Reflections in rose pink and saffron yellow appeared in the water as the dawn lit up the Lebombo River. From the safety of the jeep, I could see a hippo surfacing like an African version of the Loch Ness monster and a wary waterbuck taking a drink. A movement in the bushes; a tiny Cape sparrow fluttering towards a tasty berry. Behind us, an elephant groaned, the sound echoing off the red rocks of the Kruger National Park. Guide Dylan and I stopped for a coffee: me perched on the tracker seat at the front of the vehicle, him unearthing a thermos and a box of biscuits in the boot. Squeaks, snorts and grunts broke the intense morning stillness, while the scent of thyme blew in on the breeze. This, I thought, as I sipped my hot, sweet coffee, is paradise.
Back at the lodge, it was breakfast time and at Singita Lembombo, they don’t do early morning eats by half. Sitting overlooking the pool in the bright morning sunshine, I slurped my way through the second coffee of the day and tucked into a huge platter of fresh local fruit, including pineapple, mango and an incongruous kiwi fruit. Next came a similarly large portion of Eggs Benedict, a mound of toast large enough to present a challenge to even the most gargantuan of appetites and a carton’s worth of freshly squeezed orange juice. Replete, I stumbled back to my room to sleep it all off before lunch.
Lembombo is the rurbanite of South Africa. You won’t find the usual heavy heirlooms and teak wood floors; instead it’s all light, bright and white – none of which would look out of place in a New York boutique hotel. But it’s not all city slicker does safari. Everything from furniture to floor is made from natural materials, intended to complement the Kruger National Park wilderness that surrounds the lodge, while the gorgeous waterfall chandeliers are made from recycled glass. Not that any of the green initiatives make it feel any less luxe: with a personal butler permanently on call, the effect is more modern memsahib.
From my balcony – and my conveniently located day bed – I had a perfect view of the Lembombo River, which meant I ended up spending hours staring at the hippos and Egyptian geese as they went around their daily business. At one point, a prehistoric looking crocodile emerged through the acid-bright weeds, snapping at one of the geese which beat a hasty retreat. By midday, it was too hot to lie outside any longer, so I retreated to the air conditioned comfort of my room for a cold drink and a quick flick through the spotters guide that the staff had helpfully left on my bed.
In theory, lunch should have come next, but I was still too full from breakfast, so sped off to the spa, a short walk down the hill, for a soothing massage. In the cool darkness of the treatment room, I almost dozed off watching the hippos – now sleeping – through the glass doors. I got a bit closer later on, on the day’s second game drive, which took us deep into the park. Peeking through the trees was one solitary hippo, which was watching – and being watched in return – by a group of inquisitive young lions. ‘He’ll be fine – they won’t dare catch him,’ Dylan reassured us, before launching into a story about a man-eating pack that apparently has a taste for refugees from Zimbabwe. I gulped and settled more firmly into my seat, as in front of us, the hippo lumbered off, leaving the lions disappointed.
After an alfresco gin and tonic presided over by an inquisitive giraffe, we headed back to camp, where Dylan joined me for supper in the open-air boma, where tables decked with white linen and silver cutlery had been laid out. On the menu for our barbeque deluxe was most of what we’d seen that day, lions and hippos excepted. There was buffalo, cooked rare and wonderfully bloody. Kudu, flavoursome and dense, and Springbok, tender and moreish. To go with our game-heavy feast, there was just about every sort of salad imaginable, plus potato done 20 different ways and organic red wine from the Stellenbosch region in the south. We talked animals as we ate; the world’s scariest lion and a too-close-for-comfort brush with a Great White Shark. I shivered as I laughed, leaning in closer to boma’s central fire.
Then, out of the darkness, came the lodge staff stomping, singing and sporting colourful local garb. They snaked in a line around the fire, singing and ululating around the fire; looking up to the sky where fat stars twinkled in the violet dark. We clapped and cheered before a low rumble cut through the music. ‘Better walk back to your room with a security guard,’ said Dylan sagely. ‘The lions are out tonight.’
One night at Singita Lebombo starts at £880 per person, per night on a full board basis, two safaris per day, all drinks including premium wines, spirits and liquers and return transfers. See singita.com for more information and to book. South African Airways offers return flights to Kruger National Park (Hoedspruit) from London Heathrow via Johannesburg from £779 per person. For more information, visit flysaa.com or call +44 (0) 844 375 9680.
IN THE AREA…
Kruger National Park is one of the largest national parks in Africa, covering more than 7,850 square miles. A protected area since 1898, the park is home to all of the big five – buffalo, lion, elephant, rhino and leopard – as well as 517 species of bird, including the majestic Bataleur eagle and the endangered Ground Hornbill. Along with the big five, expect to see a huge variety of African mammals such as the giraffe, zebra, cheetah and blue wildebeest. Kruger even has a small population of threatened black rhino, although both it and the white rhino are becoming increasingly endangered thanks to the activities of poachers, who sell the horns to Chinese gangs for use in traditional medicine. To find out more and to get involved in the fight against poaching, see the WWF’s website.