Kate Symons discovers a wild way to relax and rejuvenate, just as nature intended, all while exploring Africa’s breathtaking natural landscape
By his own admission, Bernie Smith is a “hopeless” photographer. As owner and director of South Africa’s Garonga Safari Camp, he’s had more than two decades to hone his skills, but they continue to elude the British expat. Nevertheless, Smith doesn’t hesitate when a photo opportunity presents itself, which it often does.
“Two days ago I had a cheetah in my yard, then there was a black rhino the other day. I still grab a camera,” he says.
“When I wake up in the morning the first thing I see is the waterhole and to see a black rhino having a drink from that … what more could I ask for?”
Located in the 22,000-hectare Makalali Conservancy, one hour west of the Kruger National Park’s Phalaborwa gate, Garonga Safari Camp is a luxury destination that pays due respect to its natural surroundings.
Smith has attempted to recreate the magic he experienced on safari as a young boy – “it was pristine, it was beautiful, it was out of this world, and Africa stuck with me ever since” – and he has succeeded. He opened the camp in 1997 and has since remained true to the tagline ‘Safari for the Soul’.
Garonga is intimate – there are just six luxury tents, each with private decks overlooking the park and, at times, some of its residents – and there is a hedonistic focus, aided by indulgences such as the open-air massage sala and bush bath.
“It is about relaxing, rejuvenating, taking the city out of your life and seeing what nature has to offer you,” Smith says.
What nature has to offer. No matter the bells and whistles (and there are plenty here), this is key on safari. It is the reason going on safari is the ubiquitous bucket-list item. And it is why I, a safari first-timer, can hardly contain my excitement as my adventure creeps closer.
It is no surprise then to find myself eagerly prepared when, during our transfer service between terminals at Johannesburg’s or Tambo International Airport, where we will connect with our flight to Garonga, conversation turns to the ‘checklist’ and which animals we’re most hopeful of spotting.
We are travelling with Bench Africa, Australia’s award-winning African travel specialists, so the groundwork has been done. A thoughtful and beautifully presented itinerary, mailed to travellers ahead of departure, includes a thorough checklist with close to 200 species of animals, amphibians and birds to keep an eye out for. Some, such as the famed cast of Disney’s The Lion King, need no introduction; others – the caracal, the klipspringer, the red hartebeest, for example – were new to me.
I am not the only one who nominates the elephant as priority number one, a result that amuses our amiable Zimbabwean driver, Blessing Bvuma.
“They just walk up to your house, they take your maize,” Bvuma says of these mischievous and, apparently, cornthieving mammals. “They want mongoose so if they smell it [in your house], they’ll lift your roof and take it. They don’t even say thank you.”
Less than 24 hours later, I am the one who owes gratitude for dropping in on the elephants. It is only our second safari excursion and already today I have been close enough to black rhino to hear them nuzzling the grass in search of breakfast; heard the wild acoustics of impala horns clashing in anger; judged a barrel of vervet monkeys in a weeping boer bean tree long enough to know which sun-seeking primate was boss.
Then the showpiece. Our tracker, Richard Nyathi, spots the weathered grey hide first, as he is expertly trained to do. The rest of us have some trouble (unlikely as that seems) making out the grand beast rustling among the greenery, but as the vehicle inches forward, our bounty comes into full view. There must be six…no, 10…wait, no, 15 – as the magnificent herd continues to grow, I stop the unnecessary counting and sit, instead, in silence.
I am not the only one set to mute. Our group of six sits quietly, lulled by the herd’s languid movement: some busily drinking, others ambling through crunching vegetation, one adorably linked trunk-to-trunk with its calf. Nyathi and our driver, Jaffeth ‘Jaff’ Malapane, take this opportunity to prepare morning tea and the picturesque vista is soon flavoured with sweet dried fruits, nuts, biscuits and coffee. I wrap my hands around the enamel mug and with heart, soul and now fingers warm, contemplation ensues.
Our lucrative morning quells any lingering conflict surrounding my decision to forego the afternoon safari, not to mention my dreamy super-king bed. Instead, I am braving Garonga’s sleep-out; a night under the stars, and among the wildlife, complete with a four-poster bed on a beautifully crafted viewing deck. Although the only thing separating me from Mufasa and Co. are a few timber stairs, the experience feels completely safe, even with the sound of unattributable gnarls and hoofsteps in the distance. I wake up before the sun and am again silenced, this time by the South African sky as the night’s blanket of stars gently shifts, making way for the magic of soft pinks, oranges and blues over this famous landscape.
On to the morning’s safari and our group agrees we have one mission – to track the so-far-elusive cheetah. The hunt is slow and considered until Malapane receives a tip-off. Quick as a…well, cheetah, he completes a skillful U-turn and we’re off, winding down the undulating dirt track at invigorating speed – speed that requires white-knuckle grip but not at the expense of my ear-to-ear smile. Malapane takes the vehicle off-track, ducking and weaving erratic boughs, clambering over fallen trunks and navigating impossibly tight spaces – whatever it takes for a glimpse of this fierce feline. But there is no glimpse.
We have failed in our mission and I suppose that is a shame, but it certainly doesn’t feel like one. The thrill of the hunt, so they say. From one high to the next, this time literally as I take up my position in a microlight cockpit – in the passenger seat, of course. We head skyward, but my jaw remains grounded as I realise the sheer scope of this amazing bushveld and the patchwork of wildlife interacting throughout it. From here I spot my first hippopotamus and first crocodile. More giraffe and zebra, too. Elephants, lions, kudus. And what feels like my millionth impala. Yet the awe hasn’t waned.
And, if Smith’s experience is anything to go by, it never will.