I could already see giraffes and zebras from the air as we descended into the Skukuza Airport en route to Kruger National Park and the private game reserves which border it.
After a fun-filled few days at the fabulous Fairlawns Hotel and Spa in Johannesburg, we had flown in and embarked on the next part of our journey.
The transfer to Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve by road through the bushveld should have taken around half an hour, however, with unpredictable animal encounters from giraffes, warthogs and buffaloes, our ride took a little longer.
The South African bush has an abundance of thorny trees, long, thick grasses and the occasional hill, in contrast to the vast open plains of East Africa.
There is never a bad time to visit, but winter has particular appeal if you don’t like hot summers, and the bush and grass is lower so it’s easier to spot animals. The days are warm, nights are cool, and for the most part the sky is blue and cloud-free.
Family-owned Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve is one of the independent reserves that surround Kruger National Park and for the past 40 years their mission has been “to serve as a model of how our rapidly dwindling natural resources can be conserved to provide a sanctuary for fauna and flora, while at the same time addressing the needs and development of neighbouring communities”.
Sabi Sabi has four lodges, all National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World: Bush Lodge, Little Bush Camp, Selati, and Earth Lodge, where I stayed. Each has won awards for design, wildlife encounters, cuisine and service, and community and eco-initiatives.
Earth Lodge is an “eco-hideaway”, contemporary and innovative in design. It is also unfenced, so it is obviously inadvisable to wander off alone. Our days started just after sunrise at 5.30am, with the temperature at a cool 16C as we clambered into game drive vehicles and by 6am were on the first of several safaris, heading across the bushveld in search of adventure.
Some animals were waking, singing and eager to get going, while others were returning home from a late night out on the prowl. Tuneful calls rang as birds warmed their wings ready for their first flight and we caught up with tired hyenas, still smiling after a busy night looking for prey. As the sun rose on the horizon it tinged the white stripes of grazing zebras a warm red and a female antelope with her tiny calf appeared from the bush, clearly relieved her offspring had made it through another predator free night.
Returning to the lodge we enjoyed a breakfast extravaganza before choosing from a number of options. There are foot safaris, the Amani Spa and massage menu, bird watching, or simply staying at the lodge and watching wild animals wander past your room. Sabi Sabi is full of unexpected animal encounters and it’s not unusual to see animals drink or take a dip at your private plunge pool.
Lunch was served on the veranda, overlooking a huge watering hole. However, the middle of the African day is when most animals doze in the shade, so the only sure sighting was the resident hippo.
Lunch was followed by afternoon tea before we clambered back into the vehicles for another safari. As we drove off-road through undergrowth we were hit with the scent of the Potato Bush, so called because it smells a little like mashed potato with lots of butter.
We hung on every word our safari guide uttered on account of her knowledge and extraordinary animal tales, and there were dazzling encounters with zebras, cheetahs, impalas, gnarly looking warthogs, gnus, buffaloes, elephants and the rare sighting of a large, intimidating red southern ground hornbill (it does fly too) with its black feathered body and bare, red-skinned upper neck, carrying a stolen egg. The distressed egg owner dive bombed the thief in an attempt to claim back the chick.
Yet we still hadn’t seen lions.
Witnessing a sunset in the South African bush is an unforgettable experience. Our first involved a fireball sun plunging over the horizon, turning the whole sky claret red. Then a radio call had us hightailing it across the landscape – leopards had been spotted mating.
In the gathering dusk we drove through thick bush, past the huge, shadowy silhouettes of elephants, and then, with the help of the car lights and a large spotlight, we found a very young female leopard stretched out on a low tree branch; she wasn’t bothered by us at all, and probably preferred our presence to that of the aggressive male who had just visited her.
Her glossy, rosette-patterned coat highlighted by the spotlight, she was breathtaking. Occasionally she raised her head, changed position by dangling a leg over the branch or repositioning her tail, and then elegantly reclined.
We had plenty to talk about over dinner at elegantly dressed, softly candle-lit tables in the cosy setting of the boma (an African word for a livestock enclosure).
Plates piled with pan-fried rainbow trout or grilled ribeye steak were placed next to wine glasses boasting spectacular South African wines, straight from the lodge’s private cellar collection. What they didn’t have isn’t worth serving.
By departure time we’d seen most of the animals here – apart from lions. We said our goodbyes and headed towards the airport. We passed giraffes on the roadside, grazing on high trees, and a dozen or so zebras mingling with flighty impalas and a solitary vervet monkey.
“Stop!” we shouted at the driver. Surprised, he slammed on the brakes, and then reversed back a few metres. As if arranged for us, a pride of lions was lazing in the bush right on the roadside, cleaning their bloodied bodies after a fresh zebra kill, their massive heads stained red with blood.
It was an awe-inspiring tableau – as if the elemental savagery of the African bush had saved itself to be the sight imprinted on our consciousness as we departed.
From the traveller’s point of view Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve provides luxury and adventure in equal measure, but it is also important to the region, in terms of exotic wildlife conservation and jobs, in a country where unemployment is high. A guest staying here is actually doing good while feeling good.
Stay at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve from R15,000 per person per night for an all inclusive safari experience including wifi and transfers from the Sabi Sabi Airstrip. Tel; +27 11 447-7172 or email [email protected]
Stay at Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa from R6,900 per room per night. This includes accommodation in a suite, daily full English breakfast, wifi, complimentary transfers within a 5km radius of the hotel and complimentary transfers to the Gautrain Sandton Station. Contact [email protected]; www.fairlawns.co.za.
South African Airways offers daily overnight flights from London to Johannesburg on board the new A330-300. Flights from London Heathrow to Johannesburg start from £543 return. Visit flysaa.com.
London-Johannesburg- Skukuza- Cape Town- Johannesburg-London flight: £860.