There are only four people on the flight," said the lady at the check-in desk chirpily. And only four seats, I was soon to discover.
The plane, which was about the length of a Mercedes and the height of a minivan, had propellers and it turned out I was sitting next to the pilot.
We soon got airborne and edged our way to 11,000 feet. Smoggy Johannesburg lay behind us. I was flying with South Africa's Sefofane Airways, a carrier whose motto is "We connect you to the wilderness" - and it was true. After an hour and a half we began to descend, and the vastness of the bush became visible. The trees loomed large as we lost attitude. Soon they were very big and I began to become a little concerned that no runway was in sight. Then, after two more circles the pilot put us down on a dirt track. It was an expert landing, much like those descents into old Kai Tak. However, unlike old Kai Tak, the only indication this was an airport was the existence of a solitary Goodyear windsock. Wilderness, indeed.
A Land Rover was waiting to take me to the Simbambili game lodge, a five minutes drive away. In fact, this was the great benefit of having taken the plane. Had I driven up from Johannesburg the journey would have taken six hours.
When I arrived at the lodge, the welcome was effusive. Simbambili - which means 'two lions' - is a very small, yet very luxurious lodge which prides itself on treating guests like family. I was told on arrival that the lodge only sleeps about 16 people, and was shown to my hut. The décor was very Aman, which is to say this was the most luxurious hut I had ever seen - with its own private plunge pool. The back deck, raised on stilts, overlooked a watering hole. And in what looked eerily similar to Phuket, the deck featured a day-bed on which one could lie to watch the wildlife and marvel at the calm vista. "But don't sleep on it at night," I was warned "or you may wake up with one less leg."
So not exactly Phuket then.
I had arrived from Hong Kong that morning, but it already felt like a different world. The air was unfeasibly clean; the spaces open; skyscrapers seemed a distant memory. I was then told that I had arrived just in time for afternoon tea.
At afternoon tea I met my ranger, the man who would drive me round the reserve in search of big game. His name was Jaco and he instantly warmed to me: "Great jersey." he proclaimed. The jersey in question was a South African Springboks fleece - purchased at Johannesburg airport earlier that day. It had been a deliberate act of diplomacy on my part. I knew South African males took their rugby very seriously and wearing this jersey was the ultimate icebreaker. The three Australians on the next table were less fortunate. With hardly a pause for breath, Jaco mercilessly made jibes about Australia's recent losses in the cricket (to England) and in the rugby to South Africa.
Over tea Jaco gave me some background on what animals I might expect to see and told me I would go out on my first 'drive' at 4pm. This is termed 'Night Safari' and is one of the two standard drives you can expect each day while on safari. The morning one starts at around 5.30am and last until breakfast at 9.30am. The evening one gets you back to camp at around 7pm, in time for an 8pm dinner.
Over the course of the next few days, I would learn one thing above all: it is essential to have a good ranger. They make or break your safari experience. Depending on their level of experience, they will have an acute knowledge of local lion prides, and can even tell you stories about individual animals. They will also have a better idea of where to go in the reserve to find the animals. I was very fortunate that both the rangers I had (Jaco, and later, Ocean) both had over 12 years experience, and both knew their reserves inside out. They had different styles: Jaco's outgoing personality meant he talked a lot and was constantly communicating information, while Ocean was more softly-spoken - but always had a good answer for any question you might have.
We had hardly ventured out of the lodge when Jaco announced our debut sighting. It was an impala, which is a smallish antelope. On its backside there is a marking that looks like an 'm'. Jaco told us the 'm' stood for "Money back" because if anyone came to the reserve and didn't seen an impala they would be refunded their money. Simply put, they are so abundant, you see them everywhere. The other thing the 'm' stood for, he smiled, was "McDonalds", because these inoffensive animals were the Big Macs of the bush, eaten by pretty much every predator.
Our next sighting was a herd of elephants, who were busy felling trees and chewing them. Elephants are very good at this. Arguably too good. In fact, the elephant population needs to be carefully controlled in game reserves. They live to 65 years of age and only die when their last set of teeth fall out (and hence can no longer eat). Thanks to their size elephants are not attacked by predators, meaning they all live full lives. On the flipside they consume vast numbers of trees - about 150kg worth per day. So if the elephant population increases too much they damage the sustainability of the reserve's entire food chain.
Our subsequent sighting demonstrated that very food chain in action. We drove off-road to get closer to two leopards: the mother prostrate on the branch of a tree and the cub lying by the tree's trunk. Simbambili is famous for its leopards, which are rarer in other South African reserves. The mother was feasting on an impala; with blood all around her mouth. It was not a ferocious affair. It was more like watching Britain's royal family eat Kentucky Fried Chicken. It seemed strangely stately for so basic an act.
Leopards can sprint to 80km an hour in three seconds - making impala fairly easy game. The lion, in comparison, is slower but can still cover cover 22 metres in a second. Jaco puts this in perspective: "When you first see a lion run that's when you realize adrenaline is brown - especially if you are on foot and it's coming towards you."
You may be wondering at this point about safety. There is a golden rule: never stand up while in the Land Rover. The reason is very simple. With the exception of the monkeys, all the animals see in only two dimensions. This means that when they see the Land Rover they just see one large, flat object. The predators view it as similar to an elephant - ie too big to attack. However, if someone stands up suddenly, the image of a single large object is broken and the animals recognize that there is something smaller and bitesized within range. It is in these rare circumstances that the ranger reaches for his rifle.
However, during my entire safari experience, I never felt unsafe - even when we drove to a distance of only five yards from a male lion. One reason is that most of the predators have grown up accustomed to the Land Rovers being around - and since the Land Rovers have not cause them trouble, they are comfortable in their presence. The only exception to this rule is with elephant bulls which can become angry (more often than not because of a female). The rangers always make sure to keep a good distance from such elephants: angry bulls can flip the Land Rover over on a whim.
But we digress from Simbambili's famous leopards. There are only 17 in the Northern Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Each can be distinguished by their unique eyebrow markings. The rangers are careful to track their numbers - indeed, sightings of newborn cubs are considered very auspicious days. This is no surprise when you realize that leopards need to have sex around 500 times (over a six day period) in order to mate. Jaco points out that it takes a lot of impala to fuel such passion.
Dusk arrives quickly; and we stop for a very civilized gin and tonic. We have spent a considerable time watching the leopards, and are ready to drive back to camp, when Jaco hears on the radio that another ranger has spotted some African wildcats that have just given birth. This gets Jaco very excited, and he says "Hold on, it's time for my Ferrari-Safari" - at which point he accelerates to a predatory speed, with occasional warnings about overhead branches. It is pitch black and one cannot but marvel at how the rangers memorize the tracks - all of which look the same to the average person.
Jaco's acute sense of direction and bonecrunching driving meant we reached the African wildcats in good time. They are exceptionally rare, apparently. Jaco and the other rangers behaved as if they had just won the lottery. I found it hard to share in the general excitement since they looked just like household cats. I was actually quite glad when Jaco announced we would "regrettably" have to drive back to the lodge for dinner.
Dinner is served in the main hut. The chef, whose name was George, makes a point of giving a speech before dinner in which he explains all the ingredients and how they are prepared. This is clearly the highlight of George's day. To his credit, the food merits the build-up.
One of the great things about Simbambili lodge is it intimacy. At dinner, mixing is encouraged and you can quickly strike up a rapport with fellow guests - as well as the rangers, who dine with you. But late night partying is not on the agenda. With a 5am rise, everyone is in bed by 10pm.
The next morning I woke - fighting jet lag - and wandered out to my back deck. A couple of elephants were drinking at the watering hole, and after watching them quench their thirst I headed to the main lodge for a cup of tea to quench my own. Jaco tells us that he is determined to find us some lions that morning. It is a very cool morning - indeed, the wind chill factor in the Land Rover makes these morning drives fairly bracing.
We head off and by 6.30am we have discovered tracks. Jaco parks the car and says he and the tracker need to follow them on foot. He takes the shot gun but leaves the keys in the Land Rover, which he describes as a "fair trade". A few minutes later he is back. "The plot has thickened," he muses firing up the engine.
The reserve is surrounded by an electric fence and we drive manicly along its perimeter for 20 minutes or so, before Jaco veers off road. It turns out the strong winds from the previous night have aided our cause. Wind masks the lions' scent making it easier for them to hunt and making them easier to spot. Sure enough, we are soon beside a pair of lions.
There are 32 lions in this reserve - which is considered a stable population. Back in 2002 there were 54 lions, but that led to territorial warfare between the males, which saw the number reduced - with savage consequences.
A lion can eat a quarter of its own bodyweight and apart from impalas will eat buffalos and giraffe - with the latter taking about 10 days for an individual lion to consume. In the case of a buffalo, the lions will team up for an attack - with one holding its tail, another disabling the hind legs, and a third trying to bite through the spinal chord. The buffalo population suffered a steep decline during the period when the lion population grew to 54. Indeed, when we later come across a buffalo Jaco notes darwinistically that this one has a very short tail - which may explain its survival, since the lions found it harder to grab.
It is an eventful morning. We spot hippos, zebra, and more leopard - plus a hyena with its nose bitten off. We return to camp for lunch, after which I have to depart for my second camp, Thornybush, which is about an hour and a half's drive away.
Thornybush Main Lodge is in another, much larger reserve (the Thornybush Game Reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park) and while managed by the same company (Inzalo), it is an altogether different type of camp. For one thing it is much larger, and therefore has a much less intimate feel than Simbambili. Both camps are luxurious, but the scale is different. Thornybush has more facilities, such as a swimming pool, a Guerlain institute (for facials) and a reading room.
My hut is again overlooking a watering hole, and on arrival there are giraffe drinking from it. A few seconds later, there is a knock at the door. A lady walks in with my bags balanced on her head. I am told that my night safari will start at 5.30pm, but feeling the toll of jet lag I make the mistake of putting my head on the pillow and only wake at 8pm - hence missing my drive. At dinner the manager of Thornybush asks me about my time at Simbambili and says they have arranged for me to see some of the other camps in this reserve (there are four others runs by the Inzalo Group). He also advises me I should try and coax a laugh out of my ranger, Ocean. Apparently, it is quite an experience.
The next morning I meet Ocean, a big man with what promises to be a booming laugh. During the morning we see a great deal of game, including a large pride of lions, a one week old giraffe (already seven foot tall), and Ocean fills me in on buffalo - which are far more abundant in this reserve. Ocean warns that they are extremely dangerous. When angered (which occurs when people shoot at them) their adrenaline level surges seven times and they circle around to hunt the human hunter. They do so just for revenge, since they are herbivores and won't eat flesh. They are one of the 'big five' that tourist want to see when they come to Africa - the others are lion, leopard, elephant and white rhino. Thus far I have seen four of the five.
But my mission has now become twofold: to see a rhino, and get Ocean to laugh.
During the afternoon, I visit the other lodges. The two I really liked were Chapungu and Shambala. Both are small and intimate, housing between 8-16 guests (versus 40 guests at Thornybush Main Lodge). Given the choice, I would stay in the Presidential hut at Shambalala. This has, what one member of staff calls, a 'James Bond feature'. Press a remote control and the rear deck rolls back (on motorized wheels no less) to reveal a private swimming pool. When I have tried to describe to friends how luxurious these lodges are, this is normally the example I use.
During the tour of the lodges, I also asked the staff whether they knew any good bush jokes that might make Ocean laugh. I return armed with a joke about a warthog and a lioness, and not a great deal of optimism.
Indeed, after spotting rhino with a relative ease, I spend the last hour of our drive trying to figure out a strategy for getting Ocean to laugh. I finally have a eureka moment. I tell Ocean that China is producing a lot of tourists and that soon there will be many mainland Chinese in his Land Rover. He contemplates this prospect and I helpfully begin teaching him the three or four Mandarin words I know. A few 'nihaos', and 'che ches' later, and Ocean's booming laugh rings out into the bush, almost audible in Beijing.
My safari experience over, I fly back to Johannesburg. My trip is nicely capped with a stay at Fairlawns, a beautiful boutique hotel composed entirely of suites. I can personally vouch for the Nelson Mandela suite. And true to the hotel's name, there is a manicured lawn, housed amid the Pallaclaim 18th century buildings. The overall feeling at Fairlawns is one of soothing old world tranquility. In a nice touch, a decanter of port is put in each guest's room. The chaos of Joburg seems a long way off . and to further aid the winding down process there are Thais to provide massage (plus there's even an outdoor Balinese pavillion).
Mine was a short trip, but I suspect that four days is more than enough for a rewarding safari experience. In terms of cost, you should assume that each lodge will cost between $500-1000 per night per head (meals inclusive). This trip was organized by Asia to Africa Safaris (see box).
If I were to do it again, I would probably stay at Simbambili and Shambalala, and then add more five days to the trip by visiting the wine country around Cape Town.
Asia to Africa Safaris
Victor Dizon and Jose Cortes, avid ex-investment bankers and safari aficionados, established Asia to Africa Safaris (A to A Safaris) in 2002 to enable them to share Africa with the discerning traveller in Asia and to help Asians gain easier access to African safaris. With offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila and soon to be Tokyo, A to A Safaris is Asia's first and only safari company that is fully equipped with the knowledge, experience, and relationships to organize a truly authentic, safe and seamless African safari. Its founders have been going on safari every year for the last decade and continue to visit Africa several times a year. They have also visited all the camps they recommend at various seasons of the year, and have established strategic partnerships in Africa. A to A Safari's clients are thus assured of up-to-date safari developments, as well as the latest information and recommendations for their trips. As the company does not subscribe to the "one size fits all" philosophy, each and every safari A to A arranges is unique and is customized to suit each client's interests and budget.
Asia to Africa Safaris Pte. Ltd.
Email: [email protected]
Tel: +852 2547 9863