As the adrenaline wore off from our bungee jumping, skydiving, and sandboarding fun over the previous few days on the Garden Route, we made the last minute decision to visit a private game lodge for another safari. The Garden Route Game Lodge has brochures in seemingly every hostel along the Garden Route boasting the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo, and rhino) and inexpensive drives. Due to our lack of great luck in Addo Elephant Park we decided for the first time to go to a private game park.
The Garden Route Game Lodge is located just off the N2 freeway which meant we would have passed it anyway on our drive from Mossel Bay to Cape Agulhas, where we’d be heading after the lodge. After parking we headed into the nice looking lodge and paid our $25 USD each for a two to three hour guided drive. We hopped into the open air safari truck, excited to hopefully see the big five again.
Our guide was a younger Afrikaner whose first question was the typical, “What animals do you guys want to see?” While the other passengers in the truck gave their answer, I responded with the hardest to spot of the big five, the leopard.
“Good luck, I’ve been working here for three years and have never seen one,” was his response.
“So much for the big five,” I thought. Although they advertise it, the park indeed does not have leopards as we came to find out later on.
“What we’re going to do,” the guide explained, “is drive straight to the lions, which means we’ll pass lots of other animals on the way, but we won’t stop for them. The longer we take to get to the lions, the less time we can spend with them. After seeing them we’ll see all of the other animals and take our time.”
The problem anyone who has been on an African safari should have with that statement is that you can never know where lions or most other animals will be unless someone has just seen them and told you where to go, which wasn’t the case here. We drove for 15 minutes or so through some fenced off countryside, with the freeway visible at most times and power lines running through the property. The truck slowed down as we passed over a series of electrified wires on the ground and big fences, which led us into the lion area.
The lion area was a relatively small (large compared to a zoo, but that’s a sad comparison to make in Africa) fenced area where four lions – one male and three females – were kept. Our guide proudly showed off the lions from 40 meters or so away, where we could glimpse two of their heads from time to time. He smugly rattled off facts about lions in South Africa, including how lions are overcrowding the country and they have to be culled the way they currently are or the country could be overrun with lions. When I asked how many lions there are in the country, he informed us there are 900 in the wild and 2,000 captive lions; in other words according to his sketchy math there are less captive and wild lions combined in all of South Africa than in just Serengeti in Tanzania alone. We were told about how springbok are also overcrowding the country, which lions would typically eat, however I refrained from pointing out the obvious of increasing the lion population, or reducing it more slowly, in order to reduce the springbok population.
As I was mentally turning my ears off to reduce the amount of sad, inaccurate information getting into my head, we drove past some scattered ostriches and came across the park’s two giraffes. It was interesting seeing a giraffe sitting down as it isn’t common in the wild. They typically have predators to worry about, but as our guide informed us here, the lions are fed by humans and the prey animals are too expensive to allow them to get eaten.
While driving toward the four rhinos in the park one of the other passengers in our safari truck pointed out what I had been staring at, the park’s lone cheetah. I was unable to decide if it was a tree stump or an animal as I stared, however as the guide drove toward it we saw it clearly was a cheetah. The beautiful cat walked just a few meters from our truck, looking exceptionally skinny and I noticed something around it’s neck. Our guide told us the cheetah had a GPS tracker on it’s collar, as it would be a problem if the cat escaped and they couldn’t find it again.
We drove over a hill just past where the cheetah had been and we came across two large rhinos. Our guide stopped briefly before promising something better just down the hill. From a short ways off we saw another rhino walking along, and as we got close we noticed a small boulder next to it. The boulder turned out to be something we hadn’t seen before, a baby rhino! While almost the entire drive had been a huge disappointment so far, the adorable baby rhino made up for a lot of it in terms of our experience, but not in terms of ethical behavior on the park’s part.
As we wrapped up our drive we were taken into another fenced area which was a bit smaller than the lion enclosure and barren besides the grass and a few bushes growing. This area was where they kept the park’s two elephants. Elephants typically eat as much as 170 kilos and as many as 20 hours per day and a big chunk of that typically comes from tree bark. The two sad looking elephants were the last animals we saw as we left the first and likely last private park we would visit.
Feeling disappointed in the experience, although in love with the tiny baby rhino, we drove toward our next destination, the southernmost point of the continent of Africa, Cape Agulhas. The cape was quite a drive from the game lodge, and after two and half hours of driving we finally made it. After walking a short distance we came across a metal sign saying we had made it to the southernmost point of the continent!
We walked around for a bit, admiring the coast and nice weather, and then headed north an hour and a half to the town of Hermanus. Hermanus is a beautiful town on the southwest coast of South Africa and is known for it’s great white shark cage diving. Our hostel, Hermanus Backpackers, was really nice and had a homey atmosphere with two communal kitchens and nice common areas. The girls cooked spaghetti carbonara that evening that we ate next to the fattest cat any of us had ever seen and a group of Italians that condemned our food in Italian for a few minutes before they were able to move on to their own meals.
The next morning we hopped in our Toyota rental car around 6am and headed off to Gansbaai, a 45 minute drive where the ships depart for shark cage diving. We had our included breakfast and paid our 995 rand, or $65 USD at the time, and headed into the boat for our 15 minute ride to the spot with the great whites! The boat was pretty crowded with around 25 people on it and all of us trying to get wet suits and get them on since the water is incredibly frigid. I had gone shark cage diving with the same company a year and a half prior and happened to go with the same company again because Hermanus Backpackers discounts your dorm bed from 150 rand per night to 50 rand if you shark cage dive with them.
Once we arrived at the site and were all in wet suits the crew of the boat started chumming the water. They take a mix of fish blood, meat, and whatever else ends up in the large bucket and pour it into the water to attract the sharks. After the sharks come near the crew hooks a tuna head to a rope and throws it into the water directly in front of the cage, which is attached to the side of the boat and sits 80% or so below water. We hopped into the cage and immediately felt the icy water seep into our wet suits.
While in the cage you’re not wearing any breathing apparatus so the term “diving” is a bit misleading. When a shark comes close the man pulling the tuna head yells for you to go underwater, and you hold your breath and submerge for 10 to 20 seconds, seeing a great white within centimeters from your hands at times. Sharks have a sense of magnetic fields, which is partially why they don’t typically get any part of themselves inside the cage, despite the large holes where they possibly could. They see the cage as a solid object without holes in it, and try to avoid hitting it, although sometimes they aren’t successful.
We had a great time on the boat, spending a few hours watching the sharks from under and above water. Once we got back we showered off, ate the provided lunch, and drove back to our hostel to pick up Sissy’s friend that decided to skip the adventure.
Our last stop before reaching our final overland destination on our trip through Africa was Simon’s Town, a two hour drive from Hermanus and just outside of Cape Town. Simon’s Town is known among other reasons, for it’s resident penguin colony at Boulders Beach. The small penguins laze around on the beach, often sunning themselves, swimming in the water, and grooming themselves. We paid our 65 rand, or $4 USD at the time and headed along the wooden walkway down to the beach. Once we arrived at the end of the platform we were surrounded by African penguins!
We were in a rush to return our rental car on time, so unfortunately we had to skip walking further outside the entrance gate and to the left to go to the part of the beach people can walk freely near the penguins on. Our next stop was The Mother City, Cape Town!