* This article first appeared here in the Saturday Citizen
Out of sheer desperation, I penned the words. Was it day 20 or day 100 – who knows? What I do know, is that as a travel writer – and more poignantly a South African – I have a love for the bush coursing through my veins. The African psyche is moulded with a firm grounding and appreciation of the land and its life. It was a pandemic-forced separation that had led me to write the words:
wilderness in waiting
I called out desperately to the wilderness
‘I need you right now’
then strained my ears for response
and finally, after the cessation
of a thousand fears and voices,
I heard that small voice
‘I am waiting for you’
the silent scurry of the serval
highveld cries of the grey lourie
baobab ready to share millennia of secrets
waterfalls whispering in dark ravines
the big five, ugly five, and small five
and trackers discreetly reading the dust
of a wilderness that continues to breathe
for now, close your eyes my son,
my son of this rich soil
for as you listen you will hear,
‘I am waiting for you, yes, I am waiting for you’
I knew when the time would come it would be an emotional reunion; the depraving of the wild was unimaginably cruel. I was as giddy as a child on Christmas morning when my first post-lockdown bush assignment arrived. I’d be taking a short journey from Johannesburg to Marataba Safari Lodge, one of Marataba’s Luxury Lodges. Arriving at this privately managed concession in the Marakele National Park would not only be my first safari experience in months, but also the first occurring under the new health and safety protocols. Temperature checks, masks, sanitizer, and completing health questionnaires are quickly becoming the accepted norm for travel, but how would this translate in a safari experience?
Let’s be honest: sometimes a first-time experience can be a little awkward. I soon realised that Marataba would move heaven and earth to ensure my experience was as natural as possible. Admittedly, it was strange wearing a mask on safari. I missed the usual safari breakfast-buffet. The tent was a little more sparsely decorated, with non-essentials removed. It was different, but I very soon forgot about it all. I was back in the bush.
Marataba Luxury Lodge is set in 23 000 hectares of the Marakele National Park, a mere 3h30-drive from Johannesburg. Since there are no other lodges the sense of isolation is heightened. Spending three hours driving through the bush, and not seeing another person, makes you feel like everything is waiting for you alone.
From the chaos and uncertainty of the previous traumatic months, everything gradually became dwarfed by something louder. The world in peace. From the greatest beasts to the smallest crawlers everything had its place. And seemingly impervious to the outside world in struggle.
Instead of reading doomed-filled headlines, we were reading the dust. Bush forensics looking at the scattered pugmarks for clues as to the creatures that had passed by. A lion’s lazy pawprints soon and the fractured circles of a tusked-giant.
On our first game drive I began to feel something awaken in me…slowly, and needing a little coaxing. Months marked with worry and continuous thinking through every action, financial spend, or outing; suddenly there was nothing to be planned. All that was required of me was to fall into the story of the bush: a story and rhythm that would slowly restore some calm that had had been challenged by the chaos.
Marataba is an extraordinary space with a rare intersection of mountains, plains, and waterways. The 2.8 billion years old Waterberg mountains (the second oldest mountain range on earth) form a constant backdrop to the reserve. These stone buttresses then reach down to the resting plains below. To add to the natural drama one of the safaris is actually by boat, navigating the perennial Marabas River. I had to often remind myself that I was not in on the Okavango exploring blue-veined waterways, but was in fact just a little over three hours from Joburg.
Safari Lodge is the larger of the two on the property. A central common area provides the hub for all lodge activity with more than enough space for social distancing. The tents are a short walk from the lodge, all featuring verandas with prime views, over-sized bathrooms and outdoor showers. The smaller and more remote Mountain Lodge is truly an intimate bush retreat with only five eco suites – the architecture and furniture all angled to take full advantage of the breath-taking views below. There must surely be few places a guest can share the same mountain path with a leopard.
The property’s crowning glory is the Thabametsi Treehouse. A fair distance from the lodge, a chic and fully-kitted treehouse has been built directly facing the line of mountains. There’s a lounge and dining room area, a four-post king-size bed, and a glass-enclosed bathroom downstairs. Yes, with hot running water so you enjoy a warm shower…of course with the possibility of a kudu or the rare and skittish black rhino walking by. This is in the middle of the wild, after all!
Robert More is the patriarch of the More Family Collection, under which Marataba falls. Without any prompting, the staff were quick to speak about the challenging but inspiring leadership he exercised under the extraordinary circumstances. Being responsible for 800 staff members is no small task – but more than that – his efforts in the wider industry (alongside other hospitality giants) has doubtlessly helped nudge the tourism industry towards its earliest reopening.
This first precious visit back to the bush has reminded me of a different way to live in the world. To be more peaceful and present. To look for the small (or in the case of a crash of rhinos – rather big) surprises. Seeing the world with caution and anxiety was able to give way to relief and delight.
On my final evening at Marataba, I watched Kim (my informative and warmly affable guide), at the last sunset stop. She poured my drinks and stepped aside, and for several moments was utterly transfixed by the views before her. I smiled. It was clearly evident: I wasn’t the only one who’d missed the sanctuary of the wild. Marakele is after all, Setswana for place of sanctuary. After months of lockdown and unimaginable levels of shared trauma, the experience was every bit sanctuary. The comfort of a wilderness no longer in waiting. more.co.za/marataba