In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. But if you want to get up close and personal with all creatures great and small, there’s only one place to go to do it in first-class luxury…
When it comes to left-field celebrity crushes, we’re totally pushing David Attenborough. Get past his dulcet growly tone and ovary-tingling genes – Google “young David Attenborough” and then come back to us – and his love of animals, wildlife and the world around us is as infectious and life-affirming as it gets.
With 2016 going on record as the worst year to hit the planet since the one when that comet came out of nowhere and squished all the dinosaurs, there’s no better time to plan a 2017 adventure that grounds you back to the sobering, awe-inspiring things in life.
Safaris are almost always incredible experiences, but as their popularity and ease of access has increased over the last decade, so has the saturation. It’s not uncommon to head off in the morning in search of migrating wildebeest, only to find yourself in a traffic jam with 72 other jeeps, all crowding around some poor, unsuspecting fur ball trapped in headlights of both a literal and phone-flash-paparazzi kind.
Which is why Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, located just outside South Africa’s Kruger National Park, seemed so appealing. While the reserve’s been open to the public for 35 years, offers four distinct lodges tailored for an array of travellers – Bush Lodge is the only one that welcomes kids – and promises the chance to see the ‘Big Five’ (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo), this is as far from a generic safari Butlins experience as you can get.
Framed around a philosophy of ‘yesterday, today and tomorrow’, each lodge boasts its own tasteful, individual style that celebrates the Africa of old and new. We stayed in the frankly stunning Earth Lodge, an eco-friendly habitat sculpted into the landscape and near impossible to see from afar.
While the chill-out areas are ‘relaxed luxury’ defined (just look at the images and you can see why National Geographic have labelled it one of the most unique lodges in the world), and the dining options are world-class as standard (not only the food, but the eating areas, which include an outdoor boma for dining under the stars, and a wine cellar stuffed with South African vintages), it’s the 13 completely private, luxurious suites built into the bushland that dazzle because of their unabashed, baffling openness to the wildlife around you.
Within five minutes of dropping our bags, we spotted a mother hippo and baby (hippette?) drinking from a waterhole a few hundred yards away. An hour later, we were carrying a drink outside when an actual elephant strolled into our back garden. She slowly plodded her way past the plunge pool, within touching distance, and we then spent a good 30 minutes watching said elephant walk up and over our lodge. An elephant literally walked on top of our roof.
“An elephant literally walked on top of our roof. Just a typical Tuesday at Sabi Sabi.”
After waiting out the elephant home invasion, a quick chat to the lodge’s guides affirms this is just a typical Tuesday at Earth Lodge. Other guests have stepped out of the shower butt-naked to find a leopard locking eyes with them through the patio doors, while it’s mandatory for every guest to have a ranger walk them to their lodge after dark because you never know what’ll be wandering through. The lack of fences and boundaries on the reserve ensure animals are free to come and go as they please.
It’s this harmony with nature that ensures your jaw is constantly dropped throughout your stay; a bedazzled feeling you’ll grow more than accustomed to on the daily game drives. You’re guaranteed a sunrise and sunset safari drive every day, with each car limited to just six people, and a reserve rule that each animal be subjected to a maximum of two cars at a time ensuring it’s as private and respectful a viewing experience as possible.
The trackers and guides work in such Dr Dolittle-esque harmony it’s easy to suspect the whole thing’s an elaborate You’ve Been Framed set-up. Each drive is undoubtedly at the whim of the wildlife, so nothing’s guaranteed. But before every drive, we’d tentatively enquire about seeing a certain type of animal, and then through a combination of tracking prints, our guide’s seemingly super-human hearing abilities and, we’re going to go with ‘actual wizardry’, we’d find said animal every time.
The first night we watched a leopard drag its impala kill up a tree, and sat enrapt for 45 minutes as it slowly crunched its way through the remains, only stopping to wag its tail, stroll up and down the tree branches and generally show-off to its gawping crowd. The second morning we found an entire pride of lions (replete with cubs), wild dogs and rhinos, while the afternoon drive was spent tracking an enormous herd of travelling elephants, avoiding said herd later that evening in the pitch black, and then tracking a female leopard through the bush by flashlight.
And that’s not even counting the thousands of zebras, impalas and kudu you see as mere background scenery along the way.
Most modern safaris nowadays feel a little too like Jurassic World – the original ‘safari adventure’ dream distorted into an over-populated, mass-produced lump of consumerism. But a trip to Sabi Sabi harks back to Jurassic Park and how safaris should be – intimate, awe-inspiring and very, very special. Although we should probably clarify for the record that Sabi Sabi has no record of crazed, murderous outbreaks – or dinosaurs – to date.
Sabi Sabi is as close to experiencing a BBC documentary first-hand as you can get without all the life-threatening travails that come with making one. Book your tickets, strap on your binoculars, and set your faces to stunned. l
Gay Times Travelled to Earth Lodge, Sabi Sabi Game Reserve, which costs from £950 per person per night, based on two sharing, inc vehicle and walking safaris, all meals and transfers from Sabi Sabi Airstrip.
We flew with South African Airways, return flights Heathrow to Johannesburg from £999, and Federal Air, return flights Sabi Sabi Airstrip to Johannesburg or Tambo twice daily from £282 one way. sabisabi.com, flysaa.com (0844 375 9680), fedair.com.