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AA lioness has just finished weaning her cubs, and because she is alone for once, she is clearly relishing her own company. The sun is setting over the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve as she washes her face like a giant tabby cat, yawns, stretches and goes to look for her cubs and the rest of her pride.
A group of tourists sits enthralled in an open game-viewing vehicle, breathing in the lioness’ rank scent, mingled with that of wild sage crushed beneath the wheels, listening to the ranger explaining lion behaviour in a quiet undertone. Meanwhile, the tracker scans the ground for other big-game spoor.
Perhaps they’ll be lucky enough to find a leopard stashing her kill in a tree tonight, or see jackals bounce through the high grass as they pursue invisible rodents, oblivious to the ranger’s spotlight.
What is certain is that later they’ll find themselves around a sheltered campfire being served a delectable dinner, with some of South Africa’s best wines to hand. At night they’ll lie down on the finest linen, hearing the eerie whoop of hyena in the distance, perhaps the child-like cry of a bushbaby, and almost certainly, the roaring of lions.
This is the allure of the south-western boundary of the Kruger National Park – also part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The 50km fence that once divided Sabi Sand from Kruger is long gone, and wild animals including the Big 5 move back and forth along their old migration routes.
The reserve (now covering about 65 000 hectares) dates back to the 1920s, when a number of people held hunting concessions there in the dry winter months. Later on, this became an association of freehold landowners.
The fact that 2 perennial rivers, the Sabie and the Sand (after which the reserve is named), flow through it means that the area offers excellent wildlife viewing all year round. Some of South Africa’s finest luxury game lodges are found here – among the best known are Sabi Sabi, Mala Mala, Singita, Londolozi, Ulusaba, Chitwa Chitwa, Idube, Lion Sands, Exeter and Djuma.
They all offer individual attention, privacy, outstanding cuisine and luxurious accommodation, while the décor is often breath-taking. Some of the lodges offer spas with masseurs, aromatherapy and reflexology.
In addition, the guides at the lodges know every square centimetre of their areas. They can often take you right to rare leopard sightings, or to where wild dogs have hidden their pups in dens.
Incidentally, the only hunting these days is done with a camera...
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Sabi Sand Game Reserve
Tel: +27 (0)13 735 5102
How to get here
From Johannesburg, you can fly via Federal Air, a charter shuttle service, to many of the lodges, which have their own airfields. You can also hop onto a shuttle from the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport near Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit).
Airlink has daily flights to Mala Mala’s airstrip, which adjoins the Sabi Sand Reserve.
If you’re travelling by road, take the N4 eastwards from Johannesburg or Pretoria to Mbombela, turning north onto the R40 to Hazyview via White River. Depending on the entrance gate you are using, your road trip will take between 5 and 7 hours.
Best time to visit
Each season has its particular delights. Early spring and summer (August to November) offer great game viewing (including baby animals) because the grass is still low and the animals are concentrated around waterholes before the rains. Winter months (April to August) are also good for game viewing and much more temperate than high summer (December to March), which can be oppressively hot.
Around the area
You’re very close to the Kruger National Park, and not far from other attractions like the Blyde River Canyon, God’s Window and a plethora of scenic waterfalls.
You’ll be transported in lodge game-viewing vehicles once you arrive.
Length of stay
At least 2 nights – preferably a week – to give yourself a decent chance of seeing the Big 5, and to relax into the rhythm of things.
What to pack
It’s not compulsory to wear khaki all the time, but while on game drives, refrain from fluorescent colours or bright white. Bring binoculars and cameras with all the batteries and memory cards you’ll need. In winter bring warm clothes for evenings (the days are mild), and sun block, a hat and insect repellent are recommended year-round.
Activities include game viewing, night drives, birding (there are at least 300 bird species) and game walks. Because there is a high ratio of staff to guests, lodges can often tailor-make activities for you.