The experience of visiting an African game lodge and Kruger National Park

Game for a trip to the African bush and Kruger National Park?

My mother has refused to fly for decades. It's something to do with a perforated eardrum that would make her head explode on take-off. I rue that medical (or mental?) abnormality whenever I drive into the bush in my adopted home in Africa. I wish she could see countless wildebeest making their spectacular migration. The skittering springbok that comically prance away if something spooks them. She'll never see a glorious sunset over wide-open plains of gold and tan. Or admire that extraordinary thing the moon does when it rises as big and as red as the sun that just went down.

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You can't get it anywhere except Africa, and most people never really "get" it at all. But once it's got you, you'll never shake it out of your heart. I can show her photographs, but how do you describe Africa's magic? I can't verbalise my daft desire to photograph zebra bums because the stripes are so ridiculously fascinating. Or the deafening cacophony of bullfrogs at night. The roar of the lion that excites and chills you simultaneously, as you picture him stalking outside your lodge. Words and even pictures can't do justice to any of that.

The Game Drive Experience

On game drives I'm usually the useless one who sits there whispering where, where? when everyone else is pointing and shooting their camera. But on my last game drive I even saw a dung beetle as it trundled its smelly treasure along. If I can spot a dung beetle you'd think I could spot an elephant or a giraffe. But they camouflage themselves so much better.

With my dreadful eyesight I need my animals either big or up close, and preferably both. Yet even I almost got the jitters at the amazing sight of 100 elephant shuffling past our vehicle, when I suddenly wondered what would happen if a young bull let his testosterone kick in and pummeled us to pieces.

Walking through the bush is even more exiting as you inspect the steaming dung on the trail of a black rhino. Then your senses kick into overdrive, and you're watching, sniffing, smelling, tiptoeing and feeling with every nerve on high alert. Tracking nature on its own level rather than looking down on it from a truck are vastly different sensations.

Well that's the theory anyway. In reality there's always someone coughing, sneezing and stomping so heavily that the black rhino has ambled away in absolute disgust at the flat-footed tourists and their lack of finesse.

Kruger National Park

South Africa's Kruger National Park is the big mama of them all, with everything you come to Africa for. You have to be awfully unlucky to have a bad day in the Kruger. The only trouble is its sheer enormity, so it's technically possible for all the animals not to be in the part where you are.

You can guarantee, however, that when you're making the inevitable dash back to the lodge before the evening curfew, a handful of elephants will walk across the road right in front of you. After you've packed away your camera.

So spend a few days there, because it takes a long time to tick off 147 species of mammal, 500 different birds, and 110 or so reptiles that roam in more than a dozen distinct ecozones.

I love those all-too-rare drives where the other guests decide to have a lie-in when the vehicle departs, so there's just me and the guide. Then I sit up front, quizzing them to find out how much is natural talent and how much can be learnt, and how they can remember so much about so much.

A great guide can make even spiders and insects exciting. Not the birds though. Maybe I have a mental block with this one, but I've yet to get excited about birding. Although I do have a soft spot for guinea fowl, which must be the daftest creation on two legs. And almost as good served with gravy and potatoes.

Occasionally I'm the one who stays in bed when the 6am drive departs, so I can wake up leisurely and revel in the distant horizons, the scent of wild sage, the plaintive cry of a fish eagle, the muffins and mangos for breakfast.

In the evening you'll freshen up in your bedroom's outside shower, feeling delightfully naughty to be naked in the open air. Then you amble to the bar, wearing lashings of mosquito repellent so the one species of nature you don't want to encounter won't inflict some sneaky damage.

Almost no matter what standard of lodge you stay in, you won't get a bad meal in the African bush. Unless you're one of those rugged types who camps out and cooks up something dubious over a campfire. Inevitably the lodge will rustle up three or four fabulous courses accompanied by splendid wines, no matter how far away you are from the nearest supermarket.

Gane lodges deliberately and very efficiently whisk you away from pretty much everything that's normal in our hectic lives. Someone is always on hand to cook for you, swizzle up a drink to ease you through the heat of the day, drive you around in a vehicle and track down all the animals.

Back at the lodge someone hands you a refreshing towel, and your chambermaid has turned down your bed and arranged the billowing mosquito net. It's heady stuff.

The delight of staying in a lodge isn't only about the game drives. Perhaps it sounds awfully prissy, but I feel privileged to witness this world where the eternal challenge of beast against beast plays out, utterly oblivious to the city lives we all think are so important.

Maybe it feels so special because it's something that perhaps 99% of our 7-billion fellow humans -- my mother included -- will never experience.

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Lesley Stones is a former Brit who is now proudly South African. She started her career by reviewing rock bands for a national UK music paper, then worked for various newspapers before spending four fun-filled years in Cairo, where she ended up editing a technology magazine. Lesley was the Information Technology Editor for a daily business newspaper for 12 years before quitting to go freelance, specialising in travel & leisure writing and being opinionated about life in general. Her absolute passions are travel, theatre, the cinema, wining and dining.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 23, 2016

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