I don't expect to learn a language while on safari, but guide Sean van Graan speaks a curious pidgin called Funny Galore, a name that's almost as pleasing as the dawn sun, rising red as a jam-drop behind a marula tree.
"Hey, Million!" calls Sean, "Mdoda ngala, tolla near mali!"
Sean has received radio advice through his earpiece. He relays it in Funny Galore to the tracker, Million Mathonsi, who sits on a special seat fixed to the bull-bar of the open-top LandCruiser.
Million studies the sandy track. "Ngala," he says. and points with a slender reed-stem into a cordon of fallen tree limbs.
"Thanks, umfo," says Sean, and steers the vehicle into the thick bush.
Funny Galore is a bastardisation of Fanagalo, which itself is a bastardisation of English, Afrikaans, Shangaan and Zulu. It was used in South African mines so multi-ethnic workers could understand each other. The guides and trackers of Thornybush Game Lodge, and in many other lodges across the Greater Kruger, use it so overseas guests in safari vehicles can't understand what's being said.
I'm no linguist, but it doesn't take long before I have a list of words jotted down in my notebook. Sean has received word of "male (mdoda) lion (ngala), seen (tolla) near water (mali)."
Keeping guests oblivious is a deliberate ploy. If we don't know what animals are being scouted, we're not disappointed if they're not located. Conversely, our delight is unbridled when something amazing looms out of the bush. Like the four giraffes, elegant in the vanilla-scented dawn, browsing in a stand of fever trees. Like the raft of nine hippos wallowing in a dam, including a three-tonne male which issues a titanic fart and sends up a small fountain. Like the hyenas lying in the grass, bloody and bloated.
Sean and Million work as a pair. "I spend more time with Million than I do with my wife," says Sean as the LandCruiser grinds over a dead bough, eliciting a tremendous crunch. "It's true, six hours a day for six weeks straight."
Their job is to locate game in a private reserve measuring 145 square kilometres. And thanks to a radical transformation that happened in Thornybush two years ago, they never quite know what they're going to find.
They listen for alarm calls – the barking of a baboon or the shrieking of a bird can mean predators. They query the behaviour of grazers (why has that giraffe stopped browsing to look in a particular direction?). And they're attuned to certain smells, like the aroma of popcorn which indicates a leopard has been scenting its territory.
Right now, Million is on the spoor of lions. The tracker flutters his reed-stem – left, right, right, left – following paw prints but also steering Sean around tyre-bursting stakes of zebra wood. The bush-bash is difficult and noisy and it sustains considerable excitement. After 15 minutes, the air is thick with warm dust and the stink of scorched clutch.
And before us, barely three metres from the vehicle, are two young male lions. I'd forgotten that a safari can be so much fun.
Thornybush Game Lodge is one of South Africa's oldest game lodges, sitting next door to one of the world's largest game reserves, Kruger National Park. The original lodge was built in 1961 and rebuilt in 2001 by the doyens of contemporary "khaki luxe", Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens.
The open-plan design is classic – a high crown of black thatch hoisted by redoubtable hardwood timbers shading an eclectic mix of plush sofas, rugs and skins. It easily accommodates 44 guests and is circulated by warm breezes and big-hearted staff. Whether you're in the bar, lounge or dining space you can watch tame bush buck nibbling the lawns, or baboons plotting new ways to provoke the kitchen crew.
The 20 standalone suites are built along a deep, dry creek bed called the Monwana. Each suite looks like a small stone chapel, with a vestibule and solid timber door. The interiors are cool and calm with textured fabrics in pale blue and a huge four-poster bed looking out to a deck. The bathroom has a generous bath as well as an outdoor shower; both look out to the far bank where kudu and duiker browse.
After lunch – a buffet featuring juicy beef sprinkled with pomegranate, four-bean salad and lush tacos with avocado and lime – I resist the chance for a nap and instead inspect the lodge facilities. There's a pool, enjoyed by guests during the day as well as the occasional thirsty leopard at night (retiring guests must be escorted by porters). A spa is dedicated to wellness while a colonial-style lounge is more suited to brandies and cigars.
Among the carefully chosen decor, I find an unusual piece of art – a circle of barbed wire mounted behind glass and dated February 2017. "That's when fences on the property came down," says Melanie Parker, the regional manager of the Northern Thornybush Lodges. "It's when we became part of the Greater Kruger."
Melanie describes the event as "a very big deal". The reserve started in 1955 when a bunch of local cattle farmers pooled their land, built a perimeter fence big enough to contain elephants and stocked it with game. When the fences came down two years ago, Thornybush was opened to the vast Kruger reserve, which is the size of Wales. Animal populations that had been managed for decades were now free to come and – perhaps more worryingly – go.
"It was a conservation-based decision, not a commercial decision," says Melanie, "and we knew there would be losses as well as gains. For example, we accepted we might lose lions from two very stable prides, and we lost a few rhinos.
"But we gained elephants, hyenas and a more stable pack of wild dogs. We had new lions move in, which brought more diversity into the gene pool. That's created healthier prides, which has meant more cubs."
I remark how the animals seem completely oblivious to vehicles. "We've been a reserve for more than 50 years – that's 50 years of game viewing, so the animals are very relaxed. But we also have a policy of ethical game drives. We never allow more than two vehicles at any one sighting, so you don't get that terrible situation where a single animal finds itself surrounded."
" 'My mother's dead, my father's dead, my brother's dead, I'm sad-sad-sad-sad…' You hear it? That's a crested francolin."
I'm tickled by Sean's bird-song mnemonic, partly owing to his heavy Afrikaaner accent ("Om sed-sed-sed-sed,") but also because it works brilliantly. "Put words to the song and it's easier to remember," he says.
Over three days we do six game drives and my list of Funny Galore animal words grows longer. We approach a herd of some 20 adult elephants (ndlopfu) with calves, noisily tearing the bush to pieces. The females grow curious and approach us with trunks in the air. Sean checks to see if the group feels comfortable enough to allow the herd to surround us. We sit perfectly quiet as they move to within two metres of the vehicle, raising dust and idly flapping their ears.
We come upon four white rhinos (mkhombi) with splendid horns, and a buffalo herd (nyari), also sporting spectacular racks. And after downing a few drinks as the sun sets behind the Drakensberg mountains, we use spotlights to embark on a thrilling hunt through the bush to find an ingwe. After 45 minutes of tracking in the dark, I come to appreciate just how difficult it is to find a leopard – and how rewarding it is when you do.
Heading back to the lodge, I hear some extra Funny Galore going on between Sean and Million, and we take a detour. Turns out they have another surprise, delivering us to a forest clearing where lanterns are hung among the knob-thorns and stars peek through the boughs. Long tables are clothed in white linen and lit by candles, the kitchen crew tend a huge brai (barbecue) of sizzling game meat, as well as an open bar.
I've visited a dozen safari lodges in southern Africa, some of them far more chic (and more expensive) than Thornybush Game Lodge. But there's something special about this lodge. And it's not just the sensational game viewing. The tracking, the off-roading, the Funny Galore and the newly opened reserve, it all hints at something richer.
Which is perhaps as it should be. After all, the word "safari" has nothing to do with animals. It's taken from the Arab word "safar", which means "to journey".
Max Anderson was a guest of Scenic.
Thornybush costs $1120 a person a night all-inclusive. A three-night stay at Thornybush is part of an 11-day five-star tour of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana with Scenic. See scenic.com.au