Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa: Brutal, yet enthralling

The leopard is exhausted. It's panting heavily as it lies outstretched on a branch next to its fresh kill, a young impala whose splayed legs dangle awkwardly from where we watch below.

The big cat closes its eyes. Not only has it chased down and killed its flighty young prey, but it has then dragged it halfway up a tree, away from marauding lions who might want to take advantage of all of its hard work.

Suddenly a deep, rumbling growl fills the air around us. A lion has smelt dinner. I clutch the arm of my companion as the eight of us sit in silent near-darkness in our Jeep. Another roar, this one seeming to reverberate right through us. The leopard is now back on all fours in the tree, watching, its mouth open, all trace of exhaustion gone.

Then, disaster. His movement has somehow dislodged the prized dead impala and it falls. The eight of us scream silently as we watch it bounce down the tree before its fall is broken by foliage. In a flash the leopard is upon it and is once again hauling it upwards till he finds a more secure spot in a forked branch. He secures it as best he can, its spindly baby-legs wedged tight around a bough. Now he stands sentinel beside it till he has the strength to start eating.

As we drive off under a rising full moon, we don't know who to feel sorry for: the exhausted leopard who was in danger of losing his hard-won dinner; the lions who missed out on takeaway, or the dead young impala. But the answer greets us the next morning when we return to that same tree. The impala corpse has finally been eaten it seems, and the leopard has gone, too, though it's not far away, our tracker assures us. But there, right near the scene of the crime, stands a lone female impala who has wandered far from the safety of its herd.

Searching for her missing baby, we're told. It's brutal. Yet enthralling, as is every minute we spend with our expert guide and tracker on safari in South Africa's Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

So immersed do we become in each vignette of life, death, hunger and desperation we are privileged to witness, and in the sheer joy to be had in seeing animals go about their business in the wild, that hours fly by when we head out early each morning and again in the late afternoon.

We watch lions loll in the sun and scratch and snooze; hyenas put their noses to the wind; squadrons of vultures zero in to land after a carcass tip-off; zebras kick up their heels in apparent joy; and elephants duck-dive in a water hole: it's like being an extra on a movie set with the action unfolding before our eyes.

On our very first safari we come across a pride of lions finishing a meal. We are just a couple of metres away when one turns and looks straight at – no, straight through – us. Our guide whispers from the front of the Jeep, "When a big cat looks into your eyes, you can feel the coldness deep in your heart." He's right. I'm mesmerised and terrified and I suddenly understand what's meant by a cold sweat. Meanwhile a powerful male lion kitty-licks a spotty leg that was once attached to a giraffe. It's cartoonish and macabre: did that special effects van drive past before we got here? The soundtrack guys have been busy too, with colourful, mawkish and chirpy birdsong accompanying every dramatic scene we either track down or stumble across.

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All of this action happening around us is exhilarating and exhausting so it's a joy to return to our lodge each day. But then Tengile River Lodge, nestled by the Sand River on the edge of the reserve, is no ordinary accommodation. In fact, if it's a break from safari sensory overload you're after, this place is not for you. It's simply breathtaking. Opened in December last year by conservation-minded luxury travel company &Beyond, Tengile River has turned traditional lodge design its head.

The low-slung building blends into the surrounding bushland. But once you emerge from the entranceway, you're faced with a jaw-dropping view of the Sand River and all the animals who visit there. Sit with a pink G&T in a leather armchair in the light-filled spacious dining area and lounge-bar with its swirling green marble, stone fireplace and terrazzo floor and watch the drama you were just an extra in now unfold on a 180 degree living screen in front of you. Look, is that rock moving over there? No, it's an elephant.

The space is a clever mix of classic and contemporary styles and, thanks to the use of local artisan fabrics and artworks, is enhanced by an undeniably African aesthetic. There's a fire pit, and a traditional boma enclosure where we watch local dance and singing performances and eat dinner under the stars.

The lodge's very private nine guest villas set along the tree-lined river bend are a whopping 200 square metres each and include a private deck with that same 180 degree view of the river, and a private pool. Each has its own fully-stocked bar, outdoor dining, shower and seating areas and a private lounge, dressing room and luxury bathroom with sunken bath and marble fittings.The villas are designed to take full advantage of their setting: I watch a monkey watch me as I relax on my deck and spot giraffe and elephants in the distance.

Because the lodge is set where it is, guests are asked not to wander into the bush or venture alone at night – even to the dining area. Instead we wait for a staff member to pick us up in a golf buggy. We are also warned to keep clear of monkeys, including the muesli-biscuit loving baboon who was breaking in and stealing them from the kitchen until a monkey-proof lock was installed. We also hear of a leopard who often moseyed past workmen when the place was being built. What did they do? Waited till it left, of course.

Perhaps the notice at the Lodge's communal pool best sums up the need to give way. "Elephants often come to the lodge swimming pool to drink." And if that happens? "Please keep a safe distance and slowly exit the water."

The animals, after all, have the star roles. We are only here three nights but we see the Big Five all up close, mostly due to the expertise of our tracker and guide who also point out the reserve's incredible birdlife such as the tiny weavers that create elaborate nests to woo their mates, hawks, owls and lilac-breasted rollers and red bishops that splash the sky.

We also discuss the deeply complicated issue of rhino poaching with an &Beyond ranger who speaks so passionately about these animals that we leave vowing to spread the word.

But back on set. It's our last night and word is out that two lions are stalking a buffalo under a bursting full moon. Cue action. The mountain next to us moves and we realise it's the star buffalo, the size of a truck. He is stock still and magnificent, yet we somehow sense he knows something is not right. We can smell him, or is it fear? Out of nowhere a tattle-tale bird sounds a warning and the buffalo snorts, sprays dust into the air and breaks into a frightened run and this out-of-control tank careers through the bush away from danger. It's again scary, thrilling – and intriguing. That bird seemed to know exactly what it was doing.

Later we spy two lions sloping off in the distance, probably berating each other about who tipped off feathered big-mouth over there. This place is transformingly thrilling and wildly beautiful. Just as it should be.

TRIP NOTES

Jane Richards was a guest of &Beyond.

MORE

Traveller.com.au/south-africa

travelassociates.com/paddington

Southafrica.net

andbeyond.com

FLY

South African Airways flies daily to Johannesburg via Perth (connecting with Virgin Australia from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide) and internally on to Skukuza Airport. See flysaa.com

STAY

Tengile River Lodge is on the Sand River, Sabi Sand Game Reserve in the south-western section of Kruger National Park. The suite rate at Tengile River Lodge is $2022 a person a night. Guests need to be aged 12 and over. See travelassociates.com/paddington

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