Ultimate Safari

Luxury and adventure meet at South Africa’s Ulusaba Game Reserve

By: Jim Calio

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa They are called the “big five” lions, leopards, elephants, buffalos and rhino- ceroses and the mystique that surrounds Africa’s greatest game animals has driven hunters, photographers and adventurers to the continent’s most distant gamelands for generations.

These days, however, pursuit of the big five has led developers to create some of the priciest and most luxurious resorts in Africa. Gone are the days of Hemingway roughing it on the veldt. Today, game reserve resorts boast comfortable designer beds, international cuisine and even some of the best wine cellars in the world.

One of the best of these upscale resorts is Ulusaba, airline magnate Richard Branson’s stunning twin lodge complex located on 6,000 acres at the western border of South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park.

Set amid the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, Ulusaba is one of several luxury lodges in the area, but it is arguably the most spectacular because of its hilltop location. The property is located on an 800-foot cliff with panoramic views of the adjacent game reserve. And the area has one of the highest densities of game per acre in South Africa.

Guests arriving at Kruger Mpulmalanga International Airport transfer to the resort by car, a drive of 2½ hours over bumpy rustic roads. The roads travel through farmland and later bush country into the park, where guests might catch a glimpse of buffalos, zebras, or, in very rare cases, lions.

But as an alternative, the lodge strongly recommends that guests fly from Johannesburg to Ulusaba’s private airstrip via charter company Federal Air. It takes about 90 minutes and costs $550 round-trip. Flying may lack the adventure of driving, but guests will arrive more relaxed and refreshed.

The two lodges on the property are Rock Lodge and Safari Lodge. Rock Lodge, true to its name, is carved into a cliff face with 10 air-conditioned rooms. Safari Lodge has 10 rooms built like treehouses luxury treehouses, mind you and they can only be reached by wooden bridges that snake through the treetops.

All rooms are decorated in African themes with original artifacts and traditional colors and weavings.

Because Ulusaba is in a wilderness area, the lodges are unfenced. Though the lodge perimeter is patrolled and there is 24-hour security, dangerous animals sometimes enter the lodge grounds. Guests must ring for an escort after dark, and they are requested not to leave the confines of the resort unless accompanied by a field guide.

Packages include all meals and twice-daily game drives in 4x4 vehicles, and twice-daily walking safaris, both outings accompanied by professional guides and trackers.

In summer, from December through May, the animals tend to be well-fed and have glossier coats, but they can be difficult to spot because of dense foliage. Also, it’s very hot in the afternoon. Winter, from May through August, is a better time to spot game, since leaves are off the trees. But it can get cold.

The resort also has a health club, pool, tennis courts and laundry service. About the only hardship is getting up before dawn to catch glimpses of the wildlife (the animals try to avoid the heat during daylight), but that’s all part of a day’s work that usually ends with the traditional “sundowner” cocktail at sunset.

Room rates for a double are $1,100 to $2,500, with a 10 percent commission for travel agents.

Ulusaba Game Reserve