Luxury safari in South Africa: Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve

The driver kills the lights. And then the engine. Amid the last light of dusk, he orders flashes to be switched off the cameras propped up with their impossibly heavy lenses. Our eyes adjust. We've latched onto a herd of hundreds of meandering water buffalo and followed them – including their calves – for half an hour. It's still. And quiet in our little piece of Africa. We quickly realise what the guide knew, they were heading towards four young male lions.

Sitting in that modified green LandCruiser we are in a unique position of power, knowing both the location of hunter and hunted. Not without some guilt, I know which side I am on.

It's like the brutal thrill of watching boxing, while knowing it is barbaric.

From our safari seats to a live stream of an Attenborough documentary, we watch, hushed as night falls. The lions nonchalantly stalk their potential meal, staying out of sight before positioning themselves slightly off stage in the path of the water buffalo. Our guide Justin whispers a kind of commentary clipped in sound bites, building the drama. He explains how the lions keep down wind. A random elephant joins the procession.

I'm on safari at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in the 65,000-hectare Sabi Sands reserve in South Africa. The reserve is just west of Mozambique and shares a 50-kilometre open border with Kruger National Park. It has been operating for more than 35 years.

The resorts that make up the Sabi Sabi group pride themselves on conservation, protecting the environment and support for communities. That, and a quintessential safari experience combined with luxury accommodation. Those two elements are certainly not mutually exclusive. When I visit, Sabi Sabi's five-star Earth Lodge is one of 52 National Geographic Unique Lodges of the world. Recently, all the resorts' lodges were afforded that status.

Over the next four days those lions become part of a nature soap opera as two groups of hunters, the "Charleston males" and the "four-ways males" battle for ascendancy. A predatorial "fight club" is how Justin describes the lions.

That night they exercise mercy on their prey. Maybe it is just laziness, but there is definitely a vibe of lion arrogance born from entitlement. On another night we witness a similar scene as a leopard, for which the area is well known, tracks impala at dusk only to lose interest.

All of Sabi Sabi's lodges – Selati Camp, Bush Lodge, Little Bush Camp and Earth Lodge are five star. Each has its own identity, character and charm. My time is split between the luxurious Bush Lodge, built around a watering hole that seems to attract a constant supply of thirsty animals and the opulent, eco-friendly Earth Lodge, with its earthen rooms built into African bushveld.

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I fall into an easy rhythm – days begin and end with safaris. In Sydney, a pre-dawn wake-up on holiday sounds wrong. But here I am eager to get up at 4.30am.

I've also never taken so much pleasure in just listening and observing.

Baboons strut, they don't walk. Birds call rhythmically, their calls building like beats on a dance track.

How is it possible for an elephant to sneak up on you? Yet drive around a corner, or move beyond a tree and a bull appears from nowhere. We stop and watch him strip a tree of branches and leaves. Justin senses something and becomes nervous. When he gets nervous, we get nervous. He quickly pulls the truck back on the track before the elephant charges us, with a move that has the stutter, then cut of a rugby sidestep.

An elephant's grace also seems proportional to how slowly it walks. Later that day, we see a family of elephants stroll over the savannah, kicking the ground with their feet to free the grass, which they wrench from the ground as they stroll. Elephants are left or right footed we're told by another of our guides Zwa – who later hilariously tells us he's afraid of house cats because "they can see right through you".

Sitting in the LandCruiser you are so close you can hear sunbathing lions breathe and see the crooked incisor of an adolescent male lion. Water buffalo are ugly-beautiful, with their scones of matted horn crusted with dirt. They grind their teeth like a stressed merchant banker. On our first evening safari the two male lions we see look skinny. By day two they are fat.

The land is harsh and dry. Drier than it should be. There are river beds that some veteran guides have never seen dry. When we spot a giraffe at a watering hole, the scale of the animal silences us. When the giraffe, with its baby off in the middle distance, awkwardly buckles its knees to drink, fingers hover above camera buttons to capture the perfect moment.

Zwa and his tracker Aaron – who is precariously perched on the left side of the bonnet of the LandCruiser – speak an unspoken language; a slight flick of the brow, a roll of the head. Zwa was born in Soweto, grew up in the Eastern Cape and studied accounting. Aaron can spot a chameleon at 40 clicks in the dark, with a spotlight.

We arrive in Sabi Sabi via transfer from Nelspruit Airport – a two-hour drive away. It reminds me of borders in the Middle East, high chain-link fences with barbed wire, metres of swept sand to see tracks and checkpoints. I quickly realise the security is about keeping the poachers out – not keeping the animals in.

Poaching is a theme we return to a lot as we cruise through the scrubland. Our Saturday night safari begins with a sighting of two white rhinos on the move. We follow them up a dry creek bed as dusk approaches. Justin asks when we are planning on returning with our children and advises us to make it within the next five years. He says poaching has been brought under relative control in Sabi Sabi reserve but the problem is the park's open border with Kruger.

"A permanent solution is virtually impossible," Justin says.

Later, he is more circumspect when talking about "canned hunting" and game reserves after the controversy around the killing of Cecil the lion by a US trophy hunter – "that's like discussing religion or politics".

Mike Palmer, assistant head ranger at Sabi Sabi, says the private game reserves in the area fund their own anti-poaching unit.

"There will be those who will always try and make an incursion, but these guys are really on top form and it is known they are in top form," he says.

More than 200 of Sabi Sabi's staff come from the villages of Huntington or Lilydale and he says the anti-poaching unit has a strong focus on communicating with communities. Their message is that allowing people to poach is destroying their very livelihood.

While Palmer believes progress is being made, he says Kruger National Park is virtually impossible to patrol, especially as it borders with Mozambique. With 28 guides, and the same number of trackers over four lodges, the safari staff also help document animals for research groups such as Panthera, which seeks to protect wild cats.

One morning, after a safari, I decide to take a cultural tour of a village. I ask a French traveller in our group if she would like to join us but she says it is a human zoo.

There is often a sense of voyeurism in such tours. But you'll certainly learn nothing of the communities from the plunge pool or the day spa. For our take on Shangaan life in the village of Lillydale, Lodrick Manyathele, a former Sabi Sabi worker, is our guide.

We visit the kindergarten, with its wall painted with anti-HIV messages. We watch a class of 62 kids practise their graduation dance – names like Beloved, Appreciate, Reason and Usher painted on birthday lists on the walls. We have a session with a healer, who, without English seems to divine enough of my life to make even me, a total sceptic, wonder how.

But make no mistake, this is a safari touched by luxury and unapologetically so – a sundowner gin and tonic on the side of the track off the back of the truck, a snack of popcorn tied in a brown paper bag to a tree, and white table cloth breakfast in a dry creek bed that the previous evening we had driven down following two white rhinos. And I have no complaints.

But amid the luxury, there are constant reminder of the wild. The guides tell me not to walk from my room to dinner at night without calling for an escort from a guide with a rifle. I ignore the advance on the first night, only to be frightened into a sprint by a lion's roar.

At Earth Lodge, the elephants come up to a pond just 15 metres from the resort, their backs white from the minerals in the water. The night before, hotel guests were trapped in the bar – tough, I know – as elephants wandered up to the door. Beyond the private plunge pool in the Bush Lodge suite, antelope and impala wander by as if they have cameo roles in a film.

In the suites there is information about community tours, day spas, weather reports and a 35-name list of animal and plant species for safaris – from aardvark/ant bear to blue water lily via the black rhinoceros. By trip's end my notebook starts to read the same.

"In three hours I saw four zebras, including one baby. Warthogs, three giraffes and one baby, two lions fed and full and an angry teenage elephant."

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/africa

Country.southafrica.net

sabisabi.com/

FLY

South African Airlines offers flights via Perth to Johannesburg From Johannesburg take a regional flight to Neilspruit Airport and a land transfer to Sabi Sabi. See flysaa.com

STAY

Sabi offers four lodges – the eco-friendly Earth Lodge, the secluded railway frontier themed Selati Lodge, the family-friendly Bush Lodge, with its childcare centre, and its perfectly sited, animal-attracting watering hole and Little Bush Camp with its intimate six suites, nestled into the bushveld. There are safaris twice a day, with trackers and expert guidesn from each of the five-star lodges. See sabisabi.com

David Rood travelled as a guest of Sabi Sabi, South African Airways and Virgin Australia.

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