Nothing beats a safari in Africa, and South Africa has it well organised.
HEADING off on an African safari is something many travellers dream about. In South Africa, Sabi Sabi Game Reserve adjoining the famous Kruger National Park is a dream destination. While its parched plains of low scrubby savannah vegetation, called bushveld, in this part of the world aren’t stunningly picturesque, it is home to a menagerie of animals. Observing the variety of wildlife here makes the long journey so exhilarating.
Adventurous travellers mostly visit Sabi Sabi to see what’s known as “the big five”. Interestingly, the term was coined as a reference in days gone by to the five most desirable animals to hunt and shoot. These were the lion, leopard, elephant, water buffalo and rhino. Fortunately, things have changed and now “shooting” with a camera is as close as most visitors will get to bagging the big five plus a number of other animals.
Game for a drive
Seeing Africa’s wild animals is still what attracts most travellers to the African continent. For those used to the paucity of animal in Asia’s tropical rainforest, the African savannah is a true revelation. I was constantly enthralled by the variety and vast numbers of animals sighted during my three-day stay at Sabi Sabi and was amazed to hear tales from my fellow travellers of even richer sightings in neighbouring Botswana.
To be honest, I was happy to see any animal but I must admit, I had a secret ambition to see the three big cats found in the reserve – the lion, cheetah and leopard. Both my guide and local tracker promised to do their best to help, but admitted that seeing a cheetah was something that only happened a few times a month.
My journey from Kuala Lumpur on Air Mauritius via the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius meant that I arrived in the early evening and too late for the afternoon game drive. After a refreshing shower, it was time for pre-dinner drinks in the cosy club-like bar and then a gourmet dinner under the stars in what is known as a boma. Between courses of grilled chorizo and apple salad with chilli lemon sauce followed by ostrich tartar with beetroot carpaccio and mesculum salad, my guide briefed me on the morning’s game drive which was to start at 6am with a wake-up call at 5.30am.
It was with great anticipation that I enjoyed coffee and freshly baked croissants prior to settling into the jeep for my first safari drive. Rangers from Earth Lodge conduct early morning and late afternoon game drives of three hours duration. Safaris use open four-wheel drive vehicles that can comfortably accommodate six passengers as well as a ranger and a local tracker who sits precariously over the left-hand side of the front wheel. Blankets are an essential part of the jeep’s inventory as it can get very cold once the sun sets, especially during winter.
It wasn’t too long into the first safari that we learned via two-way radio that lions had been sighted. One of the most amazing discoveries while on safari is just how natural things are, with the animals seemingly not noticing us at all. This was apparent with the two young male lions we sighted stalking along the plain. They didn’t bat an eyelid as we approached and although we were a safe 50m away, they simply went about being playful as only young male lions know best.
After following them for a few minutes, they collapsed on the ground and started grooming themselves right before our eyes. This meant we could easily photograph them in their natural surroundings. I was grateful I had lugged a heavy 300mm lens with me all the way from Malaysia, but even budding photographers with smaller lenses won’t be disappointed as the rangers manoeuvre the jeep quite close to the quarry. After 30 minutes of excellent photographic experience, I was quite keen to move on to sight other animals such as the elephant, kudu, springbok, water buffalo, giraffe and numerous birds.
Walk the talk
After a successful morning’s sightings, it was time for breakfast. I realised it was only 9am and yet I had seen so much. With the next safari timed for 4pm, I opted to join my ranger on a walk timed for 11am. This proved to be very informative but I couldn’t help realising that the reserve is home to many wild animals. As my guide Marcus identified some of the unique plants of the bushveld, his rifle was slung at the ready over his shoulder.
Animal safaris are tiring work, so after an extensive lunch I relaxed around my personal plunge pool in front of my villa accommodation and rested in preparation for the 4pm safari. Just at dusk, we learned via the jeep’s radio that two leopards had been sighted. We tracked them for a while and, despite the failing light, at least I now had two of the cats ticked off the list. The pressure was now on to sight a cheetah.
Late into the drive on the second morning, Marcus screamed with joy that something special had been sighted. As he turned the vehicle around and weaved through the scrub, we all reeled off animals on our personal wish lists. Naturally, mine was the cheetah but I really thought that this was not going to be possible until I saw it sitting on its haunches on a grassy patch.
Marcus manoeuvred the vehicle to one side of the cheetah’s gaze and just 20m away. I was in seventh heaven as I started blitzing away with the camera. Like the lions the day before, it couldn’t care less whether we were there or not and not once its gaze turned our way. Another 30 minutes passed and by then all the photographers were exhausted, so we drove back to the lodge for breakfast, still without the cheetah flinching.
Earth Lodge is an intimate lodge, offering luxurious facilities and warm hospitality. With just 13 villas, there is a sense that it’s just you and the animals on the vast and near-empty bushveld. My room was spacious and lavish with elements of the surroundings incorporated into the design. The only television is a communal one in the Art Gallery but WiFi enabled me stay in touch with the outside world. Lodge facilities include a souvenir shop, pool, spa, bar and library.
My accommodation was the luxurious Earth Lodge at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve (www.sabisabi.com). There are several other options within the game reserve catering to different budgets, and with the services and facilities required. Accommodation and travel details were arranged by “Asia to Africa Safaris” (www.sabisabi.com) which specialises in catering to the needs of Asians travelling to Africa.