Jenss Family Travels: The Big Five

Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.

What does going to a Grateful Dead concert and a safari game drive have in common? You never know what you are going to get and each one is different. This may seem like a strange analogy, especially to those who have not been to Africa or care very much about psychedelic rock music, but as someone who attended over 100 Dead shows and was about to embark on his fourth safari, it seems like a very fitting description.

Something else I can tell you about going on safari is that it’s life-changing. That may sound a bit dramatic, but I can assure you that most people who have had the privilege of viewing wildlife in Africa would rank it among the greatest experiences of their lives. It certainly was for me and Carol, and for more reasons than one. We actually got engaged on our first game drive over 16 years ago during “sundowners” (I’ll explain what those are in a moment). I was so overcome with what we had just seen (a leopard stalking an impala) and the magnificent beauty of the bush, that I proposed right then and there, with little care that our ranger and two other couples were there with us.

So we were more than a little excited about our arrival at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve in the Sabi Sands near Kruger National Park in South Africa, and not only about seeing the animals again, but because Tyler and Stefan were with us. In fact, there were six kids in our three-family entourage, all between the ages of 9 and 14 (seven if you count seven-year-old Georgia who we met while there).

I was also a bit anxious. I had raised the expectation level pretty high for my friends, telling them all about the amazing sightings we witnessed when I was last here 18 months ago with the National Geographic Kids Expedition, including a leopard kill and a pack of 16 wild dogs hunting impala.

So to hedge my bet, I reminded them that you never know what you are going to see while on a safari. This isn’t a zoo and there are no guarantees. This was also summer time in southern Africa, which means it’s the rainy season. All the rain makes the grasses grow higher and the trees greener, which means the game is typically harder to find. The pressure was on. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the action to begin.

A typical day on safari consists of two game drives: One in the morning before breakfast and the other in the late afternoon and evening before dinner. Our first outing was on the latter, after 4 o’clock high tea. These outings typically leave around 4:30 p.m. and go until sunset, or “sundowner” time.  That’s when you stop and get out of the vehicle to stretch your legs and have a cocktail. It might just be the best happy hour on the planet. It’s usually in an amazing location overlooking a brilliant sunset, with hors d’oeuvres that include impala cubes and dried mango, and as long as you are at a safe distance, some (non-predator) wildlife to round out the view. Then you get back in the jeep and drive another hour or more in the dark with the tracker using a high-powered spotlight to illuminate a whole new set of nocturnal creatures, including owls, chameleons, and even crocodiles. This is also the time when lions and leopards go out on their hunts, and if you’re fortunate like I was 18 months earlier, you just might witness a kill, the jackpot of all safari sightings.

Within 45 minutes of leaving the lodge on our first drive, we spotted the much-sought-after and usually not easily seen leopard. They’re an amazing sight to behold no matter how many times you’ve seen one.  Better still, it was eyeing some possible dinner, although it seemed to lose interest a short while after our arrival. What’s so surprising about this encounter and others like it is just how close you can get to these wild predators and what little interest they seem to have with your presence. The pride of 15 lions we saw later in the week was particularly unconcerned with us being there, all except the cubs who demonstrated a mild sense of curiosity. The trick is not to stand up or stick any arms or legs out of the jeep. This is guaranteed to get their quick attention and possibly very undesirable consequences.

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Morning game drives start with a 5 a.m. wake-up knock on the door by your ranger –  a routine that certainly impacts your evening plans the night before. By 5:30, you’re back in the jeep after a cup of coffee and a croissant.  There are no “sunrisers” during these outings. Instead there’s a morning tea and biscuit break before coming back between 8:30 – 9:00 a.m. for breakfast.

So how did this rigorous schedule of early morning wake-up calls and sometimes long intervals between animal sightings work out with all the children?  Marvelously!  It’s no newsflash to say that girls and boys just adore animals, particularly babies, which we saw plenty of. It was also wonderful to see just how much they appreciated the whole experience, for if I’ve learned anything on this trip, it’s never to underestimate the interest level and enthusiasm children have for stuff.  And then there was Sabi Sabi itself, which did a terrific job catering to them.  An activity kit featuring “The Big 5” (lion, rhino, leopard, Cape buffalo and elephant) they’d likely see while on safari was included in each room. There were also had two swimming pools, which gave them a chance to cool down and burn off all their excess energy during the downtime in between outings.

And finally there were the rangers and trackers, without whom the whole thing would have been a bust. I’ve been advised that a safari is only as good as the guides you have with you. In our experience, the Sabi crew were top-notch, tracking down everything from wild dog to dung beetles and engaging the kids every step of the way. They even managed to stump the boys with a riddle that’s quite appropriate for where we were: Which side of a zebra has more stripes? . . . The outside!

Photos: Rainer Jenss

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