ROAM talks with Simon Vegter, guide at Wild Wings Safaris, about the joy of returning to the bush after COVID-19, the plan for South Africa’s re-opening, the best safaris for first-timers, and one family’s most memorable tinkle.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
A great guide is arguably the most important factor when choosing a safari – and Simon Vegter is one of the very best on the continent.
This South Africa native has been showing visitors the wonders of his country for years with Wild Wings Safaris. The outfitter runs safaris and tours of the most compelling parts of southern and east Africa, including budget options that make safaris do-able for families.
During our family’s safari in Kruger National Park, we were blown away not only by Simon’s expertise but by his photographic skills – and his efforts to be sure you got great shots too. Follow him on Instagram or Facebook and you’ll be hooked.
Oh, and he lives barefoot – at home, on safari, and even when traveling abroad.
ROAM caught up with Simon after his joyous return to the bush following the nation’s COVID-19 quarantine. We asked about his first trip back, how South Africa is re-opening to tourists, and his favorite memory from years of guiding families.
ROAM: How did it feel to be back on safari?
Simon: In South Africa, we’ve had a very strict lockdown to combat Covid. We were homebound for months, and once we could get out of the house we were still restricted to the province we were in. As I was in Gauteng, the smallest of the nine provinces in South Africa with the least amount of natural beauty, it didn’t leave me with many options.
After 7 months I was finally able to escape, as restrictions started to lift, and I returned to the area I loved the most. On the morning I left the sun rose behind a sign ‘You are leaving Gauteng,’ That was enough to make me shout for joy. Freedom can only be fully appreciated once it has been taken away.
My first destination was a private reserve near Hoedspruit in the Greater Kruger. The amazing thing about this reserve is that it’s not open to the public and we are not restricted to the rules of Kruger. This means sightings are not crowded and we could drive even at night. I was with another guide and we didn’t have the added pressure of having guests on board. We were able to refresh our knowledge and learn from each other, an opportunity I often miss when guiding. We were able to stay in sightings for extended periods, just observing animal behaviour, something else that doesn’t really happen with guests around. Watching scavengers cleaning off an elephant carcass over a period of a few days was one of those special sightings.
More than just seeing the animals, being in the wild instead of having four walls around me was the greatest pleasure. It did my soul so much good to wash away the COVID depression that built up over the previous few months.
I continued to the main Kruger National Park afterward. Staying with another guide in Komatipoort, we had several very successful day trips. It was great to see what Kruger looks like after so many months. I felt at home again.
ROAM: Had the wildlife become used to not having tourists around?
Simon: I can’t say I noticed much difference about the animals in terms of behaviour. But it was noticed that with the lack of traffic animals spent a lot more time on the roads.
The main difference I noticed was more of a seasonal change. We missed the entire dry season and are now starting to head into the rainy season again. Dry conditions ensured that animals congregate at the rivers and watering holes. This makes for amazing game viewing – and that showed with the incredible sightings I had. It’s just a pity I can’t share the best time of the year with guests, but fortunately, I was there to enjoy it myself. I had used the lockdown time to brush up on valuable knowledge that I would normally not have time for. It was great to use this knowledge while I was there and become even more observant.
ROAM: So is South Africa ready to welcome international tourists again?
South Africa puts each country into a category: High-risk countries are those with higher Covid numbers than SA, medium-risk are on a similar level as SA, and low-risk countries have lower numbers. Right now, only visitors from high-risk countries are on the no-fly list (about 60 countries in total). But yes, this does include the US as well as the UK, our two most important source markets. Once their case numbers drop, they will be allowed to travel to SA. The only way around this is by first spending 10 days in a low- or medium-risk country before flying to SA.
Those travellers that are allowed, have to produce a negative Covid test upon arrival. The test result must be from an accredited lab and be dated less than 72 hours before the travel date. Guests who arrive without a negate test will be quarantined at their own cost and can only continue their journey after they have been tested negative.
The tourism industry has adopted a very robust set of safety protocols to ensure that all travellers are protected. This includes vehicle and venue capacities, sanitizing of vehicles and public spaces, hand sanitizer, compulsory masks, no buffet meals, etc.
South Africa has been very conservative and cautious in their approach to managing the epidemic and has declared itself travel-ready. The sunny weather, remote safari locations, open vehicle game drives, wide-open spaces, and robust infection control measures make South Africa one of the safest countries to visit.
ROAM: That’s great news! If families want to visit South Africa for the first time, what safari do you recommend?
Simon: By far the best experience for kids is a short Kruger National Park safari, perhaps 3 to 5 days. They will get to see all the iconic African animals, and the game viewing is excellent. If the kids are 8 years or older, they can join one of our affordable scheduled small group safaris with an open safari vehicle. Families with younger kids can join a private safari with a dedicated vehicle, but kids under 6 are not allowed on open safari vehicles. For very young kids, we recommend a family-friendly, malaria-free safari destination such as Pilanesberg, Madikwe Game Reserve, or perhaps one of the Eastern Cape game reserves. Or they can book a private safari in a closed vehicle (minibus) if they have very young toddlers. Kids under 3 are welcome but they are not really old enough to appreciate or remember a safari experience.
ROAM: That’s actually the trip our family did with Wild Wings and we loved it. Very affordable and a very good introduction to safari-ing. We know kids can sometimes present extra challenges for guides. What’s your most memorable story of guiding a client with kids?
Simon: One trip comes to mind… Children have small bladders, and the need for a bathroom break can often come very unexpectedly. The building up of a typical summer’s afternoon thunderstorm might not have helped my young client to be able to “hold it” till the next picnic area some 15km away.
I had to find a spot, and find it quickly. I decided to turn off the main road for some privacy. Nobody wants spectators, especially the kind that frown upon people ‘breaking’ park rules, despite the emergency at hand. For the safety of the animals and the people involved, people have to stay within their vehicles, unless at a designated area, like the before-mentioned picnic spot. Some visitors are quick to head to social media to complain about these law-breaking citizens as soon as they come across them. A little dirtloop, just off the main road, was the perfect spot for a quick tinkle.
After finding a private spot, safety comes next. I found a nice open area where no animals could surprise us, with an ideal bush to hide the girl from the people on the vehicle. I got out to scan around and make sure there were no surprises behind the bush. Indeed there wasn’t. I let the girl and her mother out to indicate where they could go for some essential relief. They disappeared behind the bush while I returned to the vehicle, happy that we found a good spot so quickly.
Then I looked up.
A bit further down the road, a male lion crossed, followed momentarily by a lioness. These lions must have been sleeping in the open area without me noticing these flat cats. The commotion of people out of the vehicle woke them up, and they decided to look up the safety of some thicker bush further away. In reality, it was not a dangerous situation, but in that brief moment, we felt vulnerable standing in front of the “King of the Jungle.”
My first instinct was to get everybody back onto the vehicle. That’s harder said than done mid-tinkle. However, once I mentioned that there are actually lions in the area, the little girl’s “need to go” disappeared in the blink of an eye – so much so that we got back onto the vehicle, watched the lions for a good 20 minutes before we resumed the exercise for a second bush.
By this time, the thunderstorm was upon us and the rain was coming down hard. With the second bush well used, we decided to head back to camp as this downpour was not pleasant or conducive for good game viewing. I closed the sides of the open safari vehicle to keep everything as dry as possible. Not expecting much in terms of wildlife, I kept a steady pace.
As nature would have it, we came across a leopard and her cub feeding on a kill in the middle of this downpour! With the sides closed, nobody could actually see anything. We decided to brave the drenching rain for the sake of a once-in-a-lifetime sighting.
I reversed out of the sighting and opened one side to allow us a view – or, well, what I thought should be a view. Instead of a wall of canvas, we were now looking at a wall of rain, and fogged up glasses. It was really tough to see anything in the moment, but the brief glimpses we had of these magnificent cats feeding was all worth it. Nature always comes up with surprises and this was an incredible and memorable first day of safari for this family.
ROAM: Hilarious! So you still safari barefoot – even in the rain? 🙂
Simon: Definitely, old age hasn’t crept in yet and I can’t see myself doing it any other way.
Maryann Jones Thompson – October 2020
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
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