The wooden terrace was partially built around a huge tree and overlooked the river and its high banks. On one side our small cozy table for two is supported by the balustrade of the terrace, with a view down onto a partially dried up river with steep banks on either side that disappear into the wilderness of the thickly bushed safari landscape, the nearest small village many miles away. Here in the middle of nowhere a perfectly dressed sommelier offered us his opinion regarding some outstanding South African Chenin Blanc wine from 2017 that would perfectly pair with the salad we had ordered for lunch. A parade of elephants slowly made their way towards us strolling through the middle of the riverbed. The sommelier explained that until recently they had problems with the elephants. When there was not enough water in the river, they started digging under the terrace for more water thus undermining the structure. One of the staff came up with the idea to run a small pump and wind a water hose up the giant tree. A stream of water came down from there and in no time the elephants learned to curl up their trunk, or “slurf” called in Afrikaans, and catch the water. The entire scenario made for the most amusing luncheon entertainment.
In my last column I expressed my love for the wide-open expanse one experiences in the African wilderness. It is like the openness of Antarctica, Alaska north of the polar circle and mountain ranges throughout the world. All with a minimum of people’s encroachment and evidence of our hectic world. But safari country adds the thrill of exciting animal encounters. And in the middle of it are some of the most interesting accommodations in the world. The beautiful and antique-filled old-fashioned colonial lodges dating back to the era of the hunting lodges I like so much although I strictly stick to photo safaris and have no interest “pre-buying” a majestic lion for an exorbitant amount of money before the poor beast is literally put in front of the hunter to be shot “expertly.”
On our last trip I described in my previous column two weeks ago, we stayed in four very different lodges all of which thoroughly magnified the fabulous experience. Three of the four properties featured private plunge pools. At our first stop we enjoyed the Malewane Waterside Lodge in Thornybush Private Game Reserve.
The property had just reopened and is part of the famed South African Royal Portfolio including one of the world’s most magnificent properties in the middle of the African wine country, La Residence, as well as the ultra-modern Silo Hotel in vibrant Cape Town. Waterside, under the expert guidance of its enthusiastic manager, Jon, resulted in ultimate luxury in the bush. We had our table on the terraced property overlooking the river with two rhinos waddling in the mud and a giraffe in the distance sticking his neck out over the trees. And to add to the wilderness ambiance an impressive nyala was blocking our way to the front door of our luxurious bungalow.
Next on our journey was the Kapama Karula Lodge in the private Timbavati Game Reserve, meaning “the place where something sacred came,” offering a different kind of luxury and some interesting encounters. Near the lodge we met with a cheetah climbing in a tree and watching us from there with as much curiosity as we had for the sleek animal. Eventually she decided to come down out of the tree and laid down close to me on her back with an expression that seemed to invite me to play. Don’t get the wrong idea! If people sit in the open jeep and stay seated the animals see it as one big dark unit. The moment a person stands up, the perception for the cheetah changes and she might attack.
From here we traveled to perhaps my favorite, but least expensive of the four accommodations on this journey: the Tintswalo Safari Lodge in the Manyeleti Private Game Reserve, “Place of Stars,” in the local Shangaan language. Only six cozy, but lavishly appointed suites, are stretched out offering complete privacy along an elevated boardwalk leading away from both sides of the main building. Owned by the same property is the Manor Lodge, a short distance away from the main lodge offering accommodations to a family or a small group of close friends.
After the first night we were the only guests. Our lovely and very pleasant sociable host manages the property with her husband. That evening we were treated to a private tasting dinner in their impressive wine cellar. Bill, one of our most experienced and knowledgeable rangers on this safari, ironically hales from Ireland. He decided to offer us exposure to a black rhino up close and personal. Known as one of the most unpredictable and dangerous animals of African wildlife this was a thoroughly thrilling experience for me. We left the safety of our jeep slowly walking in single file towards a rhino peacefully grazing. Bill explained that the eyesight of the animal is extremely poor and that the wind was blowing in the right direction to avoid alerting the sensitive nose of this impressive creature. I have observed the rhino numerous times from a jeep but walking there completely unprotected makes one feel extremely vulnerable. In an almost lost whisper Bill explained every slight movement of the head and ears until there was suddenly additional attention as the big animal seemed to notice something different in the air. Bill signaled it was time to turn around and as the rhino slowly turned, we made our way back to the jeep. By the time we climbed in, the animal was lumbering towards us. However, he was obviously only mildly interested otherwise he would have shown off the totally unexpected speeds these massive bodies can produce.
It was a unique experience we could safely get away with only because Bill could confidently read every movement of the rhino.
Our last lodge was reached by private air charter to the better known Singita wilderness, “Place of Miracles.” Within this reserve is Nwanetsi, a private concession of almost 38,000 acres at the remote eastern border of Kruger National Park. Before landing on the grass strip near our lodge, the pilot did a fly-over to make sure no wildlife would turn our landing into a hazard. Singita offers a wider range of luxury lodges and I had so far experienced four of them over the years. Singita Lebombo is probably one of the most modern accommodations I have stayed in on safari.
The lodge offers thirteen extra-large contemporary glass-walled suites with spectacular river views. The website of the lodge describes it as “This Afro-chic lodge stands dramatically amongst the boulders overlooking the confluence of the Sweni and Nwanetsi rivers. This well-appointed lodge offers guests the quintessential African safari, accompanied by flawless service.” The super modern layout allows no nostalgic historical memory of colonial times and is not only the most expensive of the four properties we stayed in, but also the most popular with the younger affluent remote working millennials. This property was also home to an army of monkeys trying to find every more clever way to get into the guest rooms. Watching their antics through the large glass walls was hilarious! Despite this time being their low season, the property was sold out.
Every photo safari I have been privileged to participate in and organize over the last 20 years has been a different and unforgettable experience but every animal on safari offers something unique. The many encounters with the majestic elephant will always remain a highlight of any safari. Their astonishing intelligence is a never-ending fascination for me.
Ewout Rijk de Vries and his wife, Jill, brought America Travel Arrangements to Marco Island almost 40 years ago. They specialize on high end small adventure tours and small safari groups for clientele all over the world, but also are experts on high end cruises with the help of longtime assistant and friend, Michelle Wegman. In combination with his writing and photography, Ewout has visited close to 100 countries. Please direct your comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org as he likes to hear from readers.