Timbavati Private Nature Reserve
For our safari experience in South Africa’s Greater Kruger area, we chose Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, one of the many private reserves that shares an unfenced border with Kruger National Park. During our two nights in the reserve, we stayed at Umlani Bushcamp, an all-inclusive camp that organized all four of our game drives. Each morning at Umlani began with a coffee and tea before driving off into the reserve at 6:00 AM as the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon.
The drives take place in open-top Land Cruisers that seat up to nine passengers, plus the driver and the tracker who sits on a seat attached to the hood of the vehicle. The Land Cruisers are built for off-roading, and our driver was not shy about fully maximizing the vehicle’s off-road capabilities while tracking some of the more desirable animals like lions, rhino, and elephants. That’s one of the benefits of being in a private reserve like Timbavati, rather than the national park itself. The drivers are allowed to drive through the bush to make sure the passengers get an up-close-and-personal viewing experience, and that’s exactly what we got. There were multiple occasions when we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of elephants or within a few yards of lions and hyenas.
Coffee Break & Sundowner
The morning drives include a coffee break and the evening drives include a break known as a “sundowner” for drinks and traditional South African snacks. In both cases, the guide and tracker make sure that there are no large predators in the area before letting the guests out of the vehicle. It’s a good chance to get out and stretch your legs since the drives last 3-4 hours each.
As mentioned, we got frighteningly close to lions, including one who was recently on the losing end of a fight with his brother…as it turns out, the Lion King was an accurate portrayal of life in the bush.
Timbavati is home to many different species of antelope, some of which (like the impala) are so ubiquitous that the driver doesn’t even stop for them after a certain point. The antelope species range in size from the steenbok, which is a small snack for a lion or leopard, to the massive kudu and eland.
Hyenas have a bad reputation. They’re scavengers, they’re generally considered to be ugly creatures, and their cackling laugh is eerily villainous. But it didn’t take long for the hyenas to become one of our favorite animals in South Africa. During our first evening game drive, we came across a den and watched a group of hyena cubs playfully fighting and rolling around in the dirt. One of them curiously walked right up to our vehicle just to see what we were up to. He was close enough for us to reach out and touch (which we of course did not do).
By far our highest priority in Timbavati was to see a leopard. Despite being extremely elusive, leopard sightings in Timbavati are fairly common, and our driver from Umlani told us they had seen leopards several times that week. The anticipation built throughout our first evening game drive which finally culminated with an unbelievable leopard sighting. At this point in the evening it was pitch dark, and we never would have noticed the leopard perched in a tree had it not been for another vehicle that had discovered it before sunset. The experience was completely surreal. We parked the Land Cruiser directly beneath the tree where the leopard was eating what was left of a steenbok it had killed earlier that evening. Our driver shone a light into the tree which allowed us to clearly see the leopard’s every movement, and the silence of our surroundings allowed us to here the crunching of bones coming from a only few yards above us. If we didn’t see another animal for the rest of our trip, this sighting alone would have made it worthwhile.
We came across the same herd of 200+ buffalo multiple times during our stay at Umlani, but by far the most amazing sighting was when we watched the herd descend on a watering hole. Seeing one buffalo is impressive as it is, but watching hundreds of these massive animals shoulder-to-shoulder as they took turns having a drink was a sight to behold. A few hours later, we returned to that same watering hole to spend the afternoon in the Umlani Treehouse and the herd was still basking in the sun nearby.
Elephant sightings were frequent, and we were able to view them from incredibly short distances.
We checked off the final member of the “Big 5” (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino) during our second game drive when we spotted a white rhino. By the end of our trip we had seen about five white rhinos.
Zebra & Giraffe
It wouldn’t be a safari without seeing two of the most iconic African animals, the zebra and giraffe.
Admittedly we aren’t particularly knowledgeable when it comes to birds. We love bald eagles, penguins, puffins, and ostriches, but that’s pretty much where our knowledge and appreciation for birds ends. Our driver on the other hand, could point to anything with wings and immediately name the species and tell you everything about it. It was incredibly impressive and many of the birds he pointed out were beautiful.
The Grand Finale
By the time our fourth and final game drive began, we had already seen every animal we had hoped to see. We were completely content with the previous drives and sightings, so anything additional would just be icing on the cake. The drive started off slow, and periods of 15-20 minutes passed without even seeing as much as an impala. Then out of nowhere Laura spotted something moving in the distance. At first we couldn’t identify what it was, but our tracker put four fingers in the air and said “Lions”. As we drove closer, we saw four lions fleeing the scene of a buffalo kill, and as the lions disappeared from sight, a group of hyenas and jackals descended on the carcass. It smelled awful and watching the hyenas and jackals tear at the dead buffalo’s flesh was a gruesome scene, but it was incredibly wild.
At first it appeared as though the lions had abandoned their kill, but we soon realized they hadn’t gone far and were watching us from a short distance. If you look closely in the photo below, you can barely make out a lioness crouching between the trees in the background. So we zoomed in… And then zoomed in again…
Not a bad way to end an unforgettable safari experience in Timbavati.