This uniquely South African, bush-themed airport in Nelspruit aptly suggests that the 'Big 5' roams freely here, immediately alerting my city-slicker senses. Disappointingly, it is only a lone rhino statue that welcomes us into the thatch-roofed structure. A rental car had been booked previously through Around About Cars, and within minutes we collect our luggage and continue the journey to Timbavati, a private game reserve bordering the Kruger National Park.
We arrive in the dark to the flickering lights of Kambaku Safari Lodge and are afforded an impressive insight into how this eco-friendly lodge, with 80 solar panels discreetly placed throughout the camp, is able to operate entirely off the grid.
Dave, our host, graciously guides us to our rooms and presents us with a torch, the only object we need to access these private chalets. My perplexed stare at this key chain with no key prompts him to casually answer the question written on my face, “Oh, none of the rooms have a key. It’s for safety.” While I tried to make the link between ‘no key’ and ‘safety’, he continued casually, “In case wild animals enter the camp, we can hightail it into the nearest room, but the camp is fenced and suitable for small children, so you should be fine.” Well, if the lack of cell-phone reception did not speak to the remoteness of our location, those words and the distant hum of an African drum calling us to the dinner table certainly did.
With the capacity for just 16 guests, intimate dinner settings are part and parcel of the experience and it is not long before we are introduced to a German family, an American couple, a British photographer, a New Zealand businessman, our local guide and tracker over a three-course feast prepared by the resident chefs. Dave’s passion for the bush emanates through the stories he shares so willingly and his incredible stills captured at the waterhole, a mere glance from our dinner table. The ambiance of this beautiful setting allows guests to relax in the company of people from different backgrounds, build friendships over common interests and learn about countries not yet visited. While the candlewicks burn deep into the night, an overwhelming sense of enrichment and gratitude fills me as I contemplate how fortunate I am to have met this diverse group of people sharing in our experiences over the next few days.
A gentle 5 a.m. knock on the door was enough to jolt me awake from a restful sleep, as the familiar rush of eagerness kick-starts my day. We meet briefly over some coffee and rusks before boarding our game-viewing vehicle for the day. Our experienced rangers methodically explain the usual safety guidelines, which I pay as little attention to as a frequent flyer would to the seatbelt instructions from an air hostess. As I am settling into my seat, something the game ranger says catches my attention, “Timbavati is a private game reserve and we will be going off-road for certain sightings.” This is not an ordinary trip to the bush – this is going to be something special.
The first fuzzy murmurings over the two-way radio lead us to a clan of playful hyenas enjoying the first rays of morning sunlight. This area is famously known as ‘white lion country’ and many tourists arrive eager to catch a glimpse of this rare cat. For us, it is a different cat that grabs our attention. Unperturbed by our presence, a juvenile leopard elegantly saunters through the bush and past our vehicle. In complete awe, we follow this master of disguise for some time on his morning stroll along the riverbed until, in a manner as gracious as his arrival, he vanishes in plain sight.
Not far from Kambaku Safari Lodge lies our next stop, Kambaku River Sands. Whilst their names suggest similarities, the two lodges are uniquely different in character. Most notably, Kambaku River Sands lies completely unfenced, and its boma and pool overlook a dry riverbed where guests can enjoy total relaxation. But be warned, it is not uncommon for a herd of thirsty elephants to send guests running as they dip their trunks into this chlorinated water source. This exquisite lodge is framed with wildlife photography captured by the owner, Bryce Landsman.These artworks alone paint a story of Bryce’s love for the bush and his phenomenal experiences as a ranger. It is not until a three-hour guided bush walk with him that we really get to understand his passion and appreciate his years of experience, as he shares little insights from the small treasures of the bush to survival techniques as the thundering sound of elephants on their walk towards the waterhole bypass our frozen silhouettes.