Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Falling in love with real leopard print

A leopard? Ha ha, fooled you, it's a cheetah!

There are times when Joburg is a Sodom-and-Gomorah city, when the daily smorgasbord of nastiness served up in the news illustrates the limitless depths that human depravity can sink to. Times when the Orc-ish neighbours wake you up with night after night with their doors slamming over and over, with their visitors, loud voices and saucepans crashing at 12.30am, 3am, 4am. When you do nothing but sit in traffic, sometimes for four hours as fights break out around you between frustrated motorists. You toss and turn, hoping for some respite from the ambulance and police sirens, the alarms, the dogs barking, the loud squinch-squinch house music that doesn't stop, the endless demands of work, cleaning and cooking and paying the bills. Every body cell screams for you to go back to the bush ...

There is a hunger and thirst for the bush bred in the bones of anyone who has grown up in Africa. I remember crossing the Zambezi River as a child and hearing the great steel bridge flick-flick-flick-flick past the windows of the car as we left Zambia en route to the Kruger Park. We drove with our windows wound tight in those days, in a sun-drenched car and no air-conditioning. What excitement when it was me who spotted the first animal of the trip: an enormous giraffe. We stayed in bush chalets in Skukuza Camp which had curtains with the animals which we had seen that day on them (some of those curtains are still there!). The wide open spaces, grass the colour of bone, the sharp acrid smells of territorial urine and dung, the taste of the dust, the sweat of the high midday sun, and the bush quiet.

So when CEO of THE THORNYBUSH COLLECTION Nic Griffin said to me at a party: "When are you coming to stay with us?" I couldn't wait to pack my safari bag. My second cousin once removed was coming out from Cologne and what could be a better opportunity for a long weekend break and to introduce the Cuz to the real Africa, with all the trappings of a five-star lodge? Nic organised a weekend for us at SIMBAMBILI GAME LODGE, two private suites with their own plunge pools and, wait for it, a daybed.

Five star luxury .., time to relax on the deck while the monkeys watch!

The drive down was pretty torrid as the heavens decided to open and poured liberally. I took the Dullstroom road, thinking it would be prettier but you couldn't see much through the rain-smeared windows. After lunch in the town which consisted of hot chocolate shots, followed by trout pie, like a seasoned Grand Prix driver I dodged potholes as big as an elephant's watering hole until we got past Lydenburg. And then like a fool I decided to go on to Ohlrigstad, thinking it would be quicker.

Past Hoedspruit, ten hours of driving and now it was dark. Trying to avoid drunken Saturday night revellers and speed bumps from hell at Acornhoek, we phoned the lodge to try and find our way as the signage was non-existent. Finally I found an incredibly corrugated dirt road and hurtled down it at high speed, praying my tyres would not burst, for what seemed like forever. By now I was having a minor meltdown and my city-locked neck was burning ... was this the wrong way? And no one was answering the phone!

Then the Gowrie Gate appeared in the darkness. In the Kruger Park at last we "hugged the fence" until the lodge appeared before us, all the lamps and candles lit in the driveway and entrance hall to welcome us in. The young couples who ran the place were waiting with glasses of port and a roaring fire as the rain mizzled down. We were finally at our destination ...

Port in a storm ... the lounge area.

We were shown to our rooms by our guide, Amos, who went ahead with his torch flicking through the dark and along the pathway. The water buffalo found the grass at chalet no 3 the sweetest in the world, we were told, and a leopard sometimes passed through the camp like a shadow. Then he stopped and told us to listen. "Lion," he said, with the faintest smile. The roaring was coming from ten kilometres away - not enough time to come into our camp and eat us before dinner, even though there were no fences. The males were moving to the next camp, we found out in the morning.

The big boys ... Mapogo lions at Simbambili.

The lodge is renowned for being one of the most romantic spots in the Kruger and did not disappoint. My room had a mosquito net pulled around the bed, gauzily tied on bamboo canes hung from the ceiling, which was lit softly from within by two bedside lamps. Outside the plunge pool was lit and beckoned seductively. The bath was enormous and stone, with a big saucer of crystal bath salts. I decided never to leave my room again, but I was starving after the long drive so Cuz and I decided to drop our bags in our respective rooms and brave the pathway back.

Supper was glorious: kudu served up by Nico the butler for Cuz (who had struggled with a rather tough meal of gemsbok the night before at the Intercontinental Hotel at OR Tambo) and a lamb curry served in a poppadum with sambals for me. Cuz had a chat at the fire with a couple from Dusseldorf (who knew there was a rivalry between Dusseldorf and Cologne that rivals that between Cape Town and Joburg? It's so bad that there are no signs for Dusseldorf from Cologne!) but it was time for my head to hit the pillow. Why is it that pillows at a five-star lodge are always plumper and enticing and the linen whiter and crisper than anything you could ever buy? And the mattresses softer and more sleep-enducing? Especially after a long hot soak in a never-ending bath tub.

Only one problem ... "We'll knock on your door at 5.30am for a game drive," said Karen who was manning the reception desk. Oh no, you won't! Cuz went off early in the morning with the Dusseldorfers but I died until 8 the next morning when I found it very difficult to get out of bed. After finding out that the doors to the bedroom and bathroom folded up completely, opening up the whole space to the heavenly smelling air, I staggered off in a big fluffy robe to my daybed, overlooking a dried-up river, where I devoured all the peanut brittle, dried mango and other snacks on my tea tray, plus two cups of hot chocolate, and lolled around like the Queen of Sheba waiting for the monkeys to come and try to steal my sunglasses, as I had been warned they would do. Perhaps they were watching me quizzically from the trees waiting for me to snooze off again.

Closing my eyes I succumbed to the absolute quiet. Not quiet really, but completely different sounds from those in the city. The sounds layered one over another and I tried to distinguish each one. They all seemed so far away. The fan whirring in the room, a little fountain playing at the next-door spa, the staff going about their business in the distance with armfuls of linen, the sound of the wind in the trees and a fine rain falling, a door shutting and, best of all, all the different birds singing liquidly, their tunes overlapping like a fine choir. Something barked in the trees down below.

It was hard to leave but time to go for breakfast, wielding a snazzy Burberry umbrella against the mizzly rain. A little duiker was grazing near the main lodge, as tame as can be. No sign of the water buffalo, although one guest said he looked out of his window at 4am and saw one right outside the chalet.

En route to chalet number 3 ... a water buffalo.

In the breakfast room the staff shivered dramatically, saying it had been 45 degrees a week ago. Twenty degrees seemed cold for them. Everyone was back from their game drive and boasted of the leopard they had seen, courtesy of Grant the ranger and Mumps the tracker. The foreigners, who consisted of a jolly couple from New Zealand, a quieter duo from the UK, and the Dusseldorfers, seemed disappointed that there were no lion, but for a southern African the thought of leopard was excitement beyond measure. And I was in for a treat. The SABIE SANDS GAME RESERVE, where Simbambili is situated, is home to the world's biggest leopard population. Leopard are my favourite animal, and up till now something I had only glimpsed in half-shade or in a tree on a night drive. It is a combination of their gorgeous markings, their exquisite elegant shape, the white tuft on their tails which they carry always erect like a weapon, their silence and stealth, their grace and endangered status. How could anyone kill such a beautiful animal for sport or even wear its fur?

Breathtaking ... a leopard in repose.

After lunch overlooking a well visited waterhole...

Wallowing at the waterhole ... water buffalo heaven.

... and a wonderful neck massage at the spa it was time to see the leopards for myself. We were given green blankies with rain ponchos to match, and after a few hours on the trail looked very much like a bunch of lappet-faced vultures huddled bedraggled in the game drive vehicle. But we did see leopards, three of them, one after another, walking openly in the road, looking as at home in the attention as Mandela at a state banquet, but flinching a little at the constant flashlights.

Our first was an 18-year-old female, a Grizabella of the leopard world who had lost one eye and sustained various injuries over the years. Still beautiful with her one milky eye she stared in bored fashion at the game drive vehicles which pulled up for a better look. One vehicle bumped over the horizon with each inhabitant wielding an enormous camera with an even more enormous zoom lens and flashes going off like the Oscars. The scene was material for a cartoonist's pen. They were a photographic club who went off to various lodges every month and took piccies of wildlife. This was hitting the jackpot, even for them.

Not another photoshoot ... such a bore, all these cameras going off all the time!

After we went off road onto a dried-up river bed, thorn tree branches whipping at our eyes, hooking our ponchos and making us lie flat on our seats, our tracker Mumps found fresh paw prints in the dust (how do trackers do that?) and told us he was off to find the next leopard, armed with a slingshot. Before we knew it he had disappeared into the thick bush while Grant swung the vehicle round and went round back on to the road (all the roads have names, you could find it with your GPS system). I was terrified. "Oh he's completely mad," shrugged Grant who was explaining all the dead-looking trees to us. They were called leadwood trees and were kinda tough as they just refused to keel over, or let the termites eat them. Fortunately we picked Mumps up again safe and sound after ten minutes and we saw our second leopard, a young male with much paler markings this time.

Leopard number three was not far behind and we followed him for a short distance, trying to get the foreigners not to stand up in their seats (leopards recognise the "man shape", but see the game drive vehicle as one big animal. Who knows what they could do, they are so beautiful and deadly). I asked Grant if there were hyenas around and they said yes, they were always around and were his favourite animal. Not mine though, and the sworn enemies of leopards. A case of the ugly and the horrible threatening the beautiful and special. Happens in the human world, too.

Lapping up the attention ... leopard number three.

The hippos were yawning pinkly in the river bed, one enormous male with a bum like a Putco bus, as the rain made ripples in the water. The waterbuck huddled under a tree, their distinctive markings on their rear "looking like a toilet seat", said the Kiwis and the Poms. We saw elephants moving through the bush, their trunks snapping at branches. Time for sundowners, and more snacks, biltong and nuts with liberal gin and tonics (did they pour me a triple by any chance?). It was getting dark and Mumps had disappeared again. For a wee break, this time. We set off for the lodge, a hot bath and dinner (a three-course meal of soup, fish and fresh fruit, that wonderful Lowveld pawpaw) followed by another heavenly, Orc-less sleep.

I thought of how my grandparents lived and how the things which were necessities in the bush have become part of luxurious bush life. The hurricane lamps, the mosquito nets, the open verandahs, the sundowners, the rifle in the vehicle, the anti-malaria tablets, the little cool breezes at night ...and was glad that modern living has improved the human lot while allowing us to still enjoy Africa.

Bye bye baby ... see you next time.


allisonsmith said...

Where's the photos Sarah? Sounds wonderful and a must visit place

Kittie Howard said...

Ohhh, Sarah, but you made me wanna get outta this place...hub and I stayed at a friend's place at Sabie some years ago. I'd dropped him at Nelspruit for a flight and had to return to Sabie but misjudged the distance was approaching the gate when I had to stop for a herd of Cape buffalo. The gatekeeper kept pointing at his watch, for if I weren't in for 6:00, I was out of luck...somehow I managed thru the herd and got to the gate just in time. Ohhhhh but I long for those days. And interesting about the Germans' feud. LOVED this post!!!