“We’re having trouble with one of the elephants,” our guide, Piet Marimane, informs us as the safari vehicle in which we are traveling lurches to the right to avoid a tree felled by a bull looking to snack on its leaves. Though I have come here to Lebombo—one of the five lodges in this region of South Africa’s Kruger National Park that are operated by the Singita company—to observe elephants, I am nevertheless relieved to see no sign of the perpetrator. The tree nearly blocks the narrow driveway that leads up to the lodge, but no one gives a thought to removing it. This is the first hint that the operators of Lebombo, which means “to touch the ground lightly” in the dialect of the local Shangaan tribe, chose the name for more than its exotic cachet.
By decree if not by choice, Lebombo, located 10 miles from South Africa’s border with Mozambique, treads lightly on the land. It must adhere to comprehensive environmental regulations, ranging from overland travel restrictions to water usage limits, or risk having to dismantle the main lodge and the 15 guest suites (also referred to as lofts) at the end of the 20-year lease granted by the South African government. This challenge has been met head-on. While practicing responsible environmental stewardship, Lebombo still provides guests with uncompromised accommodations, gourmet food, and stimulating safari adventures.
“We are trying to find new ways of bringing our guests into nature,” says Luke Bailes, owner of the five Singita lodges: Lebombo Main, Ebony, Boulders, Castleton Camp, and the recently opened Lebombo Sweni. “All of Lebombo is exposed to the elements,” adds Bailes with a touch of hyperbole, for we are conversing in one of the air-conditioned lofts. But as I move through the loft without ever losing sight of the two elephants dining along the river’s edge or the troop of baboons arguing over shellfish in the shallows, any doubt about the veracity of his statement evaporates as quickly as the morning dew on the knob thorn thickets that grow on the cliffs across the river. Later, buoyed by a cold lager, I venture out into the afternoon heat, settle into a comfortable chair on the expansive and very private game-viewing deck, and listen to the hippos bellowing in the water below.
Each of the lofts, postmodern structures that would not look out of place in the hills above California’s Pacific Coast Highway or along the shores of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, clings to the face of a cliff. The floor-to-ceiling windows that serve as walls afford a panoramic view of the confluence of the N’wanetsi and Sweni rivers below and the rugged savanna and baked orange ryolite hills beyond. Ten-foot-long bundled laths of blue gumwood function as curtains and roof overhangs that provide relief from the African sun. Viewed from the ground below, the lofts resemble the nests of giant fish eagles.
The lofts’ design ingeniously integrates the outside environment with the inside. The rays of the sun, mercifully filtered by the blue-gum laths, pour through the massive windows and reflect off of the floors made of bleached native plantation wood, filling the suite with the perpetually shifting light of Africa. The effect is similar to the one I noticed while on safari, when our vehicle was parked under the broad branches of a eucalyptus tree. Call it architecture imitating nature. Throughout the suite, surfaces of white canvas, woven fabric, and buttery suede mirror the rich, organic textures of the savanna; the vanilla chenille sofa in the sitting room approximates the colors of the clouds that drift by during the afternoons. Even the hanging glass lamps, crafted in Italy, are modeled after the leaves of the region’s ubiquitous euphorbia trees. Native beadwork of startling complexity provides splashes of bright oranges, blues, and greens, the colors commonly worn by the Shangaan, but also modeled by the foot-long lizards skittering after each other in the rocks adjacent to the loft.
There are no fences at Lebombo, allowing all manner of animals, from elephants to those that might view guests as dinner, to travel through the area. Just a few days before I arrived, a lion killed a kudu, a very large antelope, less than a 5-minute walk from the lodge’s main building, which sits atop the cliff. The proximity of the attack was unusual. Nonetheless, night porters, armed with only flashlights, escort guests when they travel the short distance between the lofts and the lodge for dinner, evening game drives, and the morning safaris, which begin shortly after dawn. Although I never felt any unease on these strolls, I did give a wide berth early one morning to a wolf spider of alarming proportions.
At the end of the boardwalk that links the lofts and lodge, an earthen wall—built of material excavated from the surrounding hills and designed to slowly erode (steel bolts guard against a catastrophic collapse)—delineates the path that leads to the lodge’s central open area.
It is here, in the spacious open-air lounge, that I meet Marimane, our guide, and four companions for coffee and a light repast before embarking on the morning game drive. Before the lodge opened in spring 2003, no motorized vehicles had ever traversed the surrounding 37,500 acres of savanna, which remain accessible only to Lebombo guests. The ruggedness of the newly laid trails—calling them roads would be too charitable—adds to the sense of adventure; the ride in the three-tiered Land Rover safari vehicle can become rough, especially for the tracker, who sits on a seat attached to the front bumper. The animals, still not completely inured to the vehicles, remain skittish, unlike game in other parts of Africa, where the safari experience may be more akin to a trip to a petting zoo.
Game drives take place in the early morning and late afternoon because the animals, especially the big cats, usually bed down during the day’s heat. Marimane claims that Lebombo has the largest concentration of game in Kruger National Park. But when questioned about our chances of seeing the continent’s Big Five—lion, elephant, giraffe, rhino, and leopard—he just smiles.
Within minutes of posing that query, we are in a sea of giraffes and zebras. “They use each other as camouflage,” Marimane explains. The two animals moving in tandem do indeed give the impression of one very large and strange creature. Marimane admonishes us not to stand. When passengers are sitting, he says, animals view the Land Rover as one large beast. Standing identifies you as an individual and serves as an invitation to a charge.
This is an event we experience one evening when, just after sundown, we cross paths with a female elephant and her newborn calf. Upset by our presence, the mother hurls herself at the vehicle in a maelstrom of trumpeting, ear-flapping, earth-shaking fury. Sitting high up in the back of the Land Rover, I find myself staring into a pair of quickly approaching, very angry eyes, even as I will Marimane to step on the accelerator. He does, but not before he has milked maximum drama from the encounter and left me struggling to pry my fingers from the vehicle’s roll bar.
During these days and nights on the savanna, Marimane proves himself a veritable encyclopedia of local flora and fauna. He warns the males in the vehicle that viewing the mating habits of lions can be a dispiriting experience, and the pair we observe do indeed reconsummate their relationship every 10 minutes. One evening, while parked on a hill above a 21-member lion pride, Marimane recounts, in a whisper, the lineages, rivalries, and personalities of the individual cats. His quiet manner, employed to avoid alarming the animals, is reminiscent of the hushed tones courtiers once used in the presence of royalty. Such deference seems appropriate here.
Later, when we are parked on a high hill, Marimane ably assumes the role of bartender. He mixes drinks on a tabletop set on the hood of our vehicle while explaining in great detail the gastronomic habits of the hyenas we have just seen cracking wildebeest bones. It is a virtuoso performance that brings a smile as I walk a few yards from the group and watch the moon rise over the hills of Africa. The only sounds breaking the silence are the occasional distant roar of a lion and the ice tinkling in my glass. At this moment, it is easy to forgive Marimane for not finding us a leopard.
We do spot a massive white rhino (making it four out of the Big Five) on our final morning drive. Nervous at our approach, the rhino quivers as I view it through my binoculars. Beyond the beast, the vast plains, dotted with trees, shimmer in the heat. All of us are silent, drinking in the scene, determined not to break the spell. Then a flock of brightly colored hornbills screams overhead, and the rhino is gone.
When not out on a game drive, guests can find relief from the heat in Lebombo’s pool, and the adjoining lounge area is the perfect spot for a cold drink or a long afternoon nap. Tours of the wine cellar, stocked with some of the finest South African vintages, offer another escape from the climate. While breakfast (served after the morning safari) and lunch are of gourmet quality, it is dinner, spiced with tales of the day’s adventures, that most satisfies. Chef Rachel Buchner, waving her hand at the sun, explains that “the climate proscribes heavy sauces, so we keep our dishes light, fresh, and healthy.” Broiled ostrich, a local, low-fat meat, served with a cold salsa of olives, yellow peppers, and oregano, is a dish that refreshes the most road-weary guest. The dining room, with its floor of colored pebbles mined from the nearby rivers, has no walls and employs as natural air-conditioning the breezes that blow down the river valley in the evening. Twice a week, a barbecue is held under the stars in a boma, a large, round enclosure made of wooden poles, which the natives once used to protect their flocks at night. Care must be taken on such occasions, because their festive nature promotes overindulgence of food and drink, placing one in jeopardy of missing the morning safari.
Just down the hill from the main lodge is Lebombo Sweni, which opened in November 2003. The design of the six suites mirrors the lofts on the cliff, but with the river close enough to dive into from your balcony and the lush riverbank vegetation dominating the view, there is an almost junglelike atmosphere at Sweni. As with the cliffside lofts, the colors in the suites reflect the surrounding environment, in this case the browns and greens of the riverine landscape.
More than one Sweni guest has been startled by the calls of the hippos, which, because of their proximity, seem to announce that they will be joining you for supper. “You don’t want to shut people off from nature,” explains Lebombo Sweni’s manager, Andre du Toit, echoing the sentiments of Bailes.
Adjacent to Sweni is the Village, an African bazaar where visitors can stroll along the main street, stop for coffee or a drink at the café, and browse through small shops offering pan-African jewelry, sculpture, and fine art. In a small outdoor theater, guides present slide shows on the natural history, flora, and fauna of the area, and Shangaan elders proudly relate the history of their tribe, which has thrived in this harsh, unforgiving land for millennia. For those visitors less acclimated than the natives or in need of a tune-up after one of the long safari drives, massages are available in the spa.
As we depart Lebombo to make the short drive to the airstrip, I am pleased that we once again must avoid the fallen tree. There is still no sign of the elephant. Perhaps he was one of the many I saw loitering at the river. As we pass by the obstruction, a handful of millipedes, each as thick as my thumb and a good four inches long with black and white stripes that glisten in the sun, swarm around a nest that has fallen with the tree. I study them as closely as any naturalist while pondering the word singita, which, in the Shangaan language, means miracle, a much overused and devalued word in the West. While I saw no laws of nature contradicted during my stay, if we can take the word to mean an enchantment or wonder that renews both body and soul, then there is no more apt a name for this place.
Ebony and Tusks of Ivory
A 20-minute plane ride east from Lebombo brings us to the lodges of Singita Ebony, with Boulders and Castleton Camp close by. If Lebombo, with the futuristic design of its buildings, represents the continent in the 21st century, Ebony is 19th-century Africa. When I sink into one of the cane chairs flanked by zebra skin rugs in the large open-air lounge, where an enormous water buffalo trophy head hangs above the fireplace, the only drink that will suffice is a tall gin and tonic.
Ebony sits in a forest of the trees from which it takes its name. Each of the nine suites features a dramatic 15-foot-high cathedral ceiling, a huge fireplace that opens on both the bedroom and sitting area, picture windows with views of the savanna, and a large, private deck shaded by trees. The suite’s 15-foot-long plunge pool became a second home during my stay. While in the water escaping the heat, I could also watch and listen to the herd of elephants cavorting in the river just beyond my suite.
Game drives at Ebony follow the Lebombo schedule, and it was on a morning excursion that I completed my Big Five. Our guide, communicating by radio with a counterpart in another Land Rover, spent two hours tracking a leopard that one of the nearby villagers had spotted. Driving through grass at least 5 feet tall, the two vehicles approached the designated area from opposite directions, with the guides using all their knowledge of leopard habits in the chase. The other vehicle and the leopard came into view at precisely the same moment. I could not decide which was more extraordinary, finally seeing this very secretive creature, or the tracking process by which we had found it.
Dining at Ebony is a more formal affair than at Lebombo, but still the atmosphere is South African casual. A mural depicting savanna life covers the dining room walls, and hunting spears are suspended from the ceiling, leading you to wonder if dinner might be served on a Shangaan war shield. But with silver candelabra and fine crystal on the tables, the main dining room becomes the perfect setting for head chef Karin Cloete to serve her blend of traditional European and African cuisines. “Keep it simple, and all the guests will be comfortable,” is her mantra. She practices what she preaches with such dishes as pork filet with phutu, the ground maize that is a staple of the African diet. The boma I attended at Ebony was much like Lebombo’s, until the entertainment arrived. A troop of 10 local Shangaan villagers presented a program of traditional African songs and dances, which lasted through the dessert course and well beyond the digestif. The show incorporated talent and style, as does everything else at Ebony.