My visit to the Kambaku River Sands in the Greater Kruger National Park area of South Africa was a magical experience; baby elephants trundling alongside their giant mothers, male zebras braying for their girlfriends and a pride of lions not 10 meters from our open-air jeep.
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Looking back, however, I keep thinking about our second night safari ride. My wife and I had somehow lucked into seeing a leopard in broad daylight as we took the half-hour drive from Hopruit airport to the lodge at Kambaku, so we already had ticked that safari box. But this was different. It was dark, and this leopard was clearly on the hunt.
Our driver, J.J. Oosthuizen, and our guide, Renias Mathebula, had driven our jeep into a dry, shallow river valley and somehow spotted a leopard in a dark thicket of trees. It was maybe 30 meters away and was clearly on the prowl for dinner; walking casually but purposefully along the hillside.
“He’s looking for a rabbit,” J.J. told our six-member group.
He made a U-turn and rumbled slowly up a dirt track to reach the top of the small hill, where he parked.
“Look,” said Renias, who we called “Reni.”
Suddenly the leopard came sauntering out of the bush and headed towards our jeep. J.J.’s flashlight was trained above the leopard, enough so we could see his taut muscles and his twitching ears but not so much that it would get in the animal’s eyes.
The leopard couldn’t have cared less about us, I suppose because nobody in the jeep smelled remotely as good as fresh rabbit. He slowly made his way in the dark, creeping his way behind our vehicle. I thought he or she had taken off, but I looked down and suddenly there it was; not even a meter from my side of the jeep. I could’ve reached down and grabbed its tail if I had been so inclined. This did not seem like a wise decision, so I instead held my breath and prayed that the rabbit was making little bunny noises off in the bush somewhere and grabbing the leopard’s attention. I didn’t want him to be anyone’s dinner, but I was thinking a quick chase would at least keep the focus away from the potential human snacks in the jeep.
“Don’t worry,” Reni said quietly. “He doesn’t care about us.”
Our trip was put together by the folks at Goway Travel. The safari portion came as the glorious ending to our trip and had been preceded by wonderful visits to Cape Town and the village of Franschhoek in the Winelands district, which is only an hour from Cape Town.
We had three nights at Kambaku River Sands, a luxurious but not over-the-top lodge that’s part of the Timbavati Nature Reserve. Timbavati isn’t technically part of South Africa’s Kruger National Park but it’s adjacent to it, and there are no fences or other barriers between the reserve and the park. It’s a private reserve that I was told was owned by a few dozen individuals.
There also are no fences around the lodge, so it’s quite common to have animals of all kinds traipsing about. They’ve built a small watering hole near the lodge, so you’ll often see elephants, zebras, giraffe, water buffalo and other animals coming in for a drink. Elephants sometimes come up to the swimming pool and dip their trunks in the water, even when guests are sunning themselves or going for a dip.
You’ll find a dozen or so units in all, nicely spread out on a flat bit of ground. They’re all quite spacious and beautifully decorated, with a large bed surrounded by mosquito netting (not an issue when we were there, October being dry season in this part of South Africa), comfy chairs, a large deck, a kettle, a fridge that’s stocked with free water, soda and beer. The bathroom was larger than some hotel rooms I’ve stayed in, with a stand-alone tub, double sinks, a separate toilet room and a shower, plus a fabulous outdoor shower (in case you want to put on a show for the elephants).
I didn’t make it there, but they also have a gym and a spa with a sauna and steam rooms. They have a pavilion for weddings and other special events, and there’s also free Wi-Fi. Oh, and air conditioning in the rooms.
The routine is pretty much the same every day. Someone knocks on your door at 5 a.m. so you can get dressed and wander down to the lodge for a cup of coffee and a biscuit. Because many of the animals that folks want to see the most are nocturnal, including lions and leopards, you’re out the door and in the jeep by 5:30 a.m. so you can see the animals while they’re still active.
The morning safari goes on for roughly three and-a-half-hours, with 30 minutes taken out to enjoy more coffee, biscuits, fruit and muffins out in the wild. You’re back at the lodge by 9 a.m., and a full breakfast is served around 10, with eggs, cereal, bacon, yogurt, salads, made-to-order omelettes and more.
They serve an afternoon tea with snacks in the mid-afternoon to tide you over (think pizza, veggies and other light bites), and then it’s back out in the late afternoon for a few more hours in the cooler weather. You’re usually back at the lodge shortly after sunset, with a fine meal served in the open-air lodge around 8 p.m.
We had two dinners under cover at the lodge, and one of them outside near the watering hole, with bonfires at each end of the table and a wonderful view of the stars twinkling in the southern sky. As we were tucking into dessert, a group of elephants sauntered up to drink from the pool, which was very cool. Earlier, a black and white civet – kind of like an African raccoon but longer and more like a cat – slunk past our table.
There were usually three choices for dinner, including vegetarian options, and we had everything from duck to chicken to lovely steaks, along with great South African wines that are included in the price.
A Canadian couple who were on their honeymoon were treated to a private dinner one night in the wine cellar, which is quite cool and lovely.
The safaris were amazing. We saw baby elephants puffing up their shoulders and pretending they were tough teenagers defending their turf, as well as packs of zebras, hundr of antelope, hippos wallowing in muddy ponds, curious hyenas and towering giraffe silhouetted by an African moon at sunset.
We also spotted a large termite mound that had been taken over by a pack of hyenas. The adults didn’t give us a second thought but a pair of youngsters came up to our jeep several times to have a sniff before dashing back to safety.
J.J. gave us tons of interesting information at every turn.
“The hippos eat grass, grass and more grass,” he said. “They feed at night. Their skin is very sensitive so they spend their days submerged in the water.”
I ask if hippos are related to rhinos, but J.J. said whales are probably the closest relative to the hippo. Who knew?
Later we spot wildebeests rubbing up against a spiky tree.
“They have temporal glands in their face,” J.J. explains. “They rub their face on the tree to show they’ve been here.”
One morning an elephant gets fairly annoyed with our presence and stomps his feet as we approach.
“He’s just trying to impress his friends,” J.J. tell us. See? He’s backing away. And his tail is down. If he was angry his tail would be up.”
J.J. also likes to have some fun along the way. At one point he insists he can smell 14 types of animals from a distance before breaking down in a fit of laughter. Later he tells a young, impressionable visitor that one of the elephants we’re admiring is named Thumper “because he likes to kick the jeep.” The child’s eyes widen but J.J. quickly lets him in on the joke.
On a more serious note, he points out dozens of bird species as we roll along through the dry grass; eagles, hawks, electric blue, pink and purple lilac-breasted rollers; hands-down the most beautiful and exotic bird I’ve ever seen in the wild. He also talks about the rhinoceros we see. But it’s not a pleasant story.
“They are hunted and killed for their horns,” he tells us. “They’re ground up and turned into a powder and sold in various parts of the world as a medicinal product.
“It’s very sad.”
J.J. tell us conservationists sometimes tranquilize the rhinos and clip off part of their horns. It makes them look strange, and it reduces their ability to fight, but it doesn’t hurt them, and it means poachers are less likely to kill them.
One morning we’re near the lodge and spot a pack of wild dogs running down the road. J.J. and Reni are almost besides themselves.
“This is amazing,” J.J. tell us. “There are maybe 400 wild dogs in all of Kruger and there are 35 or 40 in this group. You’re so lucky to see this.”
By the end of our three days of safari trips, we had seen the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo) and at least 15 to 20 other species of land animals, not to mention countless varieties of birds.
“It’s everything I thought it would be, and more,” a fellow visiting from Philadelphia told me.
When it came time to say goodbye to J.J. and Reni, I was pretty choked up. I managed to pull myself together and leave without making a scene. But this is a trip I will never forget.