I'm still pinching myself to believe that this actually happened...
Before we get started, I have to warn you that this is probably the most photo-heavy blog post you'll probably ever read, at least on WTW. Hopefully, you'll enjoy looking at them as much as I do, and I'll try to keep my "talking" to the minimum and let the pictures speak for themselves.
Having said that, the photographs are very much a one dimensional memory of the experience - you can't capture the different auras, quirks and unique behaviours of each animal anywhere close to how it feels in real life. I've compiled a very casual, non-edited video of the clips we took, which hopefully shows some of that magic.
So! Safari. How can I put this into words? It was so far beyond what I expected. We were excited to see the animals in the wild, and that's about all we knew of the safari experience. But my goodness, it is so much more. I know that a lot had to do with the lodge we chose to stay in, so let me tell you a little bit about Toro Yaka Bush Lodge.
When we were planning this trip back in the summer of last year, I did a lot of research. We knew we would be spending a good chunk of money for our South African trip, but we tried to stick to a budget and looked for a safari lodge that was below average in price but with excellent service, great food and well-reviewed game drives. Sounds like an unattainable dream, doesn't it? Well, Toro Yaka means "My Dream" in Northern Sotho (a local SA language), and this place deserves its name.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but my heart actually aches when I remember our stay there, because I miss it so, so much! It's the first place I've ever travelled to that actually made me cry as I left - it was that special.
It's a very small, boutique lodge, run by husband and wife team Steve and Nicole. Along with their amazing staff and our game ranger, Mike, and the rest of the guests (there were only ever 8 people or less, including us), it has a very intimate feel, and you get to know one another beyond the daily pleasantries. We all ate breakfast and most of our dinners together - they varied the dinner setting each day, from private tables for each couple, an amazing Boma dinner with all of us surrounding a bonfire, to all sitting together at a candlelit table by the pool.
As for the food? Just as good as we'd hoped, from the raving reviews we had read. We had the breakfast of kings, with eggs made to order with every trimming you could think of, lunch was something fresh, light and healthy, and dinner was a generous three course affair. There wasn't a single dish I had and didn't enjoy, which is frankly incredible in an all-inclusive hotel.
But what really stays with me is the spirit of the people. The staff who always had a smile on their faces and would greet us every time we came back from a game drive, who remembered what drinks we wanted to have when and our egg preferences in the morning, who laughed at us and with us and were relaxed yet attentive.
The lodge itself is beautiful - it feels luxurious without the price tag, the rooms have private decks, outdoor/indoor showers, double sinks and are kept pristine. They leave a bedtime story for you every night, which I thought was so lovely! The infinity pool right in the middle of the bush is quite a sight, and during the down time between game drives, we'd soak up the sunshine and laze around the pool. It's located in the Balule Nature Reserve, which is part of the Greater Kruger Park and is joined to Kruger Park with no fencing in between, which means that the animals roam around in the complete wild and an area that is bigger than Wales!
Let me attempt to tell you just how incredible, emotional and humbling our game drive experiences were. The daily routine was a wake up call at 5:15am, gather at 5:45am and start our drive just as the sun was peeking out. We'd watch the sunrise as Mike showed us tracks in the road of an elephant, a leopard, or whoever else had been roaming around during the night. Every single drive was different, and you would never quite know what was around the corner. Even the drives on which we didn't see any "big" animals, we loved seeing the antelopes, learning about how Mike and Steve could know where a predator might be from the bird calls, and simply revelling in the stunning landscape. Each drive was 3 hours long, and they were some of the shortest and most mesmerising 3 hours I'd ever spent. Both Steve and Mike (and in fact, all the staff) are so fiercely passionate about what they do, and we were astounded by their knowledge and skill. Their love for the bush is contagious, and it gave us a deeper insight into life amongst these animals.
On our morning drives, we'd stop for coffee half way through and Mike would choose a different location each time. For our evening drives (which started at 4pm), they packed everyone's drink of choice (mine was G&T almost everyday!) and we'd enjoy them while watching the absolutely breathtaking sunsets. Again, everyday was from a different spot, and the only sunsets I've ever seen to rival these have been at the Maldives!
Can you tell that I'm putting off talking about the animals themselves? Simply because I know that no words can to justice, but I'll give it a go.
We were extremely lucky that Steve and Mike are the kind of rangers who believe in quality over quantity. Many other safari camps pride themselves in guaranteed sightings of the "Big Five", they speed along from one animal to the next, and they want to take their guests to see as many as possible. Which is absolutely fine if that is what you'd enjoy more, but E and I were so glad that this wasn't their approach.
We were in fact incredibly fortunate in that we did see the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, leopard, rhino and lion), but for us, the time we got to spend with each of them, and the other animals, were what made such an impact - not the fact that we ticked them off the list. Most of the animals (aside from the smaller antelopes, who are sadly prey to most who surround them, so are understandably jumpy) are very accustomed to having the safari jeeps around them, so they pay you no attention at all (although the elephants did come very close to say hello!) - there's no feeding, touching, or interfering in any way at all, so we really did feel that we were on their turf, simply being very privileged visitors.
The first time we saw two enormous elephants suddenly appear around the corner... what a feeling that was. And then when they came right up to us and were inches away from our faces, I swear my heart stopped for a full second! And then we spent an hour and half with them, just watching them eat, walk from tree to tree, drink from the waterhole, and really see the changes in their faces, their movement, and be wrapped in their wise, gentle aura.
The lions look deceptively harmless when lying around and napping (which is how they spend most of their day), but when they saunter from sun to shade and so close to the jeep they're in touching distance, you can tell that they know their place. They don't fear much, and they are stunning to look at. The buffalos eat and sleep all day long, staying close to the herd and looking at you from time to time with their "couldn't care less" expression. The giraffes were one of our favourites! They are gorgeous, and so foreign, and the moment one started running because E sneezed? Priceless.
One evening, Mike (unbeknownst to us) had made up his mind to find a leopard that he'd seen the tracks of for a couple of days. We had had a fairly calm drive with not many sightings, but as always, I was loving every minute. We'd enjoyed the gorgeous sunset, and once it got dark, we were off again on our nocturnal drive. Mike was using a spotlight, and at one point, he stopped the jeep and he said, let's just sit here for a few minutes and listen, and look at the stars. It was one of my favourite moments, hearing the hippos grunting, the birds calling, rustles and crackles from the distance. After a while, Mike took off again and I assumed that he hadn't heard anything of much interest (no idea why I thought that, since the man could literally hear an elephant breaking a branch from miles away). Off we went for a few more minutes, and the he suddenly stopped and said, "there's the leopard", pointing to what looked like a standard bush.
When he took us closer, and I saw those hypnotic spots on the leopard for the first time, I was speechless. We all were. We followed him as he woke up and started walking around, marking his territory with his scent, and he was magnificent.
The very rare black rhino, of which there are now less than 5,000 in the world due to poaching, was the last of the big five that we saw. After a very distant sighting the day before, we finally managed to find her tucked away the next evening, and it was so worth the wait. They look prehistoric, and the way they move is strangely elegant despite their stocky build and menacing horn.
I could go on and on about all the other animals we saw, but I'd be here forever.
This life-changing experience, along with the fun few days we had in Cape Town afterwards (which I'll write about soon), made this trip possibly my favourite of all time. Of course, it's impossible to compare it to something like the Maldives, but it moved me in a way that I didn't expect, and will never forget. I recommend you "like" Toro Yaka's Facebook page for a glimpse of the safari experience - they post brilliant photos and videos, which I've been keeping up to date with ever since we left!
I hope we can return there one day - they have a larger than average number of guests who pay them return visits, and now I absolutely know why. It's definitely one for your bucket list.