Johannesburg - A hand-written card has been left on the table in our room. It urges us to “pause, listen, smell, taste, feel and see” while staying at Singita Ebony Lodge in South Africa.
Whoever wrote the note could easily have added: learn.
Because for all the game drives, sumptuous late breakfasts, sundowners in the bush, brandies by the pool, massages in the spa, a safari is a crash-course in animal welfare, an on-the-job tutorial into the workings of nature.
At least that’s the case here in the Sabi Sand Reserve near the Mozambique border, where Singita has 18 000 acres of private land at its disposal.
Crucially, it’s where even the daftest of questions from the back of the Jeep are taken seriously. My ignorance knows no bounds, but our guide, Andries, and his spotter companion, Martin, never make you feel a dunce.
And I pick up a few nuggets along the way: impalas are born with 90 percent of their brains fully formed, giving them a sporting chance of surviving into adulthood; lions see in black and white (which must be infuriating for zebras); two-thirds of a termite mound is underground; giraffes have hearts the size of footballs; elephants flap their ears for ventilation.
But the most important thing I learn is that it’s brutal out there. It may be a bewitching landscape and wonderfully romantic as the sun rises and falls on the greatest show on earth — but it’s also one big battle for survival.
You can feel the tension everywhere. You spot it as the tails of the buffalo twirl furiously when danger lurks. You hear it as a female elephant hurriedly scrunches through scrub. You see it as the vultures perch on a naked branch ready to cash in on a kill.
The fear of death is omnipresent. Survival of the fittest is not an evolutionary theory but a day-to-day reality, where one small lapse in concentration, one misguided stop at a watering hole and you’re finished.
I can see why honeymooners are drawn to safaris. A few days in the bush sets you up nicely for a partnership in marriage. The habits of males and females are often at odds, but they need to get on. You have to be patient, too — and it’s soprimal that passion is never far away.
Singita’s story began in 1925 when a man called James Baines bought land in what would later become the Sabi Sand Reserve. It started as a hunting opportunity, but today it’s all about protecting the bush from outside forces. His grandson, Luke Baines, now runs lodges and camps across five African countries and is regarded as one of the great protectors of the wild.
He’s also practical. Realising that the reason poachers kill animals is to make money, he encouraged them to become game keepers instead, and it seems to have worked. Most of his 120 or so scouts are former poachers.
“The poachers quickly learned that if they started protecting the animals rather than killing them, then tourism would flourish and they could have jobs for the long term,” says Mr Baines. “The success has been remarkable.”
Certainly, his lodges are remarkable. Singita Ebony Lodge and nearby Singita Boulders have just been refurbished and must be two of the most stylish and yet authentic safari lodges in the world.
With their soaring thatched roofs held aloft by a combination of trees and wooden posts, the main lobby, bar and restaurant areas look out over a river and mile upon mile of bush beyond, as do almost all 12 suites in each lodge.
You get your own little pool, four-poster bed, outside shower, free-standing bath, a watercolour paint palette, fabulous food and drink (it’s all inclusive so you don’t have to sign for anything) and a licence to imagine you’re Robert Redford and Meryl Streep on the set of Out Of Africa.
On our first 6am game drive we come across a pride of 12 lions lounging by a watering hole occupied by a hippo.
Andries assures us that the lions are not hungry — which is comforting because by the time he turns off the engine we are a mere 10 yards from them. Occasionally one of the lions stands up and looks at us intently before flopping back down on the baked ground much in the same way as a dog might spread itself out by the fire at home.
We get up close and personal with rhinos, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, water hogs, antelope, eagles — and closer than I could ever have imagined to a leopard.
But not just any leopard. Andries remembers Nhlhbankunzi — as she has been named — as a cub and now she’s a mother herself, out looking for food for her charge. She’s regal and ravishing in equal measure, treating the rough terrainlike a catwalk, moving elegantly, seductively.
They say nothing prepares you for the moment you see your first lionor leopard in the wild — and they’re right.
* Red Savannah (redsavannah.com, 01242 787800).