Numbers game: Sabi Sabi

Checking out Africa’s Big Five is one of the greatest of all travel adventures, and there’s nowhere better to do it than at South Africa’s Sabi Sabi

Travel 27 Feb 2019

A parade of African elephants leave the waterfront on the reserve
A lion is spotted in the savanna
Rhinos are a common sight at the Sabi Sabi ranch
A leopard among the grasslands

It doesn’t matter how many times you go on an African safari, the big draw will always be the royal family of the bush: the Big Five. You can pretend that these regal megafauna are somehow beneath your adventure travel dignity and that the continent’s teeming butterflies and birdlife are more suited to your taste as a veteran of the veld. But deep down you know that you’re here to see the superstars of the savannah. Leopard, lion, Cape buffalo, African elephant and rhinoceros. That’s the bucket-list moment.

The Big Five are so called because that’s what the monocled, moustachioed trophy-baggers of yesteryear called them. Not so much for their size – after all, a giraffe is much taller than any of them – but because of the difficulty and danger that went into hunting them down for the kill. This was back in the bad old days, when big-game hunters of the Victorian era, such as Frederick Courteney Selous, routinely notched up three-figure career tallies. These days we give the animals the same collective noun. Only, we shoot with cameras, not long-barrelled rifles.

A lilac-breasted roller bird

The best way to do this is to take an early morning (or late afternoon) game drive. And the best place in South Africa is the Kruger National Park, or to be more precise, in the private conservancies just outside the park. One such is the Sabi Sands to the west, where the only animals that have any restrictions on their movement are the few humans that venture out into the bush on the trail of the Big Five. This pristine wilderness is the perfect habitat for these stately creatures, and if you happen to time your visit in winter (don’t worry, the temperature still rises to the mid-twenties by noon), you’ll have a much better viewing experience, as the dense, verdant foliage of the summer has receded, giving way to a stripped-back tawny-coloured landscape in which the animals can be seen in all their wild and natural glory.

You’ll stay at one of four Sabi Sabi luxury lodges, each in its own style, ranging from tented-camp colonial chic to retro-styled railway-themed residences. But it was at the extraordinary Earth Lodge that I made my base which, with its combination of Modernist straight lines and sweeping curves, creates the perfect architectural hideaway to blend in with the earth tones of the landscape. It’s camouflaged so well that elephants and rhinos wander up to the water hole only a few yards from the breakfast terrace. Spread out and made up of similarly styled cottages with uninterrupted panoramic views of the bushveld, Earth Lodge is in happy contrast to the luxury faux-rustic camps you regularly see all over Africa.

To encounter one of these sleek cats stalking a group of impala was something of a life-changing experience

There’s a stunning wine cellar here (comprising mostly South African and Old World wines), and if you want an even more secluded experience, there’s a presidential suite (complete with its own butler and game drive vehicle). In the evenings, it’s time to get acquainted with that wine cellar and to enjoy sumptuous al-fresco dinners, where blazing braziers warm the chilly evenings. You can dine privately, but it’s so much better to do it ‘safari style’ with your fellow guests, swapping stories of the day’s adventures.

It was here that on my first morning I received a pre-dawn telephone call telling me that a two-year-old female leopard had been spotted in the area overnight, and that we should hit the trail to see what she was up to. I heartily agreed but, as I picked up my binoculars and cameras, held out no real hope of a meaningful encounter. That’s because I’ve been on dozens of these game drives all over sub-Saharan Africa and never yet had a decent photo opportunity with these notoriously elusive nocturnal felines. I’d certainly never seen a truly wild, fit and active leopard on the hunt. And so to encounter on my first morning one of these sleek cats stalking a small group of impala from under the cover of a ravine was something of a genuine life-changing experience. The hunt failed, as they so often do, in a blur of antelope dispersing like lightning in all directions. Confused and still hungry, the leopard retreated to rest defeated on a termite mound.

I saw lions at night, buffalo at dusk, rhinos in the early morning and elephants… well, there were elephants everywhere pretty much all of the time when the sun wasn’t high overhead. Thanks to the expertise of the Sabi Sabi trackers and rangers, whose bushcraft verges on the supernatural, within three days I’d bagged my personal Big Five. In fact, my encounters with megafauna were so frequent that I soon decided that perhaps there was more to wildlife watching than the Big Five, after all. Which meant it was time to get down to ‘other business’ in the form of bird watching and butterfly spotting. This might not sound anywhere near as exciting, but believe me, they are among the best experiences Africa can provide.

To book a stay at Sabi Sabi game reserve, visit naturalworldsafaris.com