WILD ESCAPE

The Kruger remains unrivalled as the ultimate bush experience; add a touch of luxury to the mix and you’re in for an unforgettable experience

WILD ESCAPE

The Lowveld. The name alone has the ability to conjure up a complex soup of memories, excitement and anticipation. As the country’s wildlife motherlode, it is both superstar and guardian – of conservation, dreams, primal escape and, ultimately, hope. It’s also the one place in the country where visitors can genuinely forget the travails of the modern world, switch off and cruise slowly through elemental landscapes.

The cruising part means the transport is vital. Things have come a long way in motoring thanks to the evolution of the family car, from station wagon to people carrier to luxury crossover SUV. A fine example of this is Kia’s class-act Sorento, a full seven-seater about as far from mum’s taxi as it is possible to be. The plan was to head through the Lowveld, stopping first at Liz Biden’s Waterside property near Hoedspruit, before the long haul up through Kruger to the Outpost in the far north of the park.

Five hours from Johannesburg down the N4 and up the R40 is Waterside, one of three Royal Portfolio lodges in the larger Thornybush Reserve (the others are Malewane and the recently revamped Farmstead). The lodge trades in individuality as much as wildlife and relaxation. Given her reputation for design bravery it goes without saying that Biden’s place in the bush is like no other – her colourful approach echoes her Silo Hotel’s boldness in Cape Town. Waterside itself, as the name suggests, edges a body of water with public areas shaded by mature fever trees hanging over the mere. The suites, individually designed and decorated, are a riotous triumph of colourful imagination; a repository for Biden’s endless creativity.

It would be entirely understandable to stay put in one of those over-sized, beautifully appointed wonderlands, but that would mean missing out on the concession’s other joys, notably the richness of game. Climb aboard a game vehicle, head out and it’s immediately obvious that the concession and larger Thornybush is a veritable Eden. In one drive, the bush offered up 18 gambolling lions, lairy teenage elephants, buffaloes and, after sunset heading back to the lodge, the area’s largest leopard, a massive beast. One backwards glance, bared teeth and he was gone.

The next day, on the way to visit Royal Malewane’s new conservation and research centre, bingo, the pièce de résistance, at least for me, a ridiculously large boomslang – surely it was a mamba? – waiting in ambush at a bird’s nest.

That centre, a new initiative by Royal Malewane, will serve as a venue for researchers and conservationists in the area to meet and discuss ideas, and to share their findings through lectures and conversations with guests and others. The nexus is a beautiful space called the Nature Lounge, complete with library, animal artefacts and collected curiosities. Researcher, vet and rhino specialist Gunter Nowak is based there, co-ordinating initiatives and projects across the region. ‘Ideas into action’ is the centre’s guiding principle, vital for preserving the Greater Kruger ecosystem.

Two days of pinnacle pampering later and it’s goodbye to Waterside and finally into Kruger itself. Entering the middle of the park makes a lot of sense; even in low season the south is a knot of hire cars and day-tripping groups, so through Orpen Gate and immediately left is recommended for more serious visitors.

Then the trick is to head up north where it becomes progressively quieter and quieter until it’s just you, the lilac-breasted rollers and a whole lot of elephant dung. The rains have been remarkable – even north of Mopani there is water everywhere.

The downside is limited visibility. Yet try look differently. At the birds. The small things. And then save the big game for the water holes and the riverbeds. As we worked our way north we stopped for terrapins, the bum of a pangolin, a quarrelsome drongo, and a troupe of baboons – 60-strong, hooligan teenagers causing hilarious trouble with the youngsters. And the trees, the trees… Was there ever a finer sight than a centuries-old jackalberry overhanging an African river? Or a massive marula, or the archaic figs, their tentacle roots worked into the rock faces?

Too soon it’s time to turn left before Pafuri and head to the Outpost. Rare Earth’s signature Kruger lodge is something of an anomaly, part of Kruger yet not. Up here much of the land belongs to the Makuleke, and the Outpost is a collaboration with that community. They’ve had a long time to get it right, and spot on it is. It recently had a major refurbishment and, fair to say, it speaks to everything good about daring design, sensitive architecture and clever fusions.

Open-fronted suites hang off the edge of a kops covered in baobabs, with memorable views down the Luvuvhu river. Each unit features a right-up-front bath, from which guests can laze and take in the vistas far below them. They’re reason enough alone to visit, but there are other temptations. The gorgeous public area is one. Mostly open to the elements, it’s an intriguing monospace melding dining room, lounge and swimming pool verandah into one clever expanse.

Visions of cocktails by the pool, ever more complex, rewards for a deepening tan and progress through Barbara Kingsolver’s hardcover Demon Copperhead.

Another is the fever tree forest, on the way to the area’s standout geological feature, Lanner gorge. Climb aboard an Outpost 4X4, battle through the buffalo-thorn and woolly caper creepers and suddenly everything goes green. The expansive fever tree forest (Vachellia xanthophloea) gives off a ghoul-green light, turning the realm into a cool, Martian otherworld. Couples get married in there, sure no one will ever forget their nuptials. Too true.

If the fever tree forest shouts ‘not-of-this-world’, Lanner gorge returns things to quintessential Africa. The gorge rises above the Luvuvhu river, an ancient gathering of steep cliffs, rock pools and ideal vantage points from which to watch fish eagles and other raptors glide by.

The Outpost guides walk you up there and make something of the final few metres; it’s all woodland trek and scuffle until suddenly, bingo, a view. Few visitors aren’t stunned into silence. Or expletives. It’s inspiring to see such majesty up here, humbling, elemental.

Four days later and it was time to fire up the Kia again for the trek back to Johannesburg by way of Polokwane. No messing about this time; dinner waiting on the table at 7 pm so James was asked not to spare the horses…

By Peter Frost
Images: Courtesy of the Outpost