Safari is the word for “journey” in Swahili, and David and I dreamt of donning fatigues and getting into the heart of the bush to encounter some of earth’s most spectacular creatures from the very earliest planning stages of our world tour. So, after two weeks in Cape Town and exploring the beauty of South Africa’s Midlands on Rovos Rails, we made our way deeper into the wilderness. The first of several stops across the continent, we were thrilled to be invited to experience the renowned Sabi Sand Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park, at the Selati Camp at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve.
Some guests fly into the private landing strip, but we opted to make the 5 hour drive from Johannesburg to take in more views of the Drakensburg Mountains (in perhaps the world’s smallest car!). It was a scene out of Jurassic Park, as we crossed under the thatch-roof gate marking the entrance to the vast wilderness. As we slowly made our way across the sand roads, following signs toward Selati Camp, we were slightly anxious by the amount and variety of signs of animal life — from elephant dung every dozen meters to darting feet tracks of who knows what, running for their lives from a variety of predators. We made sure to keep our windows up!
The approach to Sabi Sabi’s Selati Camp is intentionally unassuming to ensure the camp blends well with it’s surroundings. About an hour into the park the bush opened up to reveal a driveway with a covered wagon standing at the center. We were warmly greeted by the staff and a friendly gentlemen named Terry, who we quickly learned was to be our guide for the duration of our stay. Terry walked with us through the camp, passing thatched cottages as we made our way to the main lodge, which houses two lounges, a trio of dining spaces, and a bar dispensing delicious G&T’s. Lemonades materialized as we plopped into plush velvet couches and we went over the general itinerary for our stay — morning wake up at 5AM and coffee before setting out on morning game drive; a proper breakfast back at the lodge, followed by time for relaxation hidden from the hot afternoon sun; lunch at 1PM then afternoon tea at four followed by evening game drive; then back to camp for dinner with the guests and guides together. David seemed distracted during the whole introduction, and I followed his gaze to see why: beyond the lobby was a watering hole, with not one but three white rhino, and a small herd of wildebeest and zebra! We couldn’t wait to take our camera out and capture a few pictures.
The lodge surprised us with an upgrade to their spectacular honeymoon suite which had a large porch with another perspective on the watering hole and two claw foot tubs. (Two!!) The entire camp has a subtle romantic railway theme to its design, a nod to the old railway tracks that cross the northeastern corner of the reserve, laid to carry gold from the Transvaal to the then Lourenco Marques (now known as Maputo). They just finished renovating the suites and the effect was the perfect blend of old-world glamour of train travel paired with fresh takes on classic safari campaign furniture. A perfect continuation of our journey with Rovos Rail! Beaten up leather trunks splattered with travel stickers stand beside kerosene style lamps. A dramatic net tents the bed and pulling back a leather curtain reveals the bathroom which is nothing short of stunning. Leather bridles, hung on the wall, hold hand towels, and the bathing area is a round hut divided in two – one half is a massive shower and on the other side of the terra-cotta wall is the first of two claw footed tubs.
Sabi Sands is a private reserve adjacent to the larger Kruger National Park, and boasts the lowest vehicle occupancy in the Greater Kruger. This means the animals aren’t weary of the attention and you can get VERY close to the action. We often found ourselves alone in the midst of a heard of elephants or buffalo, but on the other hand, the rangers from Sabi Sabi’s four lodges all work together so if something exciting happens your vehicle will learn of it and head right over.
After a light snack and tea, we set out to with Terry to hop in our land cruiser and meet Sydney – our tracker for the game drives. Game drives at Sabi Sabi are a team effort between the guide, who drives the car looking for wildlife and narrating the scenes before us, and the tracker, who sits on a seat attached to the front of the car and concentrates on reading animal tracks in the sand road (as well as scanning the horizon for signs of animals). After no time at all, Sydney identified lion tracks and we set off into the thick bush. Along the way on our first drive, we encountered a yawning hippo (which is apparently a sign we shouldn’t come closer – or else!), herds of impala, beautiful white rhino, playful elephants, and wildebeest. We ended the evening with a viewing of a pride of lions, including a few cute cubs panting heavily from overeating a recent kill. As the sun started to set, we stopped in a clearing, and Terry and Sydney setup a lovely spread of biltong, dried mango, and mixing gin and tonics for us to celebrate the drive. Afterward, we made our way home in the dark, with Sydney out front with a spotlight, searching for wildlife. He picked out a 6-inch-long green chameleon hiding on a green leaf at the top of a tree – in total darkness! What eyes! We loved sharing the stories of our day with the other guests back home that evening during a dinner table set under the stars.
Each game drive was totally different from the last, and I’d encourage you to go on every drive while on safari. On our second day, the highlights of the morning were finding a hyena den, giraffe, and a beautiful leopard sleeping high on a tree branch. After our drive, instead of heading back to camp, our vehicle pulled up to a shading spot overlooking a dry river bed where the staff was waiting for us with a “Bush Breakfast” full of the most delicious food, prepared by the head chef (named Gift!) and a special ambiance surrounded by nature.
One major highlight of our visit was a late morning bush walk on our second day. Bush walks are essentially game drives on foot, which affords a better chance to learn more about the smaller details (like plant life, and identifying animal tracks). Terry had an encyclopedic knowledge of the bush flora and fauna and learning from him was just as valuable as seeing the beautiful wildlife itself. I loved how he personified the animals we were watching, narrating the action in a way that made me appreciate how much humans really have in common with animals. (See this video of cute impalas at a watering hole or this video of a memory of elephants wandering around our rover to see what I mean!) Toward the end of the bush walk, David spotted a large leopard crouched at the base of a tree about 20 meters ahead of us. We slowly crouched to the ground at Terry’s command, as it can be a dangerous to encounter leopards on foot. The leopard was watching us too, and I blinked and the leopard had slipped off into the bush. Terry explained that this particular leopard was known to have an aggressive streak, and was also pregnant. David and I looked at each other with wide eyes – feeling lucky to not have had a closer encounter!
We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to South Africa’s wildlife than our experience at Selati Camp. Thank you to Terry and the whole Sabi Sabi team for the memories and incredible hospitality!
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All photos by David and Stacie Flinner for stacieflinner.com