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  • Shelley Dark

16. Sabi Sabi Sands

This is the Sabi Sabi story, in one big fat marathon post. You might like to read it in a couple of sittings, or make yourself a big cup of coffee and settle in. 

I know I told you this story about leaving Joburg on our way to Sabi Sabi Sands in an email but I'd like to include it in this post so just skim over it.

We caught the Gautrain to the airport and then were ferried by our driver Sipho (pronounced see-po, photo above) to the light aircraft side of the airport.

As we climbed into the van, I commented on his pleasant aftershave. Yes Mumma, I'm a gigolo and I have to smell good for my ladies. We couldn't help laughing.

We hit a huge bump at speed. The trailer with our luggage flew into the air and we felt the pull as it crashed down hard again. I was so glad I'd insisted on having my computer in the van with me.

Soapie, do you ever have any breakages in the luggage? I asked casually. Helen snorted at the unintentional mispronunciation.

Oh no, never, Mumma, said Sipho, it all has 'FRAGILE' stickers on it.

Our sides are aching again.

a wildlife welcoming committee at Sabi Sabi - photo courtesy Sabi Sabi  

We were on our way north again, this time to Sabi Sabi Sands Bush Lodge on the edge of Kruger National Park.

We flew for an hour under grey skies across a parched brown landscape to arrive at the bitumen airstrip with its stylish low rammed-earth terminal. 

This photo hangs on the wall at Bush Lodge: banker Hilton Loon and his artist wife Jacquie who bought Sabi Sabi in 1980 as a struggling game park with two small lodges. They're now shareholders in a company which employs 250 predominantly local people in an enterprise which has won a Fair Trade award for employment conditions. 

We were met at the airport by Zwa, our guide for the duration of our stay. Thirty-six years old, unassuming and quietly spoken, highly educated and widely read, he has been a generous companion, dedicated to helping us make the best of our stay.

How delightful to see landing stages with steps and railings! At Mashatu the vehicles had vertical metal side-ladders with a decent drop to the ground. We totally failed to master the art of a graceful downward swing and often ended either facing the wrong way or in a heap on the ground.

Our vehicle's identification is B11. Which makes sense now we know what happened to B10.

Bush Lodge's low thatched buildings are totally open.

photo courtesy Sabi Sabi 

There's a two wire electric fence around the lodge compound but it doesn't stop smaller animals. The night before we arrived a leopard had strolled along the space between the open plan deck and dining tables, much to the delighted horror of the guests! Zwa cautioned us against walking from our rooms at night without phoning for an escort. 

The suites have polished concrete floors with throw rugs, an outside seating area, sitting room, bedroom, study area, and the bathroom has both indoor and outdoor shower.

An outdoor shower, with leopards strolling around?????? Note: daylight hours only! Adrenalin and shampoo would be novel companions.

A one-monkey welcoming committee on the chair outside my bedroom.

This is Aaron's equivalent of a guffaw, try as I might to make him laugh over the time we've been here. He's been a tracker for many years, and during that time he's been sending money home to Mozambique to his wife to buy cattle. He's about to retire in November and has 47 cows in his herd. A man of few words, he's thoroughly nice and absolutely dedicated to his tracking work.

This is one of two young male lions who've been seen being hunted away by the females of a fifteen-strong pride. With one eye half closed and cut all over, he's reconsidering his pickup line.

We left him to lick his wounds while we drove on. We're amazed at how quickly Zwa and Aaron can spot a huge variety of birds on our drives. Don't skip over the birds - I'll be giving you a test! 

photo by Dave via Wikimedia Commons

The ground hornbill lives on snakes and reptiles and rarely drinks. Baby chicks fight to the death in the nest so that only one survives, and they're two years old before they become independent of their parents.

photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons

We saw the very bossy and territorial striped kingfisher. The male and the female face each other, flicking their wings open and shut as they sing to each other. The gentleman beats large prey to death and then holds the food steady while the female tears pieces from it.

This plump little chook which we also saw at Mashatu is called a francolin (pronounced franklin). They're ground dwelling birds who'd rather run than fly, with a hooked beak for digging at grass tussocks and root balls for their food. 

This the yellow-billed hornbill whose beak is huge in comparison with its body. Interestingly they have long eyelashes! Like the ground hornbill, the female builds herself and her eggs into a mud prison inside a hole in a tree with only a slit for the male to pass food through.  

In her self-made spa, she sheds all of her flight and tail feathers simultaneously and regrows them. Once the chicks are half-grown, she breaks out of the nest to help the male while the clever chicks rebuild the wall. When they're fully grown, they break out too.

The colourful lilac breasted roller nests in a hole in a tree and the eggs are incubated by both parents, who gamely take on raptors and other birds to defend their babies. During the breeding season the male shows off for prospective girlfriends by flying to great heights and descending in flashy rolls and swoops and dives.

This striking bird is the cape glossy starling which flies in large flocks and is very clever at imitating sounds. Zwa says he eats fat ants.

​We've seen several herds of twelve or more elephants grazing peacefully, stringing out across the bush or drinking at the camp waterhole. ​ 

This little comedian was scratching his head, experimenting with his trunk, pretending to pick things up and put them in his mouth. Just like a baby.

This little one was thirsty. Elephant teats are between the front legs, not the back. He'd wander behind his mother for a while, then become distracted and be left behind with his head stuck in the middle of a bush. Mother would stand patiently, waiting for him to wake up and follow her.

As Mum passed the front of the vehicle, she suddenly decided she didn't like having us so close to the path she wanted to take. She walked right up to tracker Aaron, shook her ears at him, took another step forward and stood there, staring threateningly. He sat immobile.  

Helen and I froze. In that instant we both thought she was going to keep coming. She shook her ears again in irritation then another malevolent stare. Everyone sat still. She trumpeted a loud scolding and then turned to walk slowly away as if all was forgotten, calf ambling nonchalantly along behind.

Zwa said they hadn't been worried, she's a young twelve-year-old cow and they knew she wouldn't keep coming - in their experience, only the matriarch of this herd would ever be likely to attack a vehicle. 

This is head chef Enoch. Lunches are buffet style with attractive salads, cold cuts, cheeses and hot dishes. Each evening he prepares a three course meal served at the table, with a choice of each. Neither of us are very adventurous in our menu choices, but we've had a divine carpaccio of smoked springbok, and the farmed zebra steak was indistinguishable from tough-ish beef. 

Petunia looks after us at each meal.

In the early mornings, it's fun to climb into the game vehicle, full of anticipation, hot water bottles and blankets waiting on the seat. 

A bull elephant disadvantaged by one short tusk has been killed by a stronger male. These hyenas and vultures are breakfasting on the carcase. It's a tough world, isn't it?

Herds of impala were basking in the morning sun.

We recognise them by their pretty twirling horns and the M on their bottom.

We've seen bush babies, bush buck, kudu and nyala too.

This young white rhino gave himself a facial on the roots of a tree.  He's near B10 territory. The significance of the name B10? You guessed it. He destroyed that vehicle. Plus the private car belonging to the lodge's interior designers. He's a grumpy old man who doesn't take kindly to trespassers on his territory.

When we saw B10 approaching HIS waterhole, Zwa stopped the vehicle without switching off the engine. B10 ignored the water hole and started making his way towards us. Zwa drove forward. B10 kept coming. Zwa drove forward. B10 didn't falter. Zwa pressed the accelerator and B10 stopped to watch us drive away before turning back to have his drink. Another invasion averted.

Zebras each have their own 'barcode', and a mother stays away from the herd until her foal can recognise her particular marking.

Lions like hunting zebras because they're so fat, but their stripes make it harder for a lion to single one out.

A mother giraffe and her calf eating foliage from a tree. If threatened by a lion, giraffes are able to kung fu kick with deadly accuracy in all directions. 

We enjoyed the coffee and amarula stops with home-baked biscuits during the morning game drives before our hearty cooked breakfasts back at the lodge. Amarula is like an African Baileys liqueur made from the berries of the marula tree.

For our bush walk with Zwa, we drove out into the game park where he loaded his rifle. It was just the three of us, walking single file. If there was a threat, he would hold his fist up for us to stop and remain absolutely still. We might simply need to stand there motionless, or perhaps in some circumstances, back away. He has never had to shoot. Yet.

It's amazing how your senses are heightened when you're out walking where you've seen B10 not long before.

A close up of the jawbone of an elephant who died twenty-five years ago. Herds of elephants still gather around these bones to moan in grief, lifting up their trunks up and comforting each other by touch. Isn't that so poignant?

She was part of a group of the same generation of elephants known on Sabi Sabi as the magnificent seven. Mandleve, the biggest male is a legend still spoken about by the staff. He was a gentle giant with magnificent tusks reaching nearly to the ground.

The female marula tree has yellow berries in summer, much richer in vitamin C than oranges. They're loved by elephants who often break the trees down trying to reach them. 

The local Shangaan tribe have a novel method of marriage counselling. If a couple are having problems, the chief instructs that the man be tied to a male marula tree and the woman to a close-by female marula trunk. They're left there for the day to sort it out! 

The chief still remains very important for all South African tribes and makes legal rulings affecting his tribespeople. Zwa is going home later in the year for a family appointment with the chief over a land matter.

The candelabra euphorbias are all about to flower.

The female wildebeests have gone walkabout and the lone male wildebeest will stay where they leave him until they return. I know John will say he knows exactly how the poor bloke feels.

Hippos sit in the water all day, wriggling themselves a space in the mud complete with raised chin rest. I willed this one to yawn but she only blinked. She won't come out to feed until dusk.

We've seen this peaceful herd of cape buffalo several times - it's hard to believe they're the most dangerous of the big five, goring over 200 people each year. 

They have amazing horns which form a fused helmet in the centre, called a 'boss'.

This fellow was mildly irritated by the red-billed oxpecker on his nose. These birds eat ticks adhering to the hide, but actually prefer blood and will peck at wounds to keep them open.

No it's not an evil poacher. Helen's been working on sun-safe safari fashion adaptations.

It's such fun to watch the baboons with their almost human behaviour - this male was watching what everyone else was doing and offering his opinion.

These two were smooching.

This is Phiso, pronounced fee-soh, although Helen was fixed on see-poh. Pronouncing African names has probably caused us the most hilarity on this trip! He very kindly escorted us to his Shangaan village, Huntington, this morning. When I asked him how to spell the village, he started V - I - L - L until my smile told him I meant whether it was Hunting-ton or -don. 

We travelled along this beautifully maintained Sabi Sabi boundary fence, past the government anti-poaching headquarters and then the chief's cattle grazing country, into the village. The chief is old and ill and unable to receive guests.

We didn't have time to go into the cultural centre, because we wanted to be on time for church beginning at 10am.

This woman's name is Kurhula, meaning peace. A mother of three, she is as beautiful inside as out. She's a local school teacher who wants to be a pastor. With absolute faith in God's help and guidance, she has a beautiful and rare inner serenity, instantly calming and beatific. She explained how faith had brought them the new concrete block church building. When we asked, she said we were welcome to take photos of the service, and there was no need to remove our hats.

As she spoke, worshippers were arriving, dressed in their Sunday best. It's a four-hour service so people arrive when they can. Kurhula slipped off her sand shoes and pulled on black stilettos.

Helen is about to stand for a prayer. We sat at the front of the tin-roofed shed next to Kurhula, a variety of chairs lined up for the congregation with a simple altar table covered in a white cloth.

At the beginning of the service, Kurhula rose and spoke, introducing and welcoming us, asking that a special effort be put into singing and dancing for our video today. We were privileged and humbled to see such faith and joy in these simple spartan surroundings.

You'll see Kurhula's stiletto heels and burgundy skirt half way through this three-minute video and her face a little later. The dance becomes more and more joyful as it progresses.

Phiso indicated that it was time for us to go as we had an appointment with the local sangoma. Sometimes wrongly described as witch doctors, registered sangoma are governmentally trained for four years. They fill the role of healer, counsellor, psychiatrist, and priest. It's a spiritual calling, not a chosen profession.

Nosia Tsunnani Sibiyi is young and quite beautiful and her mission is to heal physically and spiritually through love and compassion.

We sat on covered plastic chairs at the back of the hut with Nosia in front of us on her mat, the tools of her trade spread out in front of her: brushes, wooden stick, dominoes, dice, tiny skulls and the knuckle bones of many different animals.

This is a three-minute video of her warm-up chanting process with us chanting after her. Please excuse my finger at the top of the frame!

After the video stops, her advice for Helen's three children was that they should buy their grandparents wine. As there are no living grandparents, Helen said she'd receive it on their behalf. For my two children, her advice was 'respect your elders'. I can hear them hooting from here!

She stores her healing powders in old spirit bottles and coke bottles in a spotless second rondavel. Phiso emphasised that village people go to the hospital first to make sure they're not dehydrated before they visit the sangoma.

I loved her improvised hide-covered paint drums and drumsticks.

There's a mix of building styles in Huntington.

 The local boys have push trucks made ingeniously from wire.

The wheels are made from electrical insulators with washi tape over the joins.

Next stop was the local craft market where 10 women in colourful costumes were waiting to dance for us. 

Colourful beads, numerous coloured scarves around their waists, blanket-stitched bunting around their ankles. A woman beating a drum accompanied them with a shrilly eerie high-pitched note, mouth drawn wide, tongue vibrating.

At the lodge boutique, I'd had some trinkets put aside as gifts to take home. When we saw the craft stall, both Helen and I decided to spend here instead where the money would benefit the local community.

But back to Sabi Sabi. In fading light yesterday, Zwa and Aaron were frustrated at the lack of any sign of the lion pride. Don't get out of the vehicle, said Zwa. There could be, he dropped his voice several notes, LIONS around. They wandered off to look for tracks while we sat there feeling like tasty morsels of tinned Kitty-Kat. 

As they walked back to the vehicle, a lion's head lifted up in the grass nearby. Eeek! They jumped in and Zwa drove closer. The pride was marvellously camouflaged in the long dry grass especially in the low light of sunset, but can you see them all? Fifteen females, plus numerous cubs.

Don't be fooled by the gentle look on the face of this lioness, the matriarch, a deadly killer. It was she who was responsible for the assault on the two young males. She leads the attack and rarely misses a kill. 

The two lone bachelors were meanwhile looking a little brighter.

My favourites though have been the leopards. Loners with strong fluid perfectly-formed bodies, muscles rippling as they walk, shining, sleek and beautiful. This young leopardess was sitting by a little stream. We watched her lap at the water, sharpen her claws on the tree and walk off through the scrub.

You've seen this photo of a mature male as the last rays of the sun dipped below the horizon. 

Sitting at the very top of a termite mound, face almost obscured by grass, staring out over the plains with a penetrating gaze. We watched him for about quarter of an hour. It was as if we didn't exist. As night fell, he stood up, walked down the mound, and strode off into the night. Absolutely magnificent. The lions we've seen have appeared almost friendly in facial expression, aware of and tolerating our presence, but this leopard was not of our world. Unforgettable.

Even the sunset was more colourful and our gin and tonics tasted better for having seen him!

This morning we've said our goodbyes to the staff who've cared for us so well at Bush Lodge. 

Especially Zwa and Aaron. So passionately devoted to the wild life on the reserve, so skilled at tracking, so generous with their knowledge, steady and reliable, the perfect guiding combo.

Our African adventure is sadly drawing to a close. We're at the Sabi Sabi airport terminal waiting for our flight, so grateful for all that we've seen and done on this amazing trip. We transfer at Joburg to our flight back to Australia today, taking memories we'll treasure forever. The joy of the people, the wild life, tribal culture, safari life, cities and veldt.  I hope you've found the entire experience as enthralling as we have. 

The highlight of the trip for both of us came at dawn on our very first morning at Mashatu in the photographic hide.

We weren't even finished putting our cameras and phones on tripods, were still wriggling on our bar stools and chatting about what we might see, when suddenly with little warning the guinea fowl ran away and the elephants appeared only metres away on our right. We couldn't believe our eyes. Hearts beating fast at such a thrilling sight, we watched mumma elephant elbow aunty out of her way before they all settled down to drink.  

I've so appreciated your comments and get-well emails thank you buddies. I'm fine. Until the next and last post for this trip in a week or two, when I'll give you hints and tips for Africa planning, 

Here's a Hemingway quote for you:

All I wanted to do was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.

- Hemingway

ps If you have any questions please ask them in the comments below. I'll be delighted to answer them.

shelley dark, writer 

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