From the safety of our Land Cruiser we watched the leopard staring down at us disdainfully, from where it lay stretched out on the branches of a marula tree. It had just finished devouring its kill, letting the remains drop to the ground where they were quickly snatched up by scavenging hyenas.
Leopards usually hoist their killed prey of any substantial size high up into trees – often with great difficulty – to prevent it being stolen by hyenas and lions. Hyenas will hang around the base of the trees waiting for scraps to fall.
You’ll most likely witness this scene on more than one occasion if you stay any length of time in South Africa’s Greater Kruger region, particularly in Sabi Sands Game Reserve.
The two Kruger parks
The Greater Kruger region lies to the west of, and should not be confused with, the well-known Kruger National Park. The latter is a State-sponsored national park managed by SANParks, while the former is a collection of private game reserves, of which Sabi Sands is one.
Sabi Sands is a 65,000-hectare paradise for wildlife photographers, outdoor adventure enthusiasts or anyone simply looking for a holiday that gets the adrenaline pumping. Other reserves in Greater Kruger include Klaserie, Thornybush and Timbavati.
Know the differences
You can day-visit, self-drive and camp in the national park, but not so in the private game reserves, where you must stay at one of the many well-appointed lodges that can be found in each reserve. With their private facilities and guided safaris they offer unparalleled opportunities for game viewing. What’s more the guides are allowed to drive off-road and follow wildlife into the bush, something that is strictly forbidden in Kruger National Park.
Nor must you drive after dark in the national park and you can be fined if you do. But in Greater Kruger your afternoon game drive will often extend well into the evening, providing opportunities to see nocturnal animals and witness the extraordinary brightness of the stars in an ink-black sky untarnished by city lights.
If you are staying at one of the private lodges you are free to go into Kruger National Park, but the reverse does not apply; no day visitors are allowed in the private game reserves.
Sabi Sands shares a border with the national park, a 50-kilometre unfenced boundary across which wildlife is free to wander. The Sabi and Sand Rivers run through the reserve, adding a further dimension to the biodiversity of the area.
The leopard is king in Sabi Sands and you will see any number of these exquisite creatures, on the ground and up in trees, while out on game drives.
Where to stay
The private game reserves contain a huge selection of lodges ranging from affordable-expensive to high-end luxurious. Somewhere in the middle of this range sits Notten’s Bush Camp, an exclusive, private safari lodge operated by the Notten family, now fourth generation landowners. There are nine private suites, all elegantly styled, spacious and cooled by ceiling fans.
I stayed in suite number 9, close to the camp’s reception, shop, pool and dining areas. I cannot fault this lodge – the facilities are superb yet authentic to the bush environment, the ambience is enchanting, the food and wine will satisfy any gourmet (three meals a day and all drinks are included in the price) and the management and staff strive tirelessly to give you an experience you will never forget.
No electric light gives authentic bush experience
Note that the suites at Notten’s have limited electrical power and no electric lighting. This is a deliberate omission designed to create an intimate atmosphere and a more authentic African bush experience. But fear not, there is no ghastly regimentation, if you find it difficult to cope with the limited lighting provided by paraffin lanterns and candles, the staff are happy to loan you an electric lantern. There is full electric light and power in the public areas of the camp, but even so it’s best to limit the number of electrical appliances you take with you.
The suites come with open-plan bedroom and en-suite bathroom and all have both indoor and outdoor shower facilities. All windows and sliding doors are fitted with screens, and insect coils are provided. Each suite leads onto a private wooden deck with a beautiful view of the bush.
Adventurous game drives
There are early-morning and late afternoon game drives (also included in the price) in open-top 4x4 vehicles, with an experienced guide and a tracker to find you the best sightings. The wildlife is so prolific there is a good chance you will see the Big Five within your first 24 hours there. There is also the option of a walking safari after the morning drive, accompanied by an armed guide. The rest of each day is at leisure.
After dark, enjoy the unique sounds of the African night while dining in the fabulous candlelit boma beneath stars that glow brighter than you will ever see back home in built-up areas. After a few days (I recommend five for the best experience) you will never want to leave.
Lion Sands, Singita and Londolozi are among other private safari lodges in the area.
How to get there
DRIVE – from Johannesburg via the N12 and N4, approximately 480 kilometres, 5-6 hours.
FLY – with Airlink from Johannesburg or Cape Town to Skukuza Airport, located within the Kruger Park. Alternatively Fly into KMIA (Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport) at Nelspruit. The lodges can arrange transfers – 45 minutes from Skukuza, two hours from Nelspruit.
Photos: Judy Barford
Note: Last month South Africa re-opened its land borders to several neighbouring countries. Overseas visitors are also permitted to enter South Africa by air through the international airports at Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town only. A negative PCR test result for COVID-19 less than 72 hours old is required.