Hollywood in the bushveld
Richard Branson’s hotel in the Ulusaba Game Park is so luxurious that everything, including the wildlife, seems part of a Hollywood set
The message is crackling over the radio. It is spoken in Shangaan, the language of the rangers who guide the open-topped Land Rovers across the 600km of road around the Sabi Sands Game Park. A female leopard has been spotted (no pun intended), and she appears to be stalking something.
This is too good an opportunity to miss.
We are told that even sighting a leopard is a remote possibility, as there are only six in the game park. A leopard making a “kill” had been seen only once by the park ranger.
It means going through the undergrowth of the park, and this could be very dangerous. There is a rule when out spotting big game that you should never break the shape of the Land Rover by standing up. Evidently, the animals think the Land Rover is another animal, and to break the shape is to warn some very dangerous ones that you are foe. They might charge - or worse.
We drive as fast as we can through the labyrinth of trees and bushes, which becomes more hazardous the deeper we enter. The radio sizzles into life again, informing us that the female leopard is still in position, and that she is definitely stalking something, although what it is no one can see. She won’t stay for much longer and time for us is running out. We drive as fast as safety will allow.
And then we see her. My first sighting of a leopard. She is no more than 1,5m from me. My God, she is huge! My God, she is beautiful.
There are five of us in the Land Rover. I am positioned in the passenger seat. Behind me sit Michael Thompson Noel and Nigel Dempster, the gossip columnist. Both look apprehensive as they stare into the eyes of this leopard. For Dempster, this is far removed from stalking celebrities.
As the Land Rover edges nearer, so we might have a close up of the “kill”, there is a loud explosion as if someone has fired a high-powered rifle at us. The leopard is startled. A sharp tree stump has gone through the side wall of our front near-side tyre. The air whooshes out and the Land Rover has tipped to an angle of 45.
What are we to do? Dyke, our ranger, is asked to very carefully leave his car seat, move gingerly around to the rear of the Land Rover and release the spare tyre. It is getting dark. Dyke is plainly frightened.
Darren, our driver, then carefully stands up. “Where are you going?” I ask.
“I’m getting out to jack up the vehicle,” he says.
“But what about the leopard?”
Darren takes the rifle from the dashboard of the car, loads three copper- tipped bullets and hands me the gun.
The leopard moves closer towards the two men, now out of the vehicle. Dyke and Darren have most definitely “broken the shape” and the leopard is aware of it. Whatever the leopard is stalking might not be as appetising and easy a target as our driver and ranger.
Darren instructs me: “If it comes any closer than 15ft, fire a bullet into the air. It should frighten her off. If she keeps on coming, then aim between her eyes. It would break my heart to shoot a leopard, but it’s her or us.”
The leopard is perfectly still, and then instead of coming any closer to us, she pounces on to the neck of a baby impala and a scream shrieks out into the twilight. I don’t have to fire a shot. The Land Rover is jacked up. The tyre is changed. The blood returns to Dempster’s face.
I suppose not all wild game adventures are as this one. How could they be? But isn’t this what going on safari is all about?
I am staying at the Ulusaba Rock Lodge, situated on the cliff face of the Ulusaba mountain, about 240m above sea level, overlooking a wilderness below that is the size of Wales. From up here, I am able to look over a landscape that I had previously only ever imagined: bush as far as the eye can see, with light-orange tracks that are the roads that will take us in search of wild game.
I consider that it is the size, the wide open space, the noise of the bush that made the British settle here in another time. But I mustn’t overlook the unadulterated luxury of this marvellous hotel high above the game reserve, for I would not associate this level of luxury with the African bush.
Ulusaba Rock Lodge is perhaps best described as Hollywood in the bush. This is really what Meryl Streep would expect before she started the morning’s filming on Out Of Africa. This is the resort that makes you feel like a Hollywood star.
You see, Ulusaba Rock Lodge is one of an exclusive collection of unique hotels that have been personally selected by Richard Branson. When I am shown to my room, known as the Zulu Room, I ask why there isn’t a picture of Stanley Baker or Michael Caine to be seen anywhere. But I have to admit that the Zulu Room did scream Africa at me, with the bed covered in a zebra skin, furnishing by African Habitat, and above my four-poster bed, draped with a mosquito net, a pair of horns from a . well, I don’t know whence they came.
I wander around the grounds. Past the 11 air-conditioned rooms - which means that there will never be more than 22 people up at this Lodge at any one time - I am making the difficult decision whether to go on the walking bush trails, or to make the 4.30am start in the Land Rover. I am determined to see the Big Five, which Ulusaba promises can be done if you’re very lucky: rhino, buffalo, lion, elephant and leopard. Well, I certainly saw a leopard.
No, it’s the Land Rover for me. So it’s to be an early dinner if I am to be up before the lark. Dinner is taken communally in the Rock Lodge’s baronial dining room. All 22 guests dine together around a table laid with the most delicious salads, meats, fish and vegetables you could wish for. This “let’s muck in together” policy is a good one, for someone at table might be the person who saves your life when out in the bush - as Dempster will testify.
All of us sit in high-backed chairs, atop of each are matching antlers. I don’t suppose Branson intends us to take this style - Jungle Baroque is what I name it - seriously. But then why should we? One doesn’t come to Ulusaba to be serious. The wine list though is more than a little serious. I know my South African wines, and I can say without fear of contradiction that what is served at Ulusaba is the finest South Africa has to offer. But I must go easy, I have a 4.30 start in the morning.
After dinner, declining the ports and cognacs (which with food and wines are included in the price), I wander down the hill from Rock Lodge to Safari Lodge. Here I find a romantic, tree-house-style lodge nestling in the riverine bush, under a canopy of trees. This lodge borders the Mabrak River, and stands almost next door to a watering hole (for the animals), so big game can be seen from the viewing deck. I give way to temptation as I sit down here with a glass of Veuve Cliquot, chewing biltong, watching rhinos taking an early evening drink, and thinking this is all so surreal but all so wonderful.
The next day I am in the bush by 5am, when the nocturnal animals are just returning home from their night shift. During this four-hour early morning ride around the park, I see and photograph a hyena, antelope, giraffe, warthog, cheetah, as well as the big four - winter is the wrong time of the year for buffalo, I am informed. I am so impressed by this safari that I put my name down for the early evening tour. On this, I sit for nearly 45 minutes and watch a white rhino, no further than 3m from me, eating his evening meal. He sees me. I am no threat to him. He is beautiful. How sad that this species is being killed for its horn, and that in time the white rhino will be nothing more than a memory.
And it is as we are photographing this powerful beast that the message comes through on the radio that a female leopard has been sighted and the real African adventure is about to begin.
While here, I read JB Priestley, who writes: “A good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours.” And here at Ulusaba nobody seems to care about time. The staff are my type of people. Africa is my type of country. Ulusaba Rock Lodge is my type of resort. I don’t care that everything seems as if we are in a Hollywood film set. Here I know I will eat well, drink well, be pampered and still feel as though I am Ernest Hemingway.