After My Father Passed Away, My Family Went on a Safari to Celebrate His Life

One travel writer ventures back to South Africa's Singita Lebombo Lodge in Kruger National Park, where her late father came on safari 20 years earlier.

A photo of Mr. Wilkins on his safari trip

Vanessa Wilkins

“You know the phrase ‘to take someone’s breath away’? Well that’s how you’ll feel on a safari. You will be so amazed that you literally, and I mean literally, won’t be able to breathe.”

My dad was enthusiastically describing what I had to look forward to after he and my mom decided on a South African safari for our next family vacation. It was fall 2019. My dad was the only person in our family who had been on a safari, and he was very excited to share the experience with us newbies. We had booked four nights for summer 2020 at the Singita Lebombo Lodge — where my dad stayed during his first safari nearly 20 years earlier — and were counting down the days until our biggest adventure as a family yet. But quickly, everything changed. The pandemic canceled our 2020 trip, and after we rescheduled, my dad was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He passed away in 2021, leaving my family and me absolutely heartbroken.

After my father’s death, my family pushed back our safari vacation several times, and even considered scrapping the trip altogether. However, we ultimately decided that since we couldn’t take this trip with my dad, we would take the trip in remembrance of him and his love of travel. My mom, twin sister, and I finally embarked on our family safari in the summer of 2022 as our first annual family vacation in honor of Gerald Wilkins. Arriving in South Africa was bittersweet; we were eager to experience the culture, food, and incredible wildlife the country had to offer, but couldn’t shake concerns that our grief would overpower our excitement and ruin the trip altogether. Whatever anxieties we were initially feeling slowly began to melt away as we were welcomed into Kruger Park by the Singita Lebombo staff.

Singita Lebombo is situated on a private 33,000 acres inside South Africa's Kruger National Park. The luxury lodge offers a personalized experience with incredible accommodations, private game drives, and extraordinary cuisine. Perched on a rugged cliff, the stunning lodge features a modern design, with open, airy common spaces and wood-lined suites inspired by the natural surroundings. There are 15 open-plan suites and one private villa, all of which include both indoor and outdoor showers, cozy fireplaces, and an outdoor patio with jaw-dropping views of the N’wanetsi River below. After settling into our two-bedroom suite and changing into our best safari attire, my mom, sister, and I grabbed our cameras and binoculars and headed off on our first game drive. 

Before heading out into the bush, we met our safari guide and tracker in the lobby of the retreat; this dynamic duo would lead us on our drives for the entire stay. Our guide, Bernard Stiglingh, was a multilingual adventurer, with more than a decade of experience as a field guide. Sunday Ndlovu was our tracker, and given his whopping 17 years of experience, it was clear to us that the Wilkins women would be in good hands for our first-ever safari. After going over a few ground rules and packing up the essential to-go drinks, we loaded into our Land Rover and set off to search for some animals.

Wilkins Family enjoying safari trip

Vanessa Wilkins

Our first drive started off fairly tame, but things took a dramatic turn after Stiglingh got word on his walkie-talkie that a pair of leopard cubs had been spotted in a different part of the reserve. Our guide, determined to not miss this iconic sighting, turned our car around and raced through the bush to see if we could catch up to the cats before they moved out of sight. Luckily, we made it to the cubs just in time, finding one resting on a fallen tree branch and the other lounging nearby. 

Stiglingh slowly inched the Land Rover closer and closer until we were just a stone’s throw from the cubs, and we watched in awe as the little rascals played like kids at the park, chasing each other around trees and weaving through the tall grass. Curiosity got the better of one of the cubs and he wandered over to our car, stopping directly underneath me to sniff around. Suddenly, he looked up and locked eyes with me, tilting his head in interest as I snapped a photo. I could feel my heart pounding out of my chest, and just like my dad had predicted, I was shocked into silence, unwilling to breathe until the inquisitive cub sauntered away. 

A large leopard looking grumpy while perched on a log

Vanessa Wilkins

After the riveting leopard encounter, our group headed back toward the lodge. On the way back, we stopped in a quiet clearing to watch the sunset, a scene that no picture could ever do justice. Yellows and oranges melted together as the sun crept below the horizon, until all that was left was a vibrant crimson skyline. My family toasted to a wonderful first day, and of course, to my dad, who was the only piece missing from this perfect moment. His absence was palpable, but so was our deep love for him.

A gorgeous bright orange, pink and red sunset along the water with silhouetted trees

Vanessa Wilkins

After a spectacular alfresco, candle-lit meal (called a Boma dinner), my family went to bed agreeing that our first day on safari would be tough to beat. But each new day turned out to be more extraordinary than the last. Over the course of our four-day safari we managed to see those sprightly leopard cubs three more times, as well as the rest of the “Big Five” (lions, elephants, rhinoceros, and buffalo), and so many more wild animals like giraffes, zebras, hippos, and warthogs. 

A family group of elephants seen on safari in the grass

Vanessa Wilkins

Ndlovu and Stiglingh were a safari dream team. Ndlovu could spot tracks virtually invisible to the naked eye, and his expert skills led us to the most marvelous sights, like a pride of lions on the hunt for prey, or an enormous herd of buffalo roaming through a grassy field. Stiglingh, with his charming personality and encyclopedic knowledge of South African fauna, helped us understand that safaris aren't just about spotting wildlife, but also about taking in the smells and sounds around you as you search for animals. Along the way he’d point out plants, insects, and even bird calls that we would not have otherwise noticed, while also entertaining us with funny stories from his many years as a guide. 

For my family, the most astonishing part of our game drives was just how close we got to the animals, a delightful surprise for my sister and me, and a nerve-wracking revelation for my skeptical mother. “We are sitting ducks,” she remarked as Stiglingh parked in a shady clearing just a short distance from a pride of lions lounging in a shady patch of the savannah. When asked how it was possible to get so close to these animals safely, Ndlovu explained that it all comes down to a mutual respect between the humans and animals. “We treat them with respect, and they treat us with respect,” he explained. The knowledge, experience, and passion of our team made our safari experience so much richer, and infinitely more memorable. 

In between the morning and evening game drives, my family made the most of Singita Lebombo’s other amenities. As much as we love each other, we needed some time apart before our relaxing vacation started to resemble an episode of The White Lotus. Thankfully, Singita's wide array of activities made it easy for us to enjoy our downtime at the lodge both together and separately. My mom would relax with a book on the private deck of our suite while my sister and I enjoyed a pinot noir tasting in the sleek wine studio before a massage at the spa. The endless options kept us thoroughly entertained in between game drives.

The highlight of our safari happened on our final full day, when we received a masterclass in tracking from the ever-talented Ndlovu. The brilliant tracker picked up the faintest tracks of a hyena, deduced that it was following a predator that had hunted and caught prey the night before. From there, he led our group to a phenomenal sight: an entire pride of lions feasting on a Cape buffalo. Stiglingh drove us as close as he could and we watched in awe while the circle of life unfolded in front of us. We were mesmerized by the remarkable scene; The male lions asserted their dominance as they filled their bellies first, snapping at anyone getting in their way with a blood-curdling growl. After the leaders of the pack walked off, the lionesses and cubs swarmed in to finish off the buffalo.

Animal foot prints in the dirt and two people trekking along in the grass a sunrise

Vanessa Wilkins

Later that evening my sister and I ditched the wheels as Stiglingh led us on an exhilarating safari walk. Following closely behind our rifle-wielding guide, we got to experience an even closer and in-depth look at the nature, tracks, and landscape of Kruger Park, even following the call of a honeyguide bird for a few minutes before losing the trail. After meeting back up with our mom and Ndlovu, we ended our trip with one last spectacular sunset, complete with sparkling wine, snacks, and even cake to celebrate my sister’s and my upcoming birthday.

Vanessa Wilkins with a glass of champagne and a Singita Land Cruiser

Vanessa Wilkins

Our family safari was as close to perfect as it gets, given the circumstances. Coping with the loss of my dad has been especially difficult for me, but being somewhere that gave him so much joy in life was a beautiful way to feel connected to him, and a special opportunity to reconnect with my family as well. Leaving South Africa, my mom, sister, and I felt much closer than we had been in a very long time, and even felt that we had gained some bonus family members in the wonderful people we met during our unforgettable visit to Singita. 

Our safari reminded me that there is so much to discover about the world, and that these adventures — especially when shared with loved ones — are truly what make life worth living. My father always wanted me to experience the very best of what the world has to offer, so I owe it to him to never stop seeking those breathtaking moments.

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