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A South African Safari

For a once in a lifetime experience, stay at a private game reserve

By MARILYN SOLTIS
With Africa's profound troubles dominating its image worldwide, it's easy to overlook the continent's vast wonders. The birthplace of the human race, Africa's land mass comprises 23 percent of the world's land area, making it the second largest continent in the world.  Much of the allure of this enigmatic continent comes from its natural environment and wealth of unique animal species.

South Africa, the size of Spain and France combined, is stunningly beautiful. The government long ago realized that preserving the environment would play a vital role in the economic health of the region.

More than a century of wildlife conservation efforts has made the countryside and game parks rich in wildlife that is fast vanishing from the rest of the continent. The Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard) are prevalent, along with herbivorous species like giraffe, hippo, zebra and antelope. Many other animals are represented, like the gazelle, fondly referred to by the locals as the "McDonalds" of the animal kingdom because they are easy prey for the region's big cats.

Unlike the plains of Kenya, where viewing herds of animals is usually done from a greater distance, South African wildlife is more accessible. Kruger National Park beats out the rest of the continent for its cross-section of mammal species. Located in the northeastern part of South Africa, bordering Mozambique, it was established as a game reserve and park in 1926 and measures an astounding 7,523 square miles.

There are several ways of touring the park. One is to simply drive through it on your own and stay at rest camps administered by the park. Do not get out of your car and take pictures. Many have not lived to tell about it. You can also sign up for any number of bus tours and safaris.

For a once in a lifetime experience, however, a stay at one of the private game reserves is worth the considerable expense. The most luxurious of the new safari camps outlying Kruger is Tintswalo Safari Lodge in the Manyeleti Game Reserve. Outside the park are tracts of land exclusively for the use of private safari camps. Animals from Kruger wander into this territory and you are taken on game drives by highly experienced game rangers in open topped vehicles. These rangers track the animals and can get as close as a few feet from them. You are expected to remain quiet and most of all, not stand in the vehicle as these animals have come to think of the trucks as large harmless animals. Sudden movement can cause them to charge. The rangers know the characteristics of the species and try to keep you out of danger. Night drives under the stars and moon are uniquely mystical. We saw a pride of lions walking single file across a ridge, their reflections perfectly illuminated in the water below. Other night sightings may include hyenas, porcupines and leopards.

One of the conditions of obtaining leases for the land is to work closely with the rural communities to involve them in the process of eco-tourism.  The Manyeleti Reserve was only used by black South Africans until 1963, when it was taken over by the parks and tourism board. Ongoing educational and cooperative programs with the neighboring population have been established and have sponsored visits to the local Shangaan community. They give a fascinating insight into a people who have largely retained a culture rich in folklore and storytelling. The Shangaans are strongly spiritual and believe in the presence of their ancestors.

Back at the Tintswalo lodge, the menu is extensive and generous and offers unusual entrees indigenous to the region, like springbok, kudu, impala sausage and oxtail. There is one large house in the compound that can be rented for families, but more popular are the individual explorer suites that offer the romance of the 19th century adventurers and are even named after them. For example, the Kingsley Suite is named after Mary Kingsley, a "spinster" who collected fish and insect samples for the Royal Geographic Society. The Burton Suite honors Richard Burton, who translated The Arabian Nights into English. Decorated in colonial opulence, the suites offer indoor/outdoor showers and four legged soaking tubs that lead to an outdoor deck with its own private plunge pool. Each is its own private structure with connecting, raised walkways. As dusk falls, private guards walk with you to the main lodge to protect against encroaching wildlife. Doors are securely locked at all times to prevent unwanted animal guests from entering.

Many South Africans live with nature in ways we can only imagine. A trip to bush country is a wondrous experience.

Published: May 28, 2007
Issue: Summer 2007 Urban Living