Encounter Rare Sightings On A South African Safari

Photo: © Richard Newton

- November 4, 2015

I have spent most of my life avoiding South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Since childhood, I have enjoyed safaris in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi (where I worked as a wildlife officer), Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and private South African reserves.

Kruger always struck me as too tame, with its asphalt roads and fenced camps, and too popular — dozens of vehicles crowding the roadside for a single sighting.

But there are also arguments in favor of South Africa’s oldest, largest and most famous park. It is vast — almost the size of New Jersey — and protects a diverse patchwork of habitats. Away from the main camps, one can easily lose the crowds and enjoy a genuine sense of wilderness, especially on the dirt roads branching from the main routes.

Last year, my wife and I finally set aside our prejudices and spent two weeks self-driving in Kruger. We became instant converts. So much so, we decided to go back for another two weeks this year. This time, however, we combined the standard self-drive experience with something much more exclusive.

On the eastern side of Kruger National Park, adjacent to South Africa’s border with Mozambique, resides a 33,000-acre concession managed by the celebrated high-end safari company Singita.

Singita Lebombo Lodge consists of 15 luxurious suites perched on a cliffside overlooking the N’wanetsi River. After the functional facilities of Kruger’s government-run camps, our arrival at Singita presented instant culture shock.

Suites at Singita Lebombo Lodge

Suites at Singita Lebombo Lodge © Richard Newton

Pulling up in our dust-covered VW Polo, we were instantly offered wet towels and cold drinks. Our luggage was seamlessly spirited to our suite and the car driven away. When we next saw it, on departure three days later, it had been cleaned inside and out.

In contrast to the rustic vernacular of many luxury safari lodges, the public areas at Singita Lebombo incorporate natural materials into an architectural style that is unashamedly modernist. The striking architectural language carries over into the glass-walled, loft-style suites which offer 21st-century comfort while simultaneously integrating with the surrounding wilderness.

We had a short time to settle into the room before returning on the long, winding walkway to the lounge area for teatime snacks ahead of the main event: the game drive.

Within Kruger proper, visitors are entirely restricted to the roads, and there is a curfew from sunset to sunrise. Here, in an open Land Rover, our driver/guide, Enos, was free to take us on detours through the bush, directed by the tracker, Howard, from his perch above the front bumper.

Within minutes of leaving the lodge, we were in the middle of an elephant herd. A young male put on a show of ear-flapping bluster, but most of the animals remained relaxed. We were close enough to smell them and to hear the rumble of their low-frequency communication.

Farther on, Howard relinquished his exposed position and joined us in the back before we approached a huge pride of 36 lions on a recent buffalo kill. Enos steered across rough ground to a prime viewing position, and there we sat as the sun set, surrounded by happily engorged big cats.

After a stop for sundowners at a scenic viewpoint, we resumed our drive in darkness. Howard was back in place, scanning the bush with a spotlight. Our list of sightings lengthened: hyenas, black-backed jackals, grazing hippos and owls.

Back at the lodge, after dinner beside the ethereally illuminated swimming pool (meals, drinks and snacks are included in the price), we were escorted to our suite by a guard — there is no fence around the lodge, and wild animals often wander through.

Up before dawn, we dressed warmly for the day’s first game drive. After coffee in the lounge, we returned to the vehicle with Enos and Howard. During the first hour we saw very little. (Such lulls are common on safari.) Then Howard spotted a female leopard.

With expert intuition, Enos drove us away from the sighting, picked a way down to a sandy riverbed, and then took us back to the animal. She had recently killed an impala and was attempting to drag the carcass up the steep riverbank. Eventually she gave up. For 30 incredible minutes, we enjoyed a clear, close view of the magnificent cat.

Much as we appreciated the luxury at Singita Lebombo Lodge, this was what made the place so special — the quality of the sightings.

zebra

Zebra © Richard Newton

Singita is peerless for the Big Five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion), but safari veterans are always looking for rarer game. My wife and I had heard of another exclusive lodge, close to South Africa’s border with Botswana and offering a good chance of seeing one of the continent’s most elusive creatures.

And so it was that we arrived at the exclusive Fireblade Aviation Terminal at Johannesburg International Airport to board a private Pilatus aircraft for the 90-minute flight to the 250,000-acre Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve, South Africa’s largest private reserve, owned by one of the country’s wealthiest dynasties, the Oppenheimer family.

On touchdown, we knew we had arrived in a magical place. The arid land displayed a patchwork of striking colors: bleached grass, underlying sand in swathes of red and fawn, dark green trees, stratified purple hills.

Our driver/guide, Nicole, and Jackson, the tracker, met us. The basic safari routines would be the same as at Singita, though with significantly different wildlife. No elephants, for a start. Instead, Tswalu is famed for its desert species, including the Kalahari lion (the world’s biggest lion subspecies, much larger than the lions we’d seen at Singita), gemsbok, springbok, desert black rhino and — we hoped — aardvark.

After checking in to our spacious thatched suite at the Motse, Tswalu’s main lodge, we headed out for our afternoon game drive. It didn’t take long to find the animal we’d waited our lifetimes to see. A bumbling shape rustled through the long, white grass. “Aardvark,” said Nicole matter-of-factly.

We abandoned the vehicle and, in silence, judging each footfall to avoid noise, we stalked our quarry through the bush. Soon we had a clear view. There it was with its rabbit-like ears, its kangaroo-like tail and its long snout. Elsewhere in Africa, aardvarks are strictly nocturnal and immensely shy. But at Tswalu they become active in late afternoon and have grown used to being tracked by tourists.

We returned to the vehicle contented, having joined the small coterie of people who can boast of having seen an aardvark in the wild.

Tswalu is divided into two fenced sections by a government road. On the Motse side, the main predators are hunting dogs. When we passed through gates to the other side, we entered lion country.

Reading fresh tracks in the sand, Nicole and Jackson zeroed in on a pride. These hefty cats were every bit as impressive as we’d imagined. They lay within feet of our open vehicle, ignoring us.

On our final morning, Tswalu had one last magical experience in store. We walked to a barren clearing pocked with the entrance holes of a labyrinthine burrow. Eventually, one by one, the wily inhabitants began to emerge. Standing in rows on their hind legs, they basked in the warmth of the rising sun. Meerkats.

Like the aardvark and lions, the meerkats accorded us the ultimate privilege — they completely ignored us. We crouched among them and saw the world from a meerkat’s perspective. Their heads constantly twitched this way and that, scanning the air for eagles, checking the ground for snakes.

cheetah

Cheetah © Richard Newton

Eventually, when the sun had warmed them sufficiently and they were satisfied the coast was clear, they headed off for a day of foraging. We watched them go.

Our own time was also nearly up. We made one last game drive, encountering a pair of cheetahs, an impressive kudu bull and, at the end of the airstrip with our waiting plane in view, a large giraffe herd.

The end of a safari always provides a wrench. After the timeless idyll of the wild, we were returning to the reality of modern life. Yet we were leaving with new experiences to draw on as an antidote to daily stresses. The time we spent at Singita and Tswalu was all too brief, but the memories are indelible.

Safari Info to Go

Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport is the ideal staging post for both Kruger National Park and Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve. We flew to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport by scheduled flight, then drove by rental car to Kruger — a drive of just over an hour. (From the gate it’s another five hours to Singita, including wildlife-viewing along the way.) Transfers to Tswalu are from either Johannesburg or Cape Town International Airport with Fireblade Aviation.

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