There are some holidays where your accommodation is your destination. Others where the journey is the destination, and others where the focus is on what you do and see, not where you stay. In Granada, for example, we stayed in a small cheap room that smelled strongly of smoke. But it didn’t detract from the Alhambra, or the delicious meals we had both nights in local restaurants. In Bedarra, however, our accommodation was the destination (and what a good choice it was too). I had a feeling that on our safari holiday, the choice of accommodation was going to be very important, and I spent hours on the internet, reviewing accommodation options in South Africa. There were so many wonderful options; colonial style lodges abounded, and the ultra-modern Earth Lodge that called to me (and still does). But then I came to Ulusaba’s website. It was the only lodge that had a view. It would provide a contrast to Ngala, the colonial style lodge where we stayed at the beginning of our South African trip, set down in the Kruger plains. I was easily convinced, even though it meant abandoning (for now) Sabi Sabi’s Earth Lodge. I then had to convince my husband. I read reviews, we booked our trip, and then for weeks we crossed our fingers that we weren’t making an expensive mistake.
But from the moment the plane landed on the airstrip, outside a large stylised wooden hut filled with welcoming rangers and staff and – of course – champagne, we felt as if we were in the right place. There was no doubt that the rich and famous come here. It is after all Sir Richard Branson’s private African lodge and retreat, and there was a private jet parked at the end of the runway. But it wasn’t by any means the most expensive of South Africa’s lodges, other guests were also there on special deals or for special occasions, and the atmosphere was so relaxed that we always felt at home and welcome. After meeting the ranger, Stuart, who would be our guide for the next four days, we piled into the jeeps for the short trip up to our lodge.
Only a couple of hours after arriving, we found ourselves in a jeep with Stuart, John (our tracker), and David and Elaine, a delightful English couple, watching a pride of lions fight over a wildebeest carcass. We were so close we could smell the kill, and hear the growls of the three young males who were gnawing on the bones. As more members of the pride arrived, all hell broke loose. I wished I had had a video camera, as several lions leapt onto the carcass, and a cat fight (albeit not the kind of catfight I hear outside my window at night) had broken out. The roars and growls of the lions were spine-tingling and, sitting in an open landrover only yards away from some very hungry, very powerful lions, I was acutely aware that they would see me as a plump, tasty morsel of meat.
After sating our hunger for good photos, Stuart drove off. Only about 50 yards away from the kill, we found the pride leader. He had already eaten, and was sitting regally, extremely relaxed.
This little black-backed jackal was waiting his turn at whatever might be left of the kill, but was also relaxed, knowing he was in no danger of being the lion’s dessert, sitting only twenty or so yards away.
As we sat, marvelling at this and snapping away endlessly, a side-striped jackal came trotting towards us. He had obviously smelled the kill, and was coming for any titbits that might be left over. He could perhaps see the other jackal, but he couldn’t see the lion he was coming up on, until he was just a matter of a couple of yards away.
The lion moved his enormous head to see who had the temerity to approach him,
and the poor little jackal, never really in danger, reeled in shock and took off in the opposite direction.
Each day, each drive (morning and evening), there was a different story to tell, a different drama in the wild to watch. Whether it was the male lion and young female leopard on a collision course, the baby rhino, the search for the leopard cub they knew was there (we never saw it), there was always an interesting story, always a bumpy trip off road, with thorns to duck and other tourists to outwit. One night, in the pitch black darkness as we were heading back to the lodge, John spied something on the road in the distance. A porcupine! Stuart hit the accelerator, and took off after it. We bounced around wildly as he desperately tried to chase it, at the same time reaching for his camera. In the eight years he had been working there, this was only the second porcupine he had seen.
After a couple of hours bouncing round in the back of the jeep, a drinks stop was always a welcome break. In the mornings a hot chocolate or coffee, sometimes with a little “extra” in it, was welcome after the freezing start. In the evenings, a glass of wine or whiskey or gin and tonic whilst chewing on some pastries or biltong, standing by a river, overlooking a clearing, or by a waterhole, watching the sun go down behind the Drakenburg mountains was surreal, but wonderful. For the women the stops were always welcome for other, less salubrious but more obvious reasons. John would check out the area for safety, then point at a suitable bush or termite mound. One of the weirdest experiences of my life was squatting behind one of these bushes, realising that a family of hippos was watching me from the waterhole.
One of my favourite times of day at the lodge was before dinner, when we would gather around the bar, enjoying some really excellent South African wine, or a glass of Veuve Clicquot, or simply a juice or beer, and recount the stories of what we had seen that evening. The rangers often joined us for a drink – as they said, their staff bar was rather well-stocked! The chef would join us to explain the menu for the evening, and then we would go to the grand dining table, with its ostentatious chairs and ostrich egg chandelier above, for dinner.
Some of us would stay later, for another drink at the bar and enjoying our new friendships before retiring to bed.
Early mornings were subdued, but filled with anticipation. Coming back to the lodge at 9 am, after being out in the brisk, cool (freezing before the sun came up) air for several hours, there was every justification for a hearty breakfast. One day the lodge staff set up breakfast in an old river bed, another day we were able to take breakfast down at the Safari Lodge, on the deck over the dry riverbed, hoping some animals would come wandering by. But I enjoyed breaking my fast at Rock Lodge the most, sitting out on the deck, looking out over the bush, seeing elephants wandering from tree to tree having their own breakfast, or watching male waterbucks competing for dominance at the waterhole below.
Our time in between game drives was our own to swim, sleep, read on the deck chairs trying not to be distracted by either the view or the baboons, work out at the gym with its view of the waterhole, or visit the Aroma Boma Spa. Africa spread out below me as in turn I spread out on the massage table. “Oh, I like this,” I said. “It’s extra long.” “Yes,” she said. “Richard hates it when his feet hang over the edge.” And there it was. The reminder that this started off as a private retreat. And still is a private retreat, at times, of one of the world’s most famous and perhaps popular entrepreneurs.
One of the highlights of our stay had to be the night at the observatory. It was dark and we were cold, at the end of our evening game drive. Stuart spun us some story about detouring from the lodge to help out another jeep, and the next thing we found ourselves in a clearing lit by dozens of lanterns. “Welcome to your dining room!” he said. Dinner, to celebrate our birthday/wedding anniversary, was waiting. An entire buffet had been set up, a barbecue or braai had been prepared just for us, there was a bar, a seating area for drinks and conversation, and a dining table. The hyenas nearby waited politely for any leftovers, but Stuart was more worried about the herd of buffalo we could hear getting closer, and kept his gun close. At the side of the clearing was an observatory, and a large telescope had been slid out onto a deck. As we sipped champagne, we looked through the telescope at other galaxies, at the “Jewellery Box”, and at Saturn’s rings. Then we dined under Africa’s stars.