Like a stone skipping across water, our tiny bush plane lands on an isolated airstrip in Thornybush Game Preserve, adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park—and a dramatic locale for a once-in-a-lifetime African wildlife safari with Micato Safaris. But before heading into the bush, the first order of business is getting settled—in our case, the luxurious Africa House, which is a part of the upscale Royal Malewane resort.
Set amid the diverse plants of the woodland savannah, Royal Malewane has thatched roofs and common rooms that open to the terrain. Eight commodious suites include coddling bathrooms with free-standing tubs. The Africa House—a short drive away from the main Royal Malewane—is a colonial-style dwelling originally built by the owners for their personal use. These days, it’s a favorite of celebrity guests like Elton John.
In addition to spying wild game, grazing at a well-laid table is a popular way to enjoy Royal Malewane. Led by manager and executive chef John Jackson, a former restaurateur, the staff serves epicurean fare with a flourish, leaving no bit of crystal, silver, pressed linen, or china unused. Our stay here includes a lavish breakfast buffet, multi-course lunches and dinners, unlimited (and impossible to resist) snacks, and local wines.
Just as the animals take repose around the bushveld’s watering holes, we congregate between game-viewing excursions at The Waters of Royal Malewane Bush Spa. Connected to Africa House by an elevated wooden walkway, the spa building surrounds an inviting lap pool (left) and includes a gym. Treatments borrow from local culture and utilize indigenous resources and recipes—such as rooibos tea.
Africa House’s interiors are an elegant fantasy world of teak furniture, draped beds, brightly dyed silks, Persian rugs, and leather and antiques—the eclectic furnishings tend to the exotic. Rooms are awash with colorful art, books, and curiosities. Suites surround an interior courtyard and bathrooms include claw foot tubs. Beyond the glass back wall, an infinity pool that overlooks the bush.
We fall easily into the rhythms of safari life. Each morning at dawn, we head out in our bush vehicles (left). The air smells of dew, grass, musty earth—and promise. No one game-viewing drive is like another. Sometimes we see a tower of giraffes (right); other times we spot a bloat of hippo. After two hours we return to Africa House to rest, then repeat the process in late afternoon.
Legendary in Africa, master tracker Wilson Masiya works seamlessly with head ranger Juan Pinto to ensure we see as many animals as possible, including this rhino. Before long, we tick off the Big Five: African elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, lion, and rhino. The adroit team communicates almost telepathically as we bounce through the leather-like leaves of jackalberry trees or along dusty roads.
Sometimes getting close to animals can be awe-inspiring—such as when we spy this tawny eagle on the top of a tree (left). As we stare, he suddenly flies right toward us. One afternoon, we chance upon a parade of elephants, including a huge mother and tiny baby (right).
In the less-traveled part of Kruger National Park, animals roam in abundance. Elephants seem particularly prevalent—and it’s easy to get close to them. Several times, we come upon a hungry herd of elephants chomping on tree leaves. Surprised, they surround our car, getting so close we can nearly feel their fluttering eyelashes. At this distance, big lenses are exchanged for the simple click of iPhone cameras.
Like nature’s opus, the African bush marches to its own drummer. Hyenas screech, baboons bark, hippos snort, cheetahs chirp (odd, but true)—and, of course, lions roar. Birds add to the harmony with trills, carols, and whistles. Add in the soft whirr of our vehicle and the velvety purr of the breeze, and we’ve entered our own symphonic sanctuary.
One early morning trek becomes a flight of passion when our tracker senses the presence of a mother cheetah. We bounce across dusty roads, at last discovering the mama and three babies atop a hill, beneath a tree. In the haze of the day’s early hours, we watch the spotted babies wrestle and tussle just like human kids.
Sometimes our bespoke Micato safari seems too good to be true. One morning, a dazzle of zebra walks slowly across the road. Our guides let us drive quite close, and the animals preen in what seems like choreographed stops and starts like runway models.
For a change of pace, we transfer to the Singita game reserve, also in Kruger National Park. Here, I get adventurous at the Singita Sweni Lodge by sleeping outside. Not in a tent, I sleep in a mosquito net-covered-bed on our deck beneath the stars. I’m electrified with heady anticipation of nighttime animal sounds.
Located just a handful of rugged miles from the Mozambique border, Singita Sweni Lodge fulfills our safari tree house fantasies. This open, airy, intimate lodge is a tasteful abode on stilts (left). At night baboons sneak into the common area to steal anything sweet left unattended. Our accommodations are separate: six luxury rustic suites that sit above a ravine. Here we see the beloved lilac-breasted roller (right).
A sundowner caps each afternoon outing. Just as the sky bursts with gem tones, framed by the golden mountains beyond, we take refuge in a clearing.
Stars jam the sky with eerie luminosity. We see constellations we have never viewed before. Our route home takes us on a sudden detour—arriving at an open-air enclosure or boma. The site is festooned with lanterns and couches. We sit for a typical South African barbecue. We order grilled meats, spicy salads, and elaborate desserts. Nearby, a black rhino confronts a hippo, their sounds a wild bush symphony.
Article written by Becca Hensley, Photos by Kevin Garrett