* This piece originally appeared here in the Saturday Citizen
Since Sabi Sands Game Reserve is widely regarding as leopard country, when our guide Ryan asked what we’d like to see, leopard was the immediate response. On our first day we thought we’d struck it lucky with spotting two cubs with their mother. However, on route home after our sunset drink in the riverbed, Ryan brought the vehicle to a stop, shining his spotlight in a tree.
There, several meters high in the crook of an obliging Jackleberry tree, was three-year-old Thlambela. Tswana for ‘the swimmer’, this young male had hauled an impala up the tree and we watched as he enjoyed the evening’s spoil. After a while he dropped it and an opportunistic hyena quickly made off with the treat. Such mesmerizing sightings like this are a profound reminder of why this enclave of the Kruger National Park is such a unique part of the world, and as we were to discover, this would be only one of many memories about to be made at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve.
For my first time ever, I was flying directly into a lodge itself, testing Federal Airlines’ domestic offering. A five-minute transfer from OR Tambo and you’re in Federal Airline’s private lounge, and moments later on the flight. The 90-minute trip directly to the lodge was infinitely quicker and more comfortable than the usual 6-hour drive to Kruger. Climbing off the plane Ryan was ready to welcome us, glass of bubbly in hand.
Ulusaba is Sir Richard Branson’s piece of wilderness in the Kruger’s Sabi Sand and home to two distinct lodges. Rock Lodge is magnificently perched on a hilltop with breathtaking views over the surrounding bush, and Safari Lodge (which would be our home for the stay) a few minutes’ drive away and occupies a prime position alongside the river.
Safari Lodge offers all the feels of a luxury bush break, but with an exciting twist. The treehouse-styled lodge, blends discreetly with the landscape and features a variety of bespoke suites, connected by elevated walkways and swinging bridges. Taking advantage of the height, the lodge has no fences – so the free-roaming wildlife can be easily viewed from the walkways Imagine the thrill of walking over a swinging bridge while elephants gracefully pass through the river bed below.
Our suite overlooked pristine bushveld, including a heated splash pool from where the game-viewing continued. It was hard to tear ourselves away from these luxury quarters for the following day’s safari, but the thrill of more game sightings had us back on the vehicle. Driving down a dry riverbed we encountered a herd of elephant – our timing couldn’t have been better as Ryan told us to watch what would unfold.
The elephants began to slowly dig at the ground with their feet until a large hole had formed. They would then reach their trunks in, and then withdraw them releasing a spray of dirty water. After the second or third attempt, they would be drawing clean water. An almost miraculous act to witness – we’d never have guessed that water was so close under the surface.
A safe distance further down the riverbed awaited a second surprise. Turning the corner, the staff had setup a champagne and pancake breakfast table in the bush! I almost couldn’t believe my eyes at the table laden with over 16 toppings waiting to be tasted.
The intimate attention to detail, is always what helps set Ulusaba apart. Over lunch I’d commented on how much I love Guinness – there wasn’t any at the lodge, but lo and behold, the following afternoon I was served cold Guinness with lunch and the chef proceeded to make ice-cream infused with the dark beer for supper.
In the neighboring community is Pride n Purpose – Ulusaba’s philanthropic arm. Rather than a mere ‘add on’, the work of the organization seems central to the DNA of Ulusaba. In fact the community work at the lodge predated – and I’d like to think inspired – the launch of Virgin Limited Edition’s community work. Sensitively conducted visits are offered for guests who are interested, currently on pause because of the pandemic.
With lodges catering more than ever to the domestic market, Ulusaba’s general manager Karl Langdon was quick to tell me that their philosophy has always been to offer a discounted rate for resident South Africans and that offering these domestic rates will be firm feature of the lodge’s future.
After a weekend of surprises, one more lay in store. The team told us to pack an overnight bag and that we’d be spending the third and final night elsewhere – Ulusaba’s Treehouse Suite. The suite is accessed with a 10-minute walk along the raised walkways – a wild adventure in itself. The Treehouse Suite sits on a magnificently sized private dam, and from the veranda the wildlife viewing was unparalleled. Almost hourly elephant would walk directly past, or the pod of resident hippo loudly announce their presence. This is Africa at its most magic.
I now understand why thirty percent of Ulusaba’s guests are returning visitors – a remarkably high number for the industry. I may have left Ulusaba with many photos, but more importantly, countless memories. virginlimitededition.com/en/ulusaba
customised, exclusive charter flights to meet personal schedules and requirements as required. While it remains a pricey endeavour – it’s a much cheaper option than a private jet there’s something to be said for. Flights are usually arranged by the lodge directly, providing a seamless and quick booking experience for guests.
In an attempt to be more dynamic in the shifting travel landscape the airline has had to adapt, and offering domestic packages has been a key feature – with discounts of 50% on the shuttle services to luxury lodges.
The airline’s Odie Latre told me: “Federal Airlines have been adaptable and as such have noticed that South African family groups are wanting to travel more and more. Federal Airlines extended SADC Group bookings special packages, in conjunction with the various lodges in the Timbavati, Sabi Sands and Madikwe Reserves.”
The response from South Africans has clearly demonstrated that there is a need. “This period has shown us is the appetite for South African and regional visitors to visit the gems of the South African Safari Industry, particularly with so many good offers available. Federal Airlines are extremely grateful to our Lodge partners in the Timbavati, Madikwe Reserve and Sabi Sands, for partnering with us in offering affordable flights.”
Flights can be booked directly through several lodges. More information is available online at www.fedair.com.