SO much for telling stories around a campfire while on safari. For my merry gang, the tales of adventure started in the transfer lounge at Johannesburg as we waited to board a 12-seater plane bound for Ulusaba, Richard Branson’s lodge just north of Kruger. The chitchat went something like this:
“Did you hear about the lion who mauled the tourist in the shower?”
“It was the second lion attack that month apparently…”
“Ouch. You’d be vulnerable in the shower, wouldn’t you?”
“What about the guy who woke to find his wife had gone and a baboon had taken her place?”
This being my first safari, the anxiety set in. What do you do if a lion scrambles over the wall of your outdoor shower, or you come face to face with an amorous baboon? Worst of all, I’d ignored the advice on Twitter and hadn’t packed a fleece.
Silly me for worrying. At Ulusaba, there is nothing to be afraid of. No predators in showers and certainly no need for a fleece – I visited in October and it was a scorching 38C.
I first discovered Ulusaba on a trans-Atlantic Virgin flight when I flicked on a short film made by Christian Slater – a diary of a safari he’d taken with his son. Not only was it a glimpse into the holidaying habits of an A-lister, it showcased the bare beauty of the African savannah, a luxurious safari lodge staffed by friendly, well-educated rangers, and above all, the abundance of wildlife in the area.
Ulusaba is situated on 13,500 hectares on the north-eastern border of Kruger National Park in a region called Sabi Sands. The excellence of this location is twofold. Firstly, it’s on privately owned land, so there are no strict rules about staying in vehicles or sticking to the tarmac like you get in regulated national parks. You can get really close to the animals at Ulusaba – close enough to smell them and hear them breathing.
Secondly, because the land directly borders Kruger (and there are no fences), there’s plenty of traffic. And by plenty, I mean within 24 hours, I’d spotted all of the big five – lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalo. It was like safari bingo and I’d got a full house. The only downside to Sabi Sands is the concentration of lodges in the region – there are about 25 in total, so a trip here is a far cry from the soul-enriching isolation of camping out in the bush in a 1920s-style canvas tent. For this, you’ll need to book elsewhere.
Accommodation is divided between two lodges: 11 rooms at Rock Lodge, all carved out of a mountain with uninterrupted views to Mozambique on a clear day, and 10 rooms at Safari Lodge, which sit 15 minutes away on the bank of a dry river bed. Both offer laid-back living, ornamental furniture and a hint of tribal flair.
The Makwela suites at Rock Lodge are spacious with plunge pools, but for ultimate privacy, book the Treehouse suite at Safari Lodge. Here, access is via a chain of rope bridges (forget high heels) but the trek from the lobby is worth it. You’ll wake up to the yawns of 38 hippos wallowing in a watering hole below your deck.
None of the staff wear name badges or uniforms, it’s shorts and T-shirts all the way, and if you fancy a tipple, one of the rangers will happily swing their legs over the bar and mix you something strong.
Karl Langdon, who runs Ulusaba with his wife Llané, speaks fondly of Richard Branson, who owns the place and often visits.
“He comes up with crazy ideas; we often have to reign him in. He originally wanted a zip line from Rock Lodge down to Safari Lodge,” reveals Karl. Sadly Branson was swayed against this, but no one could talk him out of his most recent concept: a five-storey luxury villa carved out of the rock face behind Rock Lodge.
The new addition, which Branson shares with family and friends when on the premises, was completed last year and christened Cliff Lodge. It is a remarkable feat of architecture offering two ultra-luxe glass-fronted suites plus its own gym, pool and private butler. Locate the James Bond-style swivel closet where Branson stashes his pith helmet and you can leave him a note.
Game drives are taken twice daily, at 5.30am and 4.30pm. Don’t worry if you’re not an early riser (neither is Branson’s wife), there’s plenty to see on the evening drives plus you’re handed a stiff gin and tonic and some spicy biltong along the rounds.
Within 15 minutes of my first drive, we came face to face with a handsome cheetah tucking into a baby impala at the foot of a Marula tree. His lunch choice was all the more pertinent when we returned to the lodge to find “impala in pita” on the menu.
During said drive, we also spotted white rhino, lions, buffalo, warthogs and chameleons, then dodged a deadly black mamba on the sandy road home. Gently bumping about in one of Ulusaba’s open-sided Land Rover Pumas, with the hiss of crickets and the warm sun on the back of your head, has to be one of life’s ultimate pleasures.
During subsequent drives, sightings included a herd of at least 700 buffalo, 20 or so elephants sheltering their babies from the rain, zebras, hippos, warthogs, wildebeest, zebu, hyenas, a steely-eyed leopard, lions calling for their mates (this was earth-trembling and deafening – and continued long into the night), and my absolute favourite, a journey of giraffes who appeared out of nowhere while we sipped our morning coffee and stretched our legs at the bonnet of our jeep.
The giraffes were completely unfazed by us, nodding from tree to tree like giant stoned hippies, pausing only to nibble leaves from branches out of reach from all others. I could have watched them for hours.
There’s also plenty of smaller game to enjoy such as leopard tortoises, chameleons, scorpions, dung beetles (strangely fascinating), frogs that make sounds like alien ring tones and black and gold butterflies whose intricate patterns resemble something you might see on a velvety Vivienne Westwood creation.
Twice a week, lavish al fresco dinners are set up in the bush for guests at both lodges. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere at one of these events without using the word “magical”. But sipping champagne under a glowing crimson moon next to a raging bonfire, all dusty and bronzed after a day spent watching some of the most vivid wildlife on our planet go about their usual business, is a true privilege.
We dined, by the light of flaming torches, candles and lanterns on kudu steaks, steamed yellowtail fish, moussaka and mealy pup, all expertly prepared and laid out on linen-clad trestle tables.
And as if that wasn’t exquisite enough, in an explosion of drum noise, an athletic band of tribal dancers leapt to the scene with spears, re-enacting a hunt and shaking their mohair-clad calves. It was savage and spontaneous, just how the bush ought to be.
Later on that evening, under a starlit sky, we got to sit around a campfire and swap a few stories, too.
Rates start at £439 per person per night at Ulusaba including food, drinks and twice daily game drives.
Call 0208 600 0430 or visit www.ulusaba.virgin.com.
Leo flew to Johannesburg with Virgin Atlantic. Economy flights to Johannesburg start from £483 (plus tax). Transfers from Johannesburg to Ulusaba’s private airstrip cost around £400 with Federal Air.