By Alex Goetzfried
As long as I can remember I have been obsessed with National Geographic. Until I was 10, my family lived on Long Island with my German grandparents, and Opa (Grandpa, in German), subscribed to the magazine. I would sit in the living room staring at exotic pictures of faraway places, dreaming of the day I would be able to visit them all. The Africa pictures were always my favorite.
At age 20, I left school at the start of my sophomore year and drove to Mexico. That was the first of many backpacking trips to Latin America, where I perfected the art of budget travel. I eventually returned to school but realized that travel, for me, was about more than adventure; it was a lifestyle of learning in a way that’s more meaningful than any classroom or book could provide.
When I first decided I wanted to go to Africa, four years ago, a quick Google search seemed to put it beyond my financial reach. Most safari packages cost a bundle — $15,000 for 10 days, $10,000 for five nights — to stay in luxury camps on private reserves with your own guides, trucks and amenities. And that was on top of airfare.
A nice way to travel if you have the money, which I don’t. Last fall, I asked my friend John Malnowski, just Mal to me, about Africa; Mal, who backpacks every winter, had been to Africa twice. I had two weeks of vacation from work and $3,000; Mal assured me we could make it work.
My long-time travel buddy, Sean McSherry, or Mic as we call him, joined us. We are all seasoned travelers, able to sleep, eat and function anywhere; they were the perfect companions for setting out to see as much as humanly possible of South Africa and Mozambique.
Kruger National Park, the most famous game reserve in Africa, is in the northeastern region of South Africa, below Zimbabwe and bordering Mozambique, and was a key destination for our trip. Kruger is home to the largest game animals on the planet. South Africa has a well-developed road system, making Kruger accessible by car.
Mic and I flew from Newark to Johannesberg in January, where Mal was waiting for us. We snagged cheap seats—$850 round-trip—by booking just two weeks before we left. We risked not getting a ticket if the planes were sold out, but close to departure dates the airlines drop their prices on unfilled seats. When we landed at 10 p.m. local time, Mal was waiting with a rental car, an egg-shaped tiny “mini van” that would cost us $500 a week. We called it the soccer-mom special.
All three of us had been too excited to sleep on our flights. But instead of finding a hotel to rest up, we hit the road, aiming to make it to Kruger, a five-hour drive, by the time its gates open at 4:45 a.m. I did most of the driving. It was nighttime, and we were on a big highway without much traffic, ideal for getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road. At the airport gas station, we had picked up Doritos, apples, a few beers and some jerky made of indiscernible meat, heavily flavored with cloves.
This was all we would have to eat for the next 15 hours. Small wonder that it took a while for the fact to sink in that I was actually in Africa.
Any decent guidebook like a Frommer’s or Lonely Planet has all the info you need to travel to Africa on the cheap. Getting into Kruger is, in some ways, like going to any other national park. You pay a day rate of about $60 and rent a room in a hut, which costs another $60 a person. The camps provide guided tours for $20 to $40 for four-hour safaris.
But that’s where any similarity to a visit to Yellowstone or Yosemite ends. The rules at Kruger are very strict; you are never to get out of your car. If you do, you are likely to be fined and thrown out, and anyone passing will call you an idiot and yell at you.
This is for good reason. In Kruger, there are countless creatures that can kill you; herbivores are just as dangerous as carnivores, sometimes more so. Angry hippos in Africa kill more people than lions. Water buffalo weigh over a ton and are extremely territorial. Elephants and rhinos can flip over cars, for which there is plenty of photographic evidence at the camps.
If you do get out of the car, as we discovered, there is a strange tension in the air, an immediate sensation that you have entered a primal food chain, and not necessarily at the top. Driving into the park at sunup the air was crisp, cool, and dry. It felt like wild Africa — not a park at all, but a primeval place protected from development and poachers.
Most people go in search of the Big 5: lions, rhinos, elephants, water buffalo and leopard. Most tourists are lucky to see two or three, and only the most fortunate, or people with plenty of time, see all five. Our first encounter was with wild dogs. With only 300 of these small, scraggly and highly intelligent canines left in South Africa, seeing them so soon was a sign of the luck we would have.
By the end of the first day, we had seen elephants, giraffes, toucans, eland, springbok, impalas and every other deer-like creature imaginable. But no predators and no rhinos.
By 3 p.m., we were exhausted and decided to head to the camp to check in for the night, but when we got there we learned that for $40 each we could jump on a truck with a guide and take a four-hour sunset safari. It turned out to be the best $40 I have ever spent.
First the guide brought us to a watering hole, where we saw three female lions. Parked on the side of the road, we had the lions on our right and a troop of baboons on the left. There were about 15 people in the raised truck with us, snapping pictures of mother baboons carrying their babies, when suddenly about 30 elephants burst through the bushes directly behind us and charged the water hole. The lions scattered and, in an instant, you could tell who was in charge.
Driving back to camp at dusk, we approached a young male lion. He was the height and length of a full-grown male but had not filled out yet, as we could tell by his visible rib cage. He would occasionally emit a low-pitched yelp, instead of a roar. Our tour guide explained that he was young and had not yet started a pride of his own, and didn’t want to alert the local males to his presence in their territory by emitting a full-throated roar. He was a young adult embarking on his life alone in the wild.
Finally, when the sun had set we headed back to camp. By now it was around 9 p.m., and the three of us were ready for bed. At camp, we had our first meal in two-and-a-half days. We were served a local South African sausage-and-pepper dish called drywoers, which is possibly the worst sausage I have ever had. Nobody in South Africa could explain to me exactly what drywoers are, and even subsequent Google searches have left me unsatisfied as to what kind of meat is actually in those sausages. Suffice it to say that beer filled in the missing calories.
I have been cooking professionally for 10 years, and although I wasn’t expecting a culinary mecca in the bush world of Kruger, I thought we could at least get some decent game. Fortunately bad food was the only setback of our journey.
By 10:30 p.m. we were ready to turn in for our first night’s sleep in three days when we saw 10 tourists running back and forth along the electric fence that ran the perimeter of the camp with huge flashlights. As we approached the fence, two deranged-looking animals shrieked and bolted into view. Wild hyenas are a hair-raising sight, best described as demented dogs from hell that will scavenge, hunt and torment anything, including lions.
But this time it was the hyenas that were under attack. As they sped by, we realized the three lionesses we had seen earlier were chasing them. We watched the lionesses try, unsuccessfully, to drive the hyenas away from their territory for about an hour. Finally at midnight we crashed.
Sunrise is when most of the action takes place in the wild kingdom, so we were up again four hours later. We were on our second run through the park, sleep deprived and still living off of Doritos, when we encountered a pride of lions. We were not alone; about six cars of tourists and professional photographers were jockeying for position. We eventually maneuvered our van into a great spot.
First we saw four or five females, three or four cubs and a large male, all lazing under a tree. When Mal climbed out of the window and sat on the open window ledge of the car door to get a better shot, a woman screamed: “There’s a second male lion out there!”
From the beginning of the trip we had a deal: if any of us was eaten the other two would get to run up expenses on the dead guy’s credit cards. As soon as Mal climbed through the window, the male (perhaps reacting to Mal’s mane of dreadlocks,) abruptly stood up at full alert and moved into the bushes, never taking his eyes off Mal.
“Get in the car you idiot,” I growled. “Now the lion is hiding, and all of these people are gonna be pissed, and your dumb ass is gonna get eaten.”
I was annoyed that Mal had ruined our shot until I realized that the lion had moved into another perfect spot for photos. You could see his enormous gold and brown mane, the scars on his nose from a lifetime of battling, perfectly framed by foliage. Mal climbed back in, we hung around a little while longer and eventually headed back to the road.
As we started on the four-hour trip back to the exit gate, now ready to leave Kruger, we were satisfied that we had seen as much as there was to see. We had seen four of the Big 5, missing only a leopard. We stopped at a park on a river for lunch at a restaurant. After getting back in the van and driving for about 10 minutes, we saw two trucks driving backward down the middle of the road, huge telephoto lenses sticking out of the window. We slowed down to see what they were shooting and about 50 yards into the tall grass a leopard stalking silently, majestically. Our luck was complete.
We were ready to head to Mozambique, hoping to see sharks and whales and do some beach living. The day after we left Kruger, a huge storm blew through, ravaging the southeastern part of the African continent and flooding Kruger. The park was closed to the public for four days. Our luck and timing couldn’t have been better!