn’t come across anyone for the first half hour!

We saw a colorful bird which we managed to snapped photos before it fly away 🙂

First “animal” we encountered was two baboons running down the road toward us and they split direction as they came close to us. We rolled down our windows just a little bit to fit our lens for photos, afraid that it might jump into our car.

It passed us and into the trees.

Continued with our drive 10 minutes or so and all suddenly the landscape was much more open and we saw two giraffes walking gracefully together! We pulled over and just admired the views!

When we were focusing on our left side, there were two more giraffes appeared on our right side, wowwww! This fella was giving us the cute look!

We saw so many giraffes during self-drive and never get bored of them!

Back to the left side….those two giraffes joined another one at the water pool; the pool looked manmade doesn’t it? It was our first time ever seeing how a huge and tall giraffe bends down to drink, it was incredible to see! Another car stopped when they saw the giraffes but they only stopped for 5 minutes or so. After that, we had the entire place to ourselves again!

I put on my 1.4x extender to zoom in as much as I could for a closer look at the giraffes drinking water, can you see it splashed the water onto the Oxpeckers?

After they finished drinking, they decided it was time to move on again and we followed them!

Left, right, left, right, they were in sync!!!

And annoyed by the birds too LOL! Can’t get rid of them?

It was funny how each giraffe has at least one bird on them, BFF?

Once they moved out of sight, we got moving again and saw the monkeys.

It was time to head back 🙁 And another giraffe showed up at the water pool, bye bye giraffe!

We got back to Skukuza to fill up the gas tank and returned our car at the airport. The driver from the lodge arrived on-time to pick us up and he was so friendly to point out things of interest. Look a warthog!

Ahhhh…Kruger National Park, you’ll be missed!

The road to Arathusa took around 2 hours and part of the road was under construction so the driver did a detour into the local villages, it was a rough and dusty road, we were so glad that we paid the extra money! We also had a glimpse of the local villages.

Unfinished house:

The driver said some of the houses were built by the government for the poor of the poor! I noticed the houses do not have many windows…

We also drove by a few schools where the kids were all smiling and waved at us! Their innocent looks were so much different than those greedy annoying kids we encountered in Morocco.

The last bumpy road before the gate…

The gate wasn’t nearly as formal as the one in Kruger, it was guarded by one person and it looked like urg…..just a gate…the driver said they are building a new one. Within minutes after we entered Sabi Sands, we drove by a leopard OMG. We were like wait wasn’t that a leopard and backed up LOL. Sure it was, sleeping on the rock out on the open woah! The guys brought out their phones and start snapping photos!

I zoomed in and it just ignored us human beings haha!

Then, it got up and looked at us, it was unbelievable how close it was and we didn’t even put any effort into looking for it. Look at those light green eyes staring at us!

We stayed for around 5 minutes and took tons of photos of the leopard but we had to move on! Among those yellow bushes and grasses, there was this bright blue-green-purple bird (Starling, thanks to xelas in TripAdvisor) which stand out!

My 200 mm lens zoomed to the max with some cropping:

We finally arrived Arathusa Safari Lodge and our colorful welcome drink:

We were checked in and the receptionist showed us around the lodge on where we’ll have our lunch (coming up shortly) and asked us if we prefer to sit with other guests or by ourselves. We said it’s fine to sit with other guests! We booked the waterhole facing suite (more on that next) and I really liked the modern and comfortable look of the room.

The mini bar area:

Our comfortable bed:

Outdoor shower which was very spacious! Although we didn’t try it out as it was cold at night but our friend, Brian, did enjoy it haha! It wasn’t our first time staying in a room with outdoor shower so we weren’t too overly excited to have to try it out.

The toilet, tub, walk-in shower, and my favorite double vanity! The toiletries included insect repellent lotion but we were there during the winter season and didn’t notice any bugs so we didn’t need to use it.

Overall look of the room, isn’t it pretty?

Our daily activities as shown below…..lunch at 2 pm, how can I last till then???

The door handle…some kind of animal’s horn!

Each of our room is like its individual bungalow with a little outdoor sitting area to view the animals! Warning: the lodge is unfenced so there could be visitors at any time so stay on high alert!

Like I mentioned above, we booked a waterhole facing suite, on the left side is supposed to be a big waterhole which made Arathusa different than other lodges where it attracts animals during the hot afternoon. However, due to the recent drought throughout South Africa, the waterhole has dried up when we were there 🙁

BUT!!!! There were still plenty of animals hanging around there and the guys had so much fun viewing them with their binoculars.

When it was almost time for lunch, we walked to the restaurant and they already assigned us the table which shared with some other guests; we found out those were also the guests who will be on the same safari vehicle as us. Unlike the other tables with max 8 guests per, we had 6 instead because 2 of the guests (from Germany) requested to sit by themselves on a separate small table. Our table was arranged in a way so that 3 guests facing the waterhole while the other 3 facing the opposite side.  The other 2 guests on our table are from India and they occupied the two seats facing the waterhole!!! We, without choice, ended up seating on a weird “L” shape; I was facing the waterhole while Jason, Sokunna, and Brian sat on the opposite side. It was so odd!

The Indian couple introduced themselves and told us that they stayed in Sabi Sands for like 9? days and this is the 3rd lodge they stayed in. The purpose of their trip was to capture photos of leopards for the husband’s second photo book; his first photo book was on tigers. The Indian lady then told us about the German couples that they were having issues getting along with other guests, luckily, this is their last day and they’ll be leaving tomorrow morning…urg!

Our expensive room rate ($806 per night for 2 guests) was all inclusive – the drinks (except for some brands of alcohols), 3 meals per day, 2 game drives per day, and optional activities like the bush walk.

Wifi at the lodge was pretty weak and only have signal at the restaurant and reception but who needs the internet when you are surrounded by wildlife?

Those two waterbucks were having a fight!

This baboon made it up to the lodge!!!

For lunch, we were given 4 choices of entrees, I picked the pizza which was good.

Jason ordered a fish fillet, it was good but not filling!

I was glad that I ordered the pizza, other portions were on the small side for my big appetite, totally “French” cuisine like haha.

After lunch, we had a short break to go back to our room to rest a little before the afternoon tea and the game drive. On our walk back to our room…..look who visited us?

Afternoon tea before the game drive:

The time has come, the safari game drive!!! Our ranger is Jamie; he came to greet us during lunch and asked us about what we want to see. We told him that we managed to see the 4 out of the Big Five at Kruger so would love to see the last one – the rhino. When we arrived at the safari truck, the Indian couple already there and loaded their gears on the row behind the driver! There are a total of 5 rows (1st row/seat is for the tracker, DeBeer, 2nd row for the driver and a passenger, 3rd, 4th, and 5th row can fit 3 people per row. 3 of us climbed to the last row so that Jason will be seating with the German couples on the 4th row. However, the German couple didn’t show up so we had the last 2 rows among us 4 😀 We provided with a thick blanket and water for our game drive.

Our adventure begins!!!

The first creature we saw was this bird and it just dropped a snake from its mouth OMG OMG OMG! I need to be extra careful on the lookout for snakes then!

Jamie drove the truck right into the bushes like plowing them down, we even had to duck our heads to avoid some branches, ahhhhh it was such an adventure! DeBeer spotted the leopard from far away and pointed Jamie to the location, we were totally shocked by his skill, how did he saw that leopard hidden within the bushes from miles away??? We were super close to it that the Indian guy’s 600 and 800 mm lens couldn’t put to use!

 

Grrr this branch blocked the view 🙁

Then, the leopard (it has a name which I forgot) ran away and we continued to look for it. Once again, DeBeer managed to locate it under denser bushes wow!!! First time was a coincidence but the 2nd, 3rd, etc time is definitely his skill!!!

The leopard went to sleep and we left it alone.

Moving on, we saw this colorful bird, it looked like a rainbow!

The landscape of Sabi Sands:

Jamie showed us a dead zebra which the personnel were investigating its death. Awww poor zebra, as of yet, we still haven’t seen a full zebra without obstructions!

Jamie was chatting on the radio with other rangers, we sat on the back rows and Jamie who has a soft voice and has a British accent that sometimes it was hard for us to hear him. He located our last Big 5 – the rhino wow mission accomplished! The rhino was covered with mud, to cool it down or camouflage?

It’s much smaller than I have expected, probably a young one.

See how close we were at? We wouldn’t be able to get this close at Kruger unless it comes out to the road.

 

We even followed it for a while and it totally ignored our existence!

We were off to locate the leopard again…it was a different one than we just saw? The Indian couple kept mentioning the name “Anderson”, they were trying to look for Anderson, the leopard. I wasn’t sure which one is which!

We kept looking for “Anderson” and then Jamie said the leopard we were following went up a tree to hide. He asked what do we prefer…either 3rd in line for the leopard or the 1st in line for the pride of lions. 4 of us screamed “LIONS”!!!! The Indian couples weren’t too happy about it but we got the majority of votes haha!

By the time we got there, it was our turn (they limited the number of vehicles at each sighting) so we were right on time for this absolutely unforgettable experience….we followed this pride of lions!

1, 2, 3, 4, 5 lioness…

Then there’s the lion!

We were in this open vehicle and within 3 feet sat the king of the jungle! It was mesmerizing and we in this state of mental debate…should we be excited or afraid?

The whole pride was up on this little hill, the lioness and the cubs, while the leader of the pride stayed on the bottom.

To give you an idea of how close we were and in this open vehicle! It was crazy!!!

Selfie with the lion LOL Jason!

How majestic it is!

I couldn’t believe it looked at me, OMG those eyes!!!!

Look at how scary this scene is….

 

Roar!!!

Jamie explained that the animals see us as part of the car so as long as we stayed inside the vehicle, we are “abstract” to them.

We followed this pride until we got a radio call to try for the leopard again and we came back just in time for sunset. It got cold fast so the thick blanket definitely helped!

Once the sun went down, DeBeer turned on the spotlight and start the search! The night hunt was amazing! There, DeBeer found the lioness!

We were this close and with this bright light shined on it but it still totally ignored us!

Then, the lion came!!! We followed the pride of at least 12+ lioness and cubs into the bushes; it was like we were walking along with them, it was totally an incredible experience of our life time!

DeBeer found the leopard again!

 

Our first game drive totally blew our mind away, it was that awesome; words couldn’t describe it!!!! You need to experience this yourself!

Once we got back to the lodge, it was time for dinner! The meal was very good but small portion so I was hungry afterward. We 4 ordered different things so I had a photo of each 🙂

After the dinner, we spotted a hippo down at the waterhole….wow a whole hippo out of the water! It ran pretty fast too :O

The lodge at night, it was very peaceful.

We couldn’t wait for the morning game drive to see what animals we’ll discover! It was so unreal!

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