Trekking through the bush on an African safari can make for a fair amount of physical rigor and a lot of excitement. You’ll see plenty of wildlife — mostly their tail ends, as they run away from you.
But for those who’d like to watch wildlife up close and at some leisure (but perhaps don’t have the time or resources to move to the African bush), or for people whose daily lives give them enough physical challenge, or for those who need a vacation from their vacation, wildlife can be enjoyed from a more relaxing vantage point: the game-viewing hides built over pans or watering holes, rivers and lakes. The serene quiet of a hide gives first-row seats as a variety of wildlife come to drink, bathe and play.
As environmental awareness and ecotourism continue to grow, the number of private nature reserves in South Africa is increasing. Most of these feature hides in convenient places, near the overnight accommodations. Our first night at KwaMbili Lodge in Thornybush Nature Reserve in Mpumalanga state, a herd of elephants visited the watering hole located just a few hundred meters from the dining area. From the shadows of the hide we watched their shadows, a mass of outlines in every size, new babies, adolescents and adults, including a massive bull.
The night highlighted our awareness of the elephants’ musky smell and their snorts and coos to one another. In the hide we were about 60 meters from the herd, closer than we could (or would want to) ever get to them on the ground. Though trying to keep as quiet as possible (the golden rule of viewing from a hide) it was hard to suppress a yelp of surprise when the matriarch trumpeted her displeasure and chased an unruly teenager away from the rest of the herd. Elephants can move quickly! We felt the vibrations of her trumpeting in our bodies as much as we heard them.
The hides in national and state parks were basic and utilitarian, with a bench for sitting and a counter to set your binoculars on. Hides at private reserves like KwaMbili, though, are set up for serious relaxing, with padded wicker chairs and footrests, and side tables to set down a cool beverage next to your field glasses.
At Mkuzi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal state, a riverbank hide overlooked what turned out to be a hippo playground. As the sun set, we watched hippos play, mostly youngsters jumping on top of one another, and babies and their mothers opening their jaws wide at each other and bellowing long “aaaaaaah” sounds, seeming to pretend that they were going to swallow one another whole. Crocodiles coasted by, just a sliver of their scales apparent on the calm water’s surface, but none of the hippos paid them any mind.
Mkuzi’s hides are highly popular with wildlife photographers, and it is easy to understand why. At some, you are in the middle of the animals’ watering hole! There are excellent views of wildlife enjoying the refreshment on three sides (the fourth being the entrance/exit).
In a hide, having the patience to sit still pays off. At Mkuzi we saw a baby rhino nursing from its mother, then practicing charges with an elder sister. The majestic but shy nyala (a kind of antelope) drank leisurely. An extended family of chacma baboons stayed at the pan for hours, providing a glimpse into baboon family life: children wrestled, siblings groomed one another, adult females scolded and embraced young and adult males seemed to ponder serious thoughts about the nature of life. It was like witnessing the baboons’ version of a day at the beach.
One of the highlights of the pan-viewing was beholding warthogs “a toilette,” as one of our French-speaking companions put it. Two families of warthogs rifled through the mud of the pan’s shores with a glee that was so infectious that I wished I could join them. The two adults then lay down to bake in the sun for a bit, and their young began to play the warthog version of that favorite Dr. Seuss game, “hop on pop.”
Kruger National Park is a kind of ultimate seated safari, in that visitors are not allowed out of their cars within the park (except on a small number of guided wilderness trails). Bordering Mozambique, Kruger is almost 2 million hectares in size, meaning that exploring Kruger equals undertaking a serious road trip. A minimum of five days is recommended to be able to get a good overview of the park.
The animals in Kruger are accustomed to vehicles: A guide told us that the animals think cars are just another species of creature! It makes for fantastic wildlife watching. We watched nearby while an unperturbed giraffe bent its knees for the long head trip down to a stream to drink, and with a flick of its head spit a long arc of water on the way back up. Rhinos, hyenas, and lions all nonchalantly passed within a few meters of our van. A herd of elephants crossed the road 10 meters in front of us, too, but the matriarch made a point of letting us know (by tossing her head, spreading her ears wide open, and mock-charging our vehicle) that we should keep our distance.
We did. We’d seen a photo in the nearby museum of a car that got stepped on by an angry elephant.
A few tips for potential seated safari-goers: Better wildlife viewing can be had in the South African winter (Japan’s summer), as the drier weather keeps vegetation low and brings more animals out to the waterholes. Reserve well in advance, as there’s serious competition for the limited spaces available. Make sure you take binoculars and, if you’re a photographer, a zoom lens.