View from a Royal Malewane private pool suite
I hadn’t heard her approach but an adult female elephant was right beside my veranda, just metres away. After scattering the cushions from my day bed in the dirt, she bobbed her way past my pool then stopped again outside the French windows. There she craned for the choicest young shoots on an overhanging tree. Not quite able to reach, she leant casually and inexorably against the wooden bannister, buckling it flat against the decking with her tusks. Now she could reach. The hotel hadn’t been wrong when they’d told me to expect visitors.
Today, Africa’s top-end resorts offer a new level of choice, comfort and convenience – even bringing the animals to you on occasion. This includes butler service, spas, family villas with dedicated staff, a greater emphasis on local food and wine, and much more. The biggest deal of all though – an almost literal game changer – is in the access to the animals.
Many of these resorts are found in conservancies, privately held land outside of traditional national park systems. The conservancy model has its critics but it does bring more control over the rules that govern game drives. In such places, typically only three vehicles are allowed around a sighting, and jeeps can off-road when needed.
Sea of Grass
ELEWANA SAFARI CAMP & KIFARU HOUSE, LEWA/BORANA CONSERVANCY, KENYA
For many, the East African savanna is Africa, rolling grassland punctuated by flat-topped acacia trees. The open views also mean sightings from the start and entering Lewa Conservancy I wasn’t disappointed. As we trundled towards my first overnight at Elewana’s Safari Camp, my guide was able to point out rhino, buffalo, both plains and Grevy’s zebras, and impala – “tell them from gazelles by the ‘M’ marking on their bums”.
Safari Camp is the archetypal glamping spot. Though you stay in what are called tents, there are earthen walls about the bathroom and an electrified wire keeps bigger animals at bay. Still, as with most safari resorts, I’m advised that walking around after dark requires a staff escort.
Next day, I got to grips with giraffes – who knew there are four species! – and spotted a kori bustard, apparently the heaviest flying bird in the world. Then, late in the day, we came upon a lioness on a kill, her pride sated and slumbering in the grass around her – and there was still time to follow a leopard in the last minutes of daylight.
The following morning I transferred to Elewana’s other Lewa property, Kifaru House, sat majestically on a knoll. From its thatched bandas – larger, luxuriously appointed versions of traditional huts – there were commanding views over the plains below.
Kifaru is Kiswahili for ‘rhino’ and one morning we only just got beyond the gate before finding Floppy Ears, an ageing male southern white rhino, trying his luck with a trespassing female. He’d have had more chance had she not still got a calf with her. As it was, she squared up and clashed horns with him, before turning tail. They galloped in circles close to the jeep, the young one dragged along bleating plaintively. By the time they came to a halt, both were cut and panting heavily. We radioed the vet to suggest they paid a call, and moved on.
The wide views meant animals could see us coming and judge if they fancied having us around but the access granted by habituation was impressive. So long as we were calm and quiet, many let us within tens of metres and sometimes much closer. A female cheetah preened and yawned appealingly not far off one morning, then got up and padded past not much more than an arm’s length away.
The stars weren’t all big mammals. At breakfast on the terrace, I was harangued by white-bellied go-away birds, noisily telling me where to go, and I kept an eye on a red-billed hornbill cruising for tidbits to feed chicks walled up in a nest at the base of a nearby tree.
It wasn’t until the drive out that I got close to the biggest land animal of all. For all the visceral thrills of the cats, the elephant is surely the noblest beast of all, respected by every other, intelligent and empathic. Happily, I knew I’d have more chances to get to know Loxodonta africana – African bush elephant – so I could next head south to more unexpected gems.
WHITE PEARL MOZAMBIQUE, SOUTHERN MOZAMBIQUE
Tucked into the spindly bottom corner of Mozambique is a gently scalloped coast torn by near-incessant breezes. There you’ll find White Pearl, hidden amid the dunes and popular with safari-goers from South Africa’s Kruger National Park and elsewhere. The mellow ocean air and spotless sands make a fine tonic for dust-blown eyes and jeep-numbed bums plus there’s the chance to add marine animal sightings to those you’ve made on land.
The resort opened in 2011 and owes its decor to its surroundings: bright and breezy, with lots of bleached timber. There are seaside motifs too, aqueous humour for the eyes, with light fittings sporting urchin spines or trailing jellyfish tentacles.
With bigger quarry foremost in our minds, we set off one morning aboard a zodiac. It was the work of minutes to find breaching humpback whales, a female and calf, flanked by a watchful auntie. They are here from July to November, along with less playful right whales, while bottlenose dolphins are seen year-round. On this occasion the dolphins were feeding so swimming with them was out of the question and we moved on to snorkel over the nearby rock pinnacles. These are crawling with critters of all sizes – even schools of hammerhead and Zambezi sharks buzz past at times, we were told.
Later, I climbed the switchback boardwalk to the top of the resort where the spa commands an incredible view. There you can choose between a treatment room facing the ocean, or a view inland over a lake caught in the folds of lush lowland that backs the dunes.
That lowland also harbours Maputo Special Reserve, key to hopes that the area will one day be able to offer a Big Five+ experience – the major land mammals, together with dolphins and whales offshore. Money from the international community has helped develop the infrastructure and in time will fund a broadening of its species beyond the elephants, hippos, zebra and antelope already at home there.
With a brand-new road bridge halving the drive from the capital, Maputo, and its airport, this stretch of coast is now primed for growth.
At the centre of an accretion of infrastructure, White Pearl likely won’t stay secluded for long as Mozambique catches up with Africa’s more established tourist destinations.
SINGITA LEBOMBO LODGE,
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH AFRICA
Drawing up at the turning circle at Lebombo, I could see only glimpses of the resort just yards away. Passing through a gap in the outer walls though, the resort’s innards were suddenly spilt out in front of me, with no walls to interrupt views across the N’Wanetsi River to the hills beyond.
To my left was the restaurant, with the pool in front. Directly ahead down a few steps was the long bar, the convivial heart of the resort. Guests group here before every game drive in an air of excitement, grabbing a coffee or helping themselves to food from the fridges or bar-top.
Singita take their food and wine seriously, stressing South African ingredients and flavours across as many meals as you can handle in a day. I heard how some guests love to test the waiters on food and wine pairings, or join cooking classes; though others find even game-drive snacks enough to get them through.
Your preferences are soon common knowledge: daily briefings make sure all staff are aware of guests’ likes and dislikes – who wants to be called ‘Mr’ and who is happy on first-name terms; who likes artisanal gin and who prefers single-malts; who is a ‘Big-Five-or-nothing’ type and who calls a halt for every bird and beetle.
Rooms show the same attentiveness, equipped with adapter plugs, a field guide to the birdlife and sun cream in case you forgot yours. The resort got a major makeover in 2016 and the rooms have a postmodern vibe with concrete walls and recycled timber floors and shelving.
The exteriors are carefully unobtrusive, with lath cladding softening their edges. As Sally Tsiliyiannis of GAPP Architects who steered the renovation puts it, the laths “shrink the built structure giving the villa the appearance of being enveloped by the landscape”.
The river and other water sources are the landscape’s key feature as far as the animals are concerned. I was there at the driest time of the year so animals had come into the N’Wanetsi Concession from the greater Kruger. The river was thick with hippos, herds of elephants made frequent visits and lions patrolled the banks looking for unwary antelopes or baboons.
Though the lion prides bossed the place, we ran across most of the major predators over the course of my three-day stay. We watched a trio of cheetah cubs copy mum as she stretched out for a nap in front of our jeep; saw a leopard make a break for it after having being tree’ed by a lion that stole its kill; and then witnessed jackals stealing in on the same kill, along with a motley assortment of vultures.
On the very last drive, a herd of elephants crowded the road just yards from the resort. The mums were wonderfully dextrous with their trunks, stripping bark from the branches but their young, struggling with a tool comprising what we were told were at least 40,000 muscles, were charmingly inept. Little did I know I’d soon get an even closer demonstration of elephant smarts.
KRUGER, SOUTH AFRICA
While Singita is contemporary, the Royal Malewane, a couple of hours to the west, deliberately blends past and present. Owner Liz Biden crafts the look of all the resorts in her Royal Portfolio and likes every room to be different, mixing the new and the renovated, an eclectic collection of ideas from far and wide. The result is busy with ‘statement’ furniture: colonial-era dressers and grand, well-stuffed sofas mixed with exotic modern pieces. On the tables, heavy tomes – faux antiques – lie beside birding guides and photographic memoirs. Flamboyant colours accent the opulence, lime greens and turquoise puncturing the pomposity.
Once this was the Bidens’ holiday home: now it is a theatre of the wild. The resort’s common spaces are arranged over multiple decks: the lounge, restaurant, bar and snugs arranged in tiers, focused on the ‘stage’, a natural watering hole enlarged to offer guaranteed sightings.
I wandered the resort’s boardwalk, first checking if any interlopers larger than antelope were nearby. At the spa, the manager told me they saw plenty of animal traffic, with elephants attracted by the sound of flowing water. She said the entrance steps seemed to stymie them, so they would head round the side instead to rearrange the daybeds and drink from the bubbling pools.
The land beyond is shared with several other resorts and my driver, Rhiaan, and spotter, the gloriously nicknamed Shadow, were in frequent contact with them, checking on sightings. Over the course of two days, we shared intel on a pack of painted wolves – a more respectful rebrand of the African wild dog – as they hunted, and a pride of lions that was hunting the dogs. Getting off our vehicle, we became hunters in turn, trailing the lions. On our last outing, having located them, we sat perfectly positioned, as the whole pride filed languidly past our bonnet.
By then I’d had my close encounter with the elephant outside my room. I’d previously wondered about the length of untreated timber freshly tacked to the top of the rail of my veranda. Now I knew this cycle of ‘redesign’ and repair was part of the experience, in line with the nature of the resort.
I called the front desk and told them I’d had a visitor who’d done some remodelling. ‘That’s nice’ the lady said, echoing the smile in my voice, ‘I’ll send someone over to take a look.’