“The eye never forgets what the heart has seen.” – African proverb
By Miriam Raftery
Photos and videos by Mark and Miriam Raftery; Video editing Jacob Pamus
September 7, 2023 (South Africa) -- Bugling elephants emerge on the trail ahead of our safari vehicle. A white cloud of sacred ibises ascends from shimmering lake to sky. An endangered black rhinoceros raises its horn, a striking sentinel on the savannah as dusk approaches. Silhouettes of thorny acacia trees sway in the breeze against a flaming orange African sunset.
These are memories that I will never forget. My recent journey through South Africa has, indeed, captured a part of my heart.
It all started with winning an auction prize: a six-night stay at Zulu Nyala, a private game reserve in eastern South Africa with approximately 4,500 acres –home to around 40 species of animals. The reserve includes a mountaintop stone lodge, a second lodge, Hemmingway-style luxury glamping tents, and comfortably-appointed cottages, as well as a Zulu village. This preserve is for photo safaris only –no hunting, as the owner is dedicated to wildlife conservation.
My husband and I, along with a group of other guests, were assigned to a Range Rover with Chris, an expert guide who proved adept at tracking the preserve’s abundant wildlife. Camaraderie quickly formed among our group; we sat together at the bountiful meals provided, enjoyed tropical drinks such as African sunrises at the in-house bar, and signed up for some side excursions. Our group included a National Geographic employee and her sister, a blissful pair of newlyweds, and a retired military couple along with their daughter.
“If there were one more thing I could do, it would be to go on safari once again,” wrote Karen Blickson (who also wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen), author of Out of Africa.
Indeed, each outing on the safari trail had new surprises awaiting us—such as a spotted serval cat on the prowl, a trio of elephants marching straight up to our vehicle, sparring impalas, hippo heads popping above the waters of a pond, and birds that looked as if they’ve been painted with a rainbow palette of colors, such as the lilac breasted roller.
There is a sad story behind preservation efforts in Africa: poaching. Organized crime rings have slaughtered rhinos in both private and public game preserves, ruthlessly cutting through fences, using night-vision goggles and even tracking GPS off images posted live on social media. A rhino horn can be sold for $100,000 or more on the black market for use in Chinese medicine, even though the horns are made of keratin, the same material as fingernails, and have no scientifically documented medicinal powers.
Today, there are fewer than 5,000 black rhinos left in the world as African preserve fight to save those that are left. But there is hope.
Once, there were far fewer southern white rhinos, a species that has been brought back from the brink of extinction. In the late 19th century, only about 20 to 50 southern white rhinos were left in the wild. Thanks to conservation efforts, there are around 18,000 today.
On the other hand, sadly only two northern white rhinos are left in the world, both in Kenya. Scientists hope to save the species from extinction with frozen sperm and eggs, including sperm from the last male, which died recently at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The hope is to create test-tube embryos and implant them into females of a different rhino species, an effort now underway in Kenya.
Our journey took us through two national parks and two private reserves in South Africa. Some of these places have resorted to anesthetizing rhinos and cutting off their horns to save them from poachers. This doesn’t harm the rhinos, but does disfigure them. It’s also not a permanent fix – since the horns grow back over time.
At Zulu Nyala, the philosophy is, “If you can afford to own rhinos, you can afford to hire protection for them,” said Chris. Here, rhino poaching patrols include guards in camouflage gear, armed with automatic weapons. They watch over the rhinos from guard towers; some facilities utilize helicopters and snipers hiding in the brush. The danger is greatest on full moon nights, when it’s easiest to spot the massive animals—but also to spot the poachers. The guards are authorized to shoot to kill if necessary, since poachers now come armed with assassin-style weaponry including ammo capable of piercing body armor. Safaris at Zulu Nyala are now offered only during the safety of daylight hours, as a result.
We had up close views of both handsomely-horned black and white rhinos at Zulu Nyala, as well as numerous zebras, wildebeests, Cape buffalo, warthogs, giraffes including a newborn, monkeys, birds of prey, kudus, impalas, and nyalas; the latter is a type of large-horned antelope for which the place is named.
Of Africa’s big five (so named because they are the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot),Zulu Nyala has four: black rhinos, elephants, leopards, and Cape buffalo. Only the leopard, a nocturnal cat, eluded us.
To see lions, we visited the nearby Lion View preserve, where we saw a male lion, a mother and baby cheetah feasting on an antelope, jackals and more. Zulu Nyala is planning to add cheetahs soon, added bonuses for future visitors. There are several other side trip excursions as options, all with transport available from Zulu Nyala.
We also visited the nearby Hluhluwe-Imfoloze Park, a world-famous national preserve. There, we were fortunate to see a pack of African wild dogs, the rarest mammal on the continent, our guide informed us. A group of baboons blocked traffic on a roadway including a nursing baby, adolescents at play, and a far-from-shy mating pair. Seemingly every mud hole held a wallowing water buffalo – a fearsome animal that unlike elephants and rhinos, does not “mock charge,” our guide advised. If a Cape Buffalo runs towards you, it means business. This is an enormous park with a vast population of wildlife, but the size makes it harder to find any specific species on a given day.
We also signed up for a side excursion to Saint Lucia, where we took a river boat ride and saw dozens of hippos. On some trips, crocodiles are seen, but not on this day. There is a crocodile pond at Zulu Nyala, but the pair there did not emerge when we passed by. Hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa, killing more people than any other African mammal. Though vegetarian, a startled hippo is capable of biting a person in half, so avoid shoreline strolls or water excursions on any vessel small enough for a hippo to flip, such as canoes.
On the way back, we also stopped to dip our toes in the Indian ocean, which some travel writers have described as warm and calm. But on the day we visited, there were strong winds, high waves and the prospect of rip currents that dissuaded us from swimming.
We visited a Zulu village on site, where we were warmly met by the Zulu chief teaching us the traditional greeting, “sawubona,” which means “welcome.” He taught us about Zulu culture, from tribal tattoos to dowries (11 cows per bride; a man can marry three women). Visitors were encouraged to try their hand at spear-throwing or wielding a shield in hand-to-hand combat, as well as admiring hand-woven baskets and jewelry.
Zulu Nyala has a curio shop, where we couldn’t resist taking home some hand-carved wooden animals, soapstone bowls, Zulu beads, and tigers-eye jewelry. The grounds are lushly landscaped, with plenty of paths to amble along amid statues and mosaic depictions of wildlife. There’s wifi on site, and a library area for reading and relaxing, as well as the dining area and bar.
If you travel to this region of Africa, I highly recommend late April and early May, which is fall in the Southern equator. On our trip during that period earlier this year, the weather was pleasantly warm and sunny overall, but not hot, with highs in the 70s.
Most importantly, this is after the rainy season (though pack an umbrella, just in case). So we didn’t see (or feel) a single mosquito. Still, since malaria is endemic here, it’s wise to take prescription anti-malarial medication and use insect repellant with picaridin, since mosquitos in much of Africa have become immune to DEET. Also be cautious of snakes when walking about, since South Africa has several highly venomous species. Fortunately, we did not see any, nor did any of the guests during our visit. One more tip from staff: when not in your room, close and lock your windows, since mischievous monkeys have learned how to open the latches to climb inside and pilfer items.
Stepping off the porch of our cottage one evening, we came eye-to-eye with a magnificent nyala buck. Another evening, a herd of impalas grazed on the lawn next to our home-away-from-home, which had wifi access, sleeping room for up to five people, a sitting room, wicker porch furniture to watch the world go by, and a tub to soak away cares at day’s end.
Zulu Nyala is a two-hour drive via bus from the Durban airport, where a short flight can take you to the country’s major cities.
Our first stop in Africa was Johannesburg, where we took a day trip to Pilanesberg National Park. The highlight there was a “lion jam” that forced the park to stay open past dark, as a pride of about seven lions block traffic, idly strolling between vehicles and at times, lying down in front of them. We learned that when the park was closed during COVID, the lions grew accustomed to walking on the paved road – like all cats, preferring not to get their paws wet in the damp grasses.
In Johannesberg, we found a restaurant row of international cuisine including French, Turkish, Brazilian and more near the elegant Protea Fire and Ice hotel, which surprisingly had a vintage Hollywood theme.
Our last stop was in Capetown, a must-see if you can spare a few extra days. Our guide, Ameen, had been a student protester speaking out to stop Apartheid, racial segregation that ended just two decades ago. Ameen’s family, of mixed race, had their home bulldozed to make way for new housing for whites. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for years for leading the fight for freedom. After he was released, he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. Ameen showed us a balcony where Mandela gave his first speech as president; a statue in his honor stands there now. “I was there, across the street,” Ameen told us, adding that freedom seemed too good to be true; he feared a bullet would silence the dream—but fortunately, that didn’t happen.
Today, South Africa’s government is working to bring electricity to Black townships that never had it before. This is a good thing, but the government failed to build more power plants, and its coal-fired facilities are aging. That’s resulted in daily blackouts of up to four hours. Though this is challenging for residents, you’ll barely notice this as visitors, since major hotels and preserves have generators—so the lights will go out, then come back on moments later. But do bring a flashlight, and have it handy.
In Capetown, we savored a delicious dinner at the famous Gold restaurant. The feast entails an 11-course dinner with dishes from many African nations, including a variety of tangy, spicy, and colorful dishes. The evening included a lesson in tribal drumming for each dinner guest, as well as a show featuring colorfully garbed dancers, drummers, a marimba player and an acrobatic display of flips onstage.
Another dining adventure was at Hussar’s – a famous restaurant known its chocolate vodka cream martinis served warm; think of it as drinking dessert. We sampled ostrich steak, which is sustainably farm raised, and chateaubriand served flaming.
We also visited two botanical gardens, each abloom with vividly hued blossoms –many familiar to residents of Southern California, given the two regions’ similar climate zones. After much time spent sitting in safari vehicles, the gardens provided relaxing and safe spaces to stretch our legs.
Another highlight was a funicula ride up a cable to the top of Table Mountain, where a sign proclaims it one of tne of the modern wonders of the natural world. At the top, you will see rugged cliffs and sparkling blue ocean waters below; on a cloudless day, you can see all the way to the Cape of Good Hope.
South Africa is known for its wines, particularly the pinotage, the nation's signature blend of pinot noir and meritage. A day trip through the wine region included visits to two wineries, which served up savory cheeses paired with the vintages.
Our final adventure was a drive with a guide to the Cape of Good Hope, at the horn of Africa –the southernmost portion of the continent. You can hike to a lighthouse at the top with an observation deck from which you can see where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.
En route to the Cape, you’ll see rocky shorelines much like those in La Jolla, California with deep blue water and seals sprawled out, sunning themselves on the rocks. A pair of ostriches at the seashore, however, made it clear we were in another world.
Who knew that Africa has penguins? A short, easy stroll just before you reach the Cape takes you to a colony of endangered African Penguins on a balmy beach – not an iceberg in site. These are also called “Jackass Penguins” for a braying sound they can make.
We observed penguins swimming, incubating eggs, building a nest, and caring for chicks that looked like furry fluffballs. This is one of only two colonies on earth where this species of penguins still exist –and like so many creatures in Africa, their numbers have steeply declined due to habitat encroachment.
Come see these amazing animals in Africa –while these wildlife species are still here to see. A generation from now, if more is not done to protect them, they may vanish from this Earth.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “South Africa is the most beautiful place on earth. Admittedly, I am biased but when you combine the natural beauty…and the fact that the region is a haven for Africa’s most splendid wildlife…Then I think that we have been blessed with a truly wonderful land.”
VISIT SOUTH AFRICA: BID IN OUR AUCTION FOR A STAY AT ZULU NYALA
East County Magazine, the nonprofit media outlet that I founded in San Diego, will be auctioning off two week-long stays at Zulu Nyala—each for two people, along with guided wildlife outings twice daily and all meals --at a “Taste of Africa” benefit event on October 8 from6 p.m. to 9p.m. at the La Mesa Community Center's arbor room.
Tickets are now on sale here: https://www.eastcountymagazine.org/taste-africa-tickets-now-sale-oct-8-l...
The event will include live music and dancing with Buki Domingos & DSoul,wildlife conservation leader Coe LEwis from NSEFU speaking on wildlife protection efforts, African goods for sale, a raffle with fabulous prizes, silent auction, and live auction,plus Assemblyman Akilah Weber will speak and present awards to community leaders on diversity issues.