Like an elephant in the room, most people who hear we've been to South Africa are very curious about one thing. But rarely will anyone mention that one thing. It might seem rude to jump straight to the point they're most intrigued by. Or maybe, they think, maybe they just have an outdated view of South Africa and maybe that doesn't really happen there anymore. So instead of asking, they sit and wait patiently through our stories, and hope that maybe we'll bring it up ourselves.
So here it is for all the world to see. The answer to the question on everyone's lips about our most recent travels. The answer that will, undoubtedly, make those who love South Africa cringe.
Are you ready?
Okay, here it is:
The answer is no. No, we didn't go on any safaris or to any game parks while we were in South Africa.
(You thought I was talking about something else, didn't you? Don't worry, we'll probably cover that topic in another post. But first, on to the actual elephant in the room. Or, to be precise, the elephants and lions and leopards in the game parks of South Africa and why we didn't go visit them.)
When we first started planning our trip to South Africa, we assumed we'd be going to a game park. We assumed this because:
#1) wild animals are pretty awesome;
#2) we have an ongoing, near daily commitment to elephants in particular;
#3) that's what you DO when you go to South Africa; and
#4) see answers #1, #2, and #3
So we read the guidebooks and travel blogs. We talked to friends and family who'd been on safaris. We looked at photos. We checked out websites for public game parks, private reserves, guided driving safaris, and guided walking safaris.*
(*Note: A lot of folks who've been to SA will notice one thing I'm not mentioning here as an option for visiting the animals. It's the option that most folks choose to do, but it wasn't something that was an option for us. More on that later.)
But the entire time we were reading and talking and daydreaming about going to a game park in South Africa, well, something was tickling at the back of our minds. Something was making us ask, quietly and just to ourselves at first, the unthinkable.
And eventually that something made each of us ask the other, "Do we really want to go to a game park on our first trip to South Africa?"
Alright, you've waited patiently to hear exactly why it is we didn't go see the happy little animals in South Africa. So here we are. May I present to you – in no particular order – all of the reasons we did not go to any game parks while in South Africa:
Reason #1: We see this as the first of many trips to South Africa
Some folks, even long-term travelers, see travel or traveling to a particular country as a once in a lifetime thing. We don't. And we always enjoy leaving something else to look forward to for next time.
Reason #2: We felt more focused on family, people, culture, and history for this trip
Tim has a very meaningful family history in South Africa. I have an interest in race and politics. (In university I majored in international politics with a particular focus on race. Nerdy = me.) And both of us are usually drawn to the people of a country more than anything else. Because we would be spending the first week of our trip with family and exploring family history, it felt like the people and cultures of South Africa were a better focus for this particular trip.
Reason #3: We adore animals (clearly!), but neither of us were really in the mood for a safari this time around
This one is difficult to explain. It sounds like it's similar to #2, but it's actually very different. For some reason, even the idea of visiting a game park this time around just didn't feel like a good fit for us.
Reason #4: It's freaking expensive
Like it or not, this was a factor. But it wasn't the only factor. And, had we truly wanted to go to a game park, then we would have spent the money. (I mean, given we didn't blink an eye at spending nearly $4,000 to see the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands.)
But this point reminds me: Earlier I mentioned that some folks would notice we omitted a possible option for ways to see animals at the game parks. Specifically I talked about looking into public game parks, private reserves, guided driving safaris, and guided walking safaris. What I didn't mention was self-guided driving safaris. From our research, self-guided drives seem to be the most popular (and vastly more affordable) way to go on a safari. Instead of staying at one of the most luxurious lodges or roughing it in a basic bush camp (each of which provide you with varying levels of guided morning and nighttime drives, food, and lodging), you drive your own rental car through the park, cook or buy your own food, and camp at designated places along the way. All of these things, as you can probably guess, save a considerable amount of money.
The only problem with that option? We weren't going to rent a car in South Africa. No, not even for a safari.
(Yup, we totally know not renting a car for South Africa is generally unheard of, but we'll touch on our reasons for that decision in another post.)
Reason #5: There are game parks in other countries too
This will not be our last trip to Southern Africa (see #1). And depending on which game parks you're comparing, some of the parks in other countries are more affordable (win!), less crowded (win!), and have the same animals (win again!).
Reason #6: If we had to prioritize, we'd prefer to go on a gorilla trek
If we're perfectly honest, what we'd really rather do if we have to lay down a boatload of cash for wildlife viewing, is visit the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. And given our cash is finite, we figured we'd rather save toward that experience first.
Reason #7: We didn't want our time to become more scheduled
Traveling hedgehogs are creatures of habit. And one of our habits (perhaps paradoxically given that last statement) is to not travel with a set itinerary. We like waking up each morning and deciding where to go next. We don't make hotel reservations ahead of time. And we don't book all our buses or trains or flights in advance.
And so, you can imagine, how much of a change this trip was for us. We knew exactly where we were going to be for the first seven nights. (Specifically we would be with Tim's awesome great aunt and great uncle, and then we would be at the amazing farm where Tim's dad grew up.) We had things planned, arranged, and reserved.
And at one point before the trip, I kid you not, this gave me hives.
No, not because I wasn't excited to go to the places where we had plans. And not because I wasn't excited to spend time with family. But because we actually had locked-in plans. Hell, for the first time in the history of our traveling together, we actually had a reservation somewhere.
Hives, I tell you. Hives.
And so, knowing how far in advance game parks must be booked, we realized it just wouldn't work for this trip. We already had one week (out of our three weeks) in South Africa planned. Beginning to plan the second week too would have meant changing the way we like to travel. And who wants to do that?
(Side note for those African wildlife fans who might be wondering: Don't worry, we know you usually have to book gorilla treks well in advance. And that's fine. We'll do that. Because, like visiting Tim's family and visiting the farm, it'll be worth it to plan that far in advance for something that special. Even so, I'll probably still get hives.)
So, there you have it. The reasons we did not go to any of the game parks in South Africa.
They're probably not glamorous reasons, but they are the real reasons. And they're reasons that a lot of people might feel pressured to just ignore before their own South Africa adventure. It can be easy to get swept away by those things we think we must see, and game parks are such a huge part of most people's trips to South Africa. Indeed, they're often the highlight of a trip.
And I'm sure, one day, visiting a game park will be a highlight of a trip for us too. (We are, I confess, particularly drawn to the guided walking safaris.) But, this time around? I'm happy we didn't ignore our reasons. And I am happy we didn't go to see any of the game parks on this trip to South Africa.
And who knows, maybe this post will help someone else planning a trip realize they don't have to go to a game park after all. Or maybe it'll help solidify the fact that they really do want to go.
So I've dispensed with one elephant in the room about South Africa. In a future post, I might attempt to address another topic about South Africa that people are, understandably, usually too nervous to mention.
To be honest, I'm a bit nervous to talk about it too. But it's a topic I take a personal interest in, so I'd like to try.
This next elephant in the room is a topic people feel incredibly self-conscious even bringing up. No one feels like an expert in it, they just have feelings that are difficult to express. And everyone is afraid they're going to say something which will be misinterpreted, or that they'll sound backward or uncultured.
I thing people feel like there's a right and a wrong answer, when really it's much more nuanced than a simply black/white discussion.
I assume you know the topic I mean, of course.
Oh come on, you know.
I'm talking about South African wine. Everyone gets nervous talking about wine. But there's a topic I think we should explore: Is South African wine really all that it's made out to be?
I might touch on that sometime in the future. Though, to be really honest, we mostly drank beer.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones: