From the perspective of a pride of lions, there are no borders between Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa; none between South Africa's famous Kruger National Park and the private game reserves at its border; none, for that matter, between all that wilderness an expanse the size of Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire combined and the lounge chair outside a room at the Sabi Sabi game reserve.
That is why Lonely Planet says the Sabi Sands the private game reserve adjacent to South Africa's Kruger National Park where Sabi Sabi sits offers "the best wildlife viewing on the continent." It's easy enough to extend that argument: Africa with its elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and rhino (the "big five") and its giraffes, cheetahs and hyenas offers the best wildlife viewing on the globe. After experiencing the wildlife on a Sabi Sabi safari, you can believe you have seen the best the world has to offer.
If you take it in, as my wife and I did, as the first stop on our honeymoon after the comfortable, but wearying direct flight on South African Airways from JFK, the experience is surreal. We checked in, and a couple hours later we were face-to-ugly face with a mother hyena bigger than all the largest dogs on the block combined, and almost terrifying. This is the face and bulk of a beast on which fairytale beasts are based. And yet, there's no danger. Like sitting in front of a television at home, the wildlife is nearby but not menacing.
True, the animals are famously dangerous: The "Big Five" are so-named not because they are the biggest, or always the most impressive to view, but because they were the most dangerous to hunters on foot, back when game lodges were filled with colonial men up to their cigars in khaki and bullets. In 1898, Paul Kruger, president of the Boer South African Republic, designated the park that bears his name as a reserve to protect the overzealously hunted animals. With the waning of hunting since then, the animals have stopped perceiving Land Rovers full of gawking tourists as a threat and as long as you keep your body one with the metal, our ranger assured us, the animals would not perceive us as meat either. It seems unbelievable until you watch two hungry lions pass a full-grown white rhino, himself as bulky as a Land Rover, without so much as tilting their manes in the direction of something that is too big to hunt, too vegetarian to care about the passing of the Lord of the Lowveld. The danger isn't drained completely there's a rifle mounted for easy access above the driver's wheel, and when pressed, our ranger admits to having used it. But it's a remote danger part of the reason the experience has a cast of unreality.
But it is real, I had to remind myself. It is wild. And it is right there! I warned my mom before I left that we'd focus on experiencing wildlife in the African bush before we worried about photographing it. Don't expect photos, I told her. I wasn't going to miss a rare chance to see an elephant by fumbling with a lens cap. But I was imagining our wildlife encounters being distant, darting along a far ridgeline not nosing curiously, endearingly up toward the vehicle, as a hyena pup did that first afternoon. You don't even need to pack a telephoto lens.
"This is the first moment for them to see the Land Rover," said Joseph Mashaba, our ranger, a third-generation ranger with 22 years of experience from the local Shangaan tribe. "This is like training. They see the vehicle as no threat."
Fortunately, like those cute hyena pups (all the more impressive in their cuteness because their mother was so ugly) we had time to acclimate to this reality. On morning and evening safaris, rangers drive guests into the bush, where the crackle of the CB radio and the sandy roads are the only signs of civilization; the roads, at that, are more heavily used by animals than vehicles, if the piles of dung are any indication. The repetition gives you time to appreciate the vastness of the lowveld landscape, which we saw efflorescing in its November springtime, bright green buds glowing among the ferocious thorn trees. It gives you time to befriend your fellow travelers, in our case from as far away as Sao Paulo or as near as Johannesburg. It gives you time to pick the encyclopedic brain of your affable ranger: It was a "very bad record" for rhinos in Africa in 2010, Joseph told us. Hundreds poached. Elephants, though, are thriving in the absence of poachers, he said, to such an extent that they're overgrazing the forest, with devastating effects on the ecosystem much as white-tailed deer in upstate New York. White rhinos, he told us, get their names, not from a difference of color with black rhinos, but from a mispronunciation "white" instead of "wide lip," which distinguishes white rhinos from black.
One can imagine that language would be a frequent stumbling block in a nation with nine native tribes and languages; a nation that was "discovered" by the Portuguese and then colonized by the Dutch, who imported slaves from India, Malaysia and Madagascar to build out their empire; a nation fought over repeatedly by the British; a nation enslaved, subjugated, brutally segregated, and finally in just 1990 emancipated so that it could begin its experiment in majority rule. Indeed, mispronunciation is the least of South Africa's issues. One of the pleasures if that's the right word of a trip to South Africa is the nearness of its history; the entire society has been upended in the lifetimes of the people you meet. You might hear it hinted at if you ask and only if you ask persistently, even rudely what a local tribesman thinks about recent history, and hear him confide a lingering bitterness at receiving a small salary for supporting wealthy travelers to white-owned tracts of land that had been taken forcibly from their people in times not-so distant.
The Sabi Sands which includes Sabi Sabi and adjacent tracts of private game reserve were tribal lands before they were white-owned farms, before they were hunting lodges and now private game reserves. For the last 20 years, the private lands have enjoyed an unfenced border with Kruger National Park, the 7,700-square mile gem of South Africa's national parks (imagine Connecticut, Rhode Island and then some, only with termite mounds and mud pools instead of New Canaan). South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe now each governed by their native black majorities are removing fences along their borders to create the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, opening a wildlife reserve of incredible diversity and virtually unparalleled proportions.
Which brings us back to Sabi Sabi, a 250-square mile private game reserve that fits that historical mold but also stands in opposition to it or, more accurately, is playing a role in building a new future for the region. (The reason, perhaps, that the resentement I teased out of one interview was difficult to come by is that the people of South Africa seemed universally optimistic, without being unrealistic, about their future sharing this impressive land.)
At Sabi Sabi, Shangaan people are not only serving as cleaning women and waiters, but as rangers, managers and chefs. The reserve has training programs and a computer center for its staff, 60% of which comes from the nearby village of Huntingdon, where the reserve has built and staffed a preschool for a community that has electricity, but running water only ever third house or so. It's a community where a couple of wives and 15 children might be considered only a medium-sized family, and where many men travel for weeks at a time to distant coal or gold mines for work. It's a community where the older generations are likely to consult traditional healers who roll the bones (and dice, shells and other detritus) to prescribe cures for maladies both physical and psychic. A community where a chief conveniently, when we visited, wearing a woven hat with the word "Chief" on it still settles most disputes, rather than government officials. Sabi Sabi's investment in the community, its wage structure and its employee development are among the key factors that earned it the accreditation by Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa in 2004 the first year the third-party independent program of the World Conservation Union began certifying destinations in South Africa. Sabi Sabi was the first luxury lodge of its kind to win the designation and wears the designation humbly but proudly.
Sabi Sabi's latest venture, the Earth Lodge (its fourth), opened in 2009 and is notable for its sustainable construction. The view from it is of the unobstructed African bush framed by marula and acacia trees, buzzing with a symphony of insects and birds. The view back at the buildings, too, is seemingly of unobstructed African bush: The mud-walled lodge is so seamlessly built into the landscape that, where it is visible, it could be mistaken for a series of termite mounds. Which is not an insult. That smart, humble exterior hides impressive luxury. You can recline beside a private dipping pool and ponder whether that bright yellow bird the kind that in a New York backyard back home could only be a goldfinch, so few are the choices for such a color is perhaps an orange-breasted bush shrike... or maybe a little bea-eater... or maybe a village weaver. You can shower, outside or in, or bathe in a generous tub; nap on a huge soft bed; or settle into the sofa to read or admire the custom-built polished wood sculptures that serve as furniture. (Note: Polished means watch where you set down your wine glass it could slide on you!) The food, prepared by Chef Ryan Weakley trained in Cape Town and the Stellenbosch wine region relies heavily on locally grown and organic food, including exotic stuff (to us, if not to the locals) like impala (an antelope) and, increasingly, dishes that build on traditional native foods that had been shunned in the not-too-distant past. "With Apartheid chefs stayed away from that food," he said of the likes of samp or wild potatoes. "It was seen as poorer food." Now, the culinary movement has caught up to the ingredients, in part because more black people are joining the ranks of elite chefs.
As extraordinary a lodge as it is, and as invigorating the conversations you can have there, at Sabi Sabi, you'll want to spend every minute you can facing out. You don't want to miss anything passing by. It takes a great effort for me not to shirk my duties as a writer and lapse into a slide-show litany of my wildlife encounters: the sound of a hippo's breath as it breaches a shallow muddy pool; an elephant systematically stripping a branch of its leaves, then uprooting the entire tree ("Oh, man. Come on!" Joseph scolds, then drives on); the sight of 300 buffalo drinking in a pool while swallows slice the sky above them; a rhino scattering his own dung around a pile he's created, over the course of three decades or more, as a massive testament to his territorial claims; the pathetic yes, pathetic roar of a male lion that's lost sight of a lioness he'd like to claim as his own.
I mean, this is the best wildlife viewing on the planet.
Photos by Samantha Shapley and Dan Shapley.
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