South African Craft Beer Safari

When you think of South Africa, you most likely and rightly think of a safari, but when you’re out hunting for photos of the Big Five, why not hunt some South African craft beer, too? When you’re a beerwanderer, you have no choice.

the Big Five are an understandable distraction for the beerwanderer

Planning a safari is a daunting task. Reservations need to be made far in advance if you go in high season and when you’re worried about being carjacked, you tend to lose focus on the extras like beer. Did I just say extras like beer?  Well, that’s what happened in this case. My wife has to be one of the most understanding people in the world and we do our fair share of beery trips. Trips that would otherwise not even involve beer somehow get an infusion of hoppy beverages. So, I figured since South Africa was more noted for wine, I’d go with the flow this time and do more of what I knew she’d prefer.  Of course, I did check to see if there were brewpubs in places like Cape Town but when it came to the safari part of the trip, I didn’t delve into it too much. In fact, when we went to the super market to pick up supplies before entering Kruger, we bought three bottles of wine and not one beer. It seemed easier to transport, didn’t need to be stored in our tiny cooler and was what South Africans drank, wasn’t it?

en route to safari country, I implore you to stop in Blyde River Canyon

After an all too brief encounter with Blyde River Canyon, where I drank one very crappy mass-produced South African beer, we headed to our first safari experience in a luxury but great value camp called Sausage Tree. Note to self: spend at least two nights at the canyon to allow for a proper hike and pick up some craft beer for the cabin.

the luxurious but great value Sausage Tree Safari Camp

As soon as we arrived, we realized that while we made a mistake not allotting two nights at Blyde River Canyon, we’d made a huge mistake not going for two nights at Sausage Tree. It was the most we’d ever spent on accommodation but when you factor in all meals and safari drives are included, it really was a great deal here in not so inexpensive Safari Land. After a delicious lunch and an all-too-short lounge around the grounds, we set off on our first safari drive.

the first drive featured a rare baby black rhino & a pride of lions

With only two others in the vehicle, it was a really intimate affair and one that produced four of the Big Five on the first outing. Admittedly, the water buffalo wasn’t a great sighting but the other three were deemed top notch by our guide James.  A baby black rhino came right up to us and lioness seemed to look into my soul before emitting a roar. We saw a male lion meandering in the dark on the way back to camp and while waiting for dinner to be prepared, I had my first South African craft beer, a tasty brewed called Naked Ale from the nearby Zwakala brewery in Lompopo.

sunset before heading back to camp & the tasty Zwakala Naked waiting for us

The next morning’s drive wasn’t too shabby, either. We’d seen four of the Big Five the previous night so the only pressure was to find a leopard. Ok, not the easiest task and to cut to the chase, we wound up empty-handed on that count but still saw black rhinos, hippos, elephants and ten baby lions crossing the road in front of us before heading back for our farewell breakfast. No need for a note on this one, another night is a must.

another great drive followed by a great breakfast, no wonder we wanted to stay

We’d had an amazing time at Sausage Tree and had learned a lot from our guides James and Themba. James assured us we’d love Kruger, too so we ventured off  to see if we could find wildlife on our own. It wasn’t busy at the Phalaborwa Gate and before we knew it, with our trusty Kruger map in hand, we were on our way to the Shimuwini Bushveld Camp. The drive was mostly on a gravel road so the going was slow but not in the least boring. We saw a couple elephants in a dry river bed and on driving down to inspect, saw a herd of twenty lumbering towards our small rental car. Normally, I might have tried to make a fast move to get out of there but James had said to never make too sudden a movement around an elephant so we stayed put and they just walked by us, our meager presence of no consequence to them.

where else can you say “just” elephants and giraffes?

We got to Shimuwini early enough to enjoy it and the ranger there was quite comical when checking us in. He seemed to have some powers to predict not only the whereabouts of wildlife but also the weather. His female counterpart found him as amusing as I did, but none-the-less believed in his supernatural powers.  The cabin was nice and had a great view of the river, teeming with wildlife. There was a braai, the South African bbq device and I questioned my not getting any steaks or wood for it. I also was dying for a beer but wine would have to suffice that night.

the horn-bill seems to chastise me for not getting wood & steaks

The next day got off to what seemed a slow start but we wound up seeing what we found out was a very rare ground horn-bill, actually three of them transfixed on what appeared prey to them in a bush.  We stopped at Letaba Rest Camp to check out the Elephant Museum there and decided to have lunch at Tindlovu. They had quite interesting dishes and the big surprise was a great IPA from Karoo Brewing called The Jackal.  I would be looking for this in every shop in Kruger, that I was sure of.

 

ground hornbill, my stew, my wife’s pie and The Jackal

The rest of the afternoon was full of sightings that while common in Kruger were none-the-less thrilling to see live.

a kudu buck, zebra and a family of giraffes en route to Olifants Rest Camp

Just before getting to camp, we passed a gorgeous viewpoint we’d later see from the distance of our bungalow. We arrived just in time for sunset but it would be a wine night. Sunrise the next morning was even more spectacular but it was time to push on.

sunrise from Olifants Camp, my wife enjoying her morning tea and the valley view

Nearly immediately after prying ourselves from the gorgeous view of our Oilifants bungalow, we saw a hyena walking towards the car but a bit transfixed, neither of us managed to get a good shot of him.  We pressed on, doing a loop road we had planned on doing the evening before. Crossing a low bridge over an even lower river, we spotted quite a striking pied kingfisher.  This would pale in comparison to crossing the main Olifants River bridge, a real hive of animal activity with baboons both playing in the river, as well as on the bridge itself. There were many impalas enjoying a drink and a majestic fish eagle overlooking the entourage.

the Letaba and Olifants Rivers were hives of activity that morning

The remainder of the drive seemed to be a series of waterholes, where prey mingled on constant guard of predators. They way they seemed to work together was admirable. The most thrilling part was a herd of impalas in a mad dash for a watering home, springing over the road in front of us. I wish I’d taken a video. As you can see, I didn’t quite get a particularly spry one though it makes for a comical memory.

didn’t quite get this one but he got to the waterhole soon after

Satara was perhaps the least scenic of our camps but they did have a good store with one of the best selections of craft beer. We bought some steaks for the braai and found our first outside refrigerator of the trip, housed in a cage-like structure.  I returned to the store for a small padlock to secure out goodies from the baboons. I had an odd tasting Glynn’s Gold from Sabie Brewing in the afternoon before heading out for a stunning drive and sunset. On return, we fired up the braai with the help of a local and settled into a much better series of beers to go with the steaks.  Sabie Brewing Dravidian Draught IPA  fared much better than its stablemate.  Boet Brewing chimed in with their English Style IPA but the real winner was the nearly black Wild Clover Black Dog Porter.

lots of craft beer at Satara, not to mention a stunning sunset elephant silhouette

It was hard to believe our time in Kruger was half done but even harder that we’d done so much in three days. Our morning was magical. Instead of missing a shot of a hyena, we had a hyena pup pose on the side of the road. A much easier (and cuter) target, indeed.  A littler late, we spotted a martial eagle intently ripping his breakfast to shreds from a tree branch. Though we’d seen countless horn-bills, we finally saw a red-billed one. The icing on the cake was our first white rhino just before pulling into Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp for the night.  The last bottle of wine was drunk and we spent our last one night stand in Kruger, too.

a hyena pup poses, a martial eagle’s morning feed, red-billed horn-bill, waterhole

The drive to Berg en Dal wasn’t long but was mostly on a gravel road that hugged the Crocodile River for much of it. We weren’t in a rush as we’d have two nights at the last camp and this was reportedly a great stretch of wildlife watching road. There were some early morning posers once again with a scowling monkey, zebras lining up like fugitives and a warthog intent on showing us his profile.

and they said they were wild animals

We’d also had a few other potential game changers. First we were told by a ranger going in the opposite direction about a lion kill at the end of our road and what really got us excited, a leopard on a rock. Both were easy enough to find. There were what seemed like 1000 cars at each. Of course, there weren’t that many cars but on a narrow gravel road, even 20 cars are a huge traffic jam. The lion kill was interesting but the lions were behind a lot of thin branches so getting a good photo was impossible. It was still amazing to smell the dead water buffalo and hear them rip the flesh from its body. You could see the blood on their faces, too. The leopard sighting was even more crowded and as hard as we tried to maneuver our car into position, we wound up having to back up fairly far just to get out of the insane quagmire of cars.

sometimes you have to be content with the small things in life: lilac-breasted roller

We were a bit dejected to have missed the last of the Big Five animals and the lion kill hadn’t produced any decent photos, either. We decided to drive up to a noted white rhino area despite it being mid-day. It looked like a waste of time but we noticed a parked car near some bushes and pulled behind them. The driver pointed over to the bushes and lo and behold, there was a gorgeous leopard wedged in there. We had a very good view of it but there were a few branches in front. We spent quite a bit of time in that position. It was still heaps better than the lion kill and eventually, the other car left and we moved into the prime position with an unobstructed view. We got some good shots and even saw it sauntering off. It was incredible.

Finally, the last of the Big Five: a leopard at close range no less!

We were ready to go back to our bungalow but decided we were in an area we weren’t likely to get back to so kept exploring. We noticed some white rhinos in the distance and made our way to a perpendicular road to see if we could get a little closer. They seemed to be headed that way and once there, they were in fact coming right towards us. The mother and baby walked in front of the car and the father looked to be coming at us but veered off.

white rhinos up close

We were ready for a break and headed back to our spacious bungalow, but hit the camp store on the way to pick up steaks and some beer. We didn’t have a lot of time but my wife took a short nap. It was time to head back out for the afternoon drive before we knew it. Many might have been content to stay put with the kind of morning we’d had but the weather was fine and our days dwindling. You never know what you might come across in Kruger and we weren’t about to let an opportunity slip from our hands.  We took a gravel road you wouldn’t normally utilize if you weren’t staying at the Berg en Dal camp. We liked the back roads best landscape-wise but also for the relative lack of other vehicles.

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back road scenery as the sun goes down

Of course, I had another ulterior motive for going this way. It would provide a backdoor route back to the leopard on the rock we’d missed that morning. It was a long shot that it would still be there but this road made sense for lots of reasons and we were enjoying it despite the lack of wildlife. As we neared the area, we saw cars. That was a good sign and nothing like the cars earlier. We edged up and there it was: a leopard lying on a rock, basking in the sun. This is the moment any safari goer waits for. Unfortunately, we again had tons of branches in our way. You could see it but a clear shot wasn’t possible. I managed to get some relative keepers by using selective focus on one point but the branches were there (way out of focus) if you really looked. Finally, the light was fading and some people (who had hundreds of shots) started to pull out and I inched up enough to get a few shots off before the red light was entirely gone.

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finally in the clearing, just enough time for a couple shots

We stayed as long as we could to soak in the magical beauty of this amazing animal. The light was gone but it still radiated both power and peace. At one point, it looked over at us and that was our cue to head back to camp before the gates closed.

IMG_2026_cr.JPGthe sun’s red glow may have been faded but the beauty of the leopard remained

To say we celebrated that night would be an understatement. We had a nice supply of craft beer from Karoo Brewing as well as a couple steaks in the fridge. The weather was lovely, the braai calling.  We live in Munich so I’m skeptical on non-Bavarian Weissbiers but took a chance on The Oryx. It looked great and had to admit, it was the kind of day for such a refreshing beer. Though it was good, it was a tad thin on flavor so was glad I’d bought only one. I had bought a couple of The Impala, their American IPA and though it was good, it not only didn’t live up to The Jackal but seemed misnamed as the latter seemed to have a more pronounced American hop profile despite being called an English IPA. Not one to dwell on semantics, I enjoyed both, especially paired with the steak. Hell, I’d just seen two leopard in one day.

Karoo Brewing was the top find in Kruger shops when it came to craft beer

Sometimes last days are anticlimactic and I guess this was one of those. I’d booked a guided walk for that morning and I safari drive for the evening way far in advance, not realizing how much we’d enjoy doing the self-drives. To be honest, it would have been hard to top the previous day even if we’d gone out on our own. It looked like rain to make matter worse. We met our guides and three young Israeli guys at the visitor center before sunrise. Off we went with the warning that if it rained, the walk would be cancelled. Needless to say, the guides need good visibility to ensure the safety of their group. We were told to be silent while walking and follow directions without question and quickly at that. We would be walking amongst the Big Five and sightings of them on foot were not uncommon. The guys were young and that was exactly what they were looking for. Unfortunately, they hadn’t completely absorbed the instructions and idle chatter on their part was both reprimanded by the guides and likely one of the reasons nothing materialized.  Animals tend to shy from humans, especially ones with guns. Of course, our guides had guns but told us they had no intention of using them unless our safety was at stake. They were here, after all, to protect the wildlife, not kill it.

it was nice to be on foot in Kruger

For us, it was a chance to experience the park on foot. When you’re a hiker, you can’t help but imagine walking in any beautiful place when you drive through it. You look at real and potential trails with envy as you ponder the landscape. The guides were informative and inspiring, telling of trees communicating with each other and how this kept them from being overeaten by the wildlife, and how this kept the animals on the move.  We saw a family of giraffes in the distance and it was a thrill to be looked at by them. The guides explained animals see people on foot while vehicles blend into the background for them. Needless to say, the guys weren’t impressed. The giraffe, after all, isn’t one of the Big Five.

IMG_2064.JPGcurious giraffes on the morning hike

After the walk, we went back to the bungalow to relax before the evening drive. We had a couple beers, wrote some postcards on our patio and did what most people do between drives at Kruger: got some rest.  It was more special for us since we’d mostly been on the road all day, every day, driving between camps. After having to share time in the morning with people not as like-minded as we had perhaps hoped for, we were kind of dreading the thought of doing the same on our last drive of the trip.

We found a huge truck, filled with some twenty people on it when we arrived. Young people played with their phones between sightings and a constant hum of talk and laughter made enjoying the solitude of the bush impossible. It was pretty lame and we were so glad we’d rented a car and done the trip on our own. The Sausage Tree drives seemed like such an amazing value after the tourist coach feel of this one. We couldn’t wait to get back to our place and not just to finish off The Jackal in the fridge.
karoo_brewing_bottles

good to the last drop: Karoo Brewing

The next morning we packed up. It was sadly time to leave Kruger. I had thought I may have booked too many nights in the park but now that we were leaving, we longed for just one more. We toyed with going to see if our leopard was on the rock but decided in the end to just drive directly out.

kruger_water_buffalo_landscape

water buffaloes lumbering up a dry riverbed on the last morning

Of course, any road has the potential for wildlife in Kruger and on driving over a bridge, we caught our most spectacular image of of a water buffalo, in fact four of them lumbering up the dry river bed. Once we exited the park, we had to cross a bridge over a flowing river and saw cars pulled to the side on it. I figured it was a good place for birding but neither of us was in the mood. Still, we couldn’t just drive over without having a peek. We were glad we had as it was full of crocodiles, the biggest we’d seen.  We still had a long drive so headed back to the car but the guy I was standing next to called me back excitedly. I didn’t know what to expect but on looking over the edge for a last look, a huge croc came out from under the bridge, dwarfing the ones we’d been gaping at.

the early morning drive out of the park made up for the previous night

The drive to the airport was every bit of six hours and not nearly as exciting as the drive up had been. After dropping the car off, we headed to the Airport Craft Brewers. I’d seen it when we flew in eight days earlier and had earmarked it for lunch while waiting for our flight to Cape Town. It was a big modern affair, mimicking American brewpubs but it was a nice place to escape before continuing our adventure.  I started with a Country Ale
and my wife had their Porter. She’d made the wiser choice, for sure. Both were much too cold and overly carbonated but well enough made. It certainly beat any mass-produced beer you’d typically find at an airport restaurant. Actually, the Porter was pretty good once it warmed up.

the Airport Craft Brewers Country Ale and Porter

We both had steaks and this being my first one in a restaurant (I’d done my own on the braai), I found out that when you ask for it rare, it really is rare. It was such a nice quality cut of meat, you could eat it raw and mine was close to that.  The meal came with a small beer and my wife again was the wise one, going for another Porter. I got the IPA and was sure I’d received the wrong beer. It was quite bland.  Overall, it’s a great place though and we returned on our flight back to Germany a couple weeks later. That time I got the Porter. I’m not as smart as my wife, but I’m a fast learner.

South Africans are serious about rare and IPA (oddly in a Pils glass)

Well, by now, you must be wondering what my Big Five were. I’d have to say leopard, rhino, lion, elephant and water buffalo. I’d like to rattle off the five best craft beers but to be honest, I’d be pushing it to say the craft beer was the highlight of the safari.  Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoyed most of them, some quite a bit. In fact, I just might replace the water buffalo with The Jackal, but don’t tell my wife, she still thinks the giraffe should be in there. Of course, I’m only kidding. The wildlife is the highlight of Kruger, of South Africa for that matter. You wouldn’t come all this way for the beer. At least I wouldn’t and I love beer. That said, it was fun hunting for the best I could find and having something besides a mass-produced commercial lager to quaff in the evenings after seeing some of the most incredible of nature’s creations set amongst a primordial landscape. All of that will be etched in our minds and hearts for a very long time.

Though I did a lot of the driving to and around Kruger, my wife always drove if I was in a position to have a good beer prior to the drives.  Later in the trip when going to the actual breweries, she would do it even more so. I’ll be blogging on that soon. I’d like to thank her for that as well as getting up before sunrise every day to get out on those magical drives.

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