Stylist’s commissioning editor Alexandra Jones confronts life, death and dung beetles on a South African safari
When lions pair up, they mate every 15 minutes – day and night – for three solid days. And, as I found while visiting andBeyond Ngala Safari Lodge in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, they’re not squeamish about doing it in front of a truck-full of tourists. The animals currently on the reserve – one of the biggest in the world at 20,000 square kilometres – are all around the 10th generation native - and despite being completely wild, they’ve become used to the sight of trucks. So, while approaching on foot would likely mean that you’d end up as dinner, you can drive to within a few metres of a pair of amorous lions and they’ll do little more than roll onto their backs and cast lazy glances your way.
It was from this position of repose that the shaggy-headed male spotted a limping buffalo in the distance. A three-year drought has badly affected the buffalo herds. As Barney, our winsome guide, explained, lack of water has made the bush dry and sparse and the buffalo’s food sources slowly shrank. Over the years the oldest and youngest buffalos have become weak and easier for the lions to pick off. “At one time, they were killing up to three a day – they weren’t even eating the carcasses, they were just killing for sport,” Barney told us.
The male focused his majestic, sloping eyes on the distant buffalo – the muscles around his shoulders flexed as he stood. “He’s going for him…,” muttered Barney. The truck roared to life as the lion took off at a sprint. Swerving through bush, we sped along the dirt tracks, the wind whipping our hair as we ducked to avoid low hanging branches and scrabbled for our cameras. With a vast leap the male lion sank its claws into the buffalo’s front flank, pulling him to the ground. The buffalo struggled, kicking miserably at air but the lion had his jaws to his throat. “They say a lion’s tongue is so rough that if it licked you three times it could break the skin,” explained Barney, as the female trotted over and tore into the carcass.
Confession time: I’m not especially fond of nature. I don’t even watch nature programmes (no, not even Planet Earth); I find them a bit - dare I say it - boring. But despite the fact that a safari has never been top of my travel bucket list, it turned out to be the most thrilling thing that has ever happened to me. I saw an impala giving birth, a lion make a kill, a leopard climb a tree, a dung beetle...rolling dung! Alright, so the latter two aren’t quite the same as birth and death, but it’s hard to be unenthusiastic when there’s an incredible creature doing something - even a mundane something - just metres away from you. In Kruger National Park you have the opportunity to see each of the Big Five (African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros) and the guides are all experienced trackers who can spot when the angle of a tree means an elephant has recently trampled through.
I will admit that when I initially read the itinerary, I wasn’t thinking about elephants - what I mostly focused on was the 5am starts. Perhaps it shows the depth of my ignorance, but who knew you had to get up at the crack of dawn to see animals? Happily, at the andBeyond Ngala Safari Lodge the beds are wider than I am tall (5”5, in case you’re wondering) and plushly-linened in 300 thread count Egyptian cotton. I was also eased into each day with treats: hot chocolate with a dash of Amarula Cream (a South African liqueur made from the native marula fruit that tastes like Bailey's), handmade cookies, fresh coffee. And I was greeted with such genuine warmth from our guide that it was hard to stay mad (which I was, because 5am).
Included in a stay at the lodge are two game drives a day at dawn and dusk. Between those times you have the opportunity to laze by the pool (where a heard of elephants may well stop by) sleep in your safari-chic cabin, have a spa treatment or, my favourite, eat. All the food is uniformly excellent. Meals are mainly served buffet style and include a range of salads (the asparagus ,avocado and macadamia was a standout), a roast, soups and one traditional South African dish, like boerewors, a rich local beef sausage. But beyond the mere fact of its tastiness is the joy of where you get to eat. No two meals were eaten in the same location: during my three day stay (the average length that people tend to safari) there was a bush breakfast, a candle-lit bush dinner, and a courtyard dinner. The staff decamp with white linen tablecloths, a barbecue, canapes and a full bar so when I arrived at whatever secret location had been selected, a make-shift, silver service ‘restaurant’ was in full-swing among the trees and wildlife.
The brilliance of the andBeyond experience is in the smaller details: the bathrooms are stocked with handmade shower gels, creams and bath salts, all of which are specially developed for that specific lodge. The salts smelled so good - a herby, zinging lemongrass scent - that I bought three tubs to take home as presents. On each game drive there is a stop for snacks - homemade biltong, freshly baked cookies, local delicacies made to order - and on each three-day trip there is one surprise, usually on the final evening. Previously, Barney told us, they’ve strung bottles of champagne from a tree so that the guests had to snag them down. I spent the final evening taste-testing South African artisanal gins by a lake at sunset. The sky was a brilliant fuchsia pink and a family of hippo bobbed around in the water below. The experience left me somewhat teary - top-off three days of life, death and sleep deprivation with a couple of strong gins and it's probably to be expected.
Mahlatini Luxury Travel (028 9073 6050; mahlatini.com) offers a three-night stay at andBeyond Ngala Safari Lodge starting from £2,200 per person sharing a cottage on an all-inclusive basis. Price includes international flights with South African Airways, road transfers and scheduled safari activities.