Stop everything you’re doing and put a safari at the top of your bucket list. I recently went on my second safari in South Africa, this time with a wonderful lodge called Chitwa Chitwa. As most of my travels start, last summer I found a cheap airfare deal to South Africa. I had been to South Africa before, but loved it so much I immediately jumped at the opportunity to go back.
Safari in Greater Kruger National Park
When you make the jump to go on a safari in South Africa, you’ll find most safaris are in Great Kruger National Park. Great Kruger is separated into two sections: Kruger National Park and the private reserves. Kruger is owned by the South African government so they have slightly different rules than the private reserves. Private game reserves are just that – privately owned. In the private reserves, there are dirt roads and the guides are able to drive off the roads at their discretion.
Each of the parks (Kruger included) used to have fences separating them. Years ago, Kruger and the private reserves dropped all the inner fences and left nothing but the outer fences to protect the animals. This allowed the animals to roam freely between Kruger and the private reserves, but keep unwanted things and people out of their land on the outskirts. The people who work in the lodges and in the Kruger area are so passionate about animals and it shines through their work – from the guides and the trackers to the transfer drivers and pilots.
So How Do I Get to South Africa?
Patience. Patience is what it takes to get to South Africa. Coming from the East Coast, there’s a non-stop flight out of JFK to Johannesburg. Out of Washington DC, there’s a direct flight to Johannesburg with a quick fuel stop (you don’t have to get off the plane!) in Ghana. Non-stop flights sound great, right? Well, the non-stop flight will still put you back 15 hours. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to deter you! It’s SO worth it, trust me. Once you get to Johannesburg, you either take a road transfer about 6 hours away to your lodge or you can fly to one of the airports closer.
If you don’t want to drive the 6 hours, you can fly to either Hoedspruit or Skukuza and be much closer to your safari. If you’re lucky enough to be close to one of the lodges with an airstrip, you can get even closer to your lodge. On the way there, we opted to take the flight to the Arathusa Airport about 10 minutes from Chitwa.
PRO TIP: The road transfers mostly leave before 7 am due to the long drive. If you want to take a road transfer there, you’ll have to stay the night in Johannesburg.
If you’re crazy like me and are always out for a good deal, you say to hell with the non-stop flights. We took FIVE flights to get to our safari. Yes, you read that right. FIVE! We flew from Newark to Toronto to London to Johannesburg to Skukuza to Arathusa. Safe to say we were exhausted and grumpy!
Finally Arriving at Chitwa Chitwa
We were picked up at the Arathusa airport in a Land Rover (safari style!) and drove 10-15 minutes to Chitwa Chitwa. When we arrived, I was immediately blown away. Chitwa Chitwa sits right next to the largest watering hole in Sabi Sands. Hippos are grunting left and right. Different animals come up to the watering hole to drink or bathe or play in the water. Chitwa is the definition of rustic luxury. All of the staff are so warm and kind no matter what their job was. I truly felt at home. After checking in, we headed to the room.
Arriving in our room was amazing. Our room was the closest to the main areas of the lodge. We opened the door and around the corner was the most stunning room I’ve ever seen. We had a beautiful sitting area with the biggest, comfiest bed. There was SO much room. Behind the bed was a desk area with closets. The bathroom was HUGE. We had a bathtub that overlooked our deck. THE DECK. Wow. I could’ve sat there for hours (spoiler alert: we did). We had our own private pool that overlooked the watering hole. Everything about the room was perfect.
The Big Five – Can You Name Them?!
If you don’t already know, you’re about to have the Big Five ingrained into your mind! Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! Just kidding, no tigers in Africa! The Big Five consists of lions, elephants, rhinos, water buffalo, and leopards. Last time I was on safari, I saw all of the Big Five except the water buffalo. I did see a leopard last time, but we didn’t get a good look of it so I was eager to see leopards this time. Boy, were we in for a treat.
Chitwa Chitwa is situated in Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Sabi Sands is known to have one of the highest concentrations of leopards in all of South Africa. On our first drive, we saw this beautiful leopard RIGHT NEXT to our lodge stalking some impala (or as our guide called them, McDonalds). It was so incredible to sit back and watch this stunning creature in its natural habitat as the sun was setting behind him. Knowing this was right next to our lodge was so mind blowing as well – we were really in the heart of these animals’ playground!
Safari Day Two
The next morning, we woke up bright and early at 5 am for our first game drive of the day. After a quick tea, coffee, and snack, we were off around 6 am. Because Chitwa is so small and intimate, you keep your same guide and tracker the whole time which is so nice. Our guide was a wonderful man named Surprise and our tracker was a great guy named Ralph. We were having no luck finding any animals for the first hour or so. Out of nowhere, we stumbled upon a family of Rhinos! There were 3 adults and 1 young one. You can even see the little birds who like to rest on the backs of the rhinos in the photos.
We saw one of the big five on our first night. Now we saw the rhinos, which marks off the second of the big five. That means three left to go! We left after watching the rhinos for a little while. We’re driving along the road when out of nowhere, Surprise turns the vehicle off the path and BOOM! There are what looks like a dozen lions lounging in the grass! I cannot believe Surprise saw them laying down behind the grass like they were!
There’s something so powerful about being so close to the king (and queens!) of the jungle, or of the bush as we should say! There were mostly female, with one or two younger males. All these lions were part of the Styx pride. They were absolutely stunning. If you pay close attention to the first photo below, you’ll see the one older female lion is actually blind in her right eye. Surprise said they believe she ran into a branch from a tree while she was running at some point which blinded her.
Time for a Bush Break!
Part way through each game drive, Surprise and Ralph would stop the car (in a safe spot!) and we’d all get out. They’d then set up a little drink and snack for everybody to enjoy while taking in our surroundings. During the afternoon drives, they’d make gin and tonics. It’s a long standing tradition to drink gin and tonics on safari. Something in the drink keeps the mosquitoes and therefore malaria away. While I’m not a big gin and tonic fan, you can’t really argue with science!
Now We’re on a Roll!!
We’ve now seen 3 out of the big five and we’re feeling great. Leopard, rhino, and lion have all been checked off the list. That leaves elephant and water buffalo left. I was most excited to see elephants because they’re one of my favorites. Surprise is driving us all around Sabi Sands trying to find us elephants. I saw so many elephants on my last safari and we hadn’t seen any yet! Surprise makes turn after turn with no elephants in sight. They’re so big, they can’t be that hard to find! We make a turn down one of the perimeter roads and there’s a HUGE elephant down a little ways. YAY!!!
Surprise is an expert at what he’s doing. He could tell the elephant was older because of the dents above his eyes. Elephants only get those dents later in life, so it’s a great indication as to how old they are. Surprise told us this elephant was a male and he could tell he wasn’t in the best of moods. We stayed back, but still got to admire this massive creature. He casually walked towards us and then over to some trees for a little treat. I was so happy to finally see an elephant!
Four Down, One to Go!
Last but not least – the elusive water buffalo. Water buffalos are the only animal of the big five I hadn’t seen on my first safari. I knew I had to see at least one this time. The job of the tracker is to see what’s coming up in front of us in the road to decide what animals to seek out. The tracker kept noticing fresh signs of water buffalos around (it was poop). We knew they had to be close. We then made a turn and saw a big mud puddle with three water buffalo! Wooooo, we finally found them!
We were on the way back to Chitwa Chitwa feeling great. Surprise got a radio call saying breakfast was ready and we were all hungry. We saw all the big five in just about 12 hours. Some people go an entire safari without seeing them, so we were so lucky. As if our luck couldn’t get any better, we stumble upon another male leopard! Surprise spotted him walking into the brush, so we headed off the trail to see him up close. We saw all the big five in a single game drive! That’s extraordinary. We couldn’t believe our luck. We stayed to watch the leopard for a few minutes before heading back for breakfast.
The Most Delicious Food in the Bush
The entire experience at Chitwa Chitwa was top notch. Our first night, we were treated to a bush braai which was DELICIOUS! A bush braai is essentially a barbecue out in the bush. But, let me tell you, Chitwa Chitwa puts on a mean bush braai. We were treated to several courses (it began with pizza and only got better!).
All the meals at Chitwa Chitwa were so yummy. Every morning after our game drive, we’d come back to the lodge, clean up, and go out to the deck for breakfast. We’d have a menu to order off of and a massive array of options to hold us over until the chef prepared our choice. There were fruits, breads, croissants, cheeses – it was incredible.
Every day after lunch, we’d have the option to hang out, get a massage, or go on a bush walk. We opted for the bush walk instead of the massage and learned SO much from our guide Surprise. After the bush walk, we were hungry and ready for lunch. Chitwa gives everybody a choice to either eat lunch out on the deck or have it in the room if you want to relax a bit. We chose to have it in the room and look out over the watering hole.
The Biggest Watering Hole in Sabi Sands
As I mentioned before, Chitwa Chitwa sits on the largest watering hole in all of Sabi Sands. The entire lodge looks over the watering hole and it’s full of life. There are constantly hippos in the watering hole. There are 3 different hippo families that share the watering hole. We even saw crocodiles on our last morning! The second day at Chitwa was a super hot day. After our morning drive, Surprise told us he wouldn’t be surprised if we saw larger animals at the watering hole later in the day to escape the heat. Sure enough, after lunch we were surprised by dozens of water buffalo! Shortly before our afternoon game drive, we saw elephants too!
Saying Our Goodbyes
Our time at Chitwa Chitwa unfortunately had to come to an end. We had such a wonderful experience that I’ll never forget. Our flight was in the early afternoon, but we had a 2 hour drive back. We weren’t able to make the morning drive because of our pick up time sadly. That means we also missed breakfast too. However, as we were leaving, the wonderful staff made us a to go bag for breakfast to eat on the drive. That just shows a small glimpse into the kindness that’s woven into every part of Chitwa Chitwa. If you haven’t previously considered a safari, you absolutely need to reconsider. It was absolutely life changing and I couldn’t thank Chitwa Chitwa enough. Make sure you check Chitwa Chitwa out when you’re planning your next safari!