The journey begins with a propeller-driven De Havilland, the body of the plane is narrow, just two seats on either side of the aisle. We’re making our way to Simbavati Game Lodge, situated within the Timbavati Private Game Reserve near the Kruger Park. The engines throttle into life, the plane takes off, the noise deafening, drowning out all conversation till we reach cruising altitude. I feel like I’ve gone back in time, to the 1940s. Of course, travelling in style like this beats the way I’ve previously travelled to the Kruger area: in a car, with padkos, toll roads, long stretches of tar and trucks and crazy drivers, and negotiations on which music we’ll listen to en route.
Instead, after an hour, our little plane lands at Eastgate Airport, which I’ve passed before on the way to other lodges in the area. I never gave it much thought until I read Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari and read of the central character in that crime thriller who, while pursuing the baddies through this very area, gets into and out of a lot of aeroplanes in this quaint bush-style airport. Fiction leads me into reality. And, I like this way of arriving, I decide.
A quick transfer and then we’re at the lodge. The sheer speed of the proceedings leaves me feeling dazzled – and yet the disorientation doesn’t last long. Relax, you’re in the bush now, was a sign we often passed when I used to visit friends’ bush farm in the North West, and as usual the bush’s sights and sounds soon weave a kind of somnolent magic. It’s hotter up here than in Jozi. The Nhlaralumi river winds its way past the lodge, and time seems to literally slow down as you accustom yourself to the rhythm of the bush, the heat, the slower more languorous pace of life.
We’re sharing a family-sized chalet, my friend and I, it’s a rondavel with two bedrooms, sleeping five, and a large bathroom. The balcony overlooks the river, and on the last morning we watch as monkeys clamber in the trees above us, and a family of warthog amble along: it’s my first sighting of a warthog from the front, and my first photo of that bristly face. Anyone who has ever spent time in the bush has enough pictures of warthogs running away, backsides to eager lenses, tails pointed stiffly forward.
But on this first afternoon, tailend of a busy week, we take tea, meet the people who we will share our game drive vehicle with and mealtimes for the two days. We bump through the dry bush, the bush looks tindery, dry, summer’s just arriving, and trees bend backward and forward, bark dried and looking twisted. One of our group has an iPad – and it’s a source of entertainment, amusement and wonder. He takes photos of a giraffe kill, lions surrounding the animal, munching contentedly. The photos look bright and larger than life compared to the comparatively tiny screens on our digital cameras. It’s early dusk and we’re watching as the lions feast, and he’s recording the scene, the silence filled with growls of contentment from the animals, the shuffles and movement of us in the vehicle. Later, we’ll watch the recording taken at the sighting; later still, we’ll flick through the photos stored on the iPad, family histories narrated, stories shared, as you do when you’re passing through. It begins with supper at the boma – and continues the next day. We skip the early morning game drive, but later we’re taken to see the other rooms in the lodge, as well as the tented accommodation. We learn as much from wandering around the lodge as we would on a game drive.
One of our companions is so bush mad and knowledgeable to boot. He asks us if we know why it’s a “dazzle” of zebra. When we shake our heads, he says the stripes are meant to “dazzle and confuse” us, or rather natural predators in the bush.
We learn more as we stop outside the tents and he points out the elephant dung, saying that the elephant was probably middle-aged. There are some large sticks in the dropping, not as finely chewed as if the elephant had been younger. Older elephants have huge, unchewed sticks and chunks in their droppings, as they can no longer chew as well, and eventually die of starvation, as we’ve heard before. I listen entranced as our new friend tells us that once a year he goes out into the bush with a group of friends, carrying everything they need, eating from the bush, going away for five days or so. Some unknown, hidden, unexpected part of me longs to do this as well – the desire towards self-sufficiency, being able to eat off the land, an unnameable almost ancient pull in our modern lives.
When we go out on a game drive that night, we return to the lion kill – the giraffe is now almost completely devoured and the lions lie, sated, stomachs swollen. In the distance hyenas wait, vultures are silhouetted in the trees as the sun sinks – they, too, are waiting their turn in this game of life.
We leave them to their slow, patient wait as we hear a leopard has been spotted at King’s Camp, another lodge. We race off, bumping wildly in our vehicle. It’s just about dark before we see the elusive leopard, slinking towards a drinking hole. But, it’s a brief sighting, perhaps spooked by the presence of our vehicle and another that has raced to the scene. It lopes off into the darkness. We return to the lodge. We eat supper on a raised deck this time, our nocturnal musings interrupted by the presence of hippos grunting past. Once more we revel in the sense of unreality – my mind flashes to a Saturday night spent at a busy restaurant somewhere in the suburbs, cars on tarmac and loud music the backdrop to conversation. How different it is here: conversation seems muted as we wait almost expectantly for another sighting.
Later that night, we sit on the balcony listening to a gaggle of noisy geese keeping themselves busy on the river.
Our conversation punctuated by other night and river noises we’ll probably never identify. We’re talking love and love affairs, torn romances, broken hearts, online dating; we’re talking about the pain of unrequited love, and we’re talking about our plans for the future as the year winds away. Somewhere, a clock strikes midnight, reminisces and confidences shared, we say goodnight.
The bush has worked its charms and magic once more.
If You Go...
The four-star Simbavati River Lodge welcomes families and children. There are three spacious chalets ideal for families. Two have two bedrooms and the third has three bedrooms. Each of the eight luxury tents has airconditioning. Children of all ages are welcome. However, only children aged six and older are allowed on game drives, unless the family books a private vehicle. Land Rovers can be arranged and are subject to availability at an additional R1 000 per game drive of 3 – 4 hours.
After breakfast, a ranger is available to take children for some bush activities. The lodge is currently planning on installing a spa. Although bush walks are not offered, these will also be offered in the future.
There are over 40 mammal species in the 53 392ha Timbavati lodge adjoining the Kruger Park. Timbavati is also home to the famous white lions.
Simbavati River Lodge Website: www.simbavati.com.
Reservations: 021 975 2820 - Sunday Independent