Safari tracks the big beasts in style

South Africa: Sitting next to Kruger National Park, a private camp shows adventurous tourists the good life in the bush.

Destination: Africa

September 26, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite, | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SABI SABI, South Africa -- A silent, moonlit night in the African bush. Out of the gloom, vague shapes emerge: lions.

They are in a V-formation: intent, looking for their next meal. It is the end of winter, hard times out here. They are lean, not to say skeletal, inasmuch as you can see their ribs. Hungry, certainly.

They follow the lead of the dominant female. One by one, they settle down for a moment, then get up, advance, settle down. It is the rhythm of remorselessness. They are stalking. But what?

It is impossible to see them all in the gloom. One is simply aware of moving shapes. Binoculars afford a closer glimpse: fierce, focused eyes, a deadly game plan of follow-my-leader. There is no prey in sight, but the movements are orchestrated, disciplined. You wouldn't want to be the center of their attention.

The ranger has told us that the only predictable thing about wild animals is their unpredictability. It somewhat undermines her assurance that we are in no danger, seated in a 4x4, which the lions identify as neither threat nor food.

One by one, the pride of 17 pass within yards, sometimes feet. Perhaps it is the fervid imagination of the timid, but one would swear some are only inches away. Not a sound is to be heard -- from us, at least.

This is safari.

There are many ways to go on safari. The cheapest is to camp in your own tent in fenced areas, and sally forth into the wild in your own vehicle. A camping site can cost as little as $15 a night, and South Africa has as many well organized camp sites as leopards have spots.

You can hire a self-catering tent or cabin, and drive yourself around the national parks that boast the Big Five -- elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard and buffalo -- taking pot luck on seeing what you may from the road. This will cost you anywhere from $30 to $60 per person per night.

There are also lodges, which charge around $100 a night, with meals included. Or you can take the luxury trail.

No barriers to the wild

Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve is at the top end of the scale, and Selati is the best of the three camps it has to offer to guests, who can also choose River Lodge or Bush Lodge, the largest.

Selati is part of Sabi Sands, the teeming terrain that is home to a handful of exclusive reserves abutting Kruger National Park. There is no fence between the park and the reserves, but the financial barrier is high.

Accommodation at Kruger is in the middle price range. Selati is unabashedly expensive.

In high season -- the October to May summer here, when most foreign tourists visit -- Selati will cost you $400 per person per night sharing. But in winter, when, paradoxically, the game-viewing is better because the greenery is more sparse, the rate drops for local residents to around $200 a person.

For your money, you get all meals, including a full buffet breakfast, lunch with hot or cold main courses, and a gourmet dinner, presented personally by the chef and served at a candlelit table under the stars. You also enjoy two game drives, lasting three or four hours, at dawn and dusk when the animals are most active.

Selati is unfenced, which means that anything that roams the wild has access to the camp. Elephants might wake you up, breaking the branches of a tree outside your cabin or taking a drink from the swimming pool, edged with pink bougainvillea and shaded by lofty trees.

Warthogs constantly sample the succulence of well-watered lawns in an arid area, going down on their front knees to nibble as if in thanks for such an oasis of abundance.

More ominously, lions sometimes visit, and, you are told, should such an unwelcome encounter occur, that the best thing is to make yourself look as big as possible, walk slowly and steadily backward, all the while looking it or them fearlessly in the eye. This is not the sort of blink-first game one wants to play on vacation.

Happily, there is an ever-ready ranger, gun at hand, should you not be a born Ernest Hemingway. He or she will escort you to and from your cottage to the main lodge with its overview of the water pan, where impala, baboons and water buck are just a few of the regular suppers.

But fear is less the prevailing emotion than excitement, even perhaps romance, on these outings.

Selati is gaslit, which makes for a softer world, reminiscent of yesteryear. The accommodation is styled after the turn of the century -- dark wood and wicker furniture, and old leather traveling cases as decorative features.

Sepia photographs speak of the early efforts to conquer this wild frontier.

There are the railway workers who risked their lives to lay the local "man-a-mile line" -- reputedly, one man died of disease or attack by predator or native for every mile of track laid -- that has long since fallen into disuse.

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