Holidaying safari style is out of this world, finds Louise Southerden.
'Up rock, up rock," says our ranger, Sean, into the two-way radio as he navigates the vehicle up a steep driveway to our lodge atop a rare hill in this north-eastern corner of South Africa. We could be at an exclusive private residence and, in a way, we are.
Ulusaba - "place of little fear" in Shangaan - is Sir Richard Branson's safari lodge and one of 21 private lodges and game reserves in the 65,000-hectare Sabi Sands Game Reserve, whose fenceless eastern boundary adjoins Kruger National Park.
Our domain for the week is the 5000-hectare Ulusaba Private Game Reserve as well as several neighbouring private game reserves in western Sabi Sands. No sooner have we settled into our room with a view of the lowveld than we're meeting our fellow guests over scones and iced tea, and climbing into the Land Rover again for our first game drive.
"Down rock, down rock," Sean says into the radio, which crackles to life with the voices of rangers from other lodges calling in animal sightings, though we also have our own tracker, James, in the jump seat on our vehicle's front bumper.
Few travel experiences can beat the simple joy of riding in an open-topped vehicle through the African bush - the wind in your hair, golden morning or late afternoon light gilding everything you see, your camera at the ready - particularly in a game reserve closed to day-trippers and self-drive safaris.
This is one of the best places in Africa to safari and see leopards, the most elusive of the Big Five. It's a thrill to see them almost every day: a lone male walking with silent grace through dry grass that crunches noisily when we drive off-road after it; a mother and cub feasting on a duiker (a small antelope); another male up a tree with a kill as three spotted hyenas patrol for leftovers below.
We are a wildlife documentary in motion. As we look - at giraffes, cheetahs, elephants, zebra, Cape hunting dogs - we learn. When we find three white rhino, Sean tells us about Sabi Sands' pioneering anti-poaching moves, such as injecting rhinos' horns with dyes and toxins to make them worthless on the black market.
A record 704 rhinos were killed in South Africa last year, up from 668 in 2012, and scientists fear that, if poaching continues, wild rhinos will be extinct within a decade. "It's crazy, because the horns are just keratin, like our fingernails," says Sean. "They have no medicinal value whatsoever."
Before we get used to the 5am wake-up calls, the hours between morning and evening game drives pass in a languid blur: breakfast, swim, lunch, nap. It'd be hard to imagine a more comfortable place to spend them than Ulusaba's Rock Lodge, which has perfected the art of lived-in luxury.
Curl up with a book on a comfy couch in the main lounge. Help yourself to drinks at the bar. It really does feel like someone's home, albeit one where you are escorted back to your room after dark in case of leopards, and where you shut doors and windows to guard against raiding baboons.
I join a morning tour of a village just outside Sabi Sands to see schools, community centres, water pumps and health centres built by Ulusaba's Pride 'n' Purpose charity. At one primary school, the children take turns introducing themselves: "My name is Neste! I am six years old! I am a girl! I am very special! Thank you!"
Another day, we have afternoon tea at Ulusaba's other lodge. It might not have the views and cool breezes of Rock Lodge, but Safari Lodge offers an intimate experience of the South African bush with its swing bridges, treehouse suites and verandahs beside a dam frequented by hippos and elephants.
Whichever lodge you stay in (and guests often stay a few days in each), you'll find luxury in details: a zebra-patterned rubber duck (a Branson trademark) on the rim of your bath, pre-stamped postcards (leave them at the bar for posting), chilled towels after each dusty game drive. Every night, we dine at a long communal table on the deck, the menu exceeded only by the safari setting: white linen tablecloths, kerosene lamps and fleece wraps on the backs of chairs.
One morning, on a game drive, we leave the vehicle for an impromptu walk with Sean and his loaded rifle. Following him in silent single file, I am suddenly all ears, eyes and nerves. Being on foot in a place where you've recently seen large predators heightens the senses like nothing else.
On our last evening drive, up a sandy riverbed, we come across a pride of lions - three males, three females and eight six-month-old cubs - devouring a buffalo they'd killed that afternoon. Sean cuts the engine. We are sitting in an open-sided vehicle with no roof next to 14 lions, including a male with paws the size of saucers sprawled on the grass close enough for us to touch his golden mane (not that we would). He yawns, looks right at us, flops back down. No one speaks; I hardly dare breathe. Cubs with bloodied faces clamber onto the side of the buffalo. A lioness growls at them when they get in her way.
Beautiful as its lodges are, this is the real luxury of Ulusaba: the privilege of close-up encounters with wild animals where they have always been, where they belong. After what seems like hours, Sean gives us a nod, starts the engine and drives back to Rock Lodge as the first stars appear in a clear African sky.
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Virgin Limited Edition and South African Tourism.
South African Airways has a fare to Johannesburg for about $2180 low season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly Qantas to Perth to connect with SAA to Johannesburg (10hr 45min); see flysaa.com.au. This fare allows you to fly on the Qantas non-stop flight from Sydney as long as it has the SAA flight number. Federal Air flies daily from Johannesburg to Ulusaba (1hr 20min), from R5590 ($592) return including taxes; see fedair.com.
Ulusaba has two lodges: the cliff-hugging Rock Lodge (which has 10 rooms and suites and two Cliff Lodge apartments that sleep nine) and the 11-room riverside Safari Lodge. All-inclusive rates start at R5250 ($556) a person a night. See ulusaba.virgin.com.