An American, Canadian, Kuwaiti and three South Africans speak in hushed tones as the sun sets over the African bush…
We were on a safari in the Kruger National Park and with every minute of the setting sun, the temperature seemed to drop by at least half a degree. We pulled our blankets tighter around our shoulders as we drove through the bush, eyes straining to find a pair of ears or a swishing tail between the shades of gold and brown.
Driving slowly along the dirt roads that curve through the bush, we collectively held our breath in the hope that we might spot a leopard or a lion padding through the long grasses. Out there, the days are brutally hot, peaking at 32 degrees in the dead of winter, but as the sun starts to set, the cold quickly creeps into every available opening; down the back of your neck and around your ankles, gripping the tip of your nose and freezing your fingers.
The light fades quickly and in the last few minutes of twilight, when the day is lost but the night has not yet blanketed the bush in darkness, you lose a lot of depth perception and spotting animals between the trees becomes so unlikely that the best thing to do is to stop for a sundowner and enjoy the orange and pink brush strokes painted across the African sky.
It was our first night at nThambo Tree Camp, a luxury game lodge (part of Africa On Foot) which forms part of the Kruger National Park. We’d spent the previous evening at Nyala Logde, a self catering lodge some twenty kilometers away, just outside of Hoedspruit. Here, we had our first taste of evening game viewing followed by a good old fashioned traditional South African Braai.
The first thing I noticed and appreciated about the bush lodges around the Kruger is the hospitality. We arrived to ice cold welcome drinks and broad smiles at both Nyala and nThambo and I found that the game rangers who took us out into the bush were endlessly patient, answering the hundreds of questions we threw their way (mine were mostly very embarrassing, considering I am a South African) and stopping for pictures, never rushing us, always indulging our excitement at a sighting.
Lizzy welcomes us to Nyala Lodge
The accommodation at Nyala Lodge is comfortable and affordable, with six double-sleeper rondavels, a big communal kitchen, outdoor braai and dining area and a comfortable outdoor lounge. It reminds me of my grandpa’s old farm house, a place where families congregate and talk late into the night. Where dads make fire and moms make braai broodjies and kids don’t help because they are playing games. Actual games, not computer or console games.
Rodavel at Nyala Lodge
The outdoor braai area at Nyala Lodge
On our safari on that first night we saw giraffe, beautifully silhouetted against a sky of bright orange and luminous pink. Our guide, Gideon, was fantastic and we really enjoyed his company and obvious love for and knowledge of the environment. Later, we came across a herd of over 340 buffalo, kicking dust up into the air as they made their slow and steady way through the bush. The sheer size of these animals is staggering, and being right in their midst is more powerful than I, a self-confessed city slicker and beach bum could ever have imagined. At that point we could not have known how much more was to come.
Our ranger at Nyala Lodge, Gideon
On arrival at nThambo Tree Camp the next day we were greeted by 31 degrees of dry heat and a wide, open smile from the lodge manager, Yolandi. The beautiful camp's communal area is built open plan, showcasing the environment and creating the feeling of being part of the nature surrounding you. The wooden structures and eco-friendly operating systems blend into the natural surroundings and are light on the environment.
nThambo Tree Camp
There is a lounge area with big, comfortable couches and a well stocked bar. A beautiful pool deck with luxurious recliners and white umbrellas where you can relax with a book and drink. The animals often wonder into the camp and we spotted a couple of giraffe nibbling the treetops just a few meters away over the weekend.
Our rooms were stunning – luxurious, plush beds in large wooden huts, built on stilts to elevate you between the trees, offering a sprawling view of the bush, as far as the eye can see. From the bed, you have an open view, with three sides enclosed while the and deck has roll-up canvas that ensures you feel like you're part of nature's furniture. With the mild weather I kept my canvas open for almost the entire weekend.
The view from my bed at nThambo Tree Camp
As soon as we were settled in, lunch was served in the communal dining area. Five huts means a maximum of ten guests, who dine together at a long table. This creates an atmosphere of friendly intimacy and in no time were talking and laughing as if we weren’t a bunch of strangers from several different parts of the world.
That evening we were taken on a game drive in an open top Land Rover with Kevin, young game ranger and the sweetest host you’ll ever meet.
In the warm air of the late afternoon we spotted several varieties of buck (I’m not very good with naming the antelope species), three magnificent elephants who allowed us to get right up close, a dazzle of zebra and a journey of giraffe. We were also very lucky to come across a cackle of hyena, who were happily feeding on the carcass of a buffalo. (As you can tell, I just recently learnt the collectives for these groups of animals and I am using them liberally, as often as possible)
Our evening was spent around a fire, drinking beer, discussing American politics, information science and security, and my favourite subject; conspiracy theories. We ate together again at the long table and by 10pm we were all ready for bed. A 5,30am wake up awaited.
The sun rises earlier in the bush than down here at the coast and by the time we had rubbed the sleep from our eyes and groggily sipped our coffee, the sky was turning from midnight blue to a dusty pink. We huddled up on the Landy and kept our eyes peeled for animals as we drove into the bush once more.
Once again there were loads of buck and a variety birds which, judging by our new American friend’s excitement, were very special indeed. We stopped once more for coffee and not long into the drive we came across three huge rhinos (a crash of rhino, if you must know). These enormous army tanks of the bush are intimidating even from the safety of a big vehicle and the daily publicizing of the terrible poaching truly hit home for me as we sat in their presence. It was a very sad and depressing reality to think that this might have been the last time I will get to see one of these beautiful creatures.
Now officially friends, we once again ate together with the other guests at the long table before slipping on our walking shoes for a viewing of a different kind. nThambo offers daily walking tours with one of their experienced and capable guides and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Not only is it really exciting to be walking through an area where a rhino or even a lion could potentially be in your midst, but it’s also really interesting. Our guide Isaak knew basically everything there was to know about the bush and he stopped regularly to point out a track (which I would have stepped right over, assuming it was nothing at all) or a bird or a tree that was of particular interest.
He also shared all kinds of traditional African remedies with us, which I found incredibly interesting. For instance, did you know that a huge ball of elephant dung can be used to make a tea which can help induce labour? Or that a tea made from the bark of a marula tea will guarantee the conception of a boy child? Use it, don’t use it…
That evening we waited patiently at a watering hole after being alerted that a herd of buffalo were making their way in that direction. After what felt like ages, we finally saw a few of these giants slowly amble down to the water’s edge. I couldn’t decide if I was or wasn’t hoping for a National Geographic-esque lion attack, but in the end I didn’t need to worry because the poor beasts got to drink in peace.
We sat in silence, watching them gulp down liters and liters of water after the hot day. When the time came to return to the camp, we decided to drive through what we thought would be a couple of hundred buffalo. We were met with hundreds upon hundreds of them, shuffling out of the way just meters from the LandRover as we slowly rolled through their midst. I looked into their eyes and I wish I could say I saw my future or the past but all I saw were their eyes. And to be honest, that was magical enough.
Our last night at nThambo was bittersweet as we braaied and chatted and ate together for the final time. After spending hours and hours and a good few meals together we had become like a little unit and I was sad to say goodnight to my new friends.
The wind howled that night and I had a restless sleep. When the time came to be woken up I opted to stay in bed as the others went on their final game drive. I’ll probably regret this decision for the rest of my life. Not only because they ended up seeing two cheetah that morning, but because I don’t know when next I’ll get to escape the city for a while and lose myself in the heart of the bush. I hope it's sooner rather than later.
As South African's we are so lucky to have all this beauty in our own back yards. People travel from all over the world to spend time in our bush and we sometimes take for granted all that we have to be grateful for. There's nothing like some quality time in nature to remind you that regardless of politics and economy, we really do live in the most beautiful place in the world.
Visit nThambo's website for information on rates and bookings. The Africa On Foot Facebook page is updated regularly with information on sightings and pictures and videos of goings on at the reserve.