By Clifford Roberts
It was thanks to a Walkman cassette player that I saw more of South Africa’s game reserves. With my arch enemy brother and me both silenced and ensconced in separate corners of the station wagon with headphones on, my parents could endure longer trips. In fact, I think they actually looked forward to them. From an early age, we grew accustomed to getting our Christmas prezzies in the bush.
For most South Africans planning a holiday, heading for the African wilds in December is not a preferred option. Holidays at the coast often rank higher. But what follows are a few reasons why southern Africa’s game parks and reserves offer unbeatable experiences and value—even in December.
“There are few things better than treating yourself to a truly African experience,” says travel consultant Hannetjie Claassen, owner of Neelsie Travel in Stellenbosch. “A place like Victoria Falls is not only beautiful and in the heart of a reserve, but buzzes almost year-round with activities such as white water rafting, helicopter flips over the Falls, and leisurely sundowner cruises on the Zambezi.”
For starters, business in December is slower for many game reserves than in the cooler seasons, and some close for Christmas, especially those in the hotter regions of Namibia, for example. Numerous remaining lodges, however, offer reduced rates, which makes it an ideal time if you’re shopping around for the most cost-effective options.
This works very well if you’re keen on inviting your distant relatives, too. While some families will never ever get on, no matter how many Christmas dinner tables they share, others should consider taking advantage of the good deals offered by lodges for group bookings. You’ll be able to negotiate a better rate if you take all the available rooms and have the run of the resort. December also presents the most convenient time of the year for most people to get away.
Almost needless to say, travel to local lodges involves less time cramped in an airline seat than a trip overseas.
Once your safari hideaway is booked, consider your transport. If you’re hiring a car, the extra expense for air conditioning is worth it, because you’ll be spending a lot of time on the road. For me, the trips in the car were what made a holiday memorable (though, prior to that Walkman, not always pleasantly so). The good thing is, you can only fit so much family in—no matter how big your vehicle, you’ll have to be precise in your selection. At most, you may have to make space for one or two of your kids’ best friends.
In terms of actual tarmac-time, Christmas in the bush is quieter, too. December may be a crazy rush of traffic, but most of it is headed for the beach. In the game reserves, things slow down, and you have fewer loud buffoons in oversized bundu-mobiles crowding the view points, waterholes and kill sites.
Fewer people also often translates to better service from staff who aren’t ragged from dealing with hordes of demanding tourists, says Madri Bowmont of Tour d’Afrique Namibia. “Kitchens are cooking for smaller quantities of guests at that time of the year, so one may also expect the food to be better.”
Fortunately, you don’t necessarily have to travel too far to see either grazing rhino or that cheetah lounging in a camel thorn. In Gauteng, you’re within a couple of hours drive from game park heaven; the same in Durban and the Eastern Cape. For Capetonians, there’s the Aquila Private Big 5 Game Reserve which offers traditional game drives, safaris on horseback, quad biking, and 4x4 mountain trails; the Garden Route Game Lodge, off the N2 near Albertinia; and, Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat, home to one of the largest private herds of Cape Mountain zebra in the world, near Citrusdal.
For Christmas, guests at Bushmans Kloof will have the choice of two special dinners—one taking place at a special open-fronted stone-and-thatch venue, the other by starlight in the reserve.