Travelling with Atelier Africa Safaris, travel story:
South Africa: Luxurious wildlife
Half of the time you will enjoy an eye-catching Afro-chic design villa with private swimming pool,
while at sunrise and sunset you cruise through your private Land Rover through the jungle, gin and tonic
in your hand. With the triangle combination Royal Malewane, Singita Sweni and Londolozi you will
experience the South African dream safari.
A sandwich and a coffee ago we stayed in the metropolis Johannesburg, now we stand with our feet in the loose sand next to a moss green Land Rover Defender, the workhorse of the Royal Malewane Lodge. Five members of staff are waiting for us in bright white uniform. Yes, this is really ‘royal’. Royal Malewane is not the first camp with just seven rooms. Bono, Elton John: they and other world stars choose this site for their annual trip to the bush. “The only place in the world where Microsoft’s CEO switches off his smartphone,” according to the story. And not only because this top lodge, which opened more than ten years ago, houses the largest suite in the savannah, or provides an average of eight staff per room. But especially because Royal Malewane is so pure, and breathes the perfect ‘Out of Africa’ atmosphere – Robert Redford and Meryl Streep not included. Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni also spent their honeymoon here in early 2008.
“We are indeed trying to create the perfect safari,” says British hotel manager Liza. “And sometimes we go very far to accomplish that. Last week a somewhat silly Australian guest wanted to go jogging in the morning. He did that every morning, he would have done that now. Not a problem. But I did have a jeep with an armed ranger follow him… “The host immediately introduces us to the new friends: the burly ranger Juan and the silent tracker Wilson. “Tea at three-thirty, we’re gone at four o’clock,” Juan says in a tone that clearly does not accept any argument. “And don’t forget the warm clothes, it’s gonna be cold after sunset.” Upon arrival at the lodge, the chef has lit the barbecue and the evening is brightened in the same way they solve everything in Africa – with dance and singing. The staff, dressed in local costumes for the occasion, started acting out in no time. They’re jumping around fire pits, stomping on the floor and singing loudly.
Baboon with purple underpants
We fill the next two days according to a fixed pattern. Getting up at half past five, departing at sunrise around six o’clock. Coffee at eight and driving around until half past nine. Then have breakfast and laze. Lunch. When the midday devil strikes, taking a short nap, and leaving again at about four o’clock, when the heat diminishes rapidly. Driving until half past eight, dinner around eight, bedtime at ten o’clock. During the last evening, guests and rangers fraternise around an immense campfire. “You can ask for anything, even if you’re a blonde,” a colonial traveller who was unable to get his own TV show jokes. The ice is broken. And as it goes; the later in the evening, the more spectacular the stories. What was fun was the American guest who misinterpreted the prescription of his malaria pills. Instead of one tablet per week, he took one per day. This not only gave him hallucinatory images of man-devouring lions, but also a near-death experience. And then there was the baboon who had entered a room and sat on a tree a moment later showing off a passport in his hand and a purple G-stringon his head. Yeah, yeah, safaris…
Monitoring the respectful tourisme
“The bad news is that more and more lodges are opening their doors,” says Marlon du Toit, the chief of Singita Sweni – our second stop – in safari shirt, shorts and brown leather boots. This morning, a Federal Air Taxi sport plane flew us in stylishly, departing from no more than a dash of paved country road. No building, nothing. Only a windsock and a rack with two fire extinguishers. But there was a lot of dust, a vast steppe and a scorching heat. “The good news is that for compensation more and more areas are classified as ‘game reserve’ and old hunting areas are being transformed into a photo-safari location. Relatively speaking, everything remains as it was’’, he completes. We immediately get an extensive answer to our spontaneous comment ‘that it’s busy’. We were referring to the situation that our plane had to commence the landing twice because of giraffes on the track during the first attempt. But the dear man interpreted it differently. “I’m not going to drive too fast”, Marlon calls once he is seated in the Land Rover. “Elephants always cross the road without looking. They never learn…” On the way he explains the main house rules with a hoarse voice and big gestures. After sunset (which is already around five o’clock in the afternoon in the winter months) you can’t walk around alone. If you want to move around, you have to call an (armed) ranger. The message is to remember this. With a refreshing glass of chenin blanc, we take a look at the map at night under the light of the oil lamp. Singita Sweni and neighbor hotel Singita Lebombo are located in a private park of fifteen thousand hectares, just next to an eastern corner of the Kruger Park, on the border with Mozambique. The difference with Kruger is that this park is not operated by the government but with private capital and is therefore only accessible to those who are staying there. In other words, you can drive around for hours without meeting another car, in contrast to the public parks where every animal that stops near a road is almost being stormed.
Love nest between the trees
The price tag for a safari varies, just like all other types of travel, from budget to super-deluxe. From simple colonial tents to dazzling lodges designed by trendy designers. Singita Sweni Lodge belongs to the top without a mistake. “When the architects drew these lodges, they had one assignment: create an unbeatable place with an all-in concept”, says sommelier Henrico van Lill. Singita is his walhalla and large playground. Because downstairs, buried in the ground, there is a spectacular wine cellar with 15,000 bottles of the best that the world – and especially the Cape – has to offer. Singita Sweni is an oasis with just six suites, where the privacy of the guests is an absolute priority. Zen is the magic word. We know few hotels that are so right about that. We are assigned Suite 6, a central house overlooking the river surrounded by seven-hundred-year old trees. At the least, the architecture is surprising and refined. And has nothing to do with the upgraded camping tents that used to be in charge around here. “This hotel is a response to the latest safari trend”, the host tells us the next morning during coffee. “Twenty years ago only the animals counted. The accommodation and meals were a sideshow. Just like the practical facilities: if you wanted to go to the toilet, you simply had to go to the nearest tree. This has changed. Whoever can and wants to pay for this, demands a total experience. Beautiful rooms and a top kitchen are part of that.”
“Z E N I S T H E M A G I C WORD”
Greater Kruger Area, big game
Time for action again. Each villa has its own Land Rover, a driver-guide and a tracker, a track finder. ‘Land Rover Jockeys’ is their nickname. In our case they are called Marlon and Glass. Together they have more than thirty years of experience and form a close team. Marlon controls the open Land Rover with one hand, the gaze permanently aimed at the environment and the right hand of tracker Glass, which determines the direction through firm directions. “We have a network of more than a hundred kilometres of dirt roads here, of which I could ride most with my eyes closed,” Marlon says without a hint of pretension. A fleece blanket and a hot water bottle are waiting on our chair. Glass sits impatiently on the tracker seat, hat far over the ears, with thick gloves and two coats on. Gas pedal, a black cloud: here we go again. Glass works according to the known principle; read traces (often excrement), progress, observe. “Hima, hima (stop)”, he beckons. He saw elephants and zebras in the distance.
The sun has only just risen, the air still feels freezing cold. We see a large herd, only elephant cows and their calves. A small specimen is still unsteady on the legs. We have never seen them so young. “How old do you think he is?” I ask in a whisper. “Less than four weeks”, he answers. The calf looks cartoon-chubby. Rubbery too. “Elephants are like whales, but different,” Marlon joins the conversation. “Gentle, powerful and intelligent.” We continue driving and immediately pass a whole zoo: zebras, hippos, impalas, monkeys. “Every traveller wants to see the Big Five: lion, rhinoceros, buffalo, leopard and elephant”, says Marlon. “And that’s basically no problem. The only one that’s harder to find is the leopard. Especially because it is a nocturnal animal.” Our first day was already a hit, even though ‘shot’ is not really the right word in a nature reserve where they do everything to keep the population up to standard.
In the afternoon we settle down at our pool and we enjoy the dosed winter sun. A few hours later we are ready for the afternoon ride. Even now the animals are numerous. And that’s pretty unusual.“The actual bush area is much larger than about twenty years ago, so one has to search longer. And this produces stubborn rumours,” says Marlon, who is again dressed in a perfect safari shirt. “But that there are generally fewer animals than in the early days is a fable. Although there are animals that are in (great) danger, such as the rhino, the rest of the population remains constant.”
At sunset we choose a large, thick tree and we stop for a gin & tonic. Glass spreads his table: white linen, crystal glasses, an oil lamp at the lowest branch. We eat some old cheese and toast, nobody says anything. We enjoy each other’s company, the golden evening light and the silence of the vast savannah. This is the pure, wild Africa. “Life is so beautiful in Kruger Park,” muses Marlon. “Not for a million bucks would I want to live anywhere else.”
Priority from everywhere
On the way back – in the meantime it has become pitch dark – what everyone hopes for finally happens. We hit a group of hunting lions. Marlon immediately stops the engine, reports the confrontation via the on-board radio at the lodge and turns off the lights. It is pitch dark and quiet. We are now alone with the origin of our existence, the ‘circle of life’. Suddenly there is a sound in the bushes. Ten males and eight females walk past the Land Rover. They slowly make their way through the desiccated tall grass. Because they grew up with our cars, they do not see us as a threat,” whispers Glass, who exchanges his forward seat for a place in the SUV for safety purposes. “And they will not respond to flash light either. Only if you leave the vehicle will you get their attention. But beware especially for elephants that suddenly spread their ears; then it’s serious. Make sure you’re getting out of there.” Half an hour later the lodge calls us. “Everything okay, Marlon?” We confirm. “Right, the chef must not wait! It’s barbecue time in the ‘boma’.” Boma stands for ‘British Officers Mess Area’, a round, secure eating place with a big campfire in the middle. On the menu: fresh springbok (legally hunted) with freshly picked tomatoes, lime and sweet potatoes. Everything topped with a bottle of Springfield Wild Yeast chardonnay from 2006 and Adi Badenhorst’s beloved RWT red blend from 2005. Terribly tasty!
Securing minimum impact
During dinner we get to chat with Mike, a hobby photographer and fanatic ecologist from Durban. “What’s so remarkable about this lodge is the minimal impact on nature,” he explains. “The suites are spacious stilt houses made of wood and steel, but nevertheless seem as if they were dropped into place from a helicopter. No pipes and utilities were buried, everything was neatly hidden between the bushes. Hypothetically speaking, if necessary, they could leave here within 24 hours without anyone noticing that there has ever been a hotel here: “They touch the earth lightly, you know!” Ranger Marlon joins the company. And he has a nice story. About that thirsty buffalo who tried to take a swig of pool water but could not get his head deep enough over the edge. He took a run-up, splashed into the pool with his seven hundred kilos, splattered everything, quenched his thirst and stepped back into the bush via the steps in the shallow part. Even Glass, who might have heard the story a hundred times, laughs about it. Before bedtime the barkeeper has an important announcement: “Do not forget your thermo-poncho, it’s likely gonna be cold during the morning drive. And don’t forget to lock your room either. Last week the monkeys have stolen a bunch of keys and a wallet.”
Giraffe again hinders plain
“Avuxeni!” says Glass: “Good morning!” It is freezing cold again in the Land Rover and it will stay that way for another two hours. Only when the sun climbs above the horizon will we be able to warm ourselves. That quality tourism in South Africa – with more than seven million visitors per year – are not empty words, is proved by these guys it every day. The tracker has seen an empty pack of cigarettes. We stop, pick it up and take it with us. Driving off of the usual paths is also limited to a minimum. When they both suddenly, after a serious message from the onboard radio, burst out in laughter, we don’t really know why. “A bush pilot is asking for assistance because there are giraffes on the runway again,” says Jenny. “We have to go and play policemen. When are you flying to Londolozi? Tomorrow morning? Okay, we’ll tell the giraffes right away. That saves us work…”
During the day, the lodge shows us what real luxury means. In the late morning we’re offered a small wine tasting, lunch we do tête-à-tête on a rock above the river and then we are massaged with local oils in the spa centre. What a life…When the sun turns orange again, we go on a tour for the last time. We drink the last aperitif at the edge of the river. Everything is peacefully quiet. Or at least, so it seems. “The most dangerous animal is the hyena,” says Glass. “It’s right up there in the top three. The lion’s number one, but what makes the hyena so dangerous is that it is so sneaky and silent.”
On the way to the lodge we are granted an impressive last spectacle. A leopard is lazing on a branch in the deep grey shade of a low tree. Its coat is spotless, honey-coloured. His nose is pink, his belly is ivory-coloured. This oversized cat feels completely at ease. We drive a little closer, prepare our cameras and photograph it. Suddenly his poisonous green eyes look at us in a piercing way. His gaze seems to pierce us. He yawns and then rests again. False alarm. Phew.
A soup of roasted red peppers followed by fillet steak of impala grilled over the smouldering coals of hawthorn wood…That is our farewell dinner. We drink a deep red merlot and listen to the hippopotamus in the river. Again, we realise in our deepest core what ‘The Call of Africa’ means.
Londolozi honours the eco-label
Quality tourism is the highest priority for South Africa. “The government is really making huge efforts,” says the cheerful ranger Richard on our third and final short stop: Londolozi. Okay, the rhino is in real jeopardy and must be protected. But as for the rest, the population remains constant, although they are spread over a much larger area than in the early years of organised tourism. So one needs to search for animals for longer, and that produces persistent rumours.” Londolozi is a family business since 1926 and was always the favourite of the late Nelson Mandela. The cluster of lodges – there are five different styles and the same amount of price classes – is increasingly becoming the perfect eco-safari. ‘Protector of all living things’ is the credo, the literal translation of Londolozi. In order to reinforce this, they are even experimenting with electric off-road vehicles. Tracker Oxide readily admits that South Africa is not the super-wilderness Tanzania is for example, but considers the local safaris better than those in that other big safari country, Kenya. He describes it as old-fashioned, especially when it comes to accommodation. “But it has to be said: we owe the success of the South African safaris mainly to the traveller himself”, says Richard. “Yes, you should not be frightened of that: I do notice that the environment is being dealt with more respectfully as time passes. And luckily, now there are camera shots and no longer gun shots.” At bedtime we find a nice card on the pillow in our Tree Camp villa. “Londolozi is always looking for a fusion between Ancient African Wisdom, Modern Technology and Nature. In the words of Dave Varty, “The age of restoration will be born from the age of information.” Dankie.