Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, we stumble on to the tarmac of Skukuza Sabi Sand Airport in the glorious confines of Kruger National Park (KNP), South Africa’s flagship game park. The African sun burns away the chill of the flight’s air-conditioning as we troop into one of the world’s most evocative airport interiors. Endless streams of visitors–royals and explorers, writers and adventure buffs–have passed through these portals, chasing the great African game park dream. I am humbled by the thought that I too will leave my footprints on this great land, “here in Africa, south of the Sahara, our kind was born”, in the words of naturalist and travel writer Peter Matthiessen.
Gathering around me are fellow travellers–eight women, journalists all, collectively shrugging off their tiredness. We settle in, wide-eyed and bushytailed, as the van bumps its way out of the airport down the road and snakes its way through the bushveld spread out before us in all its golden glory.
Hey! What was that? Everyone scrambles to the windows as, looming in our sights, two pairs of giraffes pose obligingly and cameras go hysterical.
Further ahead, a family of these elegant creatures breaks cover and lollops across the road to busy itself with the tenderest shoots from the treetops of the acacia. “Giraffe and zebras in the African bush, they are like KFC,” says our driver with a smile.
Punctuating the thick swathe of savannah on either side of the road are herds of impala. Further down, lurking in the shadows of a spreading tree is a wildebeest. What a weird, even ugly, creature he seems to be. But catch him in flight with the herd, and see what a mesmerising symbol of wild beauty he metamorphoses into. At one point we stop to give right of way to a tortoise–his beautiful mosaic-tiled home balanced firmly on his back–as he laboriously crosses over to the other side.
Barely 15 minutes off the flight and we have been catapulted straight into our African bush adventure–and the ‘official’ safari is still a while away!
Though KNP is the gateway to our African adventure, it is to the privileged wilderness spaces (all 65,000ha of it) of the privately owned Sabi Sand Game Reserve that we are bound. This private reserve is also a hotspot for encounters for Africa’s ‘Big Five’–lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo.
Strangely enough, the Sabi Reserve was a proclaimed sanctuary space way back in 1898–for conserving the depleting wildlife. In fact, it became the bedrock of the humongous Kruger National Park, as we know it today, because the passing of the National Parks Act in 1926 resulted in many of the landowners being excised from the reserve spaces–who, in 1934, came together to establish the Sabi Private Game Reserve on the land adjoining KNP’s western border. In 1948, the association of local landowners formally established the first-ever private nature reserve in South Africa–the Sabi Sand Wildtuin (game reserve)–where today, six of the original pioneering families are third- and fourth-generation landowners of some of Africa’s loveliest and best-run private game resorts. Devoted to the conservation process while playing host to the global community of wildlife buffs, their beautiful lodges have created a benchmark for luxury and exclusive private adventures, directed by expert trackers and rangers in the African veld.
I loved the idea of the exclusivity of a private reserve, because only people booked into one of these lovely lodges are permitted to explore the reserve. In KNP, where you can drive around in your own (closed) vehicle, going off-road is a strict no-no. But on a private reserve, the ranger can even drive deep into the bush in order to pursue an animal they have been tracking. There are no ‘traffic jams’ at a ‘sighting’ site, as fewer vehicles are allowed in. The day and night game viewing are truly rewarding as we found (at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve where we ended up staying at their spiffy Earth Lodge), because they are conducted by professional rangers and trackers in open safari vehicles.
With the dropping of the 50km fence separating the Sabi Sand Reserve and KNP, wildlife buffs got even more rewarding experiences of animal sightings–including of the ‘Big Five’ who were back on their old migration routes in this borderless world. The fantastic biodiversity of the reserve, nourished by the waters of the perennial Sabi and Sand rivers, only heightens the allure of the landscape for these wild denizens who gather here in great numbers.
Our first night is spent at the Sabi Sun Resort in Hazyview, in Mapumalanga province. Night descends quickly here and Africa lays out another special treat for us at twilight–a brilliant sunset of gold and red in a purpling sky. As our heads touch our pillows we have no clue about what the mandatory ‘resort tour’ here entails.
Breakfast over, we are led to a line of golf carts to play ‘follow the leader’. ‘Who can drive a golf cart’ is the first challenge. Luckily, this is resolved quickly as three of the women know how to drive. So, suitably paired off in these two-seaters we are off, bouncing gently over the manicured slopes of the beautiful 18-hole golf course in the wake of our guide, who stops on a bridge over the bordering Sabi river. Lolling in the morning sunshine on the riverbank are two sunbathing crocodiles, who eye us beadily and return to the business of toasting the other flank.
Leaving them to their beauty rituals, we move on to a shaded look-out over a serene pool created by the river, where, to our joy, we come upon a family of hippos cavorting like schoolboys in the water. Hippos, I learn, spend most of their daylight hours wallowing in water because they have highly sensitive skin and can’t stand the high sun–the very opposite of the sunbathing, saw-toothed beauties we have just left behind. At night, when the gates by the river in the resort are opened, the hippos wander off to graze on terra firma–returning to the pool by daylight. What a marvel to have such a fabulous wildlife experience in the resort premises.
The next night, I sample the wonders of the Summerfields Rose Lodge, where sleep deserts me up in my timber cabin on stilts–high above the Sabi River where the hippos roam. The outdoor loo, the shower and the hot tub add their own mystique to the guestrooms in this forested enclave, where the hippos pass Reception on their way to dinner.
A plateful of delicious salad and a chilled glass of wine await me on the immaculate dining table at the Earth Lodge at the Sabi Sabi Private Reserve the day after. My first sip leaves me thrilled, the next is abandoned: we have unexpected elephantine guests for lunch. Suspicious and wary, the matriarch sniffs the air as she proceeds ponderously to the waterhole just across the stretch of lawn where I am sitting. By now, my fellow travellers have stealthily crept up behind the tree on the lawn–cameras at the ready, waiting for her next move. Staring straight at us, she finally decides that we are no threat. Raising her trunk she trumpets her ease to her hidden family. It is an incredible sight, as they magically lumber in towards us, soundlessly converging around her by the pool. Mothers and babies pushing each other gently to be the first to get to the precious water. For over half an hour they keep us enthralled with their play, till the matriarch seems to indicate ‘enough’ and off they file, obediently, after her. Into the bush as silently as they had appeared.
Our mid-morning run to the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve has been teeming with possibilities. Nestled in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin, it offers some of the most thrilling up-close and personal encounters of the ‘Big Five’ in this vast bio-diverse area, marked by rolling grasslands, scrub and acacia woodland–brimming with a wide range of animal species and a variety of avifaunal wealth.
We tumble into the waiting jeeps for our afternoon safari adventure with an armed and knowledgeable game ranger and Shangaan tracker. The sun shines bright and hot but a breeze cools the sweat on our brows as we stake out a waterhole lured by the family of hippos at play while a raptor flaps its wings lazily overhead. Simba doesn’t make an appearance so we drive off in search of him. Impala and kudu, birds of prey and of ornamental splendour, mark our time in the bush. Late in the evening, we hear of a leopard kill and head out off-road to find this elusive creature in the wild. Two jeeploads of visitors near the fork in the road, speaking in whispers, as lying in the scraggly bush under a tree–a stone’s throw away–is a sleepy, sated leopard, who looks at them and turns on her side. High above her, securely stashed away in the tree, are the remains of an impala. Sleepy she may be but she’s alert to the danger of another predator stealing her kill. She knows we don’t want to share and rests easy.
The tracker tells me the leopard’s name is Kikulu. She’s just about four years old and, despite a deformed hip, has brought the antelope down on her own and eaten well before dragging the carcass up the tree to hide it in the branches. Though Kikulu has no boyfriend, he says, there are a couple of leopards in the area who are interested in her. Mesmerised by her calm demeanour and reigned-in power, we hang around till the gathering darkness forces us away.
Kikulu was not enough for us. We all wanted Simba! So off we go in pursuit to all his known haunts. But no luck. As a last resort, we even find ourselves bowling down the Sabi Sabi airstrip–its smooth tarmac favoured by the lion as well as its prey–the antelope, who feel relatively safe here as there are no bushes and they can spot him in time. High above us, the Milky Way fills the night sky and the stars shine down on us. Clearly, Simba was not hungry and slept tonight. Turning away for home–the ultra-luxurious Earth Lodge (where Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma shared some private time)–we almost collide with a huge hyena. He’s as startled as we are–another dangerous nocturnal beast in the bush, not readily sighted. Sleep is a beggared companion as I prowl around my room. In the dark of the night, my floodlit splash pool is a beacon of pleasure for thirsty animals in my private patch of the African veld. But all is quiet.
Pre-dawn cups of tea see us head reluctantly to our flight to Durban to attend the INDABA meet, Africa’s largest travel trade show. Once again I encounter the astonishing range of wilderness experiences on offer in South and East Africa from the many vendors participating in this much-awaited event. A whistle-stop tour of the city includes a quick visit to Mahatma Gandhi’s home–now ‘The Gandhi Museum’ (I got there before Mr Modi, but without the fanfare, of course) at the Phoenix Settlement, 25km from downtown Durban.
INDABA had whetted our appetites and we are collectively hankering for more wildlife adventures. On a rainy morning, we zip off to the exquisite environs of the 96,000ha Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, once the royal hunting preserve of the Zulu kings, three to four hours from Durban. Rolling hills and swathes of savannah glitter afresh in the drizzle. This reserve is South Africa’s most important rhino conservancy. The rhino is particularly vulnerable to poachers as its horn drums up the greenbacks for them in the markets of Eastern countries. Far to the right of us, silhouetted against a verdant slope, is a welcoming committee of these magnificent beasts.
Giraffes and zebras, nyala and kudu offer their best profiles to our cameras as we set out for one last shot at finding Simba. We finally hit pay dirt. A young lion has made a kill and is guarding it on an off-road site in this hilly terrain. A solitary jeep is parked on the dirt road as we turn up. Only one of us manages to capture a halfway decent shot of Simba proudly gazing at us in all his majestic glory–guarding his kill, a huge buffalo, with a timeless look of authority with which he rules his kingdom. As we reluctantly leave him to his lunch, even the families of dancing giraffe and browsing zebras seem unremarkable to us. On the last curve of the road out of the sanctuary, two rhinos trundle up close to our windows–reminding us, as it were–that they too are a force to be reckoned with here in the wild, where even the lion will think twice before taking them on
Emirates flew us from Delhi to Dubai, and on to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport. Jet, Eithad and Qatar are the other flight options available to travellers. Daily scheduled South African Airlink flights serve the Sabi Sabi Airstrip and Skukuza Sabi Sands Airport from Jo’burg and Cape Town. You can also fly in via Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, which is located northeast of Nelspruit, in northeastern South Africa. Additionally, complimentary transfers are offered by the lodges.
Where to Stay
Sabi River Sun Resort This beautiful property offers golf and wildlife sightings ‘on site’ in Hazyview, just 15km from KNP (tsogosun.com).
Summerfields Rose Retreat A 10km drive from KNP, this delightful retreat nestles in the heart of a farm of macadamia and litchi trees and fragrant roses. Tuck into hearty farm-to-table moments, while anticipating the possibility of guests from the hippo community of the nearby Sabi river (summerfields.co.za).
Earth Lodge Its 13 ultra-luxurious suites, with their private patch of the bushveld, have played host to well-heeled wildlife buffs from around the world (sabisabi.com).
Where to Shop
Most resorts have souvenir shops that offer a superb collection of (mostly high-end) local crafts and bush memorabilia.