South Africa is one of the most remarkable places you’ll ever get to visit and with the pound strong against the rand, now is the perfect time to visit this beautiful and rewarding rainbow nation.
As a South African and animal lover, it’s always the wildlife that draws me back to my home. This time I’m on the hunt for the big five – lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhino.
And there is no better place to spot all these animals in their natural environment than at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve – a National Geographic ‘Unique Lodge of the World’.
There is no better place to spot the ‘big five’ in their natural environment than at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, pictured
The animals are free to roam the non-fenced boundary between Kruger National Park and the 65,000 hectares of the Sabi Sands
Sabi’s Earth Lodge, pictured, is one of the most unique lodges in the world
Adjacent to the Kruger National Park, the animals are free to roam the non-fenced boundary between the national park and the 65,000 hectares of the Sabi Sands.
I plan to drive from Joburg’s OR Tambo airport to Sabi Sabi before heading to the Drakensburg Mountains, a World Heritage site, and on to Durban, where I grew up.
Shortly after landing at the airport I pick up the car and start the five-hour drive up to Sabi Sabi.
The reserve does do its own transfers and has a landing strip for guests but what I enjoy most about SA is the vast landscape and the interesting sites along the way, so I’ve chosen to drive.
I’ll be staying at Sabi’s Earth Lodge, which is simply out of this world.
When I arrive, welcomed by a cool drink and a smiling member of staff, I can see exactly why. It’s surrounded by lush vegetation and is chiselled into the landscape to make it invisible from afar.
It also has the wildlife and on my first morning at sunrise I am lucky enough to watch a large herd of elephant making its way through the camp.
Sabi Sabi is surrounded by lush vegetation and is chiselled into the landscape to make it invisible from afar
The lodge has 13 luxurious suites, each with a plunge pool, stone bath, shower and his ‘n’ hers sinks.
It’s late afternoon when I arrive and I’ve missed the usual departure of 3.30pm for an afternoon drive, but my ranger Justin and his tracker Petro still offer to take me for some sundowners where we can hopefully catch sight of some wildlife.
Luckily we barely drive a few miles before we come across a herd of elephants and in no time we’re surrounded.
As they rumble past us, manoeuvring their trunks through the trees and turning over the soil with their trunks, my heart feels like it’s going to burst.
I was lucky enough to grow up in South Africa and have spent time in the bush before but I’ve never been quite so close to a herd as large as this.
The lodge has 13 luxurious suites, each with a plunge pool, stone bath, shower and his ‘n’ hers sinks
But my main request for Justin and Petro is that they find me a leopard and a few days later, I’m lucky enough to spend a good hour with one.
Maxabeni is a powerful and confident young male who allows us to follow him.
Watching his sleek body move through the vegetation makes me realise just how powerful and nimble these cats are. And they’re smart, adapting and using their environment to hunt.
Justin explains that Maxabeni had become so comfortable with the safari vehicles that he had learned to use them as cover before pouncing on unsuspecting impala.
Aside from being the perfect place to immerse yourself in nature, Sabi Sabi knows how to feed its guests and there is an endless supply of food.
As soon as you wake up, you’re given a selection of pastries and yoghurts, before being taken on a morning drive. While out you stop for hot drinks and rusks – a twice-baked bread, popular with South Africans – before returning to the lodge for a full sit down breakfast.
Pamela was lucky enough to spot a leopard during her stay at the stunning lodge
You get a few hours to relax – or you can go on a community visit or bush walk – before lunch is served. No sooner is lunch finished than you get to indulge in afternoon tea, with an endless array of cakes and sweets.
At around 3.30pm you’re ushered out for an afternoon drive before returning to dinner – which is usually around six courses. So be prepared to get fat.
After four days my waistline is screaming to leave, but I want to stay. There is nothing like going to bed with the sound of lions reverberating through the night.
And as I wave goodbye to Justin and Petro, I honestly feel as though I’m leaving old friends.
I drive to a hotel in the Drakensburg Mountains – a four-hour trip – but stop at Joburg along the way.
The berg is by far one of my most favourite places in SA and it’s the perfect place to stop for lazy lunches and curio shopping.
Sabi Sands has an incredibly well-stocked wine cellar – and a beautiful table at which to try them
Driving through the long, winding roads makes you realise how vast the country is and you get the chance to glimpse the lives of locals.
The tiny villages dotted along the way are bustling with school children who dance and wave as you drive through.
I’m staying at Cathedral Peak Hotel, which is the perfect place to relax for a weekend, with its golf course, swimming pool and outdoor play area for children.
It’s very much family-focused but it’s also a splendid place to base yourself if you want to go hiking, off-road biking or horse riding.
After a few days in the mountains I head to Durban for some sun and surf.
It’s been one wildly brilliantly trip.
Starting rate for a night at Sabi Sabi is around £500 per person, per night based on two sharing. This includes open safari vehicle safaris by day and at night to see Africa’s big game accompanied by qualified rangers and trackers, environmental awareness walking safaris, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a house selection of beverages, Wi-Fi, transfers from the Sabi Sabi Airstrip and VAT.
Prices at Cathedral Peak Hotel are from £150 per night.