We took a small plane, only 13 rows, for our flight to Hoedspruit from Cape Town. Instead of a baggage claim at the Hoedspruit airport, the luggage cart drives around the front of the building and you take your bag as it is pulled off. We picked up another rental car for a self-drive to the Thornybush Game Reserve. I was a bit concerned about getting lost in the reserve since we were off a main road, but the lodge has signs at every intersection. We arrived just in time for lunch and a relaxing swim to refresh from the day’s travel. Then it was off on our first game drive. Baby animals everywhere! Monkeys, warthogs, impalas by the hundreds, a five-day-old giraffe, and elephants. The only baby animal we missed were the big cats.

DSCF4642 Jessica DadThe next day, we had our first cat encounter with a pride of lions, which was memorable partially because I had failed to explain how close we would be to the wildlife to my dad. The lions were lying across the road, full from the day’s hunt. Our jeep pulled up right next to them- close enough that we would have stepped on them if we tried to get out. My dad was sitting on the same side as the lions and was anxiously leaning so far away from the edge of the vehicle he looked like he might fall over. I, of course, was leaning the other direction trying to get a decent picture in the failing light. We also managed to find a herd of wildebeest, a male and female lion, and two cheetahs, which are rare for the area.

The next afternoon, we saw not one, not two, but three leopard in the first 30 minutes! We heard the leopards before we saw them. I first identified the sound as a warthog.  Not quite right – that’s why it is essential to have a guide.  We were the first in the area to spot them, so our guide started directing other vehicles to the sighting.  We had to keep an eye on the leopards as they went up and down trees and through bushes.  After sunset, we paused in the midst of a grazing elephant herd.  It was such a serene experience – one of the highlights of the trip.

The last day in Thornybush was Thanksgiving Day, and in a moment of serendipity, our first wildlife of the day was two turkeys. Driving up a dried-up creek bed we happened upon a mother rhino and her baby.  At the end of the drive on the way back to camp we passed three separate herds of buffalo fairly close to each other. The first buffalo herd of which had another rhino and her baby trying to blend into the middle of it. We stopped for morning tea at the river bed leading back to camp and elected to walk the rest of the way. We didn’t encounter any game but instead got to learn more about the plants of the region.

On to the Sabi Sand…