Slurp, gulp, snuffle. An unholy noise emanates from the darkness of the South African bush. Silencing the engine of our vehicle, we listen for more of the perturbing snorts. Slurp, gulp, snuffle. We hold our breath. Slurp, gulp, snuffle. It repeats again and again in a feverish, yet somehow familiar pattern. Our eyes slowly adjust to the darkness to reveal the source of the thirsty sound, and we all let out a collective coo.
Partially camouflaged in the trees, just metres away, is a suckling elephant calf, its tiny trunk corkscrewed around his mother’s teat, ears flapping happily. The voracious supping, though several decibels louder, reminds me of the precious times I nursed my own babes. I draw my children close and we huddle together in collective awe.
Over the last few hours, guided by ranger Dan, and local Shangaan tracker, Crimson, we’ve spotted a pride of loved up lions lounging in long grass and a rhino and her boisterous baby bathed in a halo of dust, streaked golden by the afternoon sun. We’ve been stopped in our tracks by a huge herd of Cape Buffalo as they indolently graze and scratch themselves on the broken branches that surround our open safari vehicle. We’ve also witnessed the surreal sight of an opportunistic trio of hyenas brutally shredding a warthog carcass while a miffed leopard, who they’ve appropriated it from, watches on sulkily from the treetops.
Each exhilarating encounter leaves us breathless, but this chance meeting with the elephants moves me to happy tears. In silent solidarity with my fellow mama, I nod to Dan to quietly move on, not wanting to further intrude on her maternal privacy.
20 minutes later, we’re back at Bush Lodge on Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, a 6000-hectare hotspot of biodiversity flanking the south western section of the Kruger National Park, and we’re as ravenous as our little elephant friend. After freshening up in our lavish two-bedroom luxury villa, Ranger Dan escorts our hungry crew to dine under the stars in the boma (gathering place), the smoke from a blazing fire and soulful song of an African choir as heady as the aroma of the evening’s culinary offerings.
We rise early the following day, the sun not making her appearance until we’re deep into the bushveld. She paints the sky in splashes of lavender and peach as birds twitter and yawning hippos emerge from their morning bath. A dazzle of zebra, skittish in the morning sun, heads to a watering hole where a giraffe, legs akimbo and lips puckered up leans in for a drink, his partner craning her neck in the opposite direction to nibble leaves from a nearby Acacia tree.
A sounder of young warthogs roar and snort as they chase each other around yet another waterhole, their parents watching on with tattered ears and battle-scarred faces. And again, we manage sightings of lions, rhino, elephant, leopard and Cape buffalo before we return for a buffet breakfast in Bush Lodge’s exquisite dining room, under the covetous gaze of a troupe of cheeky vervet monkeys.
We return to our villa to freshen up. As sumptuous as it is charmingly homey, the villa’s magnificent master bedroom boasts a curtained confection of a bed and an extraordinary bathroom featuring twin freestanding tubs with an al-fresco shower, where I’m joined by a voyeuristic waterbuck with scant regard for a girl’s privacy. The kids’ bedroom, with its twin four-poster beds and teepee play space, also boasts an ensuite, but my children choose instead to wash the morning’s dust away with a dip in our private plunge pool, overlooking a waterhole that appears particularly popular with eland and waterbucks. The lounge is a stylish haven of classic leather and wood enhanced with a marshmallow cloud of sofa and a collection of African artefacts I could spend hours mentally archiving, but not today. Dan and Crimson are waiting to take us on a guided walking trail.
The wildlife extravaganza continues over the following days – the Big 5 continuing to put on a headlining show with guest appearances from wildebeest, wild dogs, baboons and a skittish chorus line of impala and curly-horned kudu.
Between safaris, we graze on bounteous breakfasts, lick luncheon platters of South African mezze clean, devour sugary afternoon teas and by night, nosh contentedly on contemporary African cuisine and seductively smoky braai (barbecue).
While I sneak off for a rejuvenating massage at Bush Lodge’s light-filled and lovely Amani Spa, my children further their knowledge at the EleFun Centre. This fantastic facility is aimed at nurturing children’s awareness and appreciation of the natural world, and the kids play and learn enthusiastically, before leaving their paint smeared pawprints amongst the hundreds left by other young guests on the centre walls.
We venture out of Sabi Sabi’s garden of earthly delights only to support one of the neighbouring communities, from where 80% of the reserve’s employees hail. We’re introduced to the culture and history of the Shangaan people by a local guide and enjoy an enchanting audience with the village sangoma (healer). I don’t know what she reads in the eclectic fragments of bone, shells, coins, seeds and dice she scatters before us, but if she’s as good at her craft as the villagers say, she’d definitely have seen music in our future. As our tour concludes, we’re swept up in a cacophony of drumbeats and dance with the ladies who’ve congregated at the home of the Village Elder.
Back at the reserve, in the closing moments of our final African safari, we spot a herd of impala skittering through the brush. Dan and Crimson, sensing action is afoot, skilfully navigate our vehicle through the scrub until we happen upon a leopard, one of the impalas locked limply between her teeth. Dragging her prize towards a tree, she momentarily drops her prey and turns towards us with what looks for all the world like a self-satisfied smile. Her giddy delight matched only by our own.
South African Airways flies from Sydney to Johannesburg via Perth with easy connections available Skukuza Airport at Kruger National Park with South African Airways’ regional airline, Airlink. flysaa.com
Enjoy an African safari vacation at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve sabisabi.com