Sleep in a four-poster bed beside a waterhole at this luxe Greater Kruger lodge
Motswari Private Game Reserve in the Timbavati is an upmarket bush retreat that's keeping the conservation flame alive with a whole lot of heart, writes Elizabeth Sleith
We hear it before we see it: a curious cross between a wheeze and a scream. It's high-pitched and tortured and whips through the long grass. Eee. Eee. Eee. Suddenly, the face appears, a young impala with a loping gait, clearly exhausted. His head lurches forward as he runs, as if he's trying to snatch back his laboured breathing or swallow up his own awful sound. For a moment, we five humans on the game vehicle in the Motswari Private Reserve are frozen, spellbound.
Seconds later, the culprit comes in hot pursuit: a hyena, crouched low, looking cool.
"Ooooh, that guy is done for!" declares our guide, Henry Tarr. Canadian-born, his North American twang lends a movie-esque quality to the scene. He throws the vehicle into gear and we hare off in their wake. The tracker, Jacky Mlobela, perched on the vehicle's tip, points his predictions on where the chase might cross the road again.
The impala is almost certainly lunch, says Henry, keen as a kid on Christmas. They are fast runners and phenomenal jumpers, but they're not built for long-distance - and his "barking" is a dead giveaway that he's run too long. Hyenas, meanwhile, are the bush's best hunters - with an 80% success rate.
Having lost them, we stop to listen. Only silence. Henry fills the void with stories, effusive in his admiration of the hyena.
They are incredibly smart, with sophisticated social hierarchies and systems of communication. Their nasty reputation as scavengers actually comes from their amazing capacity to digest anything. They can live off bones and rotten meat. And in the badlands of the bush, where no day goes by without bloodshed, they are vital to cleaning up the bodies. They are also unparalleled team players. Hunting in packs, they will fan out to exhaust their prey, running relay for the kill.
This time, though, there is no team. Just a lone guy trying his luck. And luck is with the impala after all.
With the engine cut, the bush has returned to its usual symphony of birdsong and breezes. We assume our underdog has lived to leap another day.
As every hyena and impala knows, sometimes you lose, sometimes you win.
A TAKEAWAY LUNCH
Earlier on this same drive, we'd seen the dark side of the coin. Lose. A small reedbuck, draped over the branch of a weeping boer-bean tree, like laundry on a line.
Shongile the leopard had dragged him up there, out of the reach of thieves - like the hyena - to save him for a takeway. There's a dark red streak running down the trunk where his blood spilled. A bad day for the buck but a good one for the guests of the quietly elegant Motswari Lodge, whose rim-flow pool and dining verandah are just across the dry Nhlaralumi River bed, with a splendid view of this tree.
Just that morning, Henry says, their breakfast was served with a full show from Shongile, prowling around her kill.
Motswari, the lodge and private reserve, fall mainly in the Timbavati in an unfenced band of private reserves known collectively as the Greater Kruger National Park.
Bought by Paul and Med Geiger in 1979, it is one of SA's original safari lodges - Paul, in fact, was a key player in having the Kruger fence, put up to much dismay from the surrounding landowners in 1961, taken down in 1993, restoring the animals' right to roam here as they had since time began.
The main lodge has 15 thatched rondawels dotted about the property, all unobtrusive exteriors and graceful interiors, satellites to the central open-air lounge and dining area.
There are no fences here either, so every moment holds the prospect of a close encounter. As I arrive there with Henry for high tea one day, we find three warthogs, dozing in the shade of the stone-arch entrance. We enter instead by clambering through a bed of succulents, to let them dream.
Henry has driven me here from Geiger's Camp, where I am sleeping, 2km away. This is Motswari's more exclusive option, for groups (max eight) who want the whole space, or couples, perhaps, who want a greater sense of privacy - but with the full, smiling service of the staff, who will welcome them from game drives with a cocktail and a cold towel, and cater to their every whim over breakfast, lunch and dinner - and any time inbetween.
Geiger's was built in the '80s as a family space for Roland, son of Paul, who at the time was running the lodge.
Now, with a recent renovation, it is a fine guesthouse of stone and wood, the heart of which is a wide half-moon incorporating a pool, lounge, dining area, and small library. Built high on a ridge, it is a lazy smile looking over a sweeping Big Five plain.
It's over lunch here that I meet Motswari's owners, Marion Geiger-Orengo and her husband, Frenchman Fabrice Orengo de Lamazière. Marion, Paul's daughter, spent her childhood holidays here, married Fabrice here, and their own teenage children grew up holidaying here too.
Though she clearly loves this land, her involvement in the business was not the plan. As she puts it, she didn't set out to be "the only Geiger left".
At university, she studied fine art and is a celebrated artist by profession. But when her brother, Roland, died in a plane crash in Kenya in 1998, she took on the family's greatest love, and brought the art world with her. Fabrice, with a background in finance, brought the business sense.
Today it's a family venture through and through, which Marion says "pivots on their first loves: nature and art".
MARIE-ANTOINETTE MEETS AFRICA
Each of the rooms is unique, an eclectic collection of antiques and oddities, handpicked over years by Marion from roadside stores and global travels. Altogether, they create a uniquely chic, Marie-Antoinette-meets-Africa feel.
My room, for example, has a heavenly outdoor shower with turquoise tiles; an antique chaise longue by the window; an egg chair dangling on my private patio, an inviting front-row seat to that incredible view.
In the bathroom, there's a cowboy bathtub next to a red velvet stool and a pair of robes made from a festive African print.
The fourposter bed, of course, is swaddled in mosquito netting, a huge temptation to deploy Motswari's cheeky version of a "Do Not Disturb" sign. Handpainted on wood, it says only: "ZZZ".
The long family history, too, is borne out by the staff. Most of Motswari's 75 employees are from local villages, and many have been here for more than 30 years. The head chef and the assistant general manager are both second-generation staff. As Fabrice says, they are all family.
The result is a superlative level of warm care and attention in "one of the last wild places left on Earth".
CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL
But of course, it's for the animals that we are really here. And there is no grumbling response to the early morning wake-up calls, or the roar of the vehicle to collect me from the poolside in the fading afternoon light.
On every outing, the tracker Jacky is eagle-eyed and guide Henry endears himself with his talent for storytelling and infectious admiration for every creature great and small.
A Swainson's spurfowl giving himself a cooling dust bath. A fish eagle tearing up a catch in the early light. A baby hippo, just a few days old, floating with its mum.
At some point I mention I've never seen lions in the wild and my guide's eyes gleam, the challenge set. It's not long before he delivers. We rumble incredibly close to a pride of lions, two males, two females, three cubs. They're catching ZZZs, and barely move, just now and then rolling over, stretching, yawning. Once, one rises to pad away, only to plop down again. Didn't feel like it after all.
One of Motswari's more special offerings is the bushwalk, which I'm certain will be excellent. But on the morning I'm supposed to go, Henry arrives with news that Shongile the leopard has been spotted just outside the main lodge. Would I like to see her?
Within minutes, we have her: stretched long and lazing on a dam wall, showing off her fabulous coat with an air of boredom even the world's greatest runway stars would envy.
Then comes news of another sighting: elephants. A no brainer.
Off we head to a waterhole to find a huge herd. Young bulls play fight in the water, a tiny calf nuzzles its mum, young ladies mill about, swinging their trunks and munching on twigs. Mostly, they ignore us too, except for one point when the matriarch, seemingly about to pass by, turns and positions herself square in front of the car. A nervous traveller might call it a menacing pose but Henry is nonplussed.
"Hey little momma," he sings the song one might use on a kitten or a baby.
"Are you showing us who's boss? Yes, we know." His calm is soothing - to me and to her. She lingers a moment and then lumbers off.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
When we're not hanging with the animals, we humans linger longest over meals. Dinners, particularly, are button-busting affairs. Buffets in the boma at the main lodge or brought to table in the intimate, candelit setting of Geiger's deck. Curries, stews, exotic cuts of meat and delicate desserts.
The ultimate treat, though, is a night in Giraffe's Nest, a platform built for two on stilts in the middle of the bush, next to a waterhole.
Sleeping here is extra, but those who book it will find a table laid for the most romantic of sunset dinners, before your lone waiter leaves you to spend the night alone.
I skip the dinner but do spend the night, ferried there by game vehicle after dark. As its lights recede, leaving me behind, a paraffin lamp, a radio in case I chicken out, and a retractable canvas over my bed are all I have for company. Plus there calls I can't identify in the night, and a thousand stars sparkling above. I snuggle into the duvet, sated, satisfied and unafraid, certain that not even Shongile can reach me here. It's too high. There's a door for good measure, and that door is locked.
As every cherished guest here knows, sometimes you win, and sometimes you win again.
• Sleith was a guest of Motswari.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
RATES: Geiger's Camp is from R5,685 pps. Motswari Lodge is from R4,060 pps. Rates include two daily game drives and all meals and most drinks.
SPECIAL: Stay in the month of May and receive a complimentary massage.
BOOKING: Motswari is part of Newmark's collection of luxury hotels and lodges in Africa. See newmarkhotels.com.
ART AND SOCIAL MEDIA: CALLED UP FOR THE RHINO CAUSE
In November 2014, a rhino was murdered at Motswari. Though the poaching crisis had been snowballing for some time, lodge owner Marion Geiger-Orengo says the devastation, so close to home, shook her bones.
Ironically, just months before, Marion's husband, Fabrice Orengo de Lamazière, had helped found an organisation called Rhino Disharmony, with the express mission "to create one global voice against rhino poaching".
That March, the couple had arranged a concert at the lodge, where the world-renowned pianist, Chinese Tian Jiang, had live-composed a haunting melody for the rhino, while Marion painted one.
It was pure performance art, a fleeting moment of beauty as precious in its impermanence as the imperiled creature itself. The painting was donated to raise funds for conservation, but more crucially, the event was the first expression of an idea about how art and conservation could unite in this war.
Today, Rhino Disharmony's main goal is to inspire creative works that strike an emotional chord and so take the plight of rhinos to the world.
It seeks artists from all genres to collaborate. Those who wish to may take up residence at Motswari, giving in return their time and labour to produce something, share the result on social media and move on.
Big-name ambassadors so far have included artist Beezy Bailey, Freshly Ground singer Zolani Mahola, cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) and German model twins Nina and Julia Meise. They have made sculptures, songs, cartoons and short films, disseminated purely through social-media platforms.
WATCH | Tian Jang and Zolani Mahola work together on the Rhino Disharmony project
Part of the power of art, of course, is that it transcends language and borders. This is a crucial aspect of RD since its main objective is to change the minds of the people who buy the horns, in Asia.
The name reflects that too. As Fabrice explains, harmony is a life goal in Asia, and the worst thing that can happen is "disharmony". Rhino Disharmony, then, is a punch in the gut.
Says Fabrice, "Our message is to the people of Asia: Stop consuming and the poaching will stop." Like, follow and spread the word: No one in the world needs a rhino horn but a rhino.