A South African Safari

On Safari in Sabi Sand
By John Manton
  |  Gorp.com
Back-to-back — two elephants eating brush in Sabi Sand Game Reserve.
Back-to-back — two elephants eating brush in Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

After such personal comfort, expectations were kept in check when we arrived at our "tented camp" in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, adjacent to the Krueger National Park. But another delightful surprise was the Savanna Tented Safari Lodge, owned and operated by a government-sanctioned ecotourism group that trains park rangers and fosters programs to help preserve the wild life in its natural habitat.

The Lodge had only four tents, guaranteeing a maximum of eight people on safari at any time. Set on a permanent base with stucco walls, working windows and A/C, the overhead was canvassed like a real tent. Inside were embroidered linens, a marbled bathroom with sunken bath, a glass-walled shower, double sinks and separate toilet. So much for roughing it in the Bush!

To see wild animals up close and personal, Savanna is a great place to start, but there are safety issues to consider. The tents are not fenced in and animals wander around the campsite at will. Between sunset and sunrise even adults are escorted to and from their tents by a ranger. That is why Savanna welcomes children over 12 years, but will take younger children only when all four tents are reserved by the same family group.

It was still dark as we gulped down hot coffee following a 5 a.m. wake-up call, before boarding the specially equipped Land Rover for our first game-viewing expedition. Duncan, our driver, guide, head ranger and camp manager all in one, worked as a team with Ephraim, his "spotter" who sat perched over the left front wheel.

Ephraim looked, listened and pointed; he rarely spoke. He was the eyes and ears of the expedition, and read animal tracks, interpreted droppings, noticed every tell-tale movement in the bush, and spotted birds and animals we would never otherwise have seen. He saw a family of elephants, a pride of lions with tiny cubs, a herd of Cape buffalo, white rhinos and countless impala.

The locals call impala "the McDonalds of South Africa—there's one on every corner and everybody eats them." They are graceful creatures and, fortunately, prolific breeders, for they are low on the food chain in lion country.

As the sun rose, the vast silent plain looked as it must have done for thousands of years and we realized that this was the animal's home. We are the visitors to their land. Duncan quietly told us that the elephant suckling her youngster not 20 yards away, sees our vehicle only in silhouette. Our scent was masked by the vehicle, he said, and as long as it stayed that way, we would be fine.

Exhilarated, we returned to camp at about 9 a.m. for a full English-style breakfast. After breakfast, Ephraim escorted some of us in the bush for a walk. His encyclopedic knowledge of animals, birds and the environment quickly became apparent as he quoted flowers, trees and grasses and their many different uses, some medicinal, some decorative and some part of local life and folklore. We moved warily through the bush, concerned that Ephraim carried only a metal spear. He eased our concerns demonstrating his skill with it by using a distant tree stump as his target. "I've never lost a tourist," he said. We were impressed.

Lunch in the shade of a cooling thatch was followed by a cat-nap for those not too busy filling in their "Safari Sightings" list. Before we knew it we were up and ready for the afternoon drive to a different part of the reserve. We saw baboons, more lions—not the same ones, according to the rangers who recognize them.

As darkness fell upon us, nightjars, hyenas, ring-tailed bucks and impala became even more alert than before—it was getting dark after all, and that means feeding time for the predators.

Back at camp by 9 p.m., we joined the group around a log fire for drinks and discussion of the day's sightings. We were joined at the dinner table by Duncan and his assistant manager, wife Louise, the working mother of 1-year-old Megan, who is being raised here. Isak Dinesen would surely approve!

It was a long day but we were looking forward to our 5 a.m. call, to see more wildlife. On our pillow a handwritten note read, "We hope your visit with us was very special. When all the animals are gone, man will die of loneliness."

We treasure it.


John Manton, Director of FTF Inc, avid adventurer and grandfather, resides with his wife Ruth in New York City.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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