CHILLED TO THE BONES
A crunch-time encounter with wild dogs makes for a safari spectacle
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