Drunken Elephants + Snapshots from a South African Safari

Snapshots from one of my favorite places – a game reserve in South Africa. colleenkastnerart.com

One of the things I miss most about South Africa

Travel, and going on safari are two of my favorite ways to replenish my creative soul so what a treat to visit Rhino Ridge Lodge Safari Park on my last trip to South Africa. The lodge is tucked along the edge of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, home to the Big Five – Lion Leopard, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, as well as wild painted dogs, giraffe, zebra, gazelles, warthogs and so many more. The reserve is also the world leader in Rhino conservation.

I immigrated to the US from South Africa more than 20 years ago with a head full of dreams and a heart full of hope. But no matter how much I love my new home, Africa will always be in my blood. One of the things I miss the most is the game reserves where wildlife is protected. Ordinary people like you and me get to venture in and experience these animals in their natural environment. In South Africa we would talk about spending time “in the bush.” In my American home, we talk about “going on safari.”

Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge

I can close my eyes and be transported back there in an instant. The scent of warm, dried grass fills my nostrils, and I can hear the grunt and crunch of large animals grazing nearby. The dust, the rattle and bump of the Land Rover, wind flicking through my hair, and the sense of peace I get away from technology and human settlements – these are precious treasures I’ve collected in the rosary of my mind.

Years ago, before I immigrated, I worked as a newspaper journalist in South Africa. One of the thousands of stories I covered was of the park’s first attempts to transport only mildly sedated wild rhino as part of their conservation efforts.

It was a world first as up until then the animals would be completely tranquilized, totally unconscious, which would make moving their roughly 1,500 pounds an incredible challenge. The risky idea proposed here was that the animals would be sedated but not knocked out. They would still be on their feet and led/pushed into a crate that could then be lifted by a helicopter to the new location. It was very exciting to witness.

Front Page Story

The team was successful, and my story made the front page of my newspaper the next day. It was an exciting story to cover and bonus, I got my first helicopter ride.

There were no helicopters involved in my recent trip to Rhino Ridge Lodge, but it was still a bit of a wild ride. Flooded rivers following heavy rain closed the main roads into the reserve, so we were escorted in after dark via miles of muddy back road.

We pulled up to the front entrance behind the familiar rough terrain open vehicles waiting for their next game drive. Such a welcome and familiar sight. Inside the great room of the lodge were blazing fires, friendly smiles, warm towels, and cocktails.

To get settled and freshen up before dinner we were escorted to our rooms tucked into the landscape away from the main lodge. The function of our escort was not only to help carry our luggage and make sure we could find our rooms in the inky night, but also to keep us safe from any wandering night predators.

Gorgeous views from the lodge and the infinity pool. Spacious guest rooms with views even from the shower.

Morning and Evening Game Drives

The next morning, we were up before dawn, bundled in warm gear and blankets, for our first of several game drives. Over the next few days were had amazingly close encounters with lion, elephants, rhino, wild dogs, and of course zebra, giraffe, impala, buffalo, warthogs and more. In the mornings we watched the sun seep into the sky as we bumped along dirt roads. After some game viewing, we would stop somewhere our guide deemed safe to exit the vehicle. Our driver would set a table and serve coffee and tea with rusks and optional shots of Amarula Cream, made from the fermented fruit of the local marula or elephant trees.

Intoxicated Elephants

The Marula trees are legendary in South Africa. The ripened fruit ferments naturally and is a favored delicacy among wildlife. Monkeys and elephants in particular, have been known to show signs of intoxication after indulging.

After our game drives we would arrive back at the lodge hungry and excited about what we had seen. The aroma of bacon and coffee heralded a fabulous breakfast. Afterwards we had time to ourselves until late afternoon. A perfect opportunity to relax at the pool with a good book or sketch book, a treat at the spa or a luxurious afternoon nap.


Late afternoons we would set out for another game drive. Mornings and evenings are chosen for the drives because the animals are most active during these times and visitors have the best chance of good sightings. The sun would set in typical African splendor of reds and golds before ebbing into dark purples and blues. We would stop for sundowners – cocktails and charcutier snacks including biltong, a kind of dried meat similar to jerky – and enjoy the stillness settling over the land. Quiet conversations and amazing tales from our guide followed as the stars emerged overhead and crickets began their chorus.

The painted wild dogs of Africa are monitored and tracked in the reserve. Thornbush are no trouble on an elephant diet. Vervet monkeys watch us from the trees. Amazing zebra patterns.


Back at the lodge the fires would be crackling and blazing. Our escorts would get us safely to and from our rooms to shower away the bushveld dust and we’d settle in for a chef-prepared dinner and long conversations.

What a dream.

Writing this makes me miss it so much I can barely stand it.

I hope you enjoyed this little taste of South Africa. For more of my travel writing and other blog posts check out my Studio Journal.

To find out more about me

Head on over to my home page and check out some of my art here.

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