Lion Sands, a private safari lodge in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province, meshes luxe touches with the true spirit of the bush.
Peering through the gray-blue haze of a descending bushveld night, I crane my neck from the idling Land Rover’s passenger seat to see what has fixed the attention of my driver, Enoch. Although something is certainly emitting the distinct smell of death mixed with diesel, my untrained eyes don’t see anything but tall grass and a bramble of low branches. Pointing out a half-eaten carcass of an adult water buffalo in a grassy depression, Enoch introduces me to my first of many safari “aha” moments. It is then followed by the “omigod” moment of spying a full-grown male lion alongside the buffalo, alternately admiring and gnawing on his kill. Just 10 yards from our Land Rover, this primal tableau playing out in a private game reserve in the northeast corner of South Africa is at once viscerally wrenching and incredibly exciting. “Now you know why we call it Lion Sands,” Enoch smiles.
Everyone comes on an African safari hoping to see the Big 5, a game viewing Royal Flush of sightings comprised of elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and water buffalo. I was quite satisfied that after only being here for a few hours, I only had 3.5 to go.
But somehow, experiences like these just seemed to materialize during my stay at Lion Sands, a private game reserve situated in prime territory of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, located along the meandering Sabie River. Making up part of the much larger Kruger National Park, one of the crown jewels of South Africa’s national park system, Lion Sands has been owned by the same family for four generations and preserves the feel of a family-run encampment, albeit a refined one that prides itself on offering guests luxe touches like an intimate full-service spa, villas with infinity pools and fine dining on handsomely polished decks. And although the 10,000 acre preserve is private, no fences are erected so animals can traverse freely between Lion Sands and Kruger.
The Safari Experience
Days here became an easy flow that began before sunrise as I left my riverside villa for the early morning game drives. Climbing into the Land Rover on damp cool mornings, our small group would sleepily head out, bundled against the cold, but within minutes, adrenalin increased and hands began clutching cameras and binoculars, ready for whatever might cross the road. Early morning sightings included everything from mating giraffes to lolling lions enjoying the first rays of sun hitting their tawny, muscular bodies. We also never ceased to be amazed at the uncanny ability of our guides, who could not only point out larger mammals where we saw nothing, but smaller creatures like a woodland kingfisher sitting motionless, high in a knob thorn tree.
There would usually be an afternoon drive as well, but ultimately my favorite turned out to be the “Sundowners,” a civilized and indulgent practice probably invented by a gin-slinging colonial that involved our driver finding just the perfect spot in a wide open veld, or savannah, parking the vehicle and setting out a table of cocktails and appetizers. Sipping a South African Syrah one night, in quick order I spotted the eerie glow of an adult leopard’s eyes and a shooting star. What’s not to love?
Luxury in the Bush
Besides having the savannah virtually to ourselves and avoiding the herds of vehicles that can sometimes clutter the dirt roads here when animals are sighted in the public areas of Kruger Park, Lion Sands also offered a refined stay of an entirely different stripe. A total of 25 villas and suites are spread between three lodge areas – Ivory Lodge, River Lodge, and the expansive 1933 Lodge – all designed to blend respectfully with surroundings, deferring to the astounding natural beauty on every side. My Ivory Lodge villa, kitted out with a gorgeous canopy bed, outdoor shower and floor-to-ceiling windows big enough to drink in the sublime view of the river, became my favored retreat. Every day, I would spend afternoons reading on the deck, cooling off in the plunge pool, or just sitting transfixed on the river 50 yards below.
The Sabie River, for me, became one of the greatest natural spectacles I had ever seen. There was the afternoon when a group of six or so elephants crossed the river, only to be met in the middle by an enormous, cantankerous hippo heading in the opposite direction. After some snorts and splashing, the outmanned hippo peeled off and swam downriver. Another afternoon I sat reading, when quietly as gray ghost, an adolescent elephant walked along the riverbank, so close I felt I could reach out and touch him. Had I not looked up, I wouldn’t have even heard this enormous ninja. Then there was the dusk I looked out across the river and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever witnessed as night settled in the bare branches of the acacia trees.
A journal entry I made while sipping a cold Castle Lager and attending to a Cuban robusto provides a snapshot of the scene:
“The pale light is giving way to night, and the dark canopy of the forest becomes indistinguishable from the sky. Trees stand in stark silhouette, and the symphony of the night takes over: the trilling of a million insects, the screech of some brightly plumed bird, the gurgle of my decadent infinity pool that trickles on this side of the slithering, seagreen Sabie River, where a thousand eyes hide on the wild side in tangled growth centuries removed from my modern comforts. What contrast. What mystery. What magic.”
For information on visiting any of South Africa’s National Parks, click here…