South Africa, Day Seven: Lions, Leopards and Lodges

Every good experience should have a grand finale, and this trip to South Africa had a great one: two days at the Lion Sands Game Reserve, just next to Kruger National Park. The family-run camp has been a safe haven for the area’s wild animals for nearly 80 years, and was forced to undergo a massive renovation 10 years ago when a flash flood washed away the existing cabins. Using the disaster as an opportunity, the family recreated their camp as a luxury destination right on the Sabie River, and are still making improvements to the infrastructure.

Among those improvements is a recent commission of an extra plot of land across the river in Kruger, bringing the total acreage under the Reserve’s control to 22,000. Owner Rob More said that the team is still working out the logistics of bringing guests back and forth between the Reserve and the Park. For example, Range Rovers in Lion Sands are open for unobstructed views, but cars in Kruger must be covered. However, they expect to start expanding the trips soon.

Other improvements include rebuilt and renovated cabins (24 in total) in two connected sites: River Lodge and Ivory Lodge. When we arrived, our group was divided between the two areas (which are linked by a footbridge), and I was brought over to Room 15 at River Lodge, which completely reinvents the “little cabin in the woods” concept. Yes, the roof is thatched, and yes, there is mosquito netting around the bed, but there is also a gorgeous open-plan bathroom, an outdoor rain shower (and one indoor, just in case), huge sliding-glass doors with views of the river and the wilderness beyond, and a patio for sitting outside and enjoying it all. To help make a cabin in the middle of nowhere seem not quite so scary (at least to city gals like yours truly), the lodges also offer baskets filled with bug sprays, citronella face wipes, candles, matches and an emergency whistle. Animals can, and do, get close to the lodges (I got some great pictures of springboks and monkeys on the boardwalks), and the camp insists on escorting guests around outdoors after dark.

Room 15 at River Lodge

(It’s worth noting here that the lodges do not have TVs or Internet access. For those who need to feel connected to the rest of the world, both are available in the lounge areas of each group of cabins.)

I barely had a chance to unpack before I was off on my first game drive. Our tracker, Ranios, sat on a platform in the front of a Range Rover while our driver and ranger, Stanley, told us about the Reserve and the animals we could expect to see. After passing a family of giraffes, we continued searching for the legendary Big Five (lion, rhinoceros, elephant, leopard and water buffalo) as the sun went down. We noticed some vultures in a tree just off the road, and decided to see what they were watching. As we drove off-road, we saw broken branches and matted grass all around—the signs of a big fight, Stanley said. And suddenly the Range Rover’s headlights showed us how the fight ended: There was an enormous male lion, crunching noisily and very happily on the smelly remains of a water buffalo. It was maybe 15 feet away from us, and wasn’t bothered in the least by our presence (or the constant click of cameras).  We decided to name the lion Fluffy, and drove on to meet up with the rest of our party for cocktails in the savannah before returning to our lodges for dinner.

Lion at Lion Sands Game Reserve

Dinner was served al fresco in the main reception area by our dedicated butler Rodnick. The duck was delicious, and my companions devoured their soles, leaving just a handful of bones behind. Exhausted from the day, we went back to our cabins for the night.

At 5:30 a.m., we were roused by knocks on our doors to get us ready for the 6 a.m. sunrise drive. In quick order, we saw some rhinos napping, an elephant walking down one of the main roads of the Reserve and causing a great traffic jam (can you imagine calling in to work late because of an elephant in the road?) and a hippo wallowing in a waterhole. We also went back to the dead water buffalo to see the lions in the daylight, and they posed most graciously for us. (The water buffalo didn’t smell any better, though.)

Once the sun was up and making the rides just a little too warm for comfort, we went back to the lodges for spa treatments. Therapist Sthandiwe’s head, neck and shoulder massage did wonders for my tension, and the intimate treatment room is partially open to the elements, giving it a wonderfully natural feel.

Those of us in River Lodge were transferred over to Ivory Lodge, which offers a much more private-escape experience than River does. Each cabin is a suite, with the living room and bedroom separated by a patio with a plunge pool and a telescope for looking across the river. Guests in these rooms usually take their meals in the living rooms rather than in the main dining areas, so it’s ideal for honeymooners (or any other romantic getaway). A hutch in the living room wall lets the butlers bring anything to the guests without having to open the door—great for early-morning tea or coffee.

Just as I was exploring the cabin, I heard a commotion outside, and saw a family of elephants running around on the other side of the river. Logically, I knew the elephants wouldn't come my way and that I wasn't in any real danger...but it's hard to remember that when it feels like they're bellowing right in your ear (...from quite a few yards away, but still!).

We set out on our third drive (and my last, alas) and immediately spotted a water buffalo relaxing on the far side of the river. As we set off again, we heard on the radio that a leopard was walking down one of the roads, so we drove as fast as we could over the dirt roads to find him. We turned a corner and there he was…just walking down the street as calm as could be. And if you’re keeping count, that’s all of the Big Five: We saw lions, rhinos, an elephant, a water buffalo (two, if you count the dead one) and a leopard.

Leopard at Lion Sands Game Reserve

A word about the radios: The rangers stay in touch to let each other know where animals can be found for optimal viewing, but will take turns bringing their guests around so that it’s never a crowded experience. When leaving a spot, they will leave some sign—a broken branch, usually—in the roadway to let the next rangers where to turn to see the animal.

For dinner, we attended a special bonfire hosted by the owners of the camp at the 1933 Lodge (named for the year in which the Reserve was purchased and first organized)—a lovely send-off after an incredible stay, and an amazing two weeks (well, almost) in South Africa.