Local, Travel

Sabi Sabi

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We see the first ones from the lodge verandah. On the veld, across the river, the leaders arrive – big, black buffalo, their heads down and intent on consuming as much of the grass as they can. We’re in the Land Rover in minutes. Of the three of us, two have never seen a buffalo so excitement levels are high. We’re anticipating a good sighting. By the time we reach the crest of the small hill the plains stretching out in front of us are covered in buffalo and the word ‘good’ is impotent to describe this sighting. There are so many. We attempt a rough count, sectioning them in lots of 20: ‘80, 120, 200... 260, 300, 320...’ but they just keep coming. Walk and eat, eat and walk. Even the seasoned game ranger seems awestruck. In the end we reckon there are more than 400 including calves, males and females. It’s a sight to behold and one we’ve all never seen before. Images of the childhood Western television series The High Chaparral spring to mind, when Buck and Blue Boy herded masses and masses of cattle across the Arizona territory to keep Big John Cannon’s ranch afloat. This is Africa, however, and herds of unpredictable, dangerous, huge-horned wild buffalo, not the domestic cow, are on the agenda – if you’re safari-ing in the right place that is. Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve clearly is.

Sabi Sabi’s promotional promise is: ‘The safari experience of a lifetime’. That’s quite a claim when there are so many options in South Africa and yet the majesty of the buffalo en masse was just one of a number of sightings that rated as truly memorable during our visit. Its location, adjacent to the Kruger National Park in the Sabi Sand Reserve, Mpumalanga, is recognised as one of the best areas to see the Big Five. Leopard sightings can be elusive elsewhere yet we saw this magnificent creature repeatedly. At one point a leopard, two male lions, a huge hyena and a jackal were spaced between 10 and 50 metres of each other. You wouldn’t even see that in a zoo.

There are also packs of wild dogs, which rate at the top of many safari-goers’ checklists because they are endangered, cheetahs, numerous antelopes and more than 350 species of bird. There are no fences between the Kruger National Park and the reserves in the Sabi Sand Reserve so rounding the bend to discover a herd of marauding elephants is also on the cards.

Part of upholding the promise is the commitment of Sabi Sabi owners Hilton and Jacqui Loon to conservation and the local community. A significant Habitat Management Plan is in place, which includes wastewater disposal and eradication of alien species. The smouldering remnants of controlled burn-offs, another aspect of the plan, are evident. A Community Based Natural Resource Management programme has also been established, which includes not only employing a large number of the 200 strong staff from local communities but other initiatives such as subsidising bicycles for secondary school students in those areas.

As every seasoned safari-goer knows, it’s not just about the game. Where you stay, what you eat, and a G&T in the bush as that big-ball-of-orange sun sets all have a bearing on the ‘experience of a lifetime’. The joy also lies in the luxuries of a hot-water bottle stashed between high-thread-count linen, a private plunge pool or a top-class wine cleverly paired with blackened kingklip, coconut infused basmati rice and warm green bean salad finished with beurre blanc.

Sabi Sabi has four accommodation options: Selati Camp, Bush Lodge, Little Bush Camp and the recently refurbished Earth Lodge. Bush Lodge is child friendly (Selati and Little Bush can accommodate children when the camps are exclusively booked) and this policy, along with the EleFun Centre, makes it popular with families.

A full-time teacher and a comprehensive activities programme at the centre mean parents can relax while their children are entertained. There is an emphasis on learning about nature and the environment with Junior Tracker and Junior Ranger courses. The 25 suites and the conference centre enable it to be a venue for corporates. This is the oldest of the four camps and the decor is in a more traditional African/ethnic style than the other three. Buffets are the go here with bush breakfasts and boma dinners a regular occurrence.

Little Bush Camp joined the Sabi Sabi family in 2006. (A purposebuilt safari-lodge decorated in a ‘contemporary African style’, it was previously owned by another company.) With just six suites it’s an ideal choice for honeymooners. There is something both happy and romantic about this place. The joie de vivre of manager Hugo du Toit is infectious and does much to amp up the comfy, homely feel. Secluded – almost hidden – by bush and perched on the banks of the Msuthlu river, the suites have both indoor and outdoor showers and viewing decks with Jacuzzis. Unwind in winter in the main thatched lodge in front of a roaring fire or escape for post-prandials to your Jacuzzi, prettily lit with oil lanterns. There is a swimming pool separate from the main lodge with loungers and a dining area so, on hot days, guests need not return for meals. Lantern-lit dinners are held riverside, with diners’ feet in the sand.

Selati Camp also offers a romantic vibe, but by channelling its history it has more of an ‘Out of Africa’ look and feel. The history is somewhat clouded but the basic story is that in the late 19th century, gold was discovered in Northern Transvaal in an area dubbed the Selati Goldfields. The gold – seemingly more imagined than real – would need to be transported so a railway line to link the interior with Lorenço Marques (Maputo) in Mozambique was begun. The Selati Line crossed the Sabi Sand Reserve. Enter corruption, scandal and the Anglo-Boer War, with the end result that construction halted and the line fell into disrepair.

Selati Camp is built close to the old railway line (it makes for a pleasant walk to follow the overgrown tracks) and references this connection in both the decor and the camp’s overall colonial character. The walls of the bar area are decorated with railway paraphernalia – signal lamps, steam engine signs and photographs. There is an old railway wagon at the front of the camp and the suites are quaintly named after stations. Four-poster beds with mosquito nets, leather suitcases, travellers’ trunks and antique furniture add to the olde-worlde effect of the eight thatched suites. Previously, in keeping with the colonial theme, there was no electricity. The mod cons have arrived but lanterns are still used in some areas to preserve the ambience. The Ivory Presidential Suite is old-fashioned, not just deliberately when it comes to the decor, but in the sheer size of it and of the en-suite bathroom, which has room enough for a double bath, shower and a chaise longue from which you can most certainly swing a (big) cat, and you have your own swimming pool out back. The communal areas, including the swimming pool, open lounge and dining deck, have views over the Msuthlu River to the plains where the buffalo amassed.

It is fair to call Earth Lodge the jewel in the Sabi Sabi crown. It is a daring, modern build both inside and out, and unlike any other lodge in South Africa. Chances are you’ll either love it or hate it. We loved it. Your point of arrival is a kind of curving tunnel that leads downwards to a big door. You feel as if you are heading to Middle-earth. The sunken structure of the lodge and the 12 suites, which a the surrounds. This impression of it being simply ‘an extension of the landscape’ is perpetuated by the fact that the walls are made from earth.

As best described by the House and Leisure team that visited after its refurbishment (see HL August 2011), the interiors take their cue ‘from the earthy, subterranean theme, extended to include the minerals below the ground. Metallic elements have been introduced to the neutral palette of the furnishings. Fabrics are shot through with gold and silver thread; Nguni hides are splattered with copper, silver and gold leaf. Sisal carpets, soft underfoot, are gilt-edged. Various other elements are touched with gold leaf to create a muted mineral sparkle throughout the lodge.’

Everything about Earth Lodge is luxurious but the genuine warmth and lack of affectation from the staff (a hallmark of all four properties) derail any pretensions to grandeur. Things happen as you want them to but without fuss. Similarly, the cuisine is flavourful, at times adventurous, well presented but not fussy. Chef Alwyn Laubscher works with local ingredients including fresh meat, herbs, vegetables, home-made jams and preserves. ‘I don’t like cooking with things that last up to a week,’ he says. The public spaces are without walls and open to the savannah on the front side, giving a feeling at once of freedom and of being connected to nature. Massive twisted, wooden sculptural pieces created by Geoffrey Armstrong – from huge trees felled by previous floods – dominate. The Amber presidential suite is home to an 885-year-old jackleberry headboard. Magnificent. Surviving, and thriving, for 30 years in the safari business indicates Sabi Sabi is doing something right. We think it’s about striving to keep that promise – daily. Oh, and great game, too.

This article was originally featured in the August 2013 issue of House and Leisure.