A particularly well-travelled acquaintance, reaching the latter stages of an only just light-hearted competition with another friend to be the first to explore 100 countries, said that of all his excursions around the world, if he could only have experienced one, and could do so again – it would be a safari in Kruger National Park. I’d been out in the Bush on a handful of occasions previously over the years – Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Okavango Delta and to several lesser parks on hunting expeditions in Tanzania and Zimbabwe but this was my first time in South Africa’s most celebrated game reserve, which is the same size as Wales: An unrivalled concentration of savage beasts, untouched by civilisation. Kruger comes close though.
It had been slightly disconcerting observing our pilot spinning the rotor of the Pilatus PC12 – not winding up the rubber band as I supposed but cooling the engine, which was marginally less alarming, but our internal flight from Joberg to a private airstrip in the middle of the bush was uneventful, as first South Africa’s capital and then occasional smaller conurbations gave way to increasingly untrammelled wilderness. Partly press invitation, partly research for my “Game Drives & Wine Flights” tour and part honeymoon, we were guests of Sabi Sabi – a private reserve of 65,000 hectares in the south-west of Kruger, with four distinctly different Lodges – equipped and furnished to embody the past, present and future of the safari experience.
My Scandinavian wife was in her element acting out an Out of Africa fantasy in the gloriously colonial-era Selati Camp, so I felt mentioning Fynch-Hatton’s pathological infidelity and Karen Blixen’s syphilis was insufficiently droll to be worth ruining the mood. A brief power-outage one evening at this particular lodge went unnoticed – our suite being lit by oil lamps, from the steam trains that used to ride the old railroad from which the camp derives its name. Its turn of the century appeal is straight out of a Wilbur Smith adventure, all solid timbers and thatch, and the scent of paraffin and taste of whisky wine& soda: a time when Men Were Men (possibly a title of Wilbur’s I believe) and women were useful plot devices for starting feuds and families. Eating outdoors in the traditional BOMA (British Officer’s Meeting Area) puts the 19th century cap or pith helmet on the experience and needless to say I adored it.
The earlier part of our trip however projected us forward to the future of the Safari Camp experience – Sabi Sabi’s celebrated and unique Earth Lodge. If Selati seeks to recreate the era of western man’s indomitable expansion in to the wilderness, Earth Lodge surely represents the modern age’s efforts at harmonisation and reconnection with the natural world, of treading more softly on the land – whilst maintaining constant and unfettered Wi-Fi connectivity of course. The camp is unfenced encouraging a one-ness with nature, the logical conclusion of which is limited only by a strict policy of no venturing outside at night unchaperoned. A discerning leopard could well come to view the private plunge pools outside each suite as similar to the tanks in which lobsters await their selection to thermidor completion. Certainly my newly-commissioned Timothy Everest rosé-hued linen suit would have surprised predators who are unlikely to have been expecting the hair on the inside.
Earth Lodge boasts a spa (naturally), library, meditation garden and art gallery – and the camp is littered with driftwood-esque wood sculptures by Geoffrey Armstrong. Most impressive of all and unique is the wine cellar – which houses a private dining room and a 6000-bottle library of South Africa’s finest producers. On our first evening we enjoyed a selection of the cellar’s highlights over a tasting menu, hosted by Rob, Sabi Sabi’s Operations Director – a passionate and articulate advocate of the Cape’s increasingly impressive contributions to the world’s wine scene. Certainly the chosen examples: Cederberg Chenin, Diemersdahl Eight Rows Sauvignon, Jordan Nine Yards Chardonnay and Beyerskloof’s extraordinary Faith(Cabernet/Merlot/Pinotage blend) made individually compelling cases but refreshingly Rob summed up his countrymen’s’ characteristic grounded attitude to wine by quoting South African wine legend Dave Hughes – “the greatest wine in the world is the one you like the most”. We finished the evening with an arsenal of indigenous brandies whose fearsome reputation is well-deserved especially with a 05.30 start for the early morning game drive.
We had come to see “The Big 5” of course – named because early European adventurers considered them the most dangerous animals to hunt with their single shot muzzle-loaded rifles – but also to learn to photograph them like professionals. At Sabi Sabi guests can choose to receive tuition (minimum two days, or four drives) from experienced wildlife snappers and make use of their superior camera equipment. This optional extra offers three essential benefits to one’s safari. Firstly even a novice or technophobe behind the lens might, with a little patience, return home with a set of pictures that do far more justice to the memorable encounter and will remain vivid after the memory’s edges have faded. Secondly a telephoto lens allows you more intimate access to the subject matter: different skin textures, the exact hue of an iris or the length of lashes can be ascertained. Such intimacy makes it easier to comprehend the voyeurism of the long lens paparazzi or snooper. Thirdly, although everyone knows game reserves are not theme parks with animals queuing helpfully to fulfil your narrative arc – impala setting the scene, leopard stalking prey as the climactic final chapter and so on – one can fall victim to antelope-fatigue. Even elephants and rhino can lose their exoticism after regular sightings. Equipped with an enormous camera and photographer’s sensibilities you are more aware of the possibilities of composition, of framing, of capturing motion and behaviour. Thus the (relatively) more mundane now presents an opportunity, a challenge.
Our guide Andrew, a former game ranger and self-taught photographer, knew his subject matter and how best to film its objects and suggested the following mantra to follow when shooting game: Firstly – Focus, without which you have nothing, and ideally on the eye; secondly – Exposure, consider your light source and metering requirement; thirdly – Aperture, your depth of field, how blurred is background; fourthly – Shutter Speed, deciding if you want movement in your image or to freeze action, fifthly – Composition, simply what is pleasing to the eye; and finally – Amputation, avoiding excessive cropping, and chopping off tails, ears, horns and other extremities. When our two trackers went off in to the bush on foot in search of a pride of lions, armed only with crude machetes, I was conspicuously aware that the latter point might be more of an issue if the subject’s limbs end up more than fifteen metres apart.
Kudu were very photogenic and also the tastiest of the antelope we variously dined on – although I have always been partial to impala, their larger cousins have a greater depth of flavour and more distinct gamey edge. Vertical white stripes break up their silhouette in long grass but are also portion size indicators if caught. We followed and photographed lions inefficiently hunting giraffe. For all their posturing the Kings of the Jungle are fairly low down the scale of successful hunters – pride of place (pun aside) goes to the wild dogs that can claim a kill far more regularly. While on a walking safari we given the advice, that if one encounters any of these more threatening game, never to run. Prey flees, and predators chase. And at the end – something that is perhaps universally applicable – it is better to die with wounds to the chest than back. Less gruesome but no less useful bush lore included using scorpion nests for orientation (the entrances always face East), the composition of warthog burrows to indicate pending heavy rain and when NOT to follow elephant tracks. Further flora and fauna-related lore included using the gel from the Commelina Livingstonei flower as an anti-irritant for dry, tired eyes; brewing or inhaling an infusion of Bushman’s (Fever) Tea as nature’s VapoRub; and burning elephant dung as an effective headache cure.
Returning to more immediately impressive discoveries, rhino in variously sized social groups were more commonplace than I had previously seen in Africa. An encouraging sight for we are much more of a threat to the country’s big game than vice versa. At £6bn annually, poaching is the fifth largest global illegal trade after drugs, counterfeiting, human trafficking and oil theft. The economic realities for South Africa are sadly compelling: local poachers receive R20,000 (£1800) per rhino horn, three of which net equivalent to two years’ salary for most labourers. Each horn weighs between four and five kilos and on the black market trades for £38,000 per kg (or more aptly ¥380,000). Whilst strenuous efforts are constantly being made to counter this barbarism it is still widespread and all too commonplace.
Encountering elephants for the first time was accompanied by a flurry of camera activity. Two days later, driving slowly in amongst a herd on the move, we were able to be more discerning in our choice of shots. We encountered several lone, elderly tuskers in their 60s. With their fifth set of teeth worn down to stumps, and requiring up to 280 kilos of vegetation each day in the winter, they will eventually starve. Their constant grazing takes up four fifths of the day and involves a perambulation the equivalent of circumnavigating the globe twice. Similarly venerable, dignified but solitary characters can be observed following the same behavioural pattern during canapé seasons in the environs of Bond Street. Whilst the latter tend to end up munching rice crackers in George Club, pachyderms head to water where the reeds are easier to chew. When they die flooding causes their remains to pile up on the river bends, giving rise to the ‘Elephant Graveyards’ of legend. Membership at Annabel’s follows this model.
A visit to the local community in nearby Huntingdon who provide a significant percentage of the camp’s employees as trackers and lodge staff was humbling and an essential counterpoint to the 5 star camp experience. We joined Sunday service at one of the town’s many churches, we sang and danced, increasingly less self-consciously upon realising we were not being subject to a “show” but rather being integrated into the community’s activities. Throwing the bones with Huntingdon’s witch doctor subsequently showed that Christianity operates sincerely and without seeming conflict alongside tribal religion and older Muti practices. After church the townspeople would return home to enjoy a Sunday lunch of rice with ketchup and mayonnaise – a change from the staple diet of maize. Sabi Sabi, like other safari operations in the area, not only offers employment but financially supports education initiatives and welfare for the most marginalised. Huntingdon’s chief seemed as genuinely grateful for our interest as we were thankful for having experienced his people’s welcome.
Back in the reserve for another evening game drive where we appreciated the vastness of this unspoiled landscape and its remoteness, the proximity of strange and deadly animals, and the purple-bruised horizon of an African sunset that is far too prosaic for fiction. One’s senses are wound to a pitch – even before a “journey” of giraffes, “crash” of rhinos or “booze” of hacks appears to share your sundowners. To complete the suffusion add the bugle call of an elephant or plosive note of the Black Bellied Busted – “Champagne Bird” – named for the popping sound it emits whilst preening to attract a mate. It more closely resembles hiccups but nevertheless demonstrates that male seduction techniques have not evolved much between the species – even if mankind has to bring its own bottles. In any case the darkening sky draws the curtain on Sabi Sabi’s perfect Hollywood combination of atavism and romance, the primal and the profound. An escape from the world we know to a world we should know better, a world that’s existed long before our short tenure on the planet and which will doubtless survive our self-inflicted demise.