It’s 5am and I’m gulping down coffee and climbing into an open roofed safari truck. The sun has just come up and bathes the South African bush with a radiant light that makes me want to get up at this time every day. We head out with our ranger Chanyn, who points out animal tracks and endless fascinating tidbits of animal information as we trundle out on the hunt for elephants, leopards, lions, buffalo and rhino – otherwise known as the Big Five.
Sabi Sabi Reserve, set in Sabi Sands, is a 65,000 hectare private conservancy next to Kruger National Park and one of South Africa’s most luxurious ways to do safari. Earth Lodge, where I am staying, is a low-slung marvel of minimalism. On arrival there’s nothing to see but a winding path down into a hillside, like the entrance to a villain’s lair and at the bottom, I’m floored by the vista of the landscape and a watering hole that attracts a baby hippo during my stay, front and centre.
Concrete minimalist buildings have been banked into the bush while everything that faces the horizon has been left open so guests can sit and watch the terrain for hours. A baboon family skips through one day, small antelope like creatures called dacres graze between the 13 individual villas the next, there are no fences between the African bush and us, and after the sun sets I have to be escorted to and from dinner by a ranger. As this is Sabi Sabi (an A-lister favorite), dinner is a fine dining experience, full of unusual flavors and decadent desserts. There’s no going hungry in the bush.
There is peace out here, nothing but the sounds of the birds to disturb and everything moves to the pace of the sun – when it’s hot we rest in the shade, when it’s dark we sleep, when it’s daybreak, we’re up trying to find the elusive residents of the area.
In this part of the bush, marula trees (beloved by elephants) fill the landscape, dry riverbeds wait for rain and mud brown termite hills provide shelter for everything from lizards to the dwarf mongoose. While the animals are the star of the show, what is incredible is learning how the entire bush environment works behind the scenes, everything is interconnected – from the termites right up to the hippos and rhinos. Nature’s ingenuity is never more evident that when on safari.
Back in the truck, I scan the horizon along with the local tracker who sits on a seat perched over the end of the car, like a lookout on a ship and we stop when we see movement. A black rhino trundles into view, endless eating the newly emerged grass. It has been a long winter and the animals are stocking up on the lush greenery that spring has suddenly brought. Rhinos prefer to remain solitary, their prehistoric looking head sweeping from side to side munching continually. A bit further on we find another favorite, the African elephant, his tent like ears flapping like wings, while he uses his large feet to help dig up roots. Like a gardener pulling out weeds, his trunk wraps around the plant and pulls – it gets flipped straight into his mouth. There is a surprising amount of grace in everything an elephant does and I could spend all day just watching.
We stop for a bush breakfast. Coffee, biscuits and dates appear on the front of our truck which doubles as a table as we stand around soaking up the feeling of being truly ensconced in nature.
Later I see buffalo and wildebeest roam the scraggly bush lands, having been picked off all winter by lions and leopards, the strongest have survived and are grazing warily. A pride of female lions on the other hand laze in the sun, legs in the air, full bellies protruding, digesting their large lunch. Their cubs play in between, occasionally being licked by a watchful mother.
We head back to Sabi Sabi, eyes peeled for our last of the five, the leopard. Back at the lodge, my large villa has an enormous bath to wash away the bush dirt and I lie back and watch the turquoise colored birds outside. And the leopard? Apparently he was lying in the sun in the outdoor shower in another villa. Even the shyest animals can’t stay away from Sabi Sabi.
A stay at Earth Lodge, Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve costs from $1,170. Price is based on two sharing per night and includes open safari vehicle safaris by day and at night to see Africa’s big game accompanied by qualified rangers and trackers, environmental awareness walking safaris, breakfast, lunch, “boma” dinner, a house selection of beverages, WiFi and transfers from our Sabi Sabi Airstrip. South African Airways offers flights to the largest route network within Southern Africa.