CHILLED TO THE BONES

A crunch-time en­counter with wild dogs makes for a sa­fari spec­ta­cle

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION | SOUTH AFRICA - JOSEPHINE WRAY

The sec­ond most ter­ri­fy­ing event of my South African sa­fari hap­pened when we turned the cor­ner in our open-top Land-Cruiser and a white rhino stood in the path eye­balling me just a few me­tres away. He looked ag­i­tated – he was steady­ing his hoofs as if squar­ing up for a fight – so much so our ranger, Louise, backed up a lit­tle. We had star­tled the beast, af­ter all we were pos­i­tively tear­ing through the bush on our way to see a pack of wild dogs hunt im­pala just af­ter wit­ness­ing a pod of hip­pos frolic in a wa­ter­hole flanked by thirsty ele­phants. Such is the ex­cite­ment of the twice-daily sa­fari ex­pe­di­tions at Sabi Sabi.

On this sa­fari, it seems that around ev­ery cor­ner game abounds, roam­ing freely across the 5000ha re­serve. Sabi Sabi is part of the 65,000ha Sabi Sand Wild­tuin bor­der­ing Kruger Na­tional Park. In the early 1990s all fences be­tween the two were taken down cre­at­ing a giant re­serve where an­i­mals move freely.

Louise and Shangaan tracker Pa­trick qui­etly dis­cuss which might be the best ap­proach to see the wild dogs on the hunt. We go cross county, with Pa­trick ma­chet­ing over­head branches along the way to fol­low their trail. Other 4x4s have been ra­dioed in on the en­counter. The dogs eye their tar­get, a pronk­ing im­pala. They’re too swift for the ve­hi­cles. We’ve missed the en­counter it seems, and as dark­ness starts to fall our guides de­cide a gin and tonic sun­downer is in or­der to tem­per the ex­cite­ment.

We turn into a forested nook to set up for drinks only to hear the sound of a pelt be­ing ripped off a body (once heard, never for­got­ten). We’ve stum­bled upon the wild dogs sav­aging the im­pala. The res­o­nance of bones crunch­ing and snarls of con­tent­ment is fear­some. Up above, vul­tures look on. For­get the rhino en­counter, this is pos­i­tively chill­ing to wit­ness.

This sort of spec­ta­cle is what you can ex­pect to see on sa­fari at Sabi Sabi. We’ve al­ready ticked off the Big 5 – ele­phant, rhino, buf­falo, lion and leop­ard – plus an­te­lope, a chee­tah, baby mon­goose, a daz­zle of ze­bras and a tower of gi­raffes. There are also 300 bird species to spy. Louise tells us there are so many an­i­mals to spot here be­cause of the many dif­fer­ent habi­tat and mi­cro­hab­i­tat types in the re­serve.

We re­main hy­per-alert for ev­ery minute of the three-hour sa­fari, but not as alert as tracker Pa­trick, who sits perched at the front of the ve­hi­cle point­ing out minute in­sects to trum­pet­ing ele­phant calves in the dis­tance among rolling hills, open sa­vanna wood­land, denser for­est along rivers, and rocky out­crops.

It’s hard to come down af­ter such an adren­a­line rush. Af­ter one morn­ing sa­fari we ar­rive back at the lodge with senses so height­ened that when one of us hears a sound by the pool, we all stop, pick up our cam­eras ready to snap. Turns out it was a gar­dener with a hedge trim­mer tend­ing to shrubs.

I’m stay­ing in one of the 13 suites at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge, des­ig­nated as one of the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Unique Lodges of the World. Con­structed from con­crete, river sand and thatch­ing grass, the curved de­sign seam­lessly blends in with the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment. This also makes it a haven for wildlife travers­ing the re­serve. Look out from your pri­vate out­door area and there’s a warthog hy­drat­ing or a herd of ele­phants strolling by. In­te­rior de­sign fea­tures colours and tex­tures show­cas­ing Africa’s min­eral wealth in gold, cop­per, sil­ver and bronze. The sculp­tures of renowned South African artist Ge­of­frey Armstrong fea­ture heav­ily. Giant bath­rooms gen­er­ously filled with or­ganic ameni­ties look out to pri­vate plunge pools framed by re­cliner chairs; the per­fect perch to spy wildlife in be­tween sa­faris.

Other down­time op­tions in­clude a treat­ment us­ing Lil­ian Terry aro­mather­apy oils plus Mat­simela, a fra­grance-free lo­cal range at the in­house spa. Or there’s the li­brary with wildlife books, and a gym with floorto-ceil­ing win­dows for easy an­i­mal spot­ting while on the tread­mill.

Din­ners are enjoyed al fresco bo­mastyle. The en­clo­sure, en­cir­cled by up­ended tree roots, is lit by lanterns hang­ing from branches. You can also dine in the wine cel­lar sur­rounded by more than 6000 bot­tles of rare wine. The hand-hewn wooden table and can­de­labra add to the vibe. Re­turn to your suite and find in­gre­di­ents for a South African night­cap, the Spring­bokkie, one-part pep­per­mint liqueur and one-part amarula.

Dur­ing sum­mer months a cool­ing lunch can be served in the pool, the wa­ter in the “day bar” is an­kle deep with stone-topped ta­bles. Pre-sa­fari af­ter­noon tea is a high­light with a range of cakes and pas­tries in­clud­ing in­cred­i­bly syrupy and deca­dent koek­sis­ter. Break­fast is on the ter­race or you can or­gan­ise for a post-sa­fari feast in a bush pav­il­ion among the bushveld. This can be fol­lowed by a birdlife spot­ting hike back to Earth Lodge. We de­cide to catch a lift in the LandCruiser upon hear­ing a large ele­phant herd was on the same route.

There are three other lodges at Sabi Sabi. The fam­ily-friendly Bush Lodge has two pools for the kids and a kids’ EleFun Cen­tre for sa­fari-based learn­ing and ac­tiv­i­ties. Child­mind­ing is also avail­able for younger chil­dren while par­ents are on sa­fari. The newly ren­o­vated Se­lati Camp evokes the his­toric rail­way that used to run right by dur­ing gold rush days. There’s also Lit­tle Bush Camp hid­den un­der old river­ine trees. Art­ful pen­dant lamps hang from the main lobby’s high thatched roof and rooms are mod­ern with a touch of clas­sic sa­fari chic.

Leav­ing for the air­port via a back road in the Sabi Sabi re­serve gives us a last chance to sit back in the 4x4 and sur­vey the land­scape. Lilac-breasted rollers swoop and the bird­song of the iri­des­cent Burchell’s star­ling sounds.

William John Burchell, the 18th­cen­tury ex­plorer and nat­u­ral­ist, whose sur­name pre­cedes a menagerie of an­i­mals from birds and lizards to ze­bras, was def­i­nitely onto some­thing when he said: “Noth­ing but breath­ing the air of Africa and ac­tu­ally walk­ing through it and be­hold­ing its in­hab­i­tants … can com­mu­ni­cate those grat­i­fy­ing and lit­er­ally in­de­scrib­able sen­sa­tions.”

THE WRITER TRAV­ELLED COUR­TESY OF SABI SABI AND SOUTH AFRICAN AIR­WAYS

RICH TONES

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