The journey was long, an 11 hour flight overnight and a three hour transfer into the Waterberg region in the North East of South Africa. We were particularly relieved to arrive at Ants Hill Safari Lodge not just because of the journey but due to a “mix up” with some paper work which could have seen on the next plane back home again without setting foot outside of the airport… I won’t go into detail here as I don’t want to get myself or anyone else into trouble but I will say that from now on I’m going to check, re-check and triple check all paperwork before I leave home. Thankfully the kindness of a stranger (and probably some middle class, married, white privilege) saw our holiday wasn’t ruined before it had started! And even more thankfully that was the only minor hiccup of what was otherwise the most perfect family adventure ever…
The welcome at Ant’s Hill at around 2 o’clock was warm, friendly and instantly relaxing. The weather was also warm, sweltering in fact and so some cool drinks and a light lunch was perfect. The kids were far too excited for sensible things like naps after the long journey so we had a dip in the pool before getting geared up for our first horseback safari that evening.
It was Rob’s first time ever sitting on a horse and luckily he loved it. The kids took to it too, although Alfie was a bit nervous as he still has a clear memory of our friend Angela getting kicked in the face by her own horse on our farm a couple of years ago… frankly I’m still pretty traumatised by that myself so it’s no wonder it’s well imprinted in Alfie’s mind! By the end our four days at Ant’s Hill Alfie was cantering.
On the first evening though it was a matter of easy going walks around the huge 12,500 acre reserve. Orla took to her mischievous and elderly pony and enjoyed riding so much that she started to fall asleep! I noticed from a few horses back that she was slowly slumping and sliding to the side… we had to keep her talking until we reached the sundowners.
Sundowners… drinks at sunset. Yes it is a slightly colonial concept but it’s also totally awesome to ride on horseback to a high spot for the best views over the South African mountains to watch the sunset with an ice cold glass of wine or gin and tonic. We were on holiday!! The other guests all meet at the same point so you can compare notes on animal sightings and horse riding experiences.
Us being us, we were rather relieved that there weren’t any other Brits staying for the first couple of days, although most guests were European, which, let’s face it, are rather embarrassing to be around these days whichever way one voted. At least Brexit wasn’t off bounds in conversation until other Brits turned up at which point it becomes a rather basil faulty-esque case of “don’t mention Brexit” lest we should disagree! Ahhhh… Brits abroad, all our funny ways are inflated and seem more comic than normal. Anyway, I digress…
After sundowners we get safari trucks back to the hotel, as we’ve let the horses go off into the wild to make their own way home. A bright torch scans the trees for elusive bushbabies and spots nightjars and mongoose. Dinner is superb; impala fillet, but we’re so exhausted it’s a struggle to get through and little Orla falls asleep at the table with her mouth full of impala. When Rob picked her up she woke up and carried on chewing!!
The days at Ant’s Hill are relaxed and don’t involve the traditional safari early starts; Breakfast at 7.30am-ish, hopping on the horse about 8am for a morning ride, getting right up among the zebra, giraffe, warthogs and antelope. Back for a swim about 10am and a leisurely lunch at 12ish either at the hotel or out in the South Africa bush. More pool time and parents taking turns for naps followed by another horse ride to the sundowners spot. What more could you ask of a holiday? Not a lot… but we certainly got more!
One evening instead of horse riding we climbed into the game drive vehicles and headed to the sister hotel, Ants Nest on the far side of the huge estate. The owner, Ant (obvs), is dedicated to the Save the Waterberg Rhino conservation project and to that end has a Rhino breeding programme on the reserve. At this time of year, the tail end of the dry season, they are feeding the rhinos and other animals on the reserve – an expensive necessity in this arid landscape. However, for us this meant we were able to get extraordinarily close to these magnificent, pre-historic beasts as they fed on hay just below the platform we were on. We also got to see the two week old baby rhino feeding from her fiercely protective mum. I’ll write more about the plight of the rhinos in a future post as it warrants awareness raising efforts all round.
The other incredible experience at Ant’s Hill was the opportunity to take part in a game capture. Within a managed reserve such as this it’s vital that an active game management strategy is employed to control populations and ensure the health of the various herds on the estate. There are a few leopards within the reserve but no lions or other major predators so it’s all the more important for humans to manage them. An old, lone, male buffalo was causing problems and given his genetics were already strong within the buffalo herd it was time for him to be moved to another reserve were he could sow a few more seeds. Also a male eland (the largest of the antelope) was unwell and needed to be assess by the vet and potentially isolated for a time. It was an earlier start and a picnic breakfast in the car that day as we set off in the direction of the helicopter noise. It was a rapid and bumpy drive up the mountain to where the buffalo in question had been spotted and by the time we got there the vet had already darted him (from a helicopter into exactly the right spot… IMPRESSIVE!). It takes a lot of strong men to get a buffalo onto a moving stretcher and then into a trailer. And it has to be done before the sedative wears off! It’s also important they keep his gigantic tongue out and a blindfold on him. The eland was next and after another speedy drive across the rugged terrain (because helicopters are a hell of a lot fast than cars!) we found him staggering around having just been darted again with incredible precision by the vet. This one was treated and hauled onto the stretcher but instead of going to a trailer he was moved onto a neighbours patch for a while and we got to see him being woken back up and wander off looking a bit confused.
Other highlights of our stay at Ant’s Hill include waking up to a noisy squirrel looking at me from our bathroom and watching a warthog wander past the bedroom window and then there was Craig… Craig the snake man whom our kids developed a major hero worship for. He keeps snakes; big snakes, little snakes, harmless snakes, highly poisonous snakes, fast snakes, slow snakes, friendly snakes and very unfriendly snakes… most of his snakes were a combination of those things. For example the brown house snake which is harmless, fast and friendly. Or the puff adder which is highly poisonous, very unfriendly but thankfully also slow! He brought us snakes to meet. It was an experience! The kids loved it… me? Not so much. But Craig was also great at catching lizards and geko and was an absolute font of knowledge and Patrick has decided he wants to be Craig when he grows up. He spent a fair proportion of the sundowners creating villages for the giant millipedes and then gathering millipedes to populate them faster than they could crawl away (pictured below was one that settled in his new house!).
It spoke volumes about the area that with so much on their door step Ant’s Hill was popular with people from Johannesburg as a weekend getaway and we were lucky enough to hit it off with a family whose son was Alfie’s age. I say lucky… basically they got my kids playing a game which involves rolling impala poo in your mouth and seeing who can spit it the furthest and eating live giant flying ants. I didn’t (boring!) but the rest of them and Rob did!
Ant’s hill was only the first half of our trip, next we moved onto Madikwe Game Reserve which I’ll tell you about soon.
For all the photos from the trip follow me on Instagram @MumaDean or on Twitter or Facebook.