Updated: Jun 3, 2021
A quick flight to Hordspruit, then a 90-minute transfer across country found us entering Sabi Sands - the 65,000 hectare park adjoining Kruger - and ensconced in Chitwa Chitwa, having been met by a darling family of warthog at the entrance.
All the advertising/promotion blurb fails to capture the beauty of this place. Carol and I are sharing the Charlsy Suite - just renovated - we each have our own bedroom/bathroom/sitting area; with another lounge joining the two, and a huge deck with its own infinity pool, overlooking the lake with its population of about 30 hippopotami. Glorious.
Time for our first safari, and we were introduced to Surprise, our guide/ranger, and Ralph, our animal tracker. For the evening and morning drives, we had our jeep to ourselves, so we headed out to get an animal fix - a ‘memory’ of elephants, and a group of female lions lazing around prior to strolling off to find their ‘fast food’ dinner, probably a pretty impala, of which there are thousands. Surprise pointed out ‘Losers’ - groups of males who’ve lost out in the love stakes, and told us that the trick to staying alive when the lions are on the hunt is to stand still. The lions like a challenge, and so they’ll target the fastest runner; which conveniently adds to their sport. Another favourite dinner - zebra - also have tricks aimed at disconcerting lions - they snuggle up and face back to back. So the lioness tries to scout around the zebra facing her, only to find the mirror image when she gets behind! Zebra can easily kill a lion with their kick - they’re fast runners and their hooves can start fires when they’re at full speed.
Sundowner G&Ts out on the range led into dinner and an early night in preparation for our 5am wake-up.
Heading out at 5:45 am, past stands of the ubiquitous impala, a couple of vultures and a pair of waterbucks, we stopped by a group of lionesses lazing on the track. It was an overcast morning, threatening rain. Which it did - pelting, driving rain. Our ponchos were of minimal use, so we did the only sensible thing and laughed maniacally. Half an hour later it stopped, just as we came across a small tree housing a baby leopard, who looked more like a drowned rat than a sparkling bub. A few trees away, mummy leopard was recovering from her previous evening’s work - a baby kudu (antelope family), saved in the crook of the tree, on which the family had fed: rump steak (always the prime chomp).
After a few minutes, the baby climbed down its tree, whereupon the other jeep zoomed across to deliberately block its path to mum, ordered by a big fat cretin with an equally big lens. Bastard. Surprise was furious, and the baby disappeared, perhaps into danger.
Homeward, and a handsome Leopard Tortoise padded across our path.
We lunched on our terrace. Tronic, our designated food looker-afterer, arrived with a loaded tray balanced atop her head, and carrying a wine bucket with bottles of our standard chenin and sparkling water. She looked marvellous, achieving this logistical feat; delivering an excellent fish curry for Bill and me; and chickpea fritters or some such vegan stuff for Carol. Horace the hippo provided some musical accompaniment to our feast, while an impala with bub strolled by.
For our evening game drive, we were joined by Adam and Meredith - newlyweds from New York. First off: a couple of giraffe, then a zeal of desert zebra and a wildebeest (as in “I’m a Gnu, how do you do?”). A leopard was lying in the grass at some distance, so we tracked her into the bush and across a wash for several minutes in the lovely late afternoon light. Further on, some pretty striped baby kudu, a couple of hyena and we stopped by a large pool complete with ducks and a lazy wallowing hippo. Surprise said “get your cameras ready - he’ll yawn in the next five minutes, or drinks are on me!” Sure, Surprise! Two minutes late, the hippo suddenly came to life and performed the perfect hippo yawn.
Time for a Surprise aside.‘Surprise’ is the translation of his Txongan birth name. He’s the eighth of ten children, and the sibling sequence was ‘boy-girl-boy-girl-boy-girl-boy....BOY? Surprise! He grew up fascinated with his homeland and ‘bush-learned’ every creature’s genetics, physiology, diet, habitat, habits, sociology, instincts; and he’s equally learned about the flora of this area. This is not book learning, it’s experiential insight, intelligence and wisdom and his knowledge is mind-blowing - Bill, Carol and I rate it as a once-in-a-liftime privilege to be in his orbit for these four days.
An elephant fix before sundowners. Surprise wandered off while Ralph fixed out G&Ts. Surprise suddenly ran back to us “Rhino”! So we hurriedly packed and jumped in the jeep to follow him through the bush.
On the track back to Chitwa, Ralph scanned the bush with his spotlight, and Surprise is always alert to action. ‘Stop!’ The flash settled on a small leafy bush. Surprise pointed out a slightly larger, slightly paler, crescent shaped leaf. A chameleon! And he’d spotted this during a fast spotlight sweep of the bush!
The rest of the return saw us avoiding running over silly brush hare, scampering in the headlights. Then, nearing home, we took a different route around the top of the lake. In the spotlight, the hippos were out of the water and grazing for the night. ‘Leopard!’ The spotlight tracked it as it strolled up into Chitwa’s grounds next to room 11, where the Boring Brits were housed. Two weeks ago, a kudu strolled into Chitwa, next to Bill’s suite (#1). It was transfixed by the garden lights, promptly killed by a leopard, whereupon the hyenas arrived, saw off the leopard, and the occupants of the suite experienced an unwelcome, nightlong bone-cracking serenade.
We were in need of a shower, but no such luck - just a quick clean-up before heading out for a bush barbeque. On the way to our lighted camp, we spotted a jackal, before hyenas yelped while we dined, begging us to hurry up so they could come in and clean up the leftovers. It made for a very pleasant evening, provided you weren’t asphyxiated by anti-mosquito spray (this is a malaria region; these silent mosquitoes are in the billions, but at least they don’t buzz).
Safari #4. A tiny appetiser of ducklings on the runway, a right-hand turn for a couple of elephants, then we were halted by Surprise’s “Good Morning Mister Rhino - How are you?”. Carol took a fabulous video of this blue-black macho male strolling across our path. We stopped by the copse where the lionesses were lazing; past a field with hundreds of impala, followed by another thirty minute rainburst. Time for morning tea, with the wild aniseed wafting deliciously after the rain. A millipede footed by.
We headed back into the bush to revisit the leopard and cub from yesterday. And surprise - there are twins! Mum was casually lying at below a tree while the two cubs scuffled, yelped, leapt around and generally caused merry hell. Eventually, they skipped back to mum for more fighting and attempted to suckle, but mum was having none of their silly games, and, in two leaps, was ready for a morning chomp on leftover kudu. We left her and the little terrors in peace. (The cubs were about six months old.)
8:15, and it’s time to head back for breakfast, but not before a giraffe, then -wow- African Wild Dogs warming up on the runway! They’re endangered, and Surprise said there are people who’ve done fifteen safaris without ever seeing them.
Our late afternoon saw elephants, water bucks, then another pack of wild dogs - their coats are a pretty palette of black, caramel and white, and they sport large ears with black tips. The scouts climb onto the termite mounds to scan for goodies. They’re not very nice hunters - there’s none of this big-cat suffocation action, they just tear apart their prey while it’s alive. While we were at dinner, a Genet climbed up the pole beside our table. (Genets are small, cat-like spotted carnivores.)
Our third early morning safari kicked off with guinea fowl, then we tracked a lion and passed a good stand of zebra. We were headed to a new area with a change in the bush-scape with beautiful marula trees and pretty undergrowth. Surprise reckons this landscape provides everything needed for survival - and it’s an outdoor pharmacy. Elephants have only one stomach and they eat a wide variety of vegetation, which exits without being fully broken down, so elephant jobbies are used by the Txonga folk as mosquito repellent and a migraine cure among a range of other medicinal treatments. Then Surprise snapped a branch off a bush known as the native toothbrush. The stalk is used as a brush, and it contains a tooth whitening agent. (We’d already commented that all the staff at Chitwa have beautiful teeth.)
I’d been wanting to snap a mongoose, and we’d seen many Slender Mongoose, but they’re very speedy critters. Then we stopped by a termite mound, kept silent, and after a couple of minutes, darling little black grass mongoose popped their heads out - cuteness in spades.
On the big 5 list, we’d seen everything except buffalo, but Surprise had that covered. On a rising track he said “can you smell buffalo?” and we came across a large herd grazing. But in the thick brush it was hard to get a good view of them. Surprise started buffalo-whispering them (he’d done animal-whispering before with impala to get them to provide a good photo-op) and after a couple of minutes they came to within spitting distance to check us out and pose for their portraits to be taken. Beautiful (and very dangerous) creatures.
We headed off at high speed - Surprise was on a mission - and what a prize it was. A leopard with three-month old twins scampering in a glade. One of the cubs was in the fork of a tree, difficult to see, so I just focussed the camera and binge-snapped. Then the mother climbed a slope, the cubs followed, and Surprise gunned the jeep to head into prime position as she lay down and the cubs settled in for some serious suckling. Carol reckoned one of them was a male because his little paw kept pushing his mum’s undercarriage - ‘more please’!
Homeward bound, a large herd of elephants was strolling along the track. Surprise: “they’re headed for a waterhole”, so we headed into the bush to scoot around them and settled in silence by a waterhole. Two minutes later the elephants appeared around the bend, and, ignoring our arms’ length proximity, monstered the waterhole and its muddy edges. We were lucky not to get sprayed or splattered! A large group of giraffes in a wash finished off an extraordinary morning.
Our last game drive; and just after taking off, we lucked upon a Steenbok (rare) and a Nyala - both antelope types who mate for life. Then a Southern Ground Hornbill on a dead tree branch - a huge, red-headed creature (endangered) which, despite its ground-loving habitat, is a serious flyer. More zebra, wildebeest, a beautiful male kudu.
Finally, the jackpot. Lying on the side of the road having a late-afternoon snooze, a handsome male leopard. Surprise: “Carol, can you tell he’s a male?” Carol “He Got BAWLS”. (Surprise, with his sense of humour, is a serious mimic. From the first drive, at every opportunity, he mimicked Carol’s “Oh My God” and “Marvellous” and my camera snapping “Gorgeous”; and regularly teased “Mister Bill” - “ how many elephants you see? Three? I see four!”.
There were two other jeeps watching the leopard, including one with the ghastly American with the huge lenses who’d ordered the blocking of the baby leopard’s path on the first morning.
But Surprise was up to the task of getting us in prime position. When the leopard decided it was time for a stroll, Surprise zoomed the jeep into the brush at high speed for a goodly distance, then cut back to the edge of the track as the leopard started down the track, so we could silently watch his approach for a good 150 metres through the dappled light! Magnificent.
A final (very wary) stop by the lionesses in the copse, as they stretched and rose for their evening hunt, then sundowners with a beautiful sunset while hundreds of impala stampeded past and Carol quietly played Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies”. Sigh.
Our final dinner on the terrace finished with a flourish, as the lovely staff arrived with a cake, sparklers and sang “happy birthday” to Mister Bill. At breakfast, Bill told us he’d had a monkey on his terrace that morning, and, as we left Sabi Sands there were a group of baboons playing, making our final animal-count twenty-two.
So sad to be leaving Chitwa Chitwa and saying goodbye to Surprise. It’s been beyond all expectations!