Updated: Apr 10, 2021
A warthog is blocking my way.
Of all the animals I could have encountered on the walk from my villa at Sabi Sabi Reserve to the main lodge, he’s possibly the least dangerous, but his unnerving stare, pugilistic stance and the stained ivory tusks that look like they could pierce my calf as easily as a knife through butter convince me to take a wide berth. And so I detour off the path and speedwalk through the knee-high sun-bleached grass, eyes darting and heart thumping, hoping like hell that something more fearsome isn’t going to spring out on me.
It turns out there's far less peering through binoculars and a lot more up-close encounters than I was expecting on safari. Really close encounters. With safari lodges generally set right in the animals’ habitat, guests are just that and expected to look out for, and give way to their wildlife hosts.
My first sighting happens barely half an hour after touching down on the airstrip at Kapama Karula, a private reserve set between South Africa’s Blyde River Valley and Kruger National Park. Walking into my villa, I set my bags on the floor and look up, freezing at the scene being played out behind the cinematic floor- -to-ceiling expanse of glass. What I learn later are a ‘tower’ of giraffes are browsing the thorns of a tall acacia tree just outside my villa. We regard each other - I'm transfixed by the long muscles in their elegant necks contracting and expanding as they chew, they are alert but not overly concerned it seems. We stay like this for four, five, six… heartbeats more and I reach for my camera and click a few times before they decide they’ve had enough of my voyeurism and set off in one perfectly choregraphed catwalk stalk.
There are two herds of around 40 African savanna elephants on Kapama’s reserve, and that afternoon, we come across a family of them wrapping their dextrous trunks around trees, resounding cracks piercing the silence of the bush as they pull them down. Unexpectedly, one breaks off from the herd, and still chomping on her prized bough, fans her ears and starts heading towards us at a trot.
“Sit still, sit still,’ Matthew our guide whispers “she will pass by”.
But she doesn’t. She comes to within an arm’s length of the jeep, where we sit like statues and regards us as she continues to chew, so close we can smell her grassy breath and see the individual bristles on her skin.
Finally, deciding we are no threat, she moves off, the rest of the herd following. We also see lions lounging around a waterhole with their young, looking like harmless overgrown domestic cats taking a sunbath and and bush bash through to a copse, where we’re fortunate enough to witness mating leopards, the deep growl as the male mounts the female reverberating through our bodies like the bass at a rock concert.
Once these animals would have been ‘fair game’, for not just hunters, but poachers. These days many reserves like Kapama and our second safari destination, Sabi Sabi have their own armed anti-poaching units who patrol the high-risk areas protecting endangered species, and with them, the livelihoods their existence brings to many of the local villagers.
Set within one of South Africa's oldest and largest proclaimed reserves– Sabi Sands Wildtuin, Sabi Sabi consider themselves custodians of the bush around them and champions of sustainable luxury. The terracotta-hued 'Earth Lodge', the most indulgent of their 4 camps, houses a bar, restaurant, spa and library and made from natural materials and colours of the land, blends in with the surrounding bush. Accommodation is in luxe villas literally built into the earth, their mud roofs like giant anthills, barely intruding on the landscape.
As it’s unfenced, the wildlife roam the reserve as they please. Elephants have been known to come to drink or bathe in the villas’ plunge pools; one of our group has to extend her workout at the glass-walled gym when an elephant herd decide to hang around outside, and staff tell us a slightly alarming story about a lion who dragged his kill onto the lodge’s rooftop to devour at his leisure. - Which is why I’m relieved to encounter nothing less fearsome than Pumbaa and his family on the walks back to my villa.
Our drives however, with a tracker and a guide give us the opportunity to safely observe slightly wilder wildlife. We come across a very laid-back pride of lions and every possible version of antelope, from curly-horned kudos to the elegant impala with its striped rump. We take our morning coffee close to a large herd of grazing zebras and thanks to some skilful tracking, find a white rhino and her baby.
You won’t find any rhino in neighbouring Zimbabwe’s Zambesi National Park, just a short plane trip from South Africa, but you will find plenty of hippos. Just 15 minutes from the incomparable Victoria Falls, Drift Lodge offers the ultimate ‘glamping’ adventure on the reed-fringed Zambesi river and the perfect end point to an African adventure.
The lodge’s mission statement: “We have borrowed this land from the elephant, impala, birds and buffalo and we are dedicated to treading as lightly as possible on their beautiful patch of earth,” is evidenced in the sustainable practices of the property and prolific wildlife. Elephants tramp through the camp on their way to the river for an evening drink and troupes of vervet monkeys, the wide-eyed young riding their mothers backs, holding on with tiny determined fistfuls of fur scatter at our approach.
A sunrise boat trip, when the Zambezi’s surface is mirror-like and the sun tints the riparian landscape gentle hues of apricot and peach is an evocative time for an aquatic safari.
Our knowledgeable guide enthusiastically points out many examples of the colourful birdlife guaranteed to excite twitchers as well as crocodiles hauling themselves up to the bank to sunbathe in the warmth of the morning's first rays. It's the hippos, however. we want to see. The statistic about hippos killing more humans in Africa than any other animal is a truism you’ll hear often repeated and we circle groups of them, known, as ‘crashes,’ with caution. They yawn, not a response to the early morning, we’re told, but a territorial warning gesture, eyeing us, before slowly sinking under the river's brown surface leaving just a trace of bubbles.
The following day is our last and there’s an excursion to the legendary Victoria Falls where the Zambesi empties with athunderous fury down sheer cliffs. Even if this time of a long dry season, it's an awe-inspiring sight, the perfect endpoint to a once in a lifetime trip.
And then it’s time to farewell mother Africa. As the plane banks above the bush, I reflect that while the focus these days may have away from tourists intent on ticking off ‘big’ lists and towards education and conservation, there’s still an all too human life-changing thrill in seeing the velvety spotted coat of a leopard, the baggy grey of an elephant or massive stained incisors of a hippo. Even more rewarding is knowing that Africa’s caretakers are doing their best to ensure that they’ll be here for future generations.
This story was originally commissioned by Virgin Voyeur Magazine before the pandemic put international travel on hold. Natascha Mirosch was a guest of Sabi Sabi, Kampala, Old Drift Lodge and South African Airways.