Wildlife, luxe and laughs are in store at Sir Richard Branson's SA game lodge
Ulusaba in the greater Kruger has all the perks you'd expect from a fancy private reserve — plus extra lashings of fun. Now deals for locals mean you can experience it all yourself
Monday afternoon and I'm in my home office, working but still wearing the smile of a past weekend in the bush. My phone buzzes with an intriguing alert: Virgin Limited Edition is live on Instagram. Tap-tap and there they are: those two wildlife rock stars whom I elbow-bumped goodbye just 27 hours ago.
So I'm back in Jozi but life at Ulusaba in Sabi Sand goes on, damn them. And guide Trevor Savage is welcoming viewers to the weekly live-streamed game drive. Clad in the familiar khaki button-up shirt and shorts, he's talking about what a beautiful day it is there. The weird part is he's chest-deep in the swimming pool.
"It's over 40 degrees," he says, by way of explaining this oddball intro, and tracker Donald Sibuyi, also fully clothed, swims into view. "Now that we've cooled off, let's go look for some animals."
And so begins episode 31 of Ulusaba's Sofa Safari series, the virtual game drive they've been doing every Monday since April 2020, when Covid stopped the world. As Savage later explains, it was a way "to inspire and educate people while they couldn't travel, and to help bring the experience of a safari to life".
As lockdown relaxed, the lodge reopened in September and domestic visitors have been creeping back, green shoots after a fire. The virtual safaris, meanwhile, have proved so popular that they plan to carry on, and yet - I know, having just done it - that nothing beats actually being there.
A NAME WORTH DROPPING
You might have guessed from the Virgin word that Ulusaba is Sir Richard Branson's private game reserve. Yes, billionaire Branson. Famously thrill-seeking, risk-taking, philanthropic Branson. He with his own Caribbean island (Necker) and several other properties, including a mountain kasbah in Morocco and a luxury chalet in Switzerland. All of these are part of the Virgin Limited Edition collection of retreats, as is Ulusaba, which already tells you that - hand-picked by a man who could buy virtually anything - it must be remarkable indeed. And it is.
First, there is the location. Ulusaba occupies 13,500ha on the western side of Sabi Sand, a 66,000ha reserve sharing unfenced borders with the Kruger National Park. Its super-fertile conditions and variety of habitats are heaven to a host of animals, and most safari aficionados agree that the animal-spotting opportunities here are unparalleled in SA.
And then there is the property itself. Opened in 2000, Ulusaba has 20 rooms divided between two separate camps: Safari Lodge and Rock Lodge.
Rock Lodge is perhaps the showstopper, perched as it is on a tower of rocks that juts from the plains like a thumbs-up. This tiny mountain kingdom of pointy roofs and perilous boulders can be seen from miles around. The koppie, in fact, is the source of the lodge's name. As Shangaan warriors once used it as a lookout point, they called it Ulusaba, meaning "place of little fear". Rock Lodge remains closed for now, though we do head up its vertiginously winding driveway to take in the views from the top, which are phenomenal.
But it is the other camp, Safari Lodge - incidentally the one Branson prefers when he comes - that is open for business.
DOWN BY THE RIVER
The 10-room Safari Lodge, about 500m from Rock Lodge, is closer to ground level but definitely not lacking in drama. Built around the dry Mabrak River bed, its proximity to the Xikwenga Dam on a natural elephant path inspired the swing bridges and elevated walkways that connect the rooms and public areas, leaving the wildlife free to roam below.
The main lodge includes a lounge, a long dining table (no doubt for festive nights in the days before social distancing) and a bar, but the fresh-air areas - a wide wooden deck and a dining platform under the trees - are the primary attraction. At least, they are the window to the primary attraction: those elephants that lumber in and out like clockwork every morning and late afternoon to dip their trunks in a pond or perhaps one of the rooms' private plunge pools.
Those reliable elephants, in fact, solved a slight quandary for me, a nightly dilemma that I imagine all game-lodge veterans face at bedtime: to set the alarm for the early game drive or skip it?
In one direction, there is the tug of the sunrise, the crisp air, the intrepid spirit in you that wants to roll the dice and see what you might find. But then there are those pillows, that duvet, the notion of a sleep-in and an indulgent breakfast under the trees. And if the early risers happen to see something spectacular like a kill .. oh well!
Ulusaba is the kind of place where there is no question because, well, when you open your eyes to a family of elephants casually munching on trees just beyond your balcony, how can you possibly go back to sleep?
THE LUXURY TO LINGER
It also doesn't hurt that Savage and Sibuyi are a ranger-tracker dream team. Both in the business for 20 years, they have worked together for 10 and are sharp not only with information but also playful banter. With ease, they unearth a near-perpetual parade of creatures, including all of the Big Five. Many are up-close sightings of relaxed animals, where we also get the luxury of lingering a while.
Alongside some lounging lions, Savage whispers about coalitions - males that band together and challenge other males (and protective females) for territory. His tale of the Mapogo lions, six brothers who together wiped out entire prides of competitors across Sabi Sand, is a sobering reminder that the bush is as brutal as it is beautiful.
Brutal too, is the moody leopard we see rebuff a female in oestrus. His keenness to catnap clearly trumps hers to breed, and her advance ends in growls and a tussle, though not the kind she would have liked.
Between the dramatic animal scenes, just the joy of a dirt road in Africa in an open vehicle is invigorating, post-lockdown or not. Enamoured even by the plants, we ask our guides to come up with a list of Big Five trees - how come no-one has done this yet? - and teach us how to spot them (see box). It's a game that offers up hours of fun.
At a morning stop with rusks and Amarula coffee, we lay in the grass under one of the Big Five trees (I don't remember which because I wasn't good at the game), while nearby a group of "dagha boys" (old buffalo bulls who have broken from the herd, famously unpredictable and ill-tempered) wallow in a mud pond and glare as if we owe them money - with thanks to writer Robert Ruark for that wittily accurate description.
Even once the sun is gone, Sibuyi excels at tracking, halting the vehicle in the pitch dark for a crocodile in a stream, a chameleon on a leaf, even a scorpion on bark. Later he reveals it's their eyes reflecting the light that gives them away, but I am no less impressed.
Besides all the perks you can rightly expect from your stay - the fine food, the wine, the exemplary service, the warmth - Virgin Limited Edition always promises "surprises". The most special of these on our Ulusaba visit, I will do you the favour of keeping to myself.
But let's just say that, if, one evening as you head back from a drive, Savage and Sibuyi suddenly stop and scratch their heads, poke their faces up like meerkats and tell you they're lost, don't panic. They're pranksters, remember? And just over the next hill is a night more magical than your wildest back-to-the-bush dreams. Promise.
A QUIRKY COVID CRUSADER
VLE's rubber duckies are good ambassadors for their maxim that fun is non-negotiable. Each of the properties has its own special duck, and Ulusaba's pairs a zebra skin with a sensible cap and camera.
As part of their new safety measures - including sanitising, temperature checks and mandatory masks in public areas (guests too, please) - the duckie is now doubling as a place-holder for QR codes, allowing hands-free access to materials such as menus. Welcome packs also include a comfy face mask and sanitiser.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
WHERE IT IS: Ulusaba is in the western sector of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in Mpumalanga, and shares unfenced boundaries with the Kruger National Park.
GETTING THERE: It's about a six-hour drive from Joburg or an 80-minute flight. Federal Air flies directly to the lodge's private airstrip. See fedair.com.
MORE THINGS TO DO: Though "Anyone for tennis?" is a phrase not normally heard in the bush, Ulusaba has two tennis courts. There's a bush observatory for guided star-gazing and the Aroma Boma spa offers treatments using Africology products.
WHEN TO GO: Safari Lodge is open Thursdays to Mondays with the exception of school holidays. It will be open full-time over the Easter holidays. Rock Lodge is currently closed.
SPECIAL SA RESIDENTS' OFFER: South African residents pay from R6,000 per person per night in an Elephant or River room, based on two people sharing, minimum three-night stay. Includes all meals and drinks including local beverages, mini-bar, twice-daily game drives, a daily walking safari (weather dependent) and Wi-Fi.
FAMILIES & GROUPS: Children 6 and older are welcome at Safari Lodge and there is a club for children under 12. Larger groups - up to four adults and three children under 12 - can book the exclusive-use Safari Suite and adjoining Safari Room, which has a private entrance, a walled garden with a boma fire pit, large living space, a plunge pool and a private safari vehicle. R40,000 per night (based on a three-night stay).
• Sleith was a guest of Virgin Limited Edition.
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