Disclaimer: Once again, we feel obliged to say that we do not receive any kind of remuneration or freebies from any of the reviews that we give in this blog. We just had a really, really good time.
Shindzela is a tented camp with a healthy dose of luxury. You are truly out in the bush here; the camp is unfenced to the Timbavati reserve and you are walked to and from your tent at night by a man with a torch and a gun, just in case any critters have ventured in for an evening stroll. The tent is a tent, but with a solid roof, a door, a light, a fan and a private bathroom with a flush toilet and an excellent hot shower. The food is good but not fancy. There is a pool to sit at during the day if you can stand the heat but otherwise it’s the standard communal area in the middle of the camp with board games and books. There is wifi and its pretty punchy; which can be a positive or a negative depending on what kind of trip you are going for. Naturally there isn’t any air conditioning and it does get hotter than Hades in the middle of the day. The whole team that work there are brilliant and we absolutely loved it.
It takes about an hour to get from Timbavati main gate to Shindzela tented camp, mostly along more tracks that were not ideally suited to our polo, Jilly. It’s a testament to Caro’s love of sleep that she decided to have a snooze rather than gaze at the wildlife as we made our way to the camp, James carefully dodging potholes whilst also keeping a beedy eye out for impala, kudu and giraffe. We arrived at the camp with Jilly’s sump intact and our appetites whetted for our evening game drive. (For those of you who are like Caro and can only describe cars based on the number of doors and the colour, the sump is the base of the engine. #educatinglivi)
Shindzela has traversing rights over 6500 hectares of the Timbavati game reserve and the guides are also sometimes invited into the neighbouring properties if there is something particularly exciting to see. These properties are owned by private individuals who keep the land and lodges purely for their own personal use, though they are also unfenced to the rest of the park. This has given the James an additional dream of wanting to own a game reserve as well as a farm. Caro is totally fine with this idea so long as it ties in with her newfound, and perhaps even more unlikely, dream of never working again. Timbavati was completely different to Balule; the terrain was more savannah-esque, flatter and clearer, and the ground and roads were mostly sand, far easier for spotting tracks.
For various reasons, some of our most interesting sightings have not been caught on camera and so we are going to have to rely on our narrative skill to give you a proper taste of what Timbavati was like. The first such occasion was in the first 10 minutes of our first drive. We will preface the story of these two sightings by saying that now, long after the fact, we both agree that these sightings were very, very cool and there is no doubt that we were incredibly lucky, despite how we felt at the time! So, 10 minutes outside of camp we disturbed a black mamba that had been chilling next to the road. Initially it made a dart for the undergrowth but then changed tack and slithered rapidly alongside the vehicle. Now, Caro is pretty cool with snakes in general, but black mambas give her the willies. The buggers can “stand up”, raising a third of their significant body length off the floor. So, if one doesn’t like you, a safari vehicle is no protection whatsoever, it will be in your face before you can blink. Also, here’s the first line about black mambas from the National Geographic website: “Black mambas are fast, nervous, lethally venomous, and when threatened, highly aggressive.” Nothing gets your game drive off to a roaring start like a nervous and highly aggressive snake that is perfectly capable of keeping up with your vehicle, particularly when you SLOW DOWN to get a good look at the bastard thing. So that we don’t get letters, we will specify that black mambas would rather not attack you and will always try to avoid contact with humans. That being said, if you do piss it off, it takes 20 minutes for two drops of venom to kill you so it’ll likely be the last thing that you do. (If you scroll up and look at the photo of the front of the car again, and imagine our relief that we weren’t in our tracker Raymond’s seat with our slithery friend right beside him)
Our guide, Jaco, did explain that mozambique spitting cobras and boomslangs can also be misidentified as black mambas because they look almost identical in the bush, however we estimated that this particular animal was about 2 metres in length which is too long for either of the other species. But it didn’t matter anyway because a couple of hundred metres further on, a boomslang shot across the road in front of us. Yay! Two highly poisonous snakes in the space of two minutes. Caro wasn’t as bothered by this one because boomslangs are incredibly shy, but a bite will still result in an almost certain and painful death and with the black mamba fresh in her memory she spent the next 15 minutes shuddering at intervals. Jaco, a massive snake enthusiast, thought all of this was marvellous.
We’ll take a break here to show you some pictures of the lovely and comparatively cuddly animals that we also saw on our drives. A real highlight for us were the sheer number of rhino around, more than we had ever seen in a single place before and so heartening to see.
And here are some babies.
Another fantastic sighting without photos were two honey badgers (which, coincidentally, is what Shindzela means in the African Shangaan language). Being nocturnal and very shy, honey badgers are incredibly difficult to spot, and we take our hats off to Raymond who picked out the movement in the torchlight as we whizzed past. One led us to the second and we watched them scrabbling around in the undergrowth for maybe 30 seconds before they disappeared. Very cool. A minute or so later brought us our second viewing of an African Wild Cat, this time in darkness and hunting.
One thing that you don’t get in South Africa that you get in Kenya, for example, is large herds. So we were thrilled when we got a chance to sit and watch a herd of 200 odd buffalo on a hill opposite to where we were parked.
Our final great viewing with a not-so-great picture was a barn owl in broad daylight. We had stopped on the edge of a dry river bed for tea in the middle of our morning drive. It was an excellent spot for birds and Caro was scanning around with the binoculars and by chance spotted this little guy.
We had had two really lovely hyena sightings. Hyenas have a pretty bad rep, largely thanks to the Lion King, and most people aren’t too fussed about seeing them. We would probably have counted ourselves in that number before this trip but they are actually pretty cool and our sightings were rather unusual, particularly as they both took place in broad daylight. The first was as a storm was brewing and we spotted this guy alone (again unusual) hunkering down against the wind.
On another occasion we found two juvenile hyenas who were brave enough to venture away from the den unaccompanied and had clearly been playing with a leopard tortoise before we arrived.
The tortoise made a (relatively) swift exit once the coast was clear.
The only (tiny) downside to the parks being entirely unfenced, both to each other and to Kruger, is the frustration when an animal disappears over the invisible boundary and you can’t follow it. This was the case with a pair of cheetah which the other car from our camp had found but had moved off in to Kruger by the time we arrived. It is a very small price to pay for the enormous benefit of more space for the animals and, also, a much more authentic wildlife spotting experience. It also helps, when people are generally decent, which is something that we benefitted from on our second day. Jaco received a call and hared off like a rally driver, Raymond swaying ominously in the tracker seat. (It looked more dramatic in person!)
The call had come from the owner of one of the private reserves; he had found a leopard up a tree and he had decided to share it with the two cars from Shindzela. We were a long way away, hence the crazy driving and Jaco told us that we wouldn’t stop except for something really special. We were all rather surprised then, when he stopped for a lengthy chat with a chap driving a private vehicle, whilst we bounced impatiently on our seats. This man turned out to be another private landowner who, at the end of the chat, gave us permission to drive across his property, cutting our drive time to the leopard in half. Woohoo! We arrived and the owner pointed out the leopard and then left us to it. Jaco managed to pull up almost directly under the tree and we had about 30 minutes just us and the other vehicle as the leopard made its way around the tree, trying to find the perfect spot to settle down for the day. We were so close we could see it blink without the binoculars. Now, our pictures aren’t great, the light was a bit strange and we kept focussing on leaves rather than cat, but our memories are crystal clear, and it was magical.
The tree was on the side of the dam and as we were finding a new position Jaco took the opportunity to point out some knob-billed ducks, which are as ridiculous looking as the name suggests.
When people have been kind enough to let you on to their property, you don’t take the piss and continue your drive there. We had our fill of the leopard and headed back into Timbavati at a more sensible pace.
We had one short sharp thunder storm on our second night which cut out second game drive short as we were absolutely deluged in the open top vehicle. Caro and a South African girl had stoically and stupidly refused to don the ponchos provided and were soaked to the bone by the time we rushed back in to camp and under shelter. Not wishing to wade over to the tents we had a delightful time drinking our multiple sundowners at the bar and watching the rain cascade off (and unfortunately through) the roof.
After our final morning game drive, we unwillingly packed ourselves back into the car. Timbavati seemed to want to send us off in style and sent a very confident bush buck to demolish the tree outside our tent and a hyena decided to make use of the camp’s waterhole whilst we ate breakfast.
Our drive back to the gates was practically a game drive; a hyena ran across the road in front of us as we pulled out of camp, giraffe and impala were in abundance and the birds (particularly our favourite lilac breasted rollers) were out in force.
We had had another exceptional safari experience and were glad that we had a day driving through Kruger itself to wind down the fantastic wildlife portion of our trip.