The Sabi Sand Game Reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park is possibly our favourite place. It’s a place we return to often, lured there by the natural beauty, the abundant birds and game and, of course, the people.
by ALAN SAMONS and RUBIN VAN NIEKERK
Our trip started with a five hour drive from Johannesburg with a quick midway break to refuel and enjoy some refreshments. We had arranged to spend one night at Exeter River Lodge, followed by a relaxing three nights at Leadwood Lodge. Both properties are managed by &Beyond, ensuring high levels of service, cuisine and friendly staff. Our late afternoon arrival precluded us taking part in the game drive, but sitting on our private deck enjoying the spectacle of the setting sun amid storm clouds was just what we needed to gear down and get in touch with ourselves. A small herd of buffalo, elephants and grazing impala – all mere metres from the deck – added to the visual splendour.
Dinner was superb and we were surprised by a large bull elephant who decided to join us for dinner. He came to within metres of the dining area, to the great enjoyment of a group of American tourists.
Exeter River Lodge has eight beautiful suites, each with a private plunge pool and viewing deck. The interior is spacious, comprising a central sleeping area, flanked by a small lounge and bathroom. There are both indoor and outdoor showers. That night, we fell asleep to the sound we both love – the far-off roll of thunder and the nervous laughter of hyena.
The following day we moved just a few metres upstream to Leadwood Lodge. Small and intimate, Leadwood Lodge has only four rooms. Our stunning room was situated in a forest next to the Sand River and comprised of a small lounge area, large bedroom and spacious bathroom. Several guests have reported seeing the local leopard walk right past them, while they were taking a shower on the deck. Sadly, we were not that lucky, but we did have quite a lot of wildlife activity, ranging from wild dogs to hyena and leopard, which we heard calling along the river. Every evening we could hear branches breaking as elephants were feeding close by. Sitting on our large wooden deck next to the rim flow pool at night was quite stunning, with the sound of frogs and the odd hippo in the distance.
We had so many animal sightings, but the leopards are what the Sabi Sands area is famous for, and we saw two. A pack of wild dogs also moved through the area and we spent some time with them. They are truly beautiful animals and the term by which they are also known, ‘painted dog’ is perfectly suited. Sadly, they are highly endangered, so seeing them in the wild is a true blessing.
Just before evening drinks, we drove by a lion kill site. A small pride of lion had pulled down a buffalo in a small river and the big male was making a big show of guarding the carcass and growling at the youngsters as they tried to come closer, not that any of them could possibly have gorged any further – their stomachs were round and very full. Mostly they just lay around digesting their meal.
After thirteen years of visiting game lodges we have realised that the most important aspect of your experience is the management team. Leadwood is blessed with a strong team and a great position. With there being only four rooms, it means you tend to bond with the other guests as well. Typically at small lodges a lot of effort goes into planning memorable activities for the guests. After our first leopard sighting, on the way back to the lodge after dark, we rounded a corner to see a tree hung with lanterns and candles. A bottle of chilled champagne and sparkly crystal glasses were waiting for us to celebrate the sighting.
Our ranger André Mac Donald has had an incredible life as a ranger and he amused us with many tales. He is a very talented artist and we bought two prints of his incredibly detailed pencil drawings, one of a leopard and one of a lion. They will always remind us of our time at Leadwood Lodge. Mac’s wife, Keri-Anne, is the camp manager and she was so wonderfully caring and did her utmost to make our stay as comfortable as possible. She is also a ranger and has lived and worked all over Africa. Her and Mac’s passion for the bush is contagious and we all worried about reintegrating back into city life after our wonderful trip.
As usual, we were fed incredibly well. Robert, the chef outdid himself and Martha, our housekeeper, was an absolute angel. Whenever we travel and meet ‘bush people’ (as we refer to all those lucky enough to live and work in the bush), we are reminded of our own frenetic lives and how we are bombarded with too much of everything. A simpler life, close to nature is so much more fulfilling, and these individuals are the proof. Make no mistake, they work hard, but we envy them their lifestyle.
We had a most memorable time and felt ready to return to our hectic lives, de-stressed and very, very relaxed.