Journey to the Last Outpost

* This article first appeared here on Traveller24.

The Journey

Something caught Samuel’s attention. He gently brought the open-top safari vehicle to a stop. Lifting the binoculars to his eyes, a ‘wow’ followed suit, exclaimed in his deeply resonant voice. He had spotted some of the season’s first European Rollers and was eager to show me. These beautifully-coloured birds had, against all odds, taken a roughly 9000km, 60-day journey across the world to settle in this remote part of Africa.

Admiring them through my lens, I couldn’t help but appreciate both the birds’ international crossing and Samuel’s admiration for them. I was also smiling. Although my journey hadn’t taken me across continents, it had been a trip to one of South Africa’s furthest corners from my home. Courtesy of Cemair, I had flown directly from Cape Town to Hoedspruit where I’d then rented a car for the 4-hour drive to the lodge.

In the build-up, my anticipation had been almost-tangible. This was my first visit to the Kruger National Park as an adult. While planning the trip, I had caught a glimpse of The Outpost Lodgein a glossy brochure and was instantly spellbound, knowing I had to visit this unique place. Three months later, I arrived; and, despite the pictures having brought me here, I found that they had hardly done the lodge justice.

In the equation of travel, distance often equals reward. The Outpost was no exception.I had travelled to the ends of the country to find the beginnings of peace.

The Outpost

Driving north through The Kruger, The Outpost is one of the last lodges before you reach the park’s border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It really is hard to get more remote than this. As a result, there are very few tourists, safari vehicles or even local travellers around. The tranquillity permeates everything, and at times you wonder if it is exclusively for you to enjoy alone.

Appreciating a landscape requires the same discipline as one would savour a compelling novel: slowly, and without distraction. For this reason, The Outpost has no cabins or chalets. Their accommodation units are called spaces, fourteen strikingly-modern architectural masterpieces that adorn a clifftop, each delighting in the generous vistas afforded by their height and design. Imagine a space where, almost magically, at the touch of a button, all barriers between you and the wilderness are removed…

A switch at the entrance allows you to control two of the walls. At a simple touch they lift, offering startling views of the ravine below. It really is quite something to behold. What is more, because of this ingenuity, the modern architecture doesn’t in any way detract from the surrounds. Rather, the spaces are designed to showcase the landscape. The view from the lounge, bed and bathtub all invite you to slowly enjoy it.

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When I entered my quarters, a few initial seconds of frustration soon transformed into delight upon hearing there was no Wi-Fi available. Instead of the usual beeping of devices, the only sounds to be heard were from the surrounding environment. With the blinds open as I slept, munching antelope, whooping owls, and crying hyenas were the soloists of my evening bush-orchestra.

Once I had explored my new living space, it was time to settle into the lodge’s rhythm. Morning began with an early game drive, rounded off by a return to the lodge for a hearty brunch. The afternoon was for taking time out in my living space or the lodge itself. With living spaces connected to the main area by raised walkways, the modern but minimal structure offered plenty of space; whether for lounging alongside the pool, relaxing on the plush couches inside, or making use of one of the dining spaces.

After afternoon tea came the second game drive of the day, usually around three hours long, including a scenic stop for sundowners. Returning to The Outpost in the evening was particularly special: fires, candles and low-lit walkways transformed the lodge into a soft and serene night-space. The creative kitchen team then ensured that I was well fed with their stylishly sumptuous dinner.

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Safari with Samuel

Samuel Japane is a son of the area and has been guiding at the lodge for almost two years. At over six feet tall he casts a stately figure; and, with the rich timbre of his voice complimented by his exceptional knowledge of the bushveld, particularly the birdlife, I couldn’t help but think I’d met the South African David Attenborough.

While working as a security guard beforehand, Samuel had had a sense of wanting to change his life trajectory. Unbelievably, it came to him in a dream that he should become a bird specialist. He then proceeded to collect newspapers and any other materials he could find on the subject, memorising bird names that he came across. A few years later and one incredible journey on, he now expertly guides people from around the world through the Kruger.

On our game drive he told me, ‘Sometimes, when you want to see birds, you just need to call them.’ And he did. And they came! A seemingly never-ending string of exotic sounding bird names rolled effortlessly off his tongue: shikras, chegres, oriels, and the likes.

Each game drive took us to explore a different and unique part of the reserve. Several ravines and gorges in the area offered rare views, features not usually seen in other parts of Kruger. A significant experience for me was a morning coffee break at the area’s biggest Baobab, a tree boasting an unreal 30m+ circumference. These magnificent trees are the sentries of the bushveld, some having witnessed millennia of natural drama unfold around them. Their gargantuan size and shape dominated the landscape. It was an otherworldly spectacle.

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Having been on many safaris, I was familiar with the Big 5. But the Small 5—now, this was a new addition to my safari checklist. Each bore the name of one of their Big 5 counterparts, and Samuel had me guessing what they were on our drives. I got three correct. These lesser giants are: the buffalo weaver, elephant screw, rhino beetle, leopard toad, and sand lion.

There are moments when beauty is transformed into the sublime. Perhaps these moments are the highest accolades that can be awarded to any landscape. From the initial welcome sign to the final birdcall when I departed, The Outpost was in every way a magnificently unique South African safari experience. Indeed, as I learnt, sometimes you simply must travel to the country’s end to find where peace begins.

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You can find more information on Cemair here, and of course The Outpost here. Below you’ll find a short interview that I conducted with Samuel:

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