Travel Lessons from the Animals near Kruger National Park, South Africa

About a year ago, my husband and I got an intriguing e-mail from one of his colleagues. It basically said:

“Hey! How’s it going? Do you want to come down to South Africa before Christmas? You guys can chill with us on my wife’s family’s farm and watch animals?”


So in late December, we escaped the German winter and headed to summer-y South Africa. Our friends have a private farmstead near Kruger National Park (one of the largest game reserves on the African continent).

Goodbye sunless German winter and hello sunny South Africa!

Long story short, this was a trip of a lifetime. Why? Three reasons.

1. The People

Our hosts were amazing. So were the other people they invited.  In total, there were 11 of us and we were quite an eclectic bunch (burger entrepreneurs, ABD’ers, bartender, actress, lawyer, and more). We learned a lot. Including, how to play Settlers of Catan and Kuhhandel. Where have these games been all my life?!?

Love these games!
2. The Ride

Our hosts had access to an ‘open safari vehicle’. With open vehicles, there is no real barrier between you and nature. AWESOME, right? Also, it was terrifying. I’m not a person who has spent a lot of time around animals (plant person here!). So I was definitely out of my comfort zone when it came to wild animals. Fortunately, our hosts were excellent guides and we are all in good hands. We went on drives every day, sometimes even twice a day, so we managed to see a lot.

You can see a part of the back seat of our ride as we were observing a cheetah.
3. The Animals

While most of us have seen images of elephants and big cats like lions, there is nothing like seeing these animals in their natural habitat. A zoo does not cut it. This was my first time encountering most of these animals. To this day, when I look at our photos or think about the experience those first-sighting feelings are still vivid. They are a mix of awe, wonderment, and ‘thank goodness you didn’t notice me!’


In addition, this trip also was a departure from how I usually travel on vacation. Usually, it’s just my husband and me. This time we were in a group, we didn’t do any of the organizing, and we were offline 99% of the time. It was great! It really made us reevaluate aspects of how we travel for leisure.

For the rest of this post, you will find images of some of the animals we saw and the travel lessons they inspired. Don’t worry, I promise this is not one of those posts where I offer you ‘deep’ insights. This is just for fun. Let’s get started!

Travel Lesson from the Lion: Don’t Piss off the Locals

They were not amused!

After being watched by a previous group, the lions we were observing grew impatient with our presence. One locked eyes and growled straight at us. Yup, it was time to leave.

Up and about.

Travel Lesson from the Dung Beetle: Say Thank You

The dung beetle in the foreground is pushing the dung ball with its bum/hind legs. The other beetle is just along for the ride.

If you haven’t watched, True Facts about the Dung Beetle, do it now. Dung beetles often carry around their partner on a ball dung. What’s the takeaway? If someone helps you out as you’re travelling, make sure to say thank you. Thank you again to our amazing hosts!

Travel Lesson from the Elephant: Protect Yourself from the Sun

Another sunny day that definitely requires sun protection.

The skin of elephants is often exposed to harsh, direct sunlight. In order to protect themselves, they often roll around in the mud. This not only cools them down, but provides a protective layer for their skin to prevent sunburn. Yes, elephants can get sunburned.  Humans should opt for sunscreen.

Sitting in the mud.
Mud bath for the feet!

Travel Lesson from the Birds: Keep Learning

Pretty, but no clue what you are.

There were a lot of beautiful birds in this area. I just had no clue what they were.  I should have taken a look because it was in a book. Sorry, Reading Rainbow!

Travel Lesson from the Water Buffalo: Size Matters…When it Comes to Group Travel

The full tour bus equivalent.

If you’re like me and a bit skeptical about group travel, take a hint from the water buffalo. Find a group size that works for you.

The small group tour equivalent.
Figure out what works for you.

Travel Lesson from the Hippopotamus: Budget in Me-Time

Hello Franc(i/e)s!

Hippopotami social behavior is fascinatingly complex. They do tend to move in groups. Franc(i/e)s*, a lone hippo, decided to camp out during the day in a watering hole next to the farmstead.  Even if you’re a social animal, you need your ‘me-time’.

*The name we affectionately gave to the hippo works for males and females because hippos are not sexually dimorphic so we couldn’t discern Fran(i/e)s’ gender.

A group of hippos.
What happens when you don’t get ‘me-time’. Photo Credit: C. Staudt

Travel Lesson from the Cheetah: Take a Nap


This cheetah loved napping. Even when everyone was watching. If you’re in a group and everyone is up and about, but you need a nap – take it. Naps are great, regenerative, and more important than we think. Just do it.

Slowly waking up.
That point when you’re debating on going back to sleep or getting up. Spoiler Alert: The cheetah went back to sleep.

Travel Lesson from the Leopard: Seeing a Leopard is AWESOME

This is how I remember first seeing the leopard.

As we were driving along a river bed, I saw a leopard in the grass. Myself, along with some other group members, excitedly whisper-yelled to our driver to stop. While I don’t know if I was the first to see it, no one had to point the leopard out to me. It was amazing to find and see this animal on my own. Also, it’s a leopard! They can be quite elusive. One South African group member had never seen a leopard in the wild until that moment. That moment is one I will always remember.  So yeah, seeing a leopard is AWESOME. Period.

Close-up of the leopard.
I just love this shot!

Have any animals inspired travel lessons for you? Feel like taking a nap and cooling off in some mud? Let me know below!

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.



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