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Why a safari is the ultimate holiday for people who love surprises.

Our guide, Ryan de Beer, loves surprises. As we travel along the bumpy dirt track in our open-top safari vehicle, he asks us to close our eyes. We obediently do as we are instructed. After what feels like several minutes the engine comes to a stop.

“OK, you can open them now,” de Beer says.

As I do so, my mouth drops in awe. We are parked in the middle of a large, open field, amid a panoramic landscape of dozens of grazing zebras and buffalos. We sit and watch them silently for a while, before relocating to a nearby waterhole where the animals come to drink, flicking their tails and ears to shoo flies away.

"I love the sense of anticipation that comes with being on a safari; you never know what to expect next." Image supplied.

I love the sense of anticipation that comes with being on a safari; you never know what to expect next. Each morning and afternoon we set out from Earth Lodge in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve with de Beer and our Shangaan tracker Candy Hlatswayo, who sits in a seat at the front of the specially-modified vehicle.

Hlatswayo comes from a nearby village, as most of the lodge’s staff do, and uses knowledge passed down from generation to generation to help us see the ‘big five’ animals tourists want to tick off their list: buffalo, elephant, lion, rhinoceros and leopard.

Sabi Sabi is a privately-owned 6,500ha reserve within Sabi Sands Game Reserve neighbouring Kruger National Park, which is the largest and most famous park in South Africa. When the fence between them was removed in 1993, it created a two million-hectare reserve in which animals can roam freely.

south african safari
An elephant spotted on safari. Image supplied.
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Unlike a public reserve there are never more than three vehicles allowed around an animal, and no more than two around large animals. You can also drive off road to get closer to them.

De Beer appears just as excited as we are during some of encounters. One morning, we get close enough to a pride of lions to hear them snore. We return that afternoon to find them feasting on a buffalo - one of three they had caught that day.

“You could drive right over a lion, they’re so relaxed around us,” De Beer says.

He explains the hierarchy – the dominant male eats first, then the female, followed by cubs. They growl at each other as they come to take their turn.

On another game drive we see a bachelor herd of three bull elephants up to four metres tall eating tree branches. This area is also considered to be one of the best places in Africa to spot leopards.

“There’s no place on this property that I haven’t seen a leopard,” De Beer says. “It’s almost like you can shake a tree and a leopard falls out.”

south african safari
Sabi Sabi is a privately-owned 6,500ha reserve within Sabi Sands Game Reserve neighbouring Kruger National Park. Image supplied.
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At dusk, we come across one lying across a tree branch eating a warthog he’d caught and dragged up to prevent other predators cashing in. A hyena, a notorious scavenger, hovers below, waiting to pick up scraps.

Another highlight is seeing rare wild dogs, formerly known as painted wolves, including puppies, carrying and playing with the carcass of a small antelope. They scamper under our stationary vehicle. Impala, waterbuck and wildebeest are also abundant. We come discover a rhino drinking and a hippo blowing bubbles out of his nose as he bathes at Tzendzuka (Rememberance) Dam, which was named in honour of one of Sabi Sabi’s owners’ three sons, who was killed in a car accident in Johannesburg when he was a child. Two buffalo trees overlooking the dam are said to protect the spirit of the deceased.

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The plunge pool. Image supplied.

There are 40 lodges within Sabi Sands, including Richard Branson’s Ulusaba. Sabi Sabi is owned by investment banker Hilton Loon and his wife Jacqui, an artist and interior designer whose influences can be seen throughout the property’s four lodges, which are inspired by the theme yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Overlooking a waterhole to enable guests to enjoy an ‘armchair safari’ from the deck, the romantic Selati Camp is filled with Out of Africa charm. Its walls are decorated with historic black and white photos and guest rooms have four poster beds with mosquito nets. The intimate Little Bush Camp has just six thatched-roof suites tucked along a river, with elements of traditional African and contemporary art.

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The family-friendly Bush Lodge also overlooks a waterhole and has a sleek, contemporary design with influences from across the continent, inspired by the owners’ travels. Children can learn about bush craft, nature and recycling at its colourful EleFun Centre.

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We stay at the futuristic Earth Lodge, which is one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World. Before eco-tourism was a thing, the Loons wanted to build a luxury lodge that was environmentally sensitive and blended in with the landscape. It is built into the side of a hill, and lions have been known to walk on the roof, while elephants sometimes drink from the lap pools in front of suites (something I keep in mind while I am partaking in the outdoor shower).

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The guide Ryan de Beer and some lions snoozing. Image supplied.

The lodge’s design was inspired by the earth shelter architecture of the Middle Ages and is a celebration of the minerals within the ground - copper, gold, silver, platinum and bronze. Made with mud, grass, river sand and concrete, its colour changes depending on the light at different times of day. Interiors are decorated with animal skin rugs, chandeliers made of tree branches and furniture and art transformed from wood rescued from a flood.

But the thing that Sabi Sabi really deserves recognition for is its conservation efforts. A rhino is killed for its horns every eight hours in Africa; an elephant every 27 minutes. Poachers have been known to pose as guests and geolocate rhinos, so we are asked to put our phones on airplane mode before game drives. Sabi Sabi also has a military-style anti-poaching unit, including a helicopter, which is partly funded by guests.

It’s only through such initiatives that the big five will be around for future generations to see.

Have you ever been on a safari? What was the most enjoyable aspect of it?

Angela Saurine was a guest of Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve.

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