We woke up in the quaint coastal town of St Lucia to the smell of the Indian Ocean and the rustling of branches as the vervet monkeys made their way across the property. The temperature was perfect for sitting outside to enjoy coffee and breakfast, and the bright patch of green grass surrounded by sub-tropical trees made for the perfect playground for the children to run in circles playing tag. The laughter was carefree and the contentment undeniable.
This morning, Hayden’s family joined the trip, as his 2 sons are the same age as the children in the group. Watching the children hit it off with such immediacy exemplified the beauty of youth! It was like old friends seeing each other for the first time in many years.
First stop: the beach!!
A pristine coastline of white sand, vegetated sand dunes, and the Indian Ocean awaited us for a few minutes of fun in the sand and surf. Now, this entire group can proudly say they have played in the Indian Ocean!
This was to be followed up with a unique boat excursion down the St Lucia Estuary system. The 2-hour boat ride brought the group within feet of hippo and crocodile, even seeing the latest additions to the pod: Baby hippos!! This was a major highlight for many in the group!
On To Somkhanda
After lunch at a local St Lucia restaurant, we made our way to a secluded game reserve called Somkhanda, where we would be staying for the next 2 evenings. Somkhanda is a wild African park on old community land. It is owned by the local Gumbi tribe, but they allow operators to take care of the reserve with the agreement that they will train and employ members of the local community in the operations and management of the property and wildlife.
We arrived just as the sun was setting, and offloaded ourselves from the van into Open Safari Vehicles. It was a 7km drive into the heart of the park on the OSVs to reach our campsite, where tents and a warm braai (traditional South African barbeque) was awaiting us, expertly prepared by our camp cook, Xolani. We ate dinner and told stories around the campfire and under the South African night sky. It was the perfect way to end a day!
The Next Morning
We woke up to evidence of elephant and leopard in our camp. The spoor, dung, and broken branches painted the picture that we had all had in our heads that prior evening when listening to the snapping of branches in the near distance. Excitement was in the air. With Hayden and Themba as our guides, we broke up into 2 OSVs and headed out into the reserve.
Note: The previous day, on the way to Somkhanda, we had stopped to pick up another guide who was to be with us for the next 2 nights. His name is Themba and he and Hayden have been in the guiding business for many years. Themba is an expert bird guide, and a member of the Zulu community, so he is a wealth of knowledge in both birdlife and culture in Kwa-Zulu Natal. His expertise and genuinely wonderful demeanor was a welcome addition to our time in Somkhanda!
The morning air was cold as we criss-crossed the reserve, exchanging glances with black-backed jackel, giraffe (and babies too), kudu, nyala, impala, falcons, and scores of birds. Our hope to spot leopard or African wild dog was to no avail, but what a beautiful morning it was, with still much more to see in the bush!
After a quick break to stretch our legs and let the kids burn off some energy, we were given the opportunity to visit a hidden boma on a hilltop in the reserve, where they were holding 3 lions (1 male, 2 females) for release into the wilds of the park within a few weeks. Lions do not currently habitate in Somkhanda, so these wild lions will be the first to be introduced to the property. When bringing in new lions to a reserve, it requires about a 10 week stint in an enclosed area (for monitoring) while the lions adjust to their new companions and new surroundings. This allows for a less stressful transition for the lions, which in turn helps survivability for the lions as well as safety for the surrounding communities.
The lions were beautiful, and we sat in silence as we watched them bathe in the sun and the cool morning breeze.
After the game drive, we had a brunch and took some downtime in the camp. While many of the kids were resting, we took notice of nearby sounds and realized that elephants were very nearby. With some stealth tracking, and myself walking right up onto a big elephant bull, we found them just across the road. A few of us sat in the shadows as the bulls made their way across the road, a mere 25 yards from us, like silent house-sized phantoms floating through the bush. It was invigorating!
An afternoon walk through the bush with the local reserve manager had the kids enthralled, spotting spoor (animal tracks) and learning about plant-life, insects, mammals, and more as we traipsed down well worn animal trails. There is nothing like a bush-walk to bring us closer to nature and the living intricate world of Africa.
Finally, we ended the evening with another amazing braai and roasting marshmallows around the fire.
Each day brings something new, and we are all excited to enjoy it!