Deep in the African bush, a private game reserve offers unrivalled access to some of the world’s most awe-inspiring wildlife.
Candy pulls a beanie onto his head, instinctively reaches around to check that his bush knife is fastened to his belt then climbs onto the bucket seat suspended over the front of our open-top LandCruiser. Chanyn starts the engine and we head off into the African night, Candy swaying a flashlight from side to side in the hope of catching the reflections of shy nocturnal eyes.
Word has come through on the two-way radio about a wounded Cape buffalo. Mauled, maybe. One of a herd of 100 or so that we had sighted, late in the afternoon, grazing the savannah – the males, on smelling a female in heat, curling back their upper lips to expose their front teeth (the flehmen grimace: recognisable if you’ve ever been to a nightclub); the females doing their best Robert De Niro impersonations – “You talkin’ to me?”
Now there’s the smell of blood, as it were, and Candy and Chanyn – our tracker and ranger for the duration of our stay – can’t quite contain their excitement. Me? I’m just happy to be along for the ride. We’d stopped to watch the sun go down over Sabi Sabi, a private game reserve that lies deep within the South African bushveld, part of the famous Sabi Sand Wildtuin, nestled gently against the two million hectares of bush plains, mountains and tropical forests that constitute the Kruger National Park.
Maybe it was watching pink-hued cumulus clouds floating north to Zimbabwe, curling in a north-easterly direction towards Mozambique, stretching in all directions to infinity. Maybe it was seeing the distant lights of Justicia, one of the local Shangaan communities, to the west, where Candy’s wife and three boys would be preparing for slumber. Maybe it was the sight of the Southern Cross reclining on its side, as if it, too, was mesmerised by the sliver of moon and Venus twinkling in unison. Or maybe it was just the whisky.
But as we meander through the bush like some slightly inebriated mobile lighthouse, I’m not looking for action. I’m enjoying a special kind of snug: a woollen blanket wrapped around my knees, a fresh breeze on my face, the sweet smell of elephant dung seemingly guiding our way.
I’m contemplating my first safari. The baby warthogs that make ugly look cute. The herd of impalas ghosted against the setting sun’s rays. A lonely male waterbuck, a majestically antlered kudu, a dazzle of zebras. I’m thinking it doesn’t get any better than this. But, not for the first time, I’m wrong.
￼We’re staying at Earth Lodge, one of four five-star safari lodges spread across the reserve. The fences between the Sabi Sabi region and the Kruger National Park came down in 1993 so the wildlife roams freely across both.
I’m told there are 13 suites at Earth Lodge – each with spacious living, sleeping and bathing areas, an outdoor plunge pool, alfresco shower and uninterrupted views of the bush – but I only ever get to see ours. They merge so well into the surrounding landscape, they’re virtually invisible.
The same can be said for the lodge in its entirety. As we flew in to the private airstrip at Sabi Sabi this morning, at the end of the 90-minute Federal Airlines (fedair.com) flight from Johannesburg, we could peer into every outhouse in the nearby village of Huntington but, even parked right outside, we couldn’t spot the entrance to the lodge – a hidden corridor that opens up to a sanctuary for the soul, sculpted from a slope of earth.
Our suite, which overlooks a waterhole and beyond, is shaded in part by a marula tree, the fruit of which is a key ingredient of Amarula cream liqueur and bush coffee, my new favourite drink. Sabi Sabi is named for one of the area’s two boundary rivers, the Sabie, derived from the Tsonga word Ulusaba, which I’m told means fearful. The sense of calm about the place belies its name, although it’s early days yet.
￼Chanyn puts the .458 bolt-action rifle over her shoulder and points at the bone remnants of a buffalo on the side of the track. We’re on a walking safari today and happy for the exercise. (Warning: the food here is not only excellent, it’s also plentiful. You can lose all sense of time but you’re not going to lose weight.)
The talk turns to hyenas. They may well be highly accomplished predators but it’s their reputation as scavengers that precedes them. Like everything she does, Chanyn expounds on the topic with unbridled enthusiasm. Spotted hyenas look dog-like but they’re more closely related to cats. The females have genitalia that resemble a penis and, she says, they have more testosterone than males. While their sharp canine teeth are most noticeable, it’s their massive carnassials that can pulverise entire skeletons.
Hyenas clean and sanitise the bush. They eat so much bone material that the droppings we see in front of us are chalky white. Chanyn pauses to let us try to work it out for ourselves. “White with calcium,” she explains. “Calcium… an essential nutrient for plants.” It’s not exactly a Lion King moment but I’m beginning to get this Circle of Life thing.
￼Kerry de bruyn, our photographer, joins us after lunch. She asks us when we flew in. I say two days ago; my wife says three. In fact, it was only yesterday. Time has slipped. We tell her about our morning safari: of the leopard sleeping smugly on the side of a track; of the family of mongooses imitating meerkats; of the bearded woodpecker pecking – wik-wik-wik. And, in reverential tones, we speak of Candy tracking a pride of lions.
This, we learn, was unexpected. There’s a pride that has lived on the reserve for generations but it hasn’t been seen for many months. At one time, it was made up of 14 lions but was down to just seven at the last count… picked off one by one by lone males venturing in from the Kruger National Park.
But Candy spotted fresh tracks from his perch and set off on foot through the bush. A few moments later, we were sitting metres from a pride that hadn’t been spotted in these parts before – an oddball crew of six underfed young males with a rebel tomboy tagging along. A company of rejects, sunning themselves in the golden morning light, oblivious to all and sundry, not least their wide-eyed witnesses.
Kerry is jealous – and slightly concerned. Has she missed out on the action? She needn’t worry. As we swing by the back of the lodge, there – in the very waterhole that faces our bedroom – are two hippopotamuses mouthing off at each other. One minute, they’re gracefully submerged under the watchful eye of a nest-building red-billed buffalo weaver; the next, they’re rearing their ugly mugs, gobs agape, thrashing about in an attempt to dominate.
Chanyn is explaining the ritual but I’m not really listening. This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. And there is more to come as we head off again. Look left: there’s a female white rhinoceros and her calf, nonchalantly checking us out from behind some trees. Look up: there’s a tower of young giraffes, necking their way towards the order of things. Look ahead: there’s a zebra crossing.
I hear a loud rustle to my right and turn to see a blurry shape moving rapidly and violently through the thick bush. It’s a black rhino, I’m told, one of less than 100 left in the Kruger region. Fittingly, my sighting is barely that. And then the elephant appears. Massive, majestic and mere centimetres away. He plods dismissively by our LandCruiser and heads back into the scrub where, to our concern, he encounters another male, lurking with intent. It’s tense. It’s brief. Chanyn calls it a display of strength. I’d call it a dance. An enchanting, dangerous elephant dance.
Dinner this evening is in the Earth Lodge wine cellar. Last night, it was beside the outdoor sunken fire pit; the night before, on the lawn overlooking the waterhole. I indulge in ostrich piccata served with beetroot purée, mushroom and coffee “soil”, blueberry gastrique and parsnip crisp, followed by mushroom and sundried tomato cannelloni served with pea purée, aubergine, fetta and sweet red pepper cream. Kerry, who is from Johannesburg, chooses the barramundi. But, really, we’re here for the wine. In this coolest of candlelit caverns, we consider a chenin blanc, sample a chardonnay pinot noir then succumb, inevitably, to the pinotage. A portmanteau of pinot and hermitage (now known as cinsaut) varietals, pinotage seems somehow appropriate – South Africa’s signature wine, a symbolic cross of light and shade, wild and tame, life and death.
￼It’s our last night and, as if on cue, we come across the only animal missing from our wish list: the African wild dog. Two, in fact – one male, one female – which is somewhat unusual as they normally hunt in packs. And we’re immediately smitten. With their unruly black, yellow, brown and white mottled fur, it’s easy to see why their scientific name (Lycaon pictus) means “painted wolf”. But there’s an elegance in the way they strut about on their long, narrow legs.
When they head off into the bush, Chanyn’s excitement levels rise as she remembers seeing a lone bushbuck (one of the smaller antelopes) heading in the same general direction. Wild dogs have a 90 per cent kill rate, she tells us. And they’re not just out for an evening stroll. Her instincts are good. A muted yelp, a flash of colour and the chase is on. Chanyn manoeuvres the vehicle roughly through the scrub and, seconds later, we see a brief glimpse of white rump as the buck tries to outrun its predators. Gears crunch, wheels whir, hearts pound.
Suddenly, we stop on the high rim of a dry riverbed. There below us, in direct line of sight, is a pair of hungry dogs working in harmony to pull apart the lifeless torso of its prey. Then it gets interesting.
A dominant female hyena and her two simpering sidekicks enter the scene. She chases the dogs away then gets to work on the carcass. The dogs circle back, seemingly confused at the sheer unfairness of this turn of events. One of them bravely nips at the rump of a male hyena, whose accomplice finally snares the buck’s grass-filled stomach, only the lining of which satisfies. A troop of baboons noisily makes its way across the canopy, like schoolkids watching a fight behind the sheds.
When they calm down, we can hear the sound of bones being snapped. Then it’s over. There is nothing left of the buck. With a bad taste in their mouths, the wild dogs look longingly at the chalk outline of a murder scene.
We leave them to it and drive off into the night, stopping soon after for what’s become my nightly whisky ritual. We drink in silence, each reflecting on the wonder of what we’ve just seen. The thrill of the chase, the fragility of life, the randomness and privilege of it all.
￼On the way back to the lodge, I decide I can’t dine with other people this evening. After the night we’ve had, the days we’ve had, there’s nothing left to say. Just a lot of stuff to feel.
As Chanyn walks us down the path, she speaks softly. “We thought you might like to be on your own tonight so we’ve prepared a table outside your suite. Just call reception when you’re ready to order and we’ll send a waiter down to serve you.” This is what I call service: when someone else knows what I need before I do.
So this is how we spend our final evening at Sabi Sabi. Eating and drinking in silence, gulping the African night air, stealing glances amid the shadows of lanterns, listening to the hippos grunting in the waterhole below.
Based on its history, conservation principles and design aesthetic, Sabi Sabi’s mantra is “Yesterday, today and tomorrow”. My recommendation is to pare it back. I’d use just one word: “Now”. ￼
All images: Kerry de Bruyn