Wild about South Africa

John Thatcher gets to grips with South Africa’s abundant wildlife in Kruger National Park

“How would a lion let us know that they’re not happy with us being so close?” asked honeymooner Jennifer, whose facial expression had turned from proclaiming sheer wonderment and fascination to showing a hesitancy bordering on alarm. “They’ll growl”, answered Stefan, our ranger, before his attempt to expand on his explanation was cut off by the sound of a bloody-mouthed lioness growling as she cast her eyes our way.

“Just like that”, confirmed Stefan, nonchalantly, forcing Jennifer to bury her head into the arm of her new husband.

The graphic scene laid out no more than fifteen feet from our eight-seat, open-topped Land Rover was one of five lionesses devouring the carcass of a small giraffe, the unfortunate climax to their day-long pursuit of meat. The kill and feeding frenzy was such that less than a minute after a thud sounded to tell us that the hunt had proved successful – so as not to disturb, our vehicle kept its distance when it became clear that the lionesses had identified and surrounded their target – the prey was unrecognisable. Only Stefan’s knowledge of bones helped identify it as a giraffe.

In the immediate aftermath of the kill, the air was thick with the scent of blood and the only sound was that of razor-sharp teeth crunching bone. That is until the growling, of course. “She’s not actually growling at us, though”, said Stefan. “They’re very protective of their share of food, so she’ll be trying to keep the other lionesses clear of it.” But I’m not sure Jennifer was convinced.

Lebombo Lodge stands amid a remote wilderness at the tip of the Mozambique border, in South Africa’s vast Kruger National Park, and amounts to what’s arguably the world’s most unique accommodation. There are fifteen suites in all, each cut into a rugged cliff face and each offering dynamic yet differing vistas of an endless landscape. Fashioned from steel, wood and an abundance of glass, they define the term “safari chic”. But their appeal isn’t limited to aesthetics. Singita holds the right to operate on this land for a finite number of years and when their lease is up they will have to pack up and move on. Though the fact that they’ll be able to so without leaving a footprint on the environment is what makes this lodge all the more remarkable – the glass and steel are transferable, leaving only biodegradable traces.

Singita Lebombo Lodge
Singita Lebombo Lodge

Of the suites, room number five is the most exceptional offering. It’s on the very edge of the lodge, and boasts a balcony that hangs over a hippo-strewn river. In the warmer months you can sleep on this terrace, although you should be prepared to be at one with nature – mischievous baboons like to relieve your in-room fridge of its content, so you’re advised to keep your doors locked at all times. You’re also walked to and from your room by a member of staff, as the chances of finding an impala in your path are high.

Morning breaks early in the bush, but even so you’ll rise before the sun has even stirred, with the first drive of the day setting off at around 6am. It’s preceded by warming coffee and snacks to tide you over till breakfast. And although scheduled to last between three to four hours, it’s not uncommon for a drive to clock up six hours should the game count be high and the guests prove willing. On the occasion of our second drive, the game count proved low, but it failed to temper the thrill of the hunt for life, or of watching the sun climb through a thick spread of trees. So silent and infinite are your surroundings that it’s hard to imagine anywhere on earth that’s quite as peaceful.

Of course, seeing an animal in its natural habitat is the absolute antithesis of seeing it in a zoo, and out in the wild you can happily sit for hours while watching a lion do little more than repeatedly lick its paws. Not that lions are all that you’ll encounter in this far-flung outpost. Elephants, rhinos, giraffes and hyenas are just a few of the animals we had spied at the end of only two drives and all the time our binoculars remained redundant. Which begs the question of why, if these animals are often on the hunt for food, do they not attack a truck-load of people when within yards of them? “Because they think our vehicle is one, large animal – with multiple heads”, assured Stefan, before adding that if someone were to step off the truck it would be a different story. Presumably a story without a fairytale ending.

It was with obvious reluctance, then, that we agreed to an early morning safari by foot. I recall being on school trips when the teacher’s insistence that we walk behind him in single file was met with mockery. But that wasn’t the case with Stefan in the role of teacher. Not when the alternative to following his orders wasn’t a stern telling off but the probable loss of a limb. It helped, however, that unlike my teacher, Stefan was carrying a loaded rifle.

It was with obvious reluctance, then, that we agreed to an early morning safari by foot

As it was, the safari turned out to be more of a nature ramble than a death-defying trek through the wilderness, though it provided an opportunity to learn more about the landscape and worked up a roaring appetite for what was a fabulous breakfast. Like all meals, and drinks, at Lebombo, it’s included in the cost of your room. And though that may hint at budget-friendly buffets and a dearth of quality fare, the truth is quite different, with the food nothing short of superb and the selection of drinks outstanding.

The same can be said of one of Singita’s sister properties, Ebony, which is situated in the more populated Sabi Sands region of South Africa. While Lebombo feels very exclusive, there’s more of a family vibe at Ebony, so it’s a better bet should you have young kids in tow. In Lebombo, the chances of you even hearing the engine of another 4×4 vehicle are slim to none, whereas in Sabi Sands you routinely encounter vehicles from neighbouring lodges. The flip side to this is that there are more animals in this region – and they’re easier to spot, particularly in winter time when branches and bushes have long since shed their leaves. The other disparity between Ebony and Lebombo is in their decorative style. Ebony is colonial-themed, with ethnic influences throughout, and the resultant charm is layered on thick. A communal lounge, dominated by a roaring fire, welcomes guests to the lodge and the rooms are homely yet super-sized and spiced with decadent touches.

Singita Ebony Lodge
Singita Ebony Lodge

Sabi Sands is leopard country and sightings of this magnificent cat are plentiful. Far less frequent are sightings of leopards mating. Which is precisely the scene we encountered on our first evening drive, long after the sun had settled and the full moon had illuminated the bush. The mating ritual is long and sporadically aggressive. We were told that what we watched was probably the third day of a scenario that plays out like so: at regular intervals of twenty to thirty minutes, the female will approach the male to spray her scent near his face, which is his signal to engage her in short, frenzied activity that ends violently when he’s forced from the female by a swipe of her paw. Tender it is not. But that he was still trying after three days suggests this could well have been the Angelina Jolie of the animal world he was hoping to have his claws in, and as such a little privacy wouldn’t have gone amiss. It certainly can’t have helped his cause to have been gawped at by the enthralled occupants of numerous Land Rovers.

Sabi Sands is leopard country and sightings of this magnificent cat are plentiful

Not that the humans have it all their own way in Ebony. Each morning, while guests warm up with hot coffee and snack on muffins by the fireplace, baboons plot in the branches overhead, waiting patiently for someone to put down their muffin long enough – about four seconds – for them to swing in and grab it. They had a high success rate, too. Especially when it came to claiming Jennifer’s muffins.