Few experiences epitomize Africa more than a safari, and South Africa is one of the continent’s top safari destinations. Kruger is the jewel in the country’s national park crown, but we chose to spend our first safari experience at and around Addo Elephant National Park.
Safaris can be very expensive, and oftentimes the most convenient and popular accommodations options are luxury camps inside the park, where the sky-high rates include meals and game drives. You can easily spend over $1,000 per night at these kinds of places. We were worried that we’d be missing out on something by opting for a lower-priced and less all-inclusive (though, to be clear, still by no means inexpensive) hotel outside of the park, but our worries were whisked away by the wind the minute we arrived at the Elephant House for our 2-night stay: the top-notch service, beautiful architecture and décor, spacious and well-equipped rooms, copious outdoor chill out spots, and relaxing pool area all made us feel welcome, at home, and comfortable. Not to mention the tasty outdoor breakfasts (fruit, yogurt, granola, French toast), light lunches served poolside (hummus, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches), and an amazing dinner by candlelight (veggie puff with sweet chili sauce, lentils with mixed veggies, fruity lemon tart).
The Elephant House offers à la carte game drives at an additional cost, allowing guests to mix-and-match game drives to tailor their safari experience. Some of the game drives are run by the hotel with their own guides and some are offered via partnerships with other tour operators or private reserves. We chose the hotel’s own afternoon elephant drive in the national park for our first day. Day two brought us to Schotia Private Game Reserve, adjacent to the eastern side of the national park, for their afternoon/evening “Tooth & Claw” safari, which included a fireside dinner at their lapa (an open thatched-roof structure popular in South Africa) (rice, potatoes, acorn squash, mixed veggies, malva pudding).
It’s cliché to say that an experience like this is a life-changing one, but we can’t really describe it any other way. Many of our fondest memories from our two weeks in South Africa are from these two days of safari: driving alongside a lone elephant walking majestically across the open landscape; being the first group to chance upon three lions basking in the golden, late afternoon sunlight; stumbling on half a dozen giraffes at a watering hole at dusk; getting caught at twilight among a herd of two dozen buffalo and then driving the car at a low speed in the middle of the group. It’s hard to describe the feeling of connection to the earth and the life around you when pulling up to a beautiful wild animal mere feet away, turning off the engine, and learning about them from our guides, stretches of silence breaking only for the low, hushed tones of our guides, gasps from the people in our group, and the organic sounds of nature, all while we observed the scene as a proverbial fly on the wall, like an out-of-body experience of sorts. Even sightings of the most common animals lost no sense of awe and wonder; our tenth zebra sighting was just as special as our first. Other animal sightings included: waterbucks, impalas, crocodiles, monkeys, ostriches, warthogs, tortoises, rabbits, and dung beetles.
Our safari experience was an awe-inspiring finale for our trip, but it made leaving that much harder. The morning after our last night, we drove to Port Elizabeth, dropped off the car, and flew to Johannesburg, where we made the best of our 8-hour layover at Quills Restaurant (in the lobby of the Intercontinental right outside the terminal) before flying back to London.