Why would one get up at 4am when ‘on holiday’?? Well, one good reason would be to participate in that age old South African tradition, “The Game Drive”. Bleary eyed from a particularly long day and late night the evening before, I stumble to the shower in a desperate attempt to wake up. The warm water is pleasant and leaves me feeling marginally more human. The smell of the thatch ceiling is pleasantly familiar, as I throw on some jeans and tackies, and exchange mozzie repellent with sun cream. It’s nippy now, but according to the ever-unreliable weather report, the day promises to become positively sweltering. As I close the door to the room, a hyaena calls – that spine-chilling whoop that travels for miles in the bush. A short while after, we hear lions as well. They seem a little too close for comfort…
The rains had yet to come, which influenced the grass and the trees which had not yet grown their summer foliage. Despite that, the indigenous gardens still looked beautiful.
The aroma of freshly percolated coffee floats on the wind, and we follow our noses to the fresh brew awaiting us in the reception area of Kubu Safari Lodge. Together with biscuits and rusks, we participate in limited early morning niceties as the coffee warms us from within. As we clamber into the game drive vehicle, our guide Aarone Ngobeni asks us if we would like to connect a device to the blue tooth to enjoy our own music for the drive to the Kruger National Park. A first for me, and I am rather impressed, but we choose silence at this ungodly hour…
Our wonderful guide, Aarone Ngobeni.
Shortly afterwards, we are warmly wrapped up in the blankets provided and we are on our way. I gaze at the sky, appreciating the moon, completely lost in my own thoughts. We have an hour’s drive ahead of us to reach the Orpen Gate. Luckily, the vehicle is equipped with canvas sides, complete with plastic windows, which roll down, protecting you from the chilly wind. The areas where the wind would usually creep in are covered with Perspex, and the drive is pleasant. As we bustle along, we go through belts of warm and cool air, and road signs illuminate, counting out the kilometres.
A curious waterbuck.
At one stage we have a discussion about being “Mandela’s Children”, and a gentle camaraderie is established. There is something about our fellow citizens. An understanding of what it means to be South African, in a way that simply no foreigner can ‘get’. We lapse into a comfortable silence again as the light chases the dark, and we turn towards the Orpen Gate. The black shadows of trees are now silhouetted against a sky rapidly changing from grey to dusky pink. There is a fellowship between the safari vehicles, and it seems to be protocol to give each other a friendly ‘toot’.
This chilled giraffe paid us no heed…
This spirit of friendship continued the entire day within the park too – obviously without the toot. All sightings were shared, and there was a genuine desire to ensure that everyone got to see as much as possible. Advice was also given on where to find particular animals you may not yet have seen. There is much to be said for this heartwarming vibe, and it struck me that we in South Africa so often take the spirit of Ubuntu for granted, when it is something rare, to be treasured and celebrated.
Lions doing lion things… i.e. nothing!
On arriving at the gate, we were dismayed at the amount of people queuing to get in. We had made a point of getting up really early to be in the park as the gates opened, hoping to enjoy those first golden rays and the photographic opportunities they provide. But it was not to be. Our guide very kindly made sure we weren’t inconvenienced as far as possible by dropping us inside the gate at a small café, and then returned take care of the formalities. Although we were comfortable enough, enjoying a hot chocolate whilst waiting, I think that the Kruger National Park really needs to do something to up their game. We waited for close to an hour, which is, quite honestly, beyond reasonable. Surely an online booking system would be simple enough to implement, thereby facilitating entry and mitigating the wait? That was, however, beyond our control and one of those ‘facts of life’ that you simply need to make peace with so as not to ruin your day.
The boma readied for the night’s festivities (above) and the smiling team doing the work on a particularly hot day (below).
As we drove in, Aarone’s eagle eyes spotted one lone buffalo lying down in the long grass. We were delighted to spot the first of the big five of the day. From there onwards, the ‘sightings, simply didn’t stop. We often came to a halt next to a ‘common’ animal, and he would regale us with stories, interesting facts and fascinating snippets. His knowledge of trees made for interesting listening too. We saw many raptors, which was also exciting. I maintain that one’s experience of a game drive is wholly dependent on the guide you get, and that day we had a superb experience. He was immensely considerate, consistently positioning the vehicle in the best possible manner to get photos. He was a considerate driver, and not once did we have to hang on or endure unnecessary bumps, as he slowed down to the appropriate speed whenever there was slightly rougher terrain. He was also most considerate to others at sightings, ensuring that once we had our images in the bag, we moved on, giving others a chance…
A Snouted Cobra – just ‘hanging’…
Mid-morning, we were treated to a delicious, packed breakfast, which included a little glass jar containing yoghurt, muesli, blueberries, youngberries AND strawberries! Simply delicious.
Breakfast (left) and lunch (right) – complete with chocolate cake and a strawberry!
We occasionally popped into rest camps for ‘comfort breaks’, but otherwise were out and about all day. Our lunch break was at the N’wanetsi picnic spot, a beautiful viewpoint, virtually on the border of Mozambique. Below us was a lush oasis, in an otherwise tinder dry Kruger Park. The bird life was prolific, and some lizards visited us whilst we were having our lunch – obviously used to receiving titbits. All in all, we spent twelve hours on the drive and enjoyed every moment!
The view from the N’wanetsi picnic spot.
I’m sure the housekeeping team, headed by expert Sarah Khoza, must have a degree in ‘towel origami’! (Above).
Even the toilet paper had a little leaf origami or arrival! (Below).
On our return to the lodge, we were in for another treat. The team had decided that dinner was to be on a beautiful wooden deck where in wetter months, you would be overlooking a river. We were led down a pathway lit by candles in paper bags, and onto a fairytale setting on the deck. The food was incredible, and the refreshments flowed freely – especially enjoyable after a long, hot dusty day. But the real treat was the staff, and a wonderful little concert they put on especially for us. To sit in the African bush and hear those melodious voices singing traditional songs almost brought me to tears. It is in those moments that you realise just how privileged we are, and how wonderful our people are…
The deck in the evening (above) and the morning (below).
In fact, that is what struck me most about Kubu Safari Lodge – the staff. It is a stunning lodge, located in an area of legendary private game lodges. But then, there are likely literally tens of lodges in the immediate vicinity, with equally superb facilities. What made this particular lodge unique? In a word, the people. On arrival, we were greeted by Busi Mathebula (Head of Operations) and her team with wonderful smiles and a genuine “we’re so happy to see you” air about them. One cannot “train” this attitude into people – there is a genuine desire to share their little corner of the world and to make sure you have the best experience possible. A warmth and caring which is rare these days. During our stay, we were regularly asked if everything was in order, or if there was anything else that could be done to improve our day. As were the other guests. Without prompting. Without supervision. They also remembered our names and our room numbers. It is simply a culture inherent in this lovely group of people. They are really determined to make your stay an absolutely fantastic experience.
The ever-smiling Busi…
Busi, a local in the area, has earned her title, working through various positions until she became Head of Operations. Aarone (our guide) is also a local and has also held many portfolios before becoming a qualified guide. It is gratifying when lodges allow local people to put the hard work in and achieve – promoting from within is a wonderful way to better the communities in which you operate. That transfer of skills allows for the betterment of our country. We met the lodge managers, Karien and Bertus Bezuidenhout, just before they had to depart for a couple of days. It was apparent that there is a wealth of knowledge gained from many years in the industry within these two individuals, and our comfort and enjoyment was clearly a priority for them.
Lunch was a delicious steak done to perfection, served with French fries that were soft on the inside, and crispy outside. The breakfast omelette was superb, with a filling of cheese, tomato and bacon. Yum!!
The lodge itself is situated on twenty-five hectares of unspoiled natural bush and has over a kilometre of picturesque Klaserie River frontage. It is in this little piece of paradise that you can indulge in a bush walk with qualified guides – or simply lounge around the sparkling pool. Should you wish to visit the legendary Kruger National Park, you can do a self-drive or enjoy the experience with their guides in game drive vehicles – which I highly recommend. This lodge offers affordable luxury in a four-star setting – with six-star smiles!! In fact, I would guess that they are at least half the price of (and likely less) the vast majority of lodges in the immediate environment – which makes it an affordable experience for South Africans!!
The lovely indigenous garden provided blazes of colour…
A word which continuously occurred to me whilst at this venue was “authentic”. There is nothing pretentious about the place, and that includes the food. The large variety of wholesome South African dishes are perfectly prepared with more than ample portions. Beautifully presented, meals are always served taking the weather into account. So, an early morning breakfast was served next to the sparkling pool, whereas when the temperatures reached 30°C, lunch was served in the cooler dining room.
Anyone for a sauna?
If you prefer to be private and closer to nature, and are not concerned with proximity to the main centre, you could choose one of the outlying units, which will give you a feeling of being right in the bush – you have 48 rooms to choose from! With this number of rooms, it would also be a great conference venue. The lodge is located just outside Hoedspruit (a twenty-minute drive) and a mere ten-minute drive from the Hoedspruit airport – which is really useful if you have delegates flying in. The final cherry on top, should you be so inclined, is a gym complete with a sauna! This truly is one of the most delightful local lodges I have had the pleasure of visiting! I was so sad to leave…
Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team
Tel: +27 15 817 1805
Address: Portion 20, Farm Guernsey, Argyle Road, Hoedspruit, 1380