Nine skinny lions are stalking a herd of buffalo. And, in the pale moonlight, we are stalking the lions. They walk so close to the open-top safari jeep I could reach out and pat them. The word has spread on the walkie-talkies and three jeeps that were in the vicinity are now sitting in the bush, metres from the lions, playing the waiting game. We are just like the lions, only better fed. They seem as indifferent to the spotlights trained on them as they are to the awe of the human spectators. They just want some dinner.
Our ranger, I.P., who is never far away from his bolt action 375 Parker Hale rifle, estimates they are only about two years old and half the weight they will be as adults. He says they probably haven't eaten for two weeks. And what happens next is a consequence of that extreme hunger and immaturity. Shaped like a V-formation of fighter aircraft, the group inches forward, a few stuttering, crawling steps at a time. They fix on their quarry, a lone, large – and perhaps overconfident - male buffalo grazing on the outskirts of the herd. In a sudden, furious revelation of muscle and agility, the lead four lions pounce as one. They leap onto the buffalo's back and sink their teeth and claws into its rump. The grove has sprung violently to life, and possibly death. The beauty and cruelty of nature is a ferocious, visceral, stirring thrill. In the twinkling of a spotlight, it is over. The buffalo shakes them off and runs away, bloodied but unbowed.
The adrenalin-pumped humans are split on the result, as if reacting to a controversial points decision at a title fight. The survival of the fittest is a polarising issue.
"These lions are just juveniles," says I.P. "They are inexperienced hunters and don't realise they are too small to kill a huge buffalo. They're actually pretty stupid. Buffalo may look like cows but they are very strong and have anger management issues."
I.P. says the pride will track the buffalo herd all night but now they will sleep a while, so we head back to our own sumptuous – and now guilt-ridden – dinner at Bush Lodge in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in South Africa. The guilt is magnified as Chef Sipho explains that tonight there is kudu, zebra and wildebeest in the barbecue buffet. Or beef, chicken and barramundi, if you prefer. Appropriately, my zebra steak has grilling stripes and it is actually pretty good, if a little gamey.
While the thrill of the lion attack is a standout experience – and the grilled wildebeest is not – these few hours of safari and fine dining are typical of a day at Sabi Sabi. Rangers and guides run two safaris a day, in the early morning (with hot water bottles and blankets) and late afternoon/early evening (with drinks on a small plateau). The dirt roads are graded smooth and we only leave them when there is a significant sighting nearby. And we have many significant sightings.
In just two days we see the Big Five game animals (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant), as well giraffes, zebras (black with white stripes, to end that controversy), many species of antelope, warthogs, hyenas, mongooses, innumerable colourful birds and a hippo, which, unlike the lions, was not hungry. One morning we see a leopard drinking lazily from a lake, elephants shredding trees for the bark, a herd of 100-odd buffalo and a tower of giraffes wandering right by our jeep, all before breakfast.
Another delight was finding a baby white rhino bounding along a ridge, as if beckoning us to come and play. Its mother looked on, her 1500-kilogram mass indicating "I don't bloody think so". And all of these sightings are up-close encounters, maybe 10 to 20 metres away. Zoom lenses are not required.
Sabi Sabi shares a 50-kilometre unfenced boundary with neighbouring Kruger National Park and animals wander freely between the reserves. I.P says poaching is still an issue and the Asian market will pay handsomely for rhino horn and elephant tusks. "Poachers will attack us if they think they've been recognised. I'd like to shoot them but I would be charged with murder."
Each safari jeep has a spotter seated at the front and we enjoy the enchanting company and intuitive tracking skills of a local named Heavyness. "I was a big baby," he says, with a smile that could light up nocturnal savannah. I suppress a sub-editorial instinct to correct the spelling of his name and choose to focus on his inspiring presence. Heavyness explains the lore of the Marula tree, beneath which the dead were once buried and which was used to communicate with ancestors. He spies a lilac-breasted roller perched in a tree and tells us how local Shangaan men give a feather from this colourful bird as a marriage proposal, along with 20 cows to the father of the bride. Heavyness is a substantial asset.
Not to be outdone, I. P. weighs in with his own somewhat less romantic factoids. "Elephants eat a quarter of their own body weight every day and their penises can weigh up to 30 kilograms." More importantly, he says Sabi Sabi limits the number of humans in the park and they never interfere in the lives of the animals, "unless it's a rhino, then we'll help".
Walking tours are also conducted and before he leads off, I.P. checks his rifle is loaded and runs through the rules. "Single file. Stay together. No running. No yelling. Stand still if confronted. Don't make anything angry."
Of course, the animals are the magnetism but if you want to safari in style, Sabi Sabi ticks a lot of boxes. There are four accommodation lodges on the reserve, each with a distinctive personality. Selati Camp is named – and themed – for a railway line that used to run nearby. This intimate, seven-suite property was refurbished in 2017 and is best suited to couples. Little Bush Camp is set on the Msutlu River, usually dry but spectacular after a good rain, when hippos come to visit. This is the newest and smallest lodge with just six suites, each with a heated balcony spa bath.
The top-of-the-range Earth Lodge offers 12 luxury suites, including the $3000 a night Amber Suite. The lodge is partly dug into the ground and is made of concrete and compacted earth excavated on the site. This classy, enviro-chic accommodation features an art gallery, boutique and surrealist art-deco furniture pieces crafted from driftwood. The 6000-bottle wine cellar doubles as an underground dining room.
Bush Lodge is the largest and most family friendly Sabi Sabi property and children can hang at the supervised EleFun Centre if you want some adult safari time. We arrive, having already seen a leopard on the drive in, and manager Pieter Coetzee runs through the rules: "The lodge is unfenced so strictly no unaccompanied walking around the resort at night. Watch out for monkeys – they will steal your stuff. Hippos don't swim in our pools, so go for it."
The centrepiece of Bush Lodge is an expansive deck over the Msuthlu riverbed, which looks across the bushveld to a watering hole. Wildlife, especially elephants, giraffes, warthogs and impalas, comes and goes throughout the day and night. There is also a boutique, day spa and an elegant bar.
The 25 Bush Lodge suites are substantial, lavishly appointed affairs, decorated with African art and artefacts. Think vaulted ceilings, huge ceiling fans (and a/c), large ensuite bathrooms and plush furniture. Another feature is the outdoor shower, and I am enjoying the get-back-to-nature feel until I notice a large nyala perving at me from about five metres away. The bull antelope scares the shampoo out of me before he realises there is nothing to see here and moves on.
As we depart Sabi Sabi we see our pride of lions, another day skinnier, sitting inside the boundary fence and staring wistfully across the road at a herd of domestic cattle on an adjacent farm. As magnificent as they look, maybe they are as stupid as I.P. suggested.
South African Airways flies daily to Johannesburg International, via Perth (connecting with Virgin Australia from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide), and internally on to Skukuza Airport. See flysaa.com
Adventure World Travel offers a four day/three night package to Sabi Sabi, including internal return flights from Johannesburg and land transfers from Skukuza Airport for $4329 a person. See adventureworld.com.au
Single nights at Sabi Sabi from $1335 a person a night, twin share. See sabisabi.com
Mal Chenu was a guest of Adventure World Travel and Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve.