As there are so many safari companies out there, I did a TON of research trying to figure out who would be best to suit our needs before we embarked on this journey. Our requirements for the safari: someone willing to cook vegan, accommodate my food allergies and personalize our experience. After the help of many reviews on Tripadvisor, I booked us with the superb outfitter Bearded Heron Safari.
Bearded Heron Safari is run by Neil and Tina, a husband and wife team. To say they are amazing is an understatement! From the moment I showed interest, up through the time we met Neil inside the park, Tina made sure everything was set up perfectly for us. She was careful to note our dietary needs and accommodated our short time frame of only having 3 nights in the park (stays are usually 5 – 10 nights total). There are 12 camps within the park to choose from. Typically, most people stay at a couple different camps to experience the various areas and game viewing in the park. They are all so very different! But since we only had a small window of time, Tina and Neil arranged for us to stay at Satara Rest Camp (centrally located in the park). Also very important to note, Bearded Heron Safari is not your typical outfitter – they only arrange for small groups (in our case just the 2 of us!) ensuring you have a very personalized experience!
Tip: Tripadvisor is an AWESOME source to really figure out something that will work for you. In the search button I literally typed “safari” “vegan” “allergies” and BOOM! Some reviews that addressed my needs popped up! Be careful to look out for the customization factor – there are many safari companies that you will end up having a cattle call experience if you are not careful.
Day 6: After hardly getting any sleep the night before (too excited to sleep!) we were ready at 3:30am (bright eyed and bushy tailed) to head to the Nelspruit local airport for Kruger National Park! I pre-arranged a car service for us, even triple checking they’d be picking us up at 4am to make sure we would catch our flight on time. Well…funny enough, upon arriving downstairs to check out, the Front Desk Manager said: “Not to worry. Your car is here!” Feeling great, we take our time getting checked out and then low and behold…it WAS NOT OUR CAR! Ok, panicsville hits. I start going crazy and call the car service to see where the heck the driver is?! Well, 15 minutes later (and with the help of the hotel staff) we found out our scheduled driver overslept and was 30 minutes away! By this point, it’s closing in on 4:30am (yikes! our flight was in an hour!). Luckily, a cab driver waiting nearby came to our rescue. He flew (well…drove) us down the streets of Cape Town, and we quickly arrived at the airport, luckily making our flight.
Tip: if you have a crazy early flight vs booking on your own, it may be wiser to actually arrange a car via the hotel. With that said, the good folks of viator.com (who I booked through) understood the situation and fully refunded my money promptly. 🙂
So after a brief layover in Johannesburg, we made it to Nelspruit. I quickly changed into my khaki safari gear and was ready to head to Kruger! It’s an interesting hour drive. The landscapes morph from tall green mountains into sweeping wide open spaces. So glorious! After the wonderful views, we finally arrived into the South African Bush!
As soon as we entered Kruger National Park, all I can say is it’s a bit like driving into Jurassic Park (even though I know this comparison is TOTALLY off. But still!). 🙂 There were elephants, zebras and giraffes along the sides of the road – it didn’t feel real! All the animals (in all their majesty). Being peaceful and just enjoying life, as it should be.
Once inside the park, our transfer driver pulled up to another 4 x 4 open air vehicle (around 1pm local time) parked near the entrance. This is where we met our guide for the next few days, Neil Heron. With a hearty handshake and huge sense of wonder on his face, Neil pointed out there was no time to waste: “Drop your things in the back of the truck and hop in. Are you ready to go on safari?”
With Neil as our captain, we drove further into the park in what seemed like all directions (this way and that way) while looking for animal action big and small. Neil has 15 years of experience and grew up in South Africa. He’s a true naturalist and environmentalist in every sense of the word (you can check out his blog here). As we rode along, he gave us a glimpse on what to expect and what not to expect. He pointed out it wasn’t going to be a typical safari – in that we weren’t just tracking the big 5. He told us we were going to be looking at creatures big and small, yes, even down to the tiny little bugs. “Cool?” he asked. “Yes, cool for us!” we answered. It’s exactly what we were looking for: the atypical experience – our motto was “let’s let nature unfold itself to us!”
While heading to camp for the evening, we were lucky to spot a few hyenas, wild dogs, giraffes, warthogs, elephants, zebras, vultures, buffalo, impalas, bushbucks and steenbok. Just before hitting camp, we also came across a jackal with her babies. Quite a rarity and so adorable! We hit Satara camp shortly before the gates closed (6pm) and we got locked in for the night (for our protection from the bigger animals). As the sun set, we felt like we had a great first day of viewing.
As we pulling up to the Satara lodging, Abby (our cook and good buddy of Neil’s) greeted us with a warm smile and helped with our bags. He was going to be our Chef for the next few days! Our hut was perfectly located right next to Neil/Abby’s. And amazingly, all of our meals were to be cooked in an outdoor kitchen and we were to dine alfresco. Absolute perfection! After dropping our bags, it was time to unwind…
Abby poured us glasses of wine and we sat under the beautiful stars while reminiscing over our sightings of the day. As we chatted and enjoyed each other’s company, there was an immediate connection made between all of us. Neil and Abby shared fun stories of the bush and the people who have come and gone before our arrival. And, we found out Neil was not only a nature enthusiast, but also a photographer/filmmaker/artist (and Abby was quite the cinephile!). We knew the next few days were going to be a real treat!
After a delicious vegan dinner, it was bed time. Our start time for tomorrow: 4am. Just as the gates open and before the sunrise. We were anxious to see who would come out to visit with us! Yeah!
Day 7: Our first full day! We hopped out of bed at 3:30am and quickly got ready – packing up our camera gear and binoculars, ready for some good viewing. I saw the lights on in the hut next door – mmm Abby was brewing some coffee for us. After a quick light bite and sip of coffee, we hopped into the truck once again with Neil and were ready to see what the day would bring.
There is something quite special about heading out before the crack of dawn. The African landscape starts out dark and we caught glimpses of animals in the shadows. Our first sighting was a black rhino…. Wow, so regal and elegant. Neil taught us all about rhinos and his involvement in their conservation over the years. Sadly, they are not doing so well. Number 1 reason? Poaching. 🙁 There is a high price to be paid for rhino horns. It’s the most in demand commodity right now at the steepest price point. So unfortunately, this is breeding greed and an unnecessary harm to the rhinos – which if it isn’t stopped will lead to extinction (the white rhino already has almost met this fate with only a couple left, and soon the black rhino will too if more action isn’t taken to stop this – you can read more about it here).
Even with the sad news – it was an eye opening experience for us, which I’m very grateful for. As the sun began to rise, the colors were so MAGICAL. Crimson, yellow, orange…and with the vast landscape the skies appeared endless.
After driving around a little, Neil picked up on some cues that there was a “kill” (i.e. dead animal = food for many) recently and suggested we go check it out while having a cup of coffee and a snack? And while we camp, we’d wait and see who may decide to stop by. We said “sure!”
As strange as it seems coming from a vegan/animal lover, I find watching the circle of life unfold before us…exceptional. There were so many layers. First, the hyenas came – then the jackals – then the vultures. We watched as each took their turn. The jackal swooped in trying to steal some bites before the hyenas were finished (and they certainly weren’t going to let that happen!). The vultures were made up of 3 different varieties; all having a special purpose – helping one another so they could all eat together. I’ll fast forward through the horror film like gory details…
After a few hours of gawking, we went back to camp where our buddy Abby had cooked up a delicious breakfast for us – banana pancakes, home fries, fresh fruit, beans…oh and don’t forget the hot sauce! A girl could totally get used to this… 🙂
After a much needed refuel, it was time for a little late morning siesta. Soon after our nap, we went back out in the early afternoon for our second drive (which would last up until dinner time).
Time felt like it flew by. We were already out and about in the park when it was almost time for sunset aka magic hour. We came upon a few elephants, happily enjoying life – a Mom and baby having a snack. I don’t know what it is about elephants that make me love them so much. Maybe it’s their smarts, or the way they carry themselves so stoically. One thing I do know – I can watch them for hours and hours. As we headed back to our camp for the evening, we experienced an amazing sunset. The sweeping African plains were literally glowing.
We enjoyed another tasty meal and wonderful conversation under the stars before turning in early – as we had another jam-packed day of viewings ahead of us!
Day 8: Waking up early, we did our little routine again and hopped back in the truck at 4:30am sharp to head out of the gate! Interestingly, what wasn’t in the routine that day, Neil told us there was a storm brewing.
The sun showed up right on time and the plains of South Africa began to glow. We spotted a family of giraffes taking a morning stroll. The colors shone crimson, yellows, reds and cast just the right amount of shadows to make for the most picturesque views. We continued on and Neil noticed that the storms were only a few miles away. We could see the skies darkening and the rain falling in the distance. Without time to waste, Neil swiftly drove us to some cover at a higher elevated rest area. We walked up a little path to the top of a small incline which unveiled panoramic views of a winding river below. It started to sprinkle – so we headed back down to the larger overhang where picnic tables were set up and enjoyed a nice hot cup of coffee.
The sky opened up above us and the rain poured down – another jaw dropping moment! Neil told us there had been a drought lately plaguing the park, so it was much needed rain. Water brings life. Literally. And because of the drought, a lot of animals were encountering a dismal and tragic ending. The great news was – just a little bit of water helps start turn the park in the right direction. And he knew water would begin to bring out some of the animals closer to where we could view them. And he was right!
About 30 minutes later we began heading back into camp for our morning meal. Along the way, we spotted some of the incredible smaller creatures of the park, including the largest caterpillar I’ve ever seen and an adorable tortoise munching on some greens! We also saw a few warthogs, an impala, a few bushbucks and kudzu, all dotting the side of the road on our way back to camp.
After our late morning rest, we were back out on the road to see what the water brought about! No joke, in a matter of hours there were green sprouts popping up everywhere. Neil decided the watering holes were fantastic places to visit after a fresh rain. We made our way down some pathways and saw a crocodile enjoying the recent top off of water to his little hiding spot. No major action, but it sure is fascinating watching the croc and the birds surrounding him as they don’t pay one bit of attention to Mr. Big Teeth!
We moved on to another watering hole where we met 4 VERY happy hippos! They were bathing in the water while keeping submerged with one eye popping out over the surface to keep watch against predators. Not far from them, in the distance we spotted a bunch of elephants – a mom and her two babies and another taking a bath. It’s so neat to see an elephant nearly knock over a tree in order to clean himself!
Once again, the hours escaped us and it was time to head back towards camp while catching the glow show (aka the amazing sunset). Upon on our return, we spotted a large group of baboons. There was a mom and baby clinging from her belly, some baboons up in the trees and many basking in the sunset while helping clean each other (I love when they do that!). A few even looked like they were meditating! After snapping some very fun photos we make our way back to camp.
As luck would have it, there was also a wild cat who loved to hang around camp. She was always out and about. One thing’s for sure, I can always count on attracting small cats wherever I go. It’s a special “talent” I have. 🙂
During dinner as we recounted our adventures of the day. Neil pointed out the last of what we really need to see are the big cats! But we didn’t want to put any pressure on him or us. We were already having a blast from everything we’d seen so far! After another great meal and some enchanting storytelling, we hit the sack in hopes of seeing some cats in the morning.
Day 9: Our last safari day was upon us. We popped out of bed and packed up ready to do the early morning safari. Our mission was to track some big cats! We hopped into the truck and left most our things with Abby who’d be meeting us in a few hours at our drop off point – where we were to be transported to the airport.
Once we hit the roads, we were literally starting to track cats by their droppings. By the way, one thing Neil is great at is identifying poop…(he even made a calendar called “Shit Happens” about it. No joke!).
We wound down the roads every which way, looking for any signs of fresh droppings. As we came upon a dried-out river bed we noticed the poop of a lion on the side of the road! Ok, we were onto something… With all of our eyes are wide open, hoping to spot a big cat, Gary noticed something on top of a rock. He pointed it out to me and I noticed a long tail and furry butt jumping down and scurrying away – pretty sure it was our lion! We begin to describe what we saw and Neil was pretty sure it was an adolescent. We quickly got on the move to see if we could catch him crossing the river bed…but ahhhh, he escaped! We never saw him again.
After a bit more searching (and plenty of elephant, impala, bushbucks and steenbok viewing), it was time for us to make our way closer to the drop point. We stopped off to have a quick cup of coffee on the road, but sadly our time drew to an end. We were taken to the drop-off point where Abby was waiting for us. We said goodbye to our new found friends with one last hug and a picture to capture the moment.
We then were transferred back to the airport in no time. Along the way, we once again experienced some beautiful views of reds and browns turning into mountainous greens. It was time to officially say goodbye to Kruger and have one last night in Cape Town.
Upon arriving back at the Cape Town airport, we were greeted by a very friendly smile from our driver – finally, this time we got it right with no hiccups with the pickup situation (4th time’s a charm)! Our last night I decided to switch it up a bit and try out something different – so I booked us at the African Pride Crystal Towers Hotel & Spa (because I really really wanted our last morning to end with a fab massage!)
We arrived and were greeted by a glass of bubbly and were recognized for Gary’s birthday! And then we found out (woo hoo!) they upgraded us to a suite for the night! The room was awe-inspiring – floor to ceiling windows, with a perfect view of Table Mountain! Vegan treats galore were on the dining table. Could this get any better? Yes, it can!
We made our way down to the restaurant and learned that the Chef created a special vegan menu just for us! We ordered a glass of wine, kicked back and let the courses roll in. One was more scrumptious than the next – leaving our bellies full and eased the pain of realizing our amazing trip was winding down. We finished off our wonderful meal with of a photo op with our Chef. Then, it was off to bed. 🙂
Day 10: We made our way down to the spa bright and early for our massages and pedicures (yes, Gary got one too!). It was marvelous and just what the doctor ordered after so many escapades behind us. Gary and I felt like complete noodles as we headed over to the pool area for our very last South African meal.
Our grand finally was a planned lunch by the pool side. However, when we arrived it was a tad too windy (ok, they were crazy gale force winds) so we decided to eat inside. The staff and Chef made a lasting impression as they, once again, customized a delicious vegan meal just for us. Did I mention the service was amazing? The meal featured multiple appetizers followed by a delicious entrée that kept our taste buds happy.
Tip: Whenever and wherever you are traveling you should definitely speak with the restaurant staff ahead of time if you have any special dietary needs. Even if you don’t and it’s a special occasion, let them know – they can customize a menu just for you that will be something special! No joke. We’ve hands down had the best meals since I’ve started doing this.
And so….with our bags fully packed, we went down to wait in the lobby for our ride back to America. And while doing so, I must admit I was already looking up ideas on where our next adventure would be.