A breeze ruffles a sea of long golden thatch grass on the side of the dirt road. The grass dips and bows in waves, a formal dance welcoming us to Safari Plains somewhere in the Mabula Game Reserve. And at the lodge, light puffs of air rustle the winter dry red leaves of the bushwillow trees whispering a soft hello and welcome back to the African bush.
Throughout the long months of the South African lockdown travel restrictions, I dreamed of the day when we could escape the confines of our lockdown city nest for the wide-open plains of the African bush.
So, when the travel restrictions eased up, I planned and booked a five-star luxury safari escape for the two of us. I know, safari packages aren’t our usual style. But after being cooped up for months, all I want is the pleasure of a lazy, carefree trip where everything is laid on for me, and I don’t have to lift a finger. I want to wake up in the morning and roll out of a comfortable bed into a game drive vehicle and roll out later to a beautifully presented meal on a repeat cycle.
Safari Plains in a time of Corona
Nature’s gentle welcome is matched by the smiling eyes of the Safari Plains staff lined up outside the lodge to greet us. At least, I think they are smiling. I find it hard to judge people’s expressions behind their masks.
This strange time of corona has meant changes in the way that we do things. Before we can check-in, there are Covid-19 protocols to be observed. It is a necessary process to protect both the guests and staff, and I’m grateful for it. But it can be quite comical.
In the past, we would have been met at a five-star lodge like Safari Plains with a welcoming cold drink on check-in, now we are met with cold hand sanitiser.
Then an awkward yet comical social distance dance of who unpacks the car begins with the porters. The correct etiquette is not entirely clear yet, should it be the porters or us?
Once that’s cleared up, there’s a health questionnaire to fill in. But again, there is another etiquette, this time it’s around the pen. Whose pen do you use, theirs? Or did you remember to bring your own?
And then, another temperature check, the first one was at the gates. After which the lodge manager explains when and where we are expected to wear our masks. And only then, is he able to check us in.
Secluded Glamping in the African Bush
After a delicious lunch and a cold beer around the lodge pool, we stroll down a short pathway in search of our home for the next couple of days.
Dotted along pathways leading away from the main lodge are twenty luxury safari-style tents. Each tent is cunningly situated, surrounded by thorn trees and long thatch grass, creating a sense of seclusion deep in the African bush.
And in front of our tent, a private wooden deck with a swing seat invites us to while away the time between game drives with a cold drink and a good book. It’s perfect!
We accept the invitation and bask lizard-like soaking up the warm midday winter sun savouring the quiet pleasure of being back in nature.
A tranquil bliss seeps into our bodies. We’re very tempted to skip the afternoon game drive and watch the sunset from our deck, but that isn’t why we came here. We rouse ourselves, grabbing our jackets and beanies to ward of the evening chill later and head off for afternoon tea and the drive.
The idea behind afternoon tea is for guests to mingle and get to know each other a little before setting off on a game drive together. But we are all so conscious of social distancing that we spread out across the lawns. It’s impossible to speak to anyone without shouting. Can you imagine trying to introduce yourself to a stranger by yelling, ‘Hi, I’m Jen’ across the garden?
And of course, social distancing must also be maintained on the game viewing vehicle which works to our advantage; there are only six of us on our afternoon drive.
Before we set off though, there is a discussion about whether or not we should wear our masks. Our safari guide, Tiaan says it is our decision, he, however, is obliged to wear his mask at all times. It’s a no brainer for the rest of us; the masks are coming off. After all, we are not in an enclosed space.
Magical Safari Bush Moments
The sun has set on a perfect safari game drive full of encounters with creatures great and small, and it is time to return to the lodge. But before we do, Tiaan turns the engine off.
We sit in quiet contemplation as the brief African twilight fades. Listening to the sounds of the bush change from day to night. A guineafowl bids the sun a final squawking good night. It’s a signal to the nightshift to take over. Moments later, a nightjar answers with a distinctive melancholy warble that sounds like ‘lord deliver us.’
Suddenly there is a heart-stopping sound of dry thorn bushes breaking as something rather large, or many large somethings move rapidly through the thick vegetation. Tiaan tells us it is the resident herd of elephant. Peering through the twilight gloom, we can make out the shaking branch of a tree that breaks with a startlingly loud crack!
And then, one by one, five enormous grey shapes emerge out of the gloom onto the narrow dirt track in front of us. Each one pauses, raising their trunks in our direction for a cursory sniff. Deciding that we are not worthy of any further attention, they form a tight circle in the middle of the road, all facing inwards.
A soft resonant rumbling sound comes from the group. It’s indistinct. A sound felt more than heard. I’m convinced that they are having a family meeting. It is a magical yet intrusively intimate moment of elephant family life that we seldom get to witness.
Tiaan releases the handbrake and we quietly roll backwards before he starts the engine again.
There’s a Crocodile in My Bed
My dream of rolling out of the game vehicle to a beautifully presented meal works out perfectly. Actually, I might have put too much emphasis on the word ‘roll’!
We return to a scrumptious dinner. The Safari Plains chef and kitchen staff are determined to fatten us up and send us home at least five kilogrammes heavier. Each meal is a three or four-course delight of beautifully presented tempting dishes.
After dinner, we stroll, well, to be honest, we roll along a well-lit pathway only to find our tent, the last one on the path sitting in total darkness. Have you ever tried to find a light switch in a tent in the dark? It’s not fun! After many stubbed toes accompanied by the appropriate expletives, we eventually find a light switch.
And there he is, a crocodile chilling in the middle of our bed! You know how some hotels build swans out of towels? Well, our swan is a charming towel crocodile. He has green leaves for eyes and a small green branch in his mouth. Under one foot there is a smiley-faced note asking us to feed him.
I’m not really a fan of crocodiles, but this charming fellow steals my heart. So much so that I haven’t got the heart to break him up to climb into bed. Together we gently ease him off the bed doing our best to keep him intact.
Game Drives, Tasty Meals, Naps on a Repeat Cycle
Over the next couple of days when the chef’s tasty meals are not fattening us up, we are out on a game drive safari with Tiaan. We suspect he might be taking us out for longer than he should be and hope that he didn’t get into trouble. It’s the polar opposite of our guiding experience at Black Leopard Mountain Lodge.
By the time that the dawn light creeps over the landscape, we are already out exploring the reserve returning hours later for a late breakfast and a siesta on our deck. By mid-afternoon, we are out again returning after dark once the last of the twilight has faded.
We encounter many creatures, great and small, that call this small piece of Africa, home. From the teasing lilac-breasted roller that won’t stay still for a photograph. To lazy lions who can barely move after a feast of zebra. To a young giraffe playing hide and seek around a thorn bush with its mom. And a frisky baby rhino inherently suspicious of our presence while mom grazes unconcerned nearby.
Safari Plains is exactly what I dreamed it would be. And all too soon it’s time to leave but not before a last morning game drive.
Morning Coffee With a Side Order of Cheetahs
Steam rises off my coffee cup warming my chilly face. I lean against the front of the safari vehicle peering through the steam at zebra and wildebeest grazing the winter grass on the plains in front of us. A warthog family roots under a nearby tree. And in the distance two rhino rocks move off into the thick bush. It’s blissful.
And then, about 100 meters away, a cheetah steps out of the bush. He notices us and pauses with one paw in the air…
We (the cheetah, our guide and the two of us), gaze at each other spellbound not daring to move or breathe. After a moment or two, the cheetah decides we are not worthy of any further contemplation and casually saunters out onto the plain… and another cheetah follows him.
The first cheetah spots the herd of zebra and wildebeest, he pauses, watches them with laser-like intensity. Then he enters stealth mode, slinking through the short grass towards the herd.
But behind him, a warthog has left the family clan, with his radio antennae tail held high he trots jauntily towards the cheetah. We wonder if warthogs are short-sighted because this fellow is heading into the jaws of doom.
And the Winner is…
The cheetah is so focussed on his hunt, he only notices the warthog when he’s quite close. With a fearsome snarl, the cheetah turns on the warthog as we expected. But something makes him change his mind, and he turns tail with the warthog in hot pursuit.
Despite the cheetah’s speed and agility, the warthog stays on him. Every time the warthog gets close enough, he throws his head in an attempt to gouge the cheetah’s rump with his fearsome tusks. There are a couple of narrow misses. Eventually, with a burst of speed, the cheetah gives up and disappears back into the thick bush.
Meanwhile, the rest of the warthog clan have ganged up on the other cheetah. He too retreats back into the bush, while the warthog family head back to their tree looking very proud of themselves.
And, before you ask, I suck at this wildlife photography thing. I was so caught up in this astonishing sequence of events playing out in front of us; I forgot to raise my camera even though it was in my hands the whole time.
After months of lockdown in the city watching moments like this play out in the Africa bush is a rare treat and of course the luck of being in the right place at the right time.
We leave Safari Plains with beautiful memories of special moments in the bush and a few kilos heavier. Refreshed and revitalised by the splendour of the African bush we return to our lockdown city nest where sadly my morning coffee comes without a side helping of cheetah or warthog.
Safari Plains Good to Know:
Safari Plains is in the Mabula Game Reserve near Bela-Bela. It is a two-hour drive north of Johannesburg.
Guests receive a five-star safari glamping experience in secluded luxury safari-style tents away from the main lodge. It’s a short stroll to the lodge where the dining room, bar and pool area look out over a small waterhole.
Included in the stay is two game drives a day with knowledgeable guides and breaks for bush morning coffees and afternoon sundowners.
DISCLOSURE: I have no commercial relationship with Booking.com and Safari Plains or any of their affiliates. All photographs, experiences and opinions expressed in this blog post are my own.
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