Tread­ing on vir­gin ter­ri­tory in Bran­son’s Sabi Sands hide­away

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ould you mind pass­ing the salt?” It’s not ev­ery day you’re trad­ing table­ware with Sir Richard Bran­son over a small fam­ily lunch at his own sa­fari lodge, but by now I am al­most get­ting used to it. I’d spent the past few days trail­ing the ef­fer­ves­cent, scruffy-haired mogul, along with his wife Joan, son Sam and var­i­ous or­bit­ing mem­bers of his team, around Jo­han­nes­burg for the cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tion of Nel­son Man­dela’s birth, where Barack Obama had de­liv­ered a rous­ing speech on the fu­ture of world pol­i­tics.

After a busy week, I am here at Ulus­aba in the Sabi Sands re­serve that bor­ders the Kruger Na­tional Park, to in­spect its newly ren­o­vated Sa­fari Suite. I have brought my fa­ther along for com­pany, Bran­son has de­cided to drop in on a whim, and now we are all gath­ered for lunch on a ve­randa break­ing freshly baked bread, feast­ing on a never-end­ing suc­ces­sion of pan-African dishes, and tear­ing through wine from Ulus­aba’s ex­ten­sive cel­lar.

My fa­ther, a man prone to flirt­ing with con­tro­ver­sial top­ics after about glass three, and to whom I’d given a strict brief­ing be­fore­hand (don’t talk about pol­i­tics, and don’t say Man­dela was a ter­ror­ist) is talk­ing to Bran­son about pol­i­tics, and whether Man­dela had been a ter­ror­ist.

“In the early days, yes, he was, by def­i­ni­tion, a ter­ror­ist,” Bran­son con­cedes of his late friend, who had been a fre­quent guest here, and off they go about the in­tri­ca­cies of war, as I glare from my seat op­po­site un­til the con­ver­sa­tion finds its way back to Ulus­aba.

Dubbed fondly as his “Necker in the bush”, Bran­son ac­quired the land in 1994. “The first time Joan and I vis­ited, it was a shack on a rock,” he says. “We were greeted by two leop­ards mat­ing – they go at it for three days, quite the chal­lenge – and we stayed in a tiny lit­tle makeshift tree­house, wob­bling high above the plain. I knew I’d dis­cov­ered an­other lit­tle slice of par­adise.”

It’s hardly lit­tle, of course. More than two decades later and after sev­eral ren­o­va­tions, Ulus­aba to­day cov­ers 33,000 acres of bush and hosts two camps with 20 rooms among them, in­ter­con­nected by way of me­an­der­ing rope bridges.

The first is Rock Lodge, perched high atop a craggy out­crop, which Bran­son has a slight pref­er­ence for. “You can see the en­emy com­ing,” he says, and a flash of mis­chief crosses his face, not un­like that of the ver­dant mon­key hov­er­ing in a tree above him, eye­ing up his crois­sant. ant. The sec­ond, his is wife’s favourite, is Sa­fari Lodge, hud­dled ud­dled un­der­neath on the banks of the e dry Mabrak riverbed, the new star of the show be­ing its 2,010 sq ft (187 187 sq me­tre) Sa­fari Suite, re­cently y con­verted from three sep­a­rate lodg­ings.

I’m one of the very first to stay tay here, much to the mock-hor­ror r of Sam, who’d put in the re­quest but been beaten to it, and Bran­son n him­self, who has stayed at Ulus­aba saba four times al­ready this year, but ut has still not sam­pled its lat­est upgrade. rade. “It’s al­ways booked when we try ry to get it,” he grum­bles.

The suite, still har­bour­ing that hat sat­is­fy­ing scent of fresh paint, ac­com­mo­dates two guests in a stand-alone res­i­dence with views ews across the fra­grant bush that un­folds for miles be­hind it. A walled, lantern­strewn, tree-dot­ted gar­den with a boma fire pit leads to the front door, and a spa­cious pinewood deck wraps around the back of the prop­erty. In­side, South African de­signer Franci du Toit has blended mod­ern, min­i­mal­ist in­te­ri­ors fin­ished in cream, gold and ochre; with a rus­tic African charm in the shape of well-placed arte­facts, dark wood fur­ni­ture and a thatched dome roof.

If you’re a party of four, the Sa­fari Suite can be in­ter­con­nected with the match­ing Sa­fari Room that neigh­bours it, also newly ren­o­vated and with its own en suite bath­room – this set-up af­ford­ing you a pri­vate guide and game drive ve­hi­cle for the du­ra­tion of your stay.

There’s cer­tainly more space within the com­pound of the Sa­fari Suite than a cou­ple (or two) could ever need to sleep, work, lounge and party – not that you’d want to spend much time in­side. The vast pro­por­tion of my stay was en­joyed out on the view­ing deck, hov­er­ing in the warm wa­ters of the tri­an­gu­lar hot tub plunge pool and watch­ing var­i­ous mem­bers of the re­serve’s wildlife saunter non­cha­lantly past.

The suite’s po­si­tion­ing on the out­skirts of Ulus­aba lends it a sense of seclu­sion, but else­where on the prop­erty there’s plenty to keep you busy. Criss-cross the sway­ing bridges and you’ll also find a gym, two so­lar-heated out­door pools, two spas, sev­eral bars and com­mu­nal din­ing ar­eas, and a gift shop brim­ming with de­light­ful odd­i­ties.

Also worth a poke around is that wine cel­lar – a quaint, spi­ral-stair­case bee­hive-shaped hovel that stocks hun­dreds of mostly South African wines – and an iso­lated stargaz­ing ob­ser­va­tory hid­den out in the bush, where pri­vate din­ners can be served, weather per­mit­ting, un­der a canopy of boast­ful con­stel­la­tions.

While you won’t find any of Vir­gin’s gar­ish red brand­ing here at Ulus­aba, there are plenty of lit­tle touches that re­flect the com­pany – and Bran­son him­self. Un­usu­ally for a sa­fari lodge, for ex­am­ple, it’s home to two flood­lit ten­nis courts. “I try to play ev­ery morn­ing, prefer­ably with some­one bet­ter than me,” he tells me.

Then of course, the rea­son you came – the sa­fari drives. Our personalised itin­er­ary is printed on smart pa­per but pep­pered with perky, dis­tinctly Vir­gin-es­que com­ments. “Wakey wakey!” it reads on our first morn­ing, as we drag our­selves from our slum­ber at 5.30am. “It’s hor­rif­i­cally early,” Bran­son re­marks, “but guests al­ways miss the best ac­tion when they sleep in.”

Ulus­aba’s name de­rives from the an­cient Shangaan war­riors who once oc­cu­pied it, and means “place of lit­tle fear”, a nod to its el­e­vated po­si­tion over the sur­round­ing land­scape. “We’ve had leop­ards who’ve felt safe enough to give birth right by the lodge,” my host is proud to re­port. Wildlife is in­deed abun­dant on these well-pro­tected grounds, and sight­ings of the oth­er­wise rare, elu­sive leop­ard are thus plen­ti­ful. From our own front door, we’re fre­quently within sneez­ing dis­tance of glossy im­pala and doe-eyed steen­boks as they pick their way across path­ways, and we ticked off the Big Five on our first drive.

The only crea­ture we miss is Bran­son’s favourite, the African wild dog, oth­er­wise more whim­si­cally known as the painted wolf. “Nor­mally we have one or two packs on our prop­erty,” he says some­what for­lornly. “There are only a few packs left in the whole of Africa and they’re just the most ex­cit­ing an­i­mal to fol­low. But their num­bers are com­ing back.”

I was vis­it­ing dur­ing the south­ern hemi­sphere’s mid­win­ter, when the early morn­ing drives are at their chill­i­est, but blan­kets, hot wa­ter bot­tles, and slightly silly-look­ing pon­chos kept us warm. Equally, there’s noth­ing quite like be­ing mere feet away from the thrash­ing tail and can­tan­ker­ous snarl of a lion who’s wo­ken up on the wrong side of the bed to kept one alert at dawn.

The days are warm and dry. The food and wine sup­plies end­less (“I ap­pear to have be­come fat,” my fa­ther de­clares upon our de­par­ture), and the staff here – at a ra­tio of six to ev­ery cou­ple – de­light in sur­prises. We were never in­formed where our next meal would be served, but our guide bris­tled with barely con­cealed ex­cite­ment in the lead-up to ev­ery big re­veal; a lav­ish break­fast one day served in the bush on a white table­cloth un­der the shade of an an­cient, twisted tree; a braai din­ner en­cir­cled by Ro­man can­dles to the tune of a hiss­ing log fire on an­other.

For Bran­son, it’s clearly a spe­cial

Rock Lodge tow­ers over Ulus­aba; be­low, the Sa­fari Suite

Sir Richard on a game drive; right, a res­i­dent ele­phant

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