I used to tease that within the first 10 minutes of meeting Corey, he’d find a way to share that he’s been on safari at Maasai Mara in Kenya. Now, with my mere four days at Manyeleti game reserve, it’s safe to say that I understand his sentiments, and that I’ll most likely fall into the same habit since this was a trip I’ll never forget.
Our glampsite: The tented accommodations were a close walk from the main lodge, yet you felt as though you were out in the open of the game reserve. From our porch, we saw water buck, impala, and numerous birds. On our third night, we heard a leopard calling at the side of our tent, and on the last afternoon, we saw an elephant walk through camp to drink at the lodge’s pond!
Our mealplan: In addition to the lodge’s close proximity to the animals, Khoka Moya’s camp food was a highlight: veggie lasagna, fish and chips, stewed springbok, roasted vegetables, and cheesecake. I don’t know how they had such a fresh and varied menu but I was excited for family meal every day.
Our daily itinerary:
- 5:00am: The receptionist told us that a drum would sound as the camp wake-up call but we doubled down with our alarms so as not to miss the pre-dawn game drives. All guests would lumber to the main lodge for some variety of a homemade granola bar, and a coffee if needed.
- 5:25am: Let the wild rumpus begin! The morning game drives started right as you left the tent grounds since impala and waterbuck herds would be grazing along the road. Our tracker, Johannes-Godfrey sat out front on the jeep’s hood in the equivalent of a lifeguard chair. Lyton, our guide, explained the wildlife along the way, and shared facts about the flora on the side of the road. He’d pull over to show us branches that doubled as fly swatters, and leaves that doubled as toilet paper. At times, he would toy with us, too. He’d point to an area in the distance to see if we could spot the animal he’d already noted. We’d peel our eyes, but usually couldn’t see anything due to the animal’s natural camouflage. We felt proud on day three when we realized our eyes had adjusted. We hollered that we saw three giraffes down the road. Lyton congratulated us, and then with a smile, corrected us that there were actually seven giraffes in the area. I’ve included a picture below to see if you can spot the animal in the vast game reserve (center, bottom row).
- 7:30-8:00am: We’d stop, stretch our legs outside of the jeep, and have a snack in the bush. A thermos of tea or coffee, and more homemade biscuits. If the sun hadn’t warmed the reserve yet, the jeep was well-equipped with flannel-lined water proof ponchos that I took full advantage of.
- 9:00am: Time to return to the lodge for breakfast. Though you’ve done nothing but sit in a jeep, and snap pictures, you are very hungry. All guests would linger near the tables, eager to hear the drum signaling chow time. We’d also spend some of this time waving off the pesky monkeys who were closing in, keen for a taste of eggs and ham.
- 10:30am-14:00pm: After guests finished breakfast, folks would meander back to their tents, stay at the lodge to hoard wifi, or head to the pool. We never made it past tent time. Like the animals, we’d spend much of the day in and out of naps. Twice, I attempted to be productive by deleting pictures from our camera to make room for the upcoming drives, but that didn’t last long.
- 14:00-16:00pm: Lunch buffet! Again, you’ve done a lot of laying around, but I couldn’t pile my plate high enough for this meal. With a daily salad bar supplied with pickled beets, olives, and homemade pesto dressing, I was happy no matter what came along for the rest of the meal. After lunch, we’d prep for the afternoon game drive by applying sunscreen, and ensuring our camera batteries were charged.
16:00pm: Game drive #2! The afternoon drives usually had more animal action since the trackers and guides had since radioed one another to share locations of wildlife sightings.
18:45pm: My favorite part of the day- sunset! I could have chased light all day and been a happy camper, as my dad would say. Around this time, Corey would repeatedly prompt me for the camera since I’d be taking pictures of the clouds, and he be shaking his head, realizing I’d missed opportunities of rhinos or hyenas or something.
19:30-20:00pm: Time for happy hour in the bush. We’d get out of the jeep to stretch our legs, and Lyton and Johannes-Godfrey would set out a serious mini-bar for everyone.
21:00-22:00pm: As guests waited for the dinner drums, we’d share pictures of the day, and stories of the drives. The chef would announce the evening meal, and Corey and I would opt for a 10 pound bottle of wine (the brand generically titled ‘Unbelievably Dry White or Red’).
22:30pm: By this time, everyone retired to their tent. We’d be wiped out from such an early start to the day. The local guides and trackers used torches (aka flashlights) to walk guests back along the lodge roads as we weren’t allowed to go on our own past sundown. Even though each day followed the same agenda, we were never bored…how could you be with so many incredible things to see each day?!
Drive 1- A Strong Start (31Dec2017)
We met our first round of safari comrades: a French family from Lyon- mom, dad, older brother (20years) and twin sisters (18years), and a Dutch couple traveling throughout southern Africa on various safari trips in Botswana and Kruger park before relocating to Curacao. Everyone got along well, and we shared laughs and stories throughout our first lunch together. We were excited when we found out that our group would be the same for our first game drive as Honeyguide purposefully organizes the seating arrangements in this way.
Game Drive #1 was epic, as Jamie Lynn would say. Upon reflection, I think it was the most action packed day of them all. We couldn’t believe how close we could get to the animals! We were excited to see impala, gnus (wildebeests), and zebra at first but when we saw leopards mating and lions eating a baby zebra, we were through the roof! During our evening happy hour, I asked Lyton where this day ranked in terms of animal sightings, and he said it was way above average. Apparently, guests have stayed for three to four months in an attempt to see leopards mating, and never catch a glimpse! We saw them in the first hour of the drive!!??!
(See captions for further information – mainly animal names, and quick anecdcotes)
That afternoon, we also saw our first elephant. I cried! I know….something about seeing my favorite animal in the wild brought back memories of my 3rd grade elephant report which my dad helped me create in Hypercard Stack. Next, we had a speedy drive into Kruger to find rhinos at dusk, and finally hyenas in their den at sunset. Lyton explained that they hyena den was actually an abandoned, repurposed termite mound.
On this ride, we’d been outdriving a storm that finally caught up with us. The sky was unlike anything I’d ever seen. A rainbow seen from one side of the jeep, a sun setting on the other, and lightening flashing across the horizon like New Year’s Eve fireworks. There were so many elements in the sky at once!
While Lyton and Johannes-Godfrey handed out the warm, waterproof ponchos, we wondered if we’d call it a night and head back to the lodge because of the weather. But we ventured on, and I wasn’t mad at all! The rainy gusts heightened the sense of adventure as we continued on our safari drive. Johannes-Godfrey scanned the road with a large spotlight to catch animals that had come out in the cool, wet evening. Though it was impossible to take pictures at this time, we saw two white-tailed mongooses and a venomous ‘boomslang’ (snake) curled up in a tree branch. Did I mention this was all in the dark?! How Lyton saw these smaller critters, I have no clue, but it wasn’t a fluke. He impressed us time and time again with his keen eyesight.
Drive 2- The Lions’ Share Part 1 (morning 01Jan2018)
Today was full of lion sightings! Lions eating, sleeping, pacing and trekking. We visited a pride in both the morning and the afternoon. It’s hard to overstate the magnificence of the ‘kings (and queens) of the jungle’ in the wild, and our resident Leo, Corey, was giddy as we tracked ‘his kind’.
Though the day was lion themed, this hippo skull was the first thing we saw in the morning. I thought it was pretty spectacular.
I know I said you’d see lions at this point, but before we get to the mighty, let’s check out one of the small wonders on the game reserve: the dung beetle. The male beetle rolls his prize to his den. If there is a female he is courting, she hitches a ride as well, but only the male beetle will roll the dung ball.
Now… to the mighty lion! We learned quickly that scavenger sightings meant you’d soon find predators and prey in the area. This morning, the vultures and the hyenas were out in full force. With mouths watering, they looked on while a pride of lions feasted on a water buffalo. The scavengers wouldn’t dare enter lion territory, especially as the pride was eating, but their presence was not a secret as they surrounded the morning kill.
After leaving the pride, we drove to a local watering hole for our morning stretch and snack break. A hippo was playing hide and seek with us!
Day 2-The Lions’ Share Part 2 (afternoon 01Jan2018)
To start the afternoon, Lyton asked if we’d mind returning to see the lions again? Do people feel like this would be redundant? I assured him that each drive would be unique even if we were retracing our steps, and that we trusted his expertise on this journey. The lions were basically delirious after eating all day– it seemed like a marathon Thanksgiving dinner. And the scavengers’ patience was just as impressive seven hours later!
Lyton noted that some of the pride was missing, so we set off to track them with a helpful hint from another guide in the vicinity. We drove to an open field and spotted the group stalking towards our jeep. We switched off the engine, and waited. You wouldn’t believe it when they came by the jeep, two of the lions took a break and lay down in the shade of the car!
Rhinos leave a tell tale sign for trackers. They create toilets in their territory, which means they go to the bathroom in the same place each time, and the kick up dust to bury their business. We caught a shy rhino on her own today.
Around this time of day, I was “away with the fairies” as they say in the UK….meaning I was daydreaming alongside this day moon. I just couldn’t get enough pictures to do it justice. I did snap out of my moon-trance long enough to catch these beauties before sundowners. Tonight, Lyton also spotted a mini-night owl up in a tree, and a water buck that was resting near the side of the road.
Day 3- Take a Hike! (morning 02Jan2018)
Today was a grey morning. This time we caught up with some lions eating a zebra. I guess I missed a photo of the actual zebra because I was distracted by the tenacious hyenas. They were still hanging around for spare parts, but tough luck since a zebra is a much smaller meal for this pride. Check out the captions below for our four-legged, non-predator friends.
Check out Corey’s photoshoot of this young, male leopard!
A pattern I noted when we came upon various hyena dens was that there was always some form of babysitting in the works. This was a tired mum watching a pair of third-graders. I don’t actually know how old they were, but they weren’t old enough to watch themselves while the other parental units were out scavenging. Lyton surmised the others were probably still waiting for that zebra we saw back with the lions.
We also continued to see solo male elephants each day. We caught the first one stalking tree leaves, and carrying his own burden. Lyton said that Americans always brag, but in Africa, ‘We don’t brag, we drag.’ Corey couldn’t hold himself together.
Today’s highlight was taking a walk during our morning adventure!!! Until this point, all of the guides were very clear that guests should never get out of the jeep, unless it was for the fifteen minutes of the guided stretch or happy hour. Today, Lyton randomly pulled over on the side of the road, and said ‘Get out everyone. We’re taking a walk back to camp’. Jaws dropped, and we all looked nervously at one another. He had to repeat the instructions because none of us had budged from the car. We thought he must be joking. Only when he pulled out a rifle, and then told us the rules of the walk, did we began to slowly gather our things.
- Rule one: Walk in a straight line and stay close together. Lyton would lead and Johannes-Godfrey would bring up the rear. We noted J-G was unarmed.
- Rule two: When Lyton is pointing something out along the path, gather in a close circle.
- Rule three: If you see something, say something. Don’t run. It wasn’t clear exactly what he wanted us to signal, but I wasn’t worried about being speechless if we came upon an animal.
Once I got over the initial shock, I was in heaven. A wildlife walk to learn about tracks and scat and trees and life underfoot! Yes, please! Corey was very nervous for both of us, which I get, because we were completely exposed as a group. No jeep to drive us to safety, and definitely no physical protection to stand up to even the meekest impala.
I loved the additional facts we learned from Lyton today (see captions above if you haven’t already). There is one more to share though I don’t have any pictures of this one: a baboon spider. We saw the homes of these spiders in the ground along our trail. They looked like the size of a small snake hole, but covered with spider webs. The baboon spider lives in these holes, and it’s enemy is the spider wasp which flies into these holes to stun the spiders. The wasp then carries the stunned spider out of its home to where the spider wasp wants to lay her eggs. She lays her eggs on the stunned spider, and then leaves. When the baboon spider awakens from its stunned state, it carries on about its business in this new territory. That is, until the wasp’s eggs start to hatch and feed on the spider! Gruesome!
Day 3- The Elusive Water Buffalo (afternoon 02Jan2018)
Seeing the Big Five is like a rite of passage on these safari trips. Most people are satisfied with their vacation only if and when they can cross these five off their list: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and water buffalo. I hadn’t realized that part of Lyton and Johannes-Godfrey’s tracking was to ensure that guests saw these five at some point on their trip. They noted that they’d failed to make this happen for our first comrades since they left after lunch without seeing the elusive water buffalo. Perhaps with the rainy weather this afternoon, the water buffalo would feel more in their element?
We didn’t linger long at the leopard kill that Corey spotted because the radio mentioned a herd of water buffalo was near a main road. We picked up the pace to catch them before they crossed the road. Lyton knew that it’d be difficult to track them across the denser bush areas of the park. The reason the buffalo are part of the big five is because they don’t stunt charge. If they’re going to charge, they do it first chance they get, making them very dangerous for herbivores.
A giraffe running always looks like it’s happening in slow motion!
We found another large herd of impala, and this group had set up an obstacle course for their young. It’s an afternoon exercise session. The adults mark the trail, and then the young ones run and buck around the course. Their hind legs were so springy! I hope you can catch what I mean in the video below.
More hyena babysitting at this den. This time a teenager watching over some younglings. It’s the first time I thought a hyena was cute. I finally asked if hyenas were more closely related to cats or dogs. The answer is that they are in the cat family, and yet they take on more dog like traits compared to other big felines. They are curious and playful like puppies, and Lyton said that they are very accepting of outsiders rather than being territorial like lions, or solitary like leopards.
Day 4- Scents of a Slow Morning (morning 03Jan2018)
Our last full day started off with fewer animal sightings than usual. We saw a family of giraffes, a water buffalo herd, a solo water buck, and the chameleon from the previous night. I titled this section ‘Scents of a Slow Morning’ because you can always smell the water buffalo before you can see them. A waterbuck also has very oily hairs so water can glide off of their backs, but this oil also gives off a strong odor. Finally, as we were driving alongside a family of seven giraffes, spread out across a large grassland, we learned about signals that trees send to one another! I’m not sure this counts as a scent, but I wanted to share. As giraffes start nibbling on tree branches and leaves, the trees release tannins into the air that signal to trees down wind that predators are in the area. The tannins make the leaves taste increasingly bitter to the giraffes to stop them from eating all of the leaves off of a single tree. Since other trees in the area have received the warning signals, giraffes have to cross large swaths of land to find sweet leaves that have yet to be alerted by their companions. Adaptations are awesome. I think our chameleon friend would agree.
Day 4- An Elephant Never Forgets (afternoon 03Jan2018)
After the first French family, and Dutch couple, we rode with another French family, and then finally a Dutch family. But on this drive, we noted that all of our safari comrades had checked out after lunch. Who would we ride with this afternoon? Lyton said that there weren’t any additional families joining, so we’d have a ride all to ourselves!?!? Would we care to visit the south side of the park since we hadn’t driven that far out yet with the other families? A resounding yes from the Spells-Forrest camp!
The afternoon sun was mild, and the road was definitely less travelled. We started with a lone male elephant on the side of the road, followed by some smaller sightings of a monkey, and a stork. The south side of the park was much greener with short trees and high shrubs, a very different setting to the open flatlands. When I noted that many of the trees were knocked over, Lyton said that elephants in the area can fell trees as they aren’t paying attention to what they bump into when feeding. He continued that elephants love these grounds because they are dense enough to keep predators out, and because they provide a lot of food for baby elephants. It was at this point Corey and I realised Lyton had brought us to this section of the park to find an elephant family. I’m still giddy remembering this moment.
Though we spent most of the afternoon without any elephant sightings, it was clear we were driving with a purpose. It’s unsurprising that the thing you want to see is the one that is most difficult to spot, a lesson learned from the water buffalo. You don’t go out telling your guide what you want to see, you let the animals come to you. Even knowing this, I still couldn’t stop hoping for elephants.
Without any elephants after an hour, we settled on a hyena den that was full of cousins and siblings all hanging out, curious about this new arrival– ‘an animal with an engine’. The hyena babies were emboldened by their numbers, I’d say, and we were the closer to this pack than we’d ever been before (see Corey’s video below).
Lyton heard the calls of the adult females coming home, and the youngsters left the side of our jeep immediately. We saw the hyena youngsters run up to smell her genitalia. Female hyenas have a small version of a penis which we didn’t believe until we saw them live. Lyton shared that this greeting is how the babies can learn the scents and smells of where the adults have travelled.
The shrill trumpet of an elephant broke our gaze with the hyenas. The four of us turned wildly to look at one another, and we all pointed in the same direction of where we heard the cry! From here, it was a high speed chase! Lyton reversed quickly from the hyena den, and we took off in a blur down the dirt road. When the road split, we idled the car to see if we could hear the elephants again and get a better sense of their location. We were met with silence. Lyton directed Johannes-Godfrey to get down from his tracking chair, and to wait on the side of the road to listen for them while we continued on!?! I was in shock that we’d leave him in the bush without any weapon or tools for protection! I was still caught up on the rule ‘never get out of the jeep’.
We drove about five more minutes down the road without any sightings so we retraced our steps. When we returned to Johannes-Godfrey, he said he’d heard something down another road. Within less than two minutes, we were driving alongside an entire parade of elephants! They were on my side of the jeep, and I just couldn’t contain myself. Corey was urgently requesting that I change camera lenses from a telephoto to a normal view, but I was in awe and didn’t want to look away for a second. I was the moment.
The elephants crossed in front of our jeep. The video shows one of them waving her trunk so closely to Johannes-Godfrey, probably a signal to give them some space. We saw the baby elephants exploring the water collected on the side of the road, while the mothers and aunties plodded ahead. Le sigh. I still can’t believe it. (The sidenote is that this was the worst round of pictures I took on the entire trip, and Corey is still shaking his head at me).
The day’s work was a success. The south side of the park was perfect, and I repeatedly thanked Lyton for being so thoughtful. He mentioned that he overheard Corey making fun of me getting teary-eyed at my first elephant sighting so he knew he’d try to get me close to some elephants from that point on. I still can’t believe how lucky we were, and you can guess what I talked about all through dinner that night.
Day 5- The Final Countdown (morning 04Jan2018)
We joked that because I’d seen elephants, we should try to set our sights on finding Corey’s favorite animal for the final ride: el leon. As there were no new guests arriving early enough for the 5:30am morning drive, we had another private tour! Our quartet could spend as much or as little time driving whatever roads we wanted. Lyton coyly radioed about any lion sightings and our first visit was to see two male lions! Lyton predicted these two were old enough to be out on their own to build their own pride, but also could have been kicked out as a perceived threat to the alpha male in their former family. Either way, they were graceful in this moment though they looked a bit hungry as well.
To continue our ‘private tour’, we went down to the watering hole to see if our hippo had any new friends, but alas, he wasn’t home. We did pick up the tracks of two white rhinos, and another male leopard! Corey also caught the brief glimpse of a jackal carrying a slain rabbit.
We came upon four lion cubs, who may have been closer to middle school aged kids, lazing about, waiting for their moms to return with food. Lyton informed us that while they were very vulnerable out here on their own, other predators wouldn’t try anything. Knowing that lions are so territorial, it would be a great risk to try to approach the cubs since it’s impossible to predict how near or far the adults would be to their young.
We were sad to say goodbye during our last lunch, but there was one more surprise! I looked up from the salad overflowing on my plate, and saw an elephant meandering in to drink from the lodge’s pond! All of the guests rose hastily from their seats to grab pictures, while our guides reminded us to keep our voices low amidst the excitement. We learned that the owner himself arrived that day, and he was the only one allowed to step off the porch to get a closer picture (see video below of the Khoka Moya owner).
The Honeyguide Khoka Moya lodge staff made this trip incredibly special. Massive shoutouts to Lyton and Johannes-Godfrey for their knowledge and their thoughtful nature around game drives. I’d suggest to everyone to take in a lot more than just the big five, and if you visit this team, you’ll get the experience of a lifetime on the Manyeleti game reserve.