The following blog posts are by 3Ls Audrey Crumrine and Tyler Opel:
After a long drive through the scenic areas of South Africa, we arrived at Tshukudu Bush Camp. The area of the game reserve we stayed in was made up of several elevated cabins and a central area where the meals were cooked and eaten in a campfire area.
We were greeted upon arrival by our ranger and guide for the next two days, David. We were told to keep our doors locked, and valuables put away for safe keeping, as the monkeys have no problem snatching a cell phone or camera and throwing it into the bush.
After we dropped off our stuff, David met up with us for a quick word on dos and don’ts and then we were off on a game drive! The vehicle was uncovered with low sides. Up to this point, we had only experienced the animals from behind windows in our van. On these drives, we were close enough to see the wrinkles in the elephant’s skin and the eyelashes of the giraffe.
Using a tracker, David located the lions on the reserve and drove us to where the male and several females were. I thought we would maybe stay back for safety reasons, but we drove as close as 15 feet away from the group. The lions were unfazed. In order to get a rise out of the male, David revved the engine. The lion opened his mouth wide as if to roar, but seemed only to yawn. David took it up a notch. The lion began letting out a loud, deep roar/growl, and the females began roaring back. We then drove off with the lion watching, as if we had been welcomed guests in his territory.
Our ranger and the staff of Tshukudu provided dinner for us every night, and he always joined us for our meals. Our dinners were generally what would be considered a braai, or barbecue, with different kinds of meats, pap, vegetables, potato salad and various extras. Our breakfasts were usually eggs, toast, cereal, coffee, and delicious marula jelly. The combination of being able to pick a South African ranger’s brain and delicious food made these the best meals I had in South Africa.
Our guide David and his family have owned the land that Tshukudu for generations, with most everyone in their family involved in its operation or conservation efforts in some capacity. He told us of the poaching problem faced by their reserve and the neighboring Krueger National Park. The number of people being shot for poaching was shocking. The benefit outweighs the risk to these local people, who see the possibility of living comfortably from bringing in a couple of valuable animals. The description of the interplay between poachers and those who work on the reserves mimics that of warfare, with armed groups doing night patrols, scent-tracking dogs, and firefights. Our guide carried a .44 Magnum at all times.
Aside from the wildlife on our game drives and walks, there was also a resident honey badger, whom David had tamed. She hung out around camp and was not afraid of people, as Katie and I found out when we stumbled upon her in the dark and she came closer to check us out. One of us may or may not have screamed and jumped away. It may or may not have been me.
The highlight of Tshukudu for me was the opportunity to pet a cheetah. She was enclosed by a fence while she recovering from a digestive ailment, but was most certainly still a wild animal. She was incredibly playful, and allowed the females of the group to go up and pet her like she was just one of our house pets. While I petted her, she playful put her mouth around my ankle while also wrapping her paws around her leg. This was enough play for me and I backed away slowly, but smiling.
To end our time here, we all sat around the fire in an African drum circle and learned rhythms together. It was a special way to end our time at Tshukudu.
Our stay at Tshukudu Game Lodge was by far my favorite experience of the South Africa trip. The Sussens family started Tshukudu back in the 80’s with a vision for animal conservation accompanied by a full “bush” experience. Tshukudu is 5,000 hectacres of land (I know nothing about land measurements-but that is a big hunk of land) located in the town of Hoedspruit within the Limpopo Province of South Africa.
Our guide, David, was there to greet us immediately after our bus arrived within the camp. It took us about an hour just to get to the main lodge from the highway (I think it could be the world’s longest drive way). David was a member of the Sussens family, he was about our age and he grew up within the confines of Tshukudu. Needless to say, but David knew his stuff when it came to animal conservation, the indigenous foliage, and really anything you wanted to know about the surrounding land.
The best way I could describe Tshukudu would be a bed and breakfast type atmosphere, only with a 100% chance to see the African wildlife that everyone dreams of seeing after you watched The Lion King for the 100th time as a kid. Our cabins were cozy (air conditioned I might add) and centered around the main lodge building where we would have our meals and meet to go out on game drives. Upon our arrival David showed us a movie that basically described what Tshukudu was all about; how it was a family run operation that took pride in animal conservation with clips of the orphaned animals that the guides had raised playing with the guests. Yeah, you read that right- the most famous being tamed Cheetahs.
We went on our first game drive what seemed like immediately after we arrived. David fired up the safari ranger truck (at least that’s what I called it) and we all jumped in. The safari ranger was a massive open-air vehicle that had rows of seating that fit about 13-15 people. Within the first 15 minutes we ran into a family of Elephants- the highlight being a newborn playing with his mom. From there on we had our closest encounters with animals throughout our whole trip.
The experience that sticks out most in my head is when we got to meet Ntombi the Cheetah. Ntombi was originally an orphaned animal but at the time she was being nursed back to health and was on severe dietary regulations. She was put in a pen that was about 200×100 meters and the whole group got to go in and see her. After a few minutes of walking around and David calling for her, we found Ntombi lying under a tree catching some shade from the hot sun. David was clear to point out that Ntombi liked girls more than guys- who could blame her, right? Fortunate enough for me, Ntombi got up from the tree and walked straight at me. My initial reaction was “Holy $&#^!….that is a big cat!…and I hope she isn’t hungry” and sure enough she came within a couple inches of me, and I got to pet her as she walked by. That is an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.
That was just one experience while at Tshukudu. Other highlights included: being within 15 feet of a male lion as he roared, petting a Caracal (google it), a drumming lesson around the campfire, seeing David play with his tamed Honey Badger (yes, the fearless animal made famous by Youtube), and last but not least when the sun went down- the most amazing stars I have ever seen. Tshukudu isn’t just an awesome place to stay; they are making serious efforts to preserve the wildlife, not only within their lodge, but also for the entire country of South Africa. I look forward to going back.