Call of the Wild

A California dad takes his 10-year-old daughter on the trip of a lifetime: a safari in South Africa.

Introduction

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My daughter, Ella, and I are still debating our most bizarre moment: watching monkeys jump down from trees and steal food from our table, riding horseback and encountering a pack of rhinos, or having our flight delayed due to giraffes on the runway. I suspect we will go back and forth forever without settling it. And that is precisely why I took my daughter to Africa.

When Ella turned 10, a warning light went on inside me. It was like seeing the odometer in my Volvo click over to 100,000 -- I sensed that I'd best pay extra attention to ensure a smooth road ahead. My daughter and I have always been close; we do everything together without a thought for old-fashioned father-daughter roles. But Ella's personal odometer is picking up speed, and before I got left in the dust I wanted the two of us to share one unforgettable adventure.

Last April Fool's Day, I told Ella I was taking her on a weeklong safari in South Africa in July, and as I intended, she did not believe me. But with my wife's selfless blessing and a deal with Ella's three little brothers that they will each get their very own "airplane trip," we were on our way.

Given the 9-hour time difference between South Africa and our Northern California home, and the 15-hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, I decided we'd spend two days relaxing and acclimating at the gorgeous Westcliff Hotel, set on a hillside overlooking the city. At dinner the first night, Ella gamely sampled my loin of springbok (venison). Before our trip was over, we would add ox tail, guinea fowl stew, smoked ostrich, and impala chops to our list of delicacies.

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When researching safari lodges, I had three main criteria: kid-friendly facilities, comfortable accommodations, and plentiful and diverse wildlife. Conservation Corporation Africa delivered on all counts: We booked four nights at its Ngala Private Game Reserve, followed by two nights at Bongani Mountain Lodge.

Ngala means "lion" in Shangaan, the predominant native tongue spoken in the open, rolling bush known as the central Lowveld. The only private game reserve inside the massive Kruger National Park, Ngala is aptly named: On our first game drive, Ella and I got up close and personal with a pride of six lions. Her look of pure wonder at being spitting distance from the King of the Jungle was thrilling.

And so it began. Each day, guests hopped in open-air Land Rovers for early-morning and late-afternoon drives, which lasted three to four hours with a stop for drinks at daybreak and sundown. On that first drive, our ranger and tracker scouted out four of Africa's "Big Five": the lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard. The only one we missed was the leopard -- which we found stalking impala at sunup the next morning.

The skies are bigger in Africa, the sunsets seem to stretch to the edge of space, and the colors are completely different from what we see at home. Ella and I were dazzled by the birds, especially the starling whose indigo feathers sparkled when glanced by the sun. We were sorry to have missed plucking succulent fruit from Marula trees and seeing leopard orchids in bloom; however, visiting during the temperate, leafless winter months offers better game viewing as well as more-affordable low season rates.

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The cardinal rule on a game drive is "No standing," as the animals are used to seeing the frame of the Rover. If that outline is broken, they can react unpredictably. Most of the time, they graciously indulged us as we snapped photos, shot video, or simply gawked. But there were occasional reminders of who was boss, such as when a hulking bull elephant with tusks longer than me lunged toward us (the ranger's quick rev of the engine backed him off). On one evening drive, we encountered what was left of a zebra next to a lion lounging on the ground like a gluttonous uncle on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner. We must have committed the bush equivalent of walking in front of the TV, because he glared sternly and gave us a guttural growl that Ella and I still hear in our sleep.

With no fences around the main camp, it was not unusual to see a herd of elephants stroll up to the watering hole or have pesky baboons jiggling door handles. After dark, guests were escorted to and from dinner by a security guard, lest a hippo be grazing, and slumber was often interrupted by the unmistakable sounds of the fittest surviving.

After each morning's drive, Ella and I would retire to our cozy cottage suite and freshen up, then amble to the dining patio for a sumptuous breakfast. The exceptional staff organized fun activities for Ella and two other California kids close in age, including baking with the chefs, a frog safari, and a visit to the preschool for staff children, who regaled us with smiles and song.

Sad to leave Ngala but excited about our journey to the mountains, we flew 20 minutes by charter to Skukuza and were met by a microbus for the three-hour drive through Kruger to Bongani Mountain Lodge. Perched atop a huge granite dome, Bongani overlooks dramatic, rugged terrain, providing a stark contrast to Ngala and a greater challenge to the ranger and tracker. The highlight was catching sight of a klipspringer, a small antelope that bounds around the sheer rocky outcroppings.

Dinner the first evening was served in the boma, an open-air dining area with high walls, and afterward a group of women entertained us with traditional Swazi song and dance. Everyone got up and joined in, and seeing Ella beaming made me realize anew what an unbelievable experience this trip was for us.

After a week in the bush, civilization was calling. Through the lodge, we arranged a road transfer to Sun City, a huge playground best described as Disney does Vegas. Ella and I thoroughly enjoyed kicking back at the Palace of the Lost City resort, riding horses through the Pilanesberg National Park, and conquering the precipitous Temple of Courage water slide.

Tucking Ella back in her own bed a few days after our long journey home, I asked, "Do you feel like Africa changed you?" "I'm happy to be home," she answered softly, "but I miss it."

"I know how you feel," I told her, for Africa is as much a feeling as it is a place. Its song will stir inside her, and she will always remember. And I will never forget.

Scott Gummer writes for Vanity Fair, Travel & Leisure, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and four children in San Mateo, CA.

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