“I think I have just spotted Pumba,” I murmur to my partner, doing my absolute best to contain my excitement. I’m still sitting on the tarmac of Hoedspruit’s tiny airport, a dusty and sleepy town that acts as a gateway to the world-renowned Kruger National Park, when I spot a ‘team’ of these funny-looking but very cute creatures. The fact that these warthogs can be seen within the airport’s gated boundaries gives us a good idea of the prospects this area offers in terms of wildlife. “Wow, what a start to our safari!”
A brief transfer gets us to andBeyond’s Ngala Private Game Reserve. This 15,000-hectare-wide reserve, set within the boundaries of the Kruger National Park, sits adjacent to the sandy bed of the dried-up Timbavati River and under a canopy of dense riverine forest.
Arriving at our lodge, the andBeyond Ngala Tented Camp, we are whisked off to our accommodation, which sits under the shade of some of Kruger’s and indeed Africa’s most iconic trees: the Marula and the Knob Thorn Acacia. The path leading to our khaki tent is bordered by lush, thick grass and brash impalas can be spotted gracefully grazing away at it. It feels like we’ve entered the set of the epic movie Out of Africa.
“And remember, don’t leave anything outside,” advises David, the ever-positive and obliging resident butler. “The baboons will have your food and the hyenas, your shoes,” he adds with a cheeky grin, winking as he disappears off. Puzzled and slightly concerned, I remember that the camp is actually fenced by electric wire, so David was actually pulling my leg, as far as the hyenas go anyways.
There are only nine tents at andBeyond’s Ngala Tented Camp, which makes for the perfect intimate experience and the ideal couple’s retreat. There is a crystal-clear swimming pool, which hangs over the edge of the Timbavati riverbank, an idyllic way to spend some relaxing time in between safaris. It also makes for the perfect game-viewing platform, and we’re lucky enough to have elephants come and cool down in the watering hole just below.
As we’re about to embark on our first safari, we’re introduced to Marcus and Ernest; our respective ranger and tracker for the duration of our stay. Trackers that follow a Shaangaan lineage are considered to be the Rolls Royce of tracking. So men like Marcus and Ernest are the descendants of tribesmen, who would have hunted and gathered in the region for thousands of years, and it’s obvious how perfectly in tune and attuned with the wilderness they are.
Following a concise briefing, we board a trusty-looking Land Cruiser, converted into a topless game-viewing vehicle, and off we scuttle into the bush, leaving nothing in our rearview mirror but a trail of dust.
As we off-road onto the sandy bed of the river, Marcus suddenly hits the brakes, shuts the engine down and brings the Cruiser to a stop. A sudden soothing sense of stillness wraps itself around us whilst simultaneously the bush comes alive. In the distance, birds are calling, monkeys are alarming, and impalas can be heard ruffling through low scrub.
Marcus and Ernest exchange a few words in Si Shangaan. Ernest, who had been sitting on a stalking seat perched above the engine, jumps into the body of the main car, which is a good sign that we could be in for some wildlife action.
Marcus, with an assuredness akin to Denzel Washington in The Equalizer, turns around and mellowly whispers that The Birmingham Pride, which is fourteen-lions strong, includes two of the three wild white (leucistic) lions in the world. They have been successfully tracked and sighted and are lying down further up the river in a post-kill and semi-comatose state.
Basil is not something I would have thought of smelling whilst out on a safari, but as we drive through a grassy clearing on approach to where the lions have been seen, this very familiar and fresh herbaceous scent billows around us. A delight for the senses.
After a five-minute drive, which felt more like thirty minutes, my excitement reached a climax, heightened by the fact that these incredible felines have not been seen for four months. Yet here we are, at touching distance, and I can feel myself overcome by feelings of humility, joy and sadness. Sadness, because of the reality that these beautiful and majestic creatures, which once roamed these lands in total liberty, and in numbers far, far greater than today, are now at the mercy of human behaviour. It is a sobering thought that they could go extinct by 2050.
Just as the sun is about to set, Marcus picks a spot for us to have our sundowners. A well-stocked bar is set up before our eyes and provides the perfect opportunity for guests, rangers and trackers to mingle and discuss the day’s actions whilst enjoying cool drinks and snacks under a perfectly lit and clear African sky.
As we drive back to camp, my head and camera filled with memories that will last a lifetime, I feel so privileged to have been able to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat and hope that many generations to come will have the same opportunity.
Sunday evenings are truly special at Ngala Tented Camp, and I would recommend planning your trip accordingly. Sunday is the only evening in the week where guests can enjoy a typical South African braai with their ranger. A perfect opportunity to get to know these wonderful professionals on a personal level whilst being able to discuss bush-related matters. It’s fantastic to hear that most of the staff at andBeyond Ngala Tented Camp come from communities in the vicinity, which has served as a perfect mechanism to strengthen the ties between the people of the land and the hospitality group.
Dennis, the charismatic General Manager, joins us, and we discuss our amazing experience, which sadly is coming to a close. I share some of the highlights of our trip, which include spotting four of the big five animals, but also how incredibly at home we felt throughout our stay. Dennis expands on andBeyond’s mission statement: care of the land, care of the people and care of wildlife. Guiding principles that mean andBeyond is making moves to fast becoming the first sustainably profitable, full-impact organisation.