Cheetah with a kill,
Sabi Sabi Game Reserve
We had already come across the cheetah tearing into the remains of
a waterbuck. Later, a big ornery rhino circled us, close enough so
that Elliot Mgiba, guide for an afternoon game drive on the edge of
Kruger National Park, opted to start the Land Rover and give the
testy animal a wide berth. We weren’t hungry for more. But Elliot
was headed some place specific, tipped off by another guide who
reported a sighting on the radio in hushed tones.
Elliot’s lips were sealed. A game driver is not in control of
many aspects of what transpires in wild Africa. Better to let the
show unfold on its own terms.
Maneuvering our open-top vehicle carefully, Elliott veered away
from the sand road toward the setting sun, brush scraping against
the carriage. Rounding a bend, the place Elliot had in mind
announced itself with all the subtlety of a Stephen King movie.
Suspended from the limb of a marula tree was the backlit carcass of
a full-grown impala, his lifeless eyes pointed straight to the
My jaw agape, my vision transfixed what was responsible for this
carnage? When I could finally shift my eyes from the horror show, I
surveyed the brush around us. Over my left shoulder my eyes paused
and focused on knee-high grass, 12 feet away.
Through the grass there was fur, spots and then a tail lashed
the air. Supremely confident, a leopard is subtle only when it
suits his purposes.
“Do not move,” Elliot whispered.
A game guide’s foremost responsibility is ensuring the safety of
his guests. He evaluated the scene and deduced that the leopard had
stashed his kill in the tree, true to his traits, away from lions
or pesky scavengers. Having had his meal the cat was resting now,
unperturbed by the presence of a vehicle that looked and smelled
little of food or threat. The leopard licked his paws and stroked
his face to remove the smears of blood.
This show takes place with different scenery, different
characters and different plot lines every day throughout Kruger
National Park. Established in 1898, South Africa’s greatest
wildlife park is 7,700 square miles almost the size of New Jersey.
One of the most easily accessed parks in Africa, Kruger is a five-
to six-hour drive from Johannesburg on excellent roads, or an hour
by small plane to one of several airports.
In addition to an estimated 1,000 leopard, the park is known for
its healthy populations of lion, cheetah, elephant and giraffe in
fact Kruger encompasses possibly the greatest diversity of animal
life of any park in Africa, with a range of ecosystems. Knowledge
of the park’s range of lodging possibilities helps guide clients to
their ideal safari experience.
There is an extensive network of camps within Kruger’s
boundaries, each offering varied sleeping arrangements ranging from
bare camp sites with shared bathroom facilities ($17 a night), to
permanent canvas tents ($39-$71), to bungalows and cottages with
private bath and kitchen facilities, sleeping two to six people
($77-$267). A car is recommended for independent travelers (the
road system is well maintained), though game drives and walks
handled by park rangers are available a la carte for $16-$35 per
In addition, there are nine private concessions within the park,
each with lodges that lay on the creature comforts. I visited Jock
Safari Lodge, which occupies a 15,000-acre private concession
within the park near the southwest corner and is part of the Mantis
Collection of boutique hotels.
Located 90 minutes from the Nelspruit Airport, Jock sits at the
confluence of two rivers a factor in its frequent animal visits.
Though one of the original Kruger concessions, the lodge was
extensively renovated in 2003.
Today, 12 bungalows boast a pleasing mix of antiques from the
gold-prospecting era and modern amenities including air
conditioning, claw-foot tubs and outdoor showers. Each suite also
has a private plunge pool, large deck and a covered terrace
overlooking the river, where animals roam freely. Other amenities
include a spa and Internet room. Per-person rates at Jock start at
$421 including meals, game drives and local beverages.
The Kruger experience is not strictly confined within the park
boundaries. There are superb accommodations on private reserves
that abut the park’s western border. These reserves are generally
open on their eastern sides, allowing the park’s wildlife to wander
A staff member pours a
welcome drink at Camp Jabulani.
The 35,000-acre Kapama Game Reserve, located just east of
Hoedspruit, is shared by four lodges, including Camp Jabulani,
which opened in 2003. The six chalets here are regal, blending raw
materials of Africa walls of mud and hay, lighting recessed within
leadwood branches with opulent trappings, including bathtub for
two, fireplace and air conditioning. Each unit is utterly private,
and the immediate camp is surrounded by an electric fence, allowing
guests to wander safely alone (most safari lodges require guests to
be escorted at night). Crystal stemware and silver settings are
used in the dining room, and meals are lavish.
Beyond morning and evening game drives, what distinguishes Camp
Jabulani is its elephants it was named after an orphaned elephant
who was near death and rescued at the age of four months. Building
the camp was a way to support Jabulani and 11 other elephants,
rescued from Zimbabwe where they had been tagged for meat.
Elephant-back safaris through the reserve are a special lure.
Rates at Camp Jabulani start at $500 per person including meals,
game drives and transfers from the Hoedspruit Airport;
elephant-back safaris are additional (the “fully inclusive” rate
starts at $857).
Located northeast of Nelspruit and with its own private air
strip, the Sabi Sabi Reserve is a collection of four lodges, billed
as “yesterday, today and tomorrow.” I stayed at Selati Camp, which
represents yesteryear with references to the railway line that was
built on the property when gold prospecting was at its peak. Selati
tributes the history with lanterns, railway iconography and
colonial style, while eight suites lay on the amenities, including
air conditioning and al fresco showers.
Also at Sabi Sabi, the 25-suite Bush Lodge and its sibling,
six-suite Little Bush Camp nearby have more contemporary settings.
The Earth Lodge is futuristic, with 13 suites built into a berm,
carefully landscaped so as to disappear into the environment.
Suites at Little Bush Camp start at $514; Bush Lodge at $586;
Selati Camp at $600; Earth Lodge at $928 per person rates include
meals, local beverages, game drives and transfers from the Sabi
But as with most African safaris, it was not memories of modern
conviences that I carried home, but the wildlife: a pair of baby
elephants at Camp Jabulani, wrestling like oversized kittens; the
rhino that scratched around under my terrace at Jock; and the
splendid leopard at Sabi Sabi.