This follows on from the first part of Pascal's trip around the central Kruger Park region, when he visited Hamilton's, Imbali and Hoyo Hoyo, and the second instalment, about his time at MalaMala.
Marlen from ECoaches, who would be driving me to Sabi Sands, met me in my room to help with my baggage and warn me about the heavy rains that would complicate our journey. Apparently, there were floods expected around the Kruger National Park area, and sections of the road had already been washed away. Thankfully, he had plenty of experience driving in similar conditions.
We drove for about 45 minutes before we reached the Newington gate, spotting zebras, kudu and chacma baboons along the way. The fence at the perimeter of the reserve had been badly damaged by the flooding water, and the park authorities were busy with emergency repairs. The reserve shares a boundary with several local communities, so keeping the animals on one side was a priority.
To avoid the damaged roads, Marlen took us on a detour through the surrounding villages. The locals, most of whom are employed either by the South African National Parks (SANParks) or by the private lodges inside the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, met us with big smiles as we drove by, their spirits seemingly undamped by the weather. After 45 minutes we arrived at the Sabi Sands Shaws Gate, which services the western sector of the reserve. Lodges in the western sector include the three Dulini lodges, Savannah, Idube Game Lodge, Inyati Game Lodge, Leopard Hills (where I was going to spend the night) and the two Ulusaba lodges.
We paid our vehicle fee and headed towards the lodge, encountering large herds of breeding elephants with their calves along the way. A storm the previous night had felled several trees, which lined the rain-damaged roads. Thirty minutes of cautious driving later, and we were at Leopard Hills Lodge. I had ticked off two of the big five animals on my list before we even arrived, after spotting a herd of dagga boys just a few hundred meters from the entrance.
Dagga boys is the collective name given to the typically solitary elder male buffalos, who have been forced out of the herd by their younger rivals. The word dagga is slang for crazy, but in regards the old buffalos, it may refer to the mud in which they frequently roll, as a means of cooling off or ridding themselves of any unwelcome pests. Many people don't know that the term big five was originally used to distinguish the five animals considered the most difficult to hunt. The Dagga boys are the principal reason that buffalo are included in the list. They may be old, but the cantankerous ruminants are still partial to chasing the nearest tourist up a tree, if they get too close. When wounded, they became especially dangerous, and partial to charging anything in range.
A welcome committee awaited us at the lodge, greeting us with traditional songs of welcome as our vehicle approached. The lodge assistant GM, Meagan, was also there to meet me, and the barman made me a custom drink to mark my arrival. As I sipped on it, I noticed that this lodge was also home to a small herd of nyalas. There were about 12 of them, clearly accustomed to the presence of humans. They feel much safer from predators around the lodge than in the actual bush. Marlen helped me with my bags before departing. Meagan and I talked shop for a few minutes, comparing our thoughts on industry trends following the pandemic. Then I was given a tour of the lodge and asked to sign the usual indemnity forms.
On the pillow in my room, which was five star luxurious and came with a private pool, was a message of welcome. There was also a mini bar stocked with fine wines and spirits, and I took the opportunity to pour myself a whiskey. Opening the blinds revealed a small herd of impala, grazing peacefully in the sun. I reflected again, as I finished my drink, on the unique feeling of being surrounded by nature in the African savannah. It had been a long morning and after a refreshing shower in the opulent Victorian style bathroom, the sight of the crisp cotton linen on the beautifully made up bed almost tempted me into a quick snooze. But I had an afternoon game drive scheduled, and lunch would soon be served, so I grabbed my camera and headed towards the dining area.
The view from the deck outside the dining room, looking over the savannah from the top of Leopard Hill, was breathtaking. At the base of the hill is a heavily trafficked watering hole, where I could see a herd of elephants frolicking in the mud, with four buffalo and a few warthogs nearby. I chatted with some of the staff, who were uniformly gracious and friendly, while waiting for lunch to begin. Over a delicious two course meal, I was introduced to our guide, Cal, from Durbanville in Cape Town, and another couple who were on their honeymoon. Cal, with the assistance of a local tracker, would be taking us on the drive, which began after lunch. After about ten minutes of driving, we came across some more older buffalo, mud bathing in a small watering hole. We pressed on after hearing on the radio that two male lions and two lionesses had been spotted earlier that day near the Southern border of the reserve.
It took us about twenty minutes to locate the lions, who had opted to have the same afternoon nap I had considered. After watching them for a few minutes, I felt confident that they were Plains Camp males from the main Kruger National Park, with two Ximhungwe lionesses, and Cal confirmed this was so. This was deeply exciting for me, as I had already seen some of the iconic prides and coalitions in the reserve. I follow the Kruger National Park lion dynamics on social media and I feel I have a fairly good understanding of goings on in the local Lion Kingdom. Cal told us all more about the lions, and their history, which was fascinating to hear. Then another notice crackled over the radio, this time from the neighboring Inyati Game Lodge, alerting us to a rhino sighting nearby. I loved the way the different lodges all worked together to provide the best experience for their respective guests.
When we found the rhinos, they were grazing in the open grassland. Cal managed to get us to within a few meters of where they stood. While we watched these massive creatures languidly chewing through the grass, he told us about the effects of poaching on rhino numbers in the wild. The stark message was driven home by the fact that the rhinos before us had been dehorned in an effort to deter poachers from killing them.
I was in a contemplative mood as we drove to a nearby viewing spot to watch the sun going down. Snacks and drinks were served while we discussed the awesome sights we’d seen that day. The spotlight came out as we drove back to the lodge, and we soon spotted the usual array of nocturnal creatures; bushbabies, owls, hyenas, and even, briefly, a leopard. I was becoming accustomed to the sound of singing in the evenings and the staff at the lodge didn't disappoint. There was ululation and song as we arrived back, and prepared for dinner in our rooms. I again looked longingly at my bed before dinner, as it had been a draining, if wonderful day, but my stomach would not be denied the three-course dinner that awaited.
We sat around one big wooden table while a world class, three course dinner was being served. As usual the food was delicious and served by a highly qualified team. After having my dessert, I called it a night, and requested an escort to accompany me back to my room. One doesn’t wish to bump into a leopard on the way to bed, without an armed escort to frighten the animal away. The bed in my room was as comfortable as I had imagined, and I slept like a log.
There was exciting news in the morning: a leopard had been spotted nearby. Several guests had in fact heard the cat’s guttural ‘sawing’ call in the night, and that morning, one of the tracker’s had found its tracks less than a kilometer from the lodge. We all piled into the truck to investigate. After about three hundred meters, the tracker dismounted from the vehicle and continued on foot, while we followed behind in the vehicle. The leopard began making the distinctive grunting sound again, and we realized he was only meters away, obscured behind a clump of bushes. We inched around the bush in the vehicle and there he was, a massive creature, lying in the grass softly roaring in the new day.
Cal identified him as the local Ravenscote male, the dominant leopard in the area. After letting the other lodges know of the leopard’s location, we watched the big cat in awed silence. Leopards are highly elusive, and highly sought after, and it was not long before three more vehicles approached. The rule in the reserve is that only two vehicles are allowed per sighting, so after our twenty-minute viewing time was over, we left to allow the other guests a chance to enjoy the rare sighting.
We got back to the lodge around breakfast time. Cal had promised to drop me off at the Ulusaba airstrip later that morning. My next destination was the Ulusaba Safari Lodge. You can read about my stay there in the next installment of the series. Watch this space.