With only a sheet of canvas separating you from the great African outdoors, Chapungu’s eight secluded luxury tents offer its guests a genuine bushveld experience.
One can only imagine the unknown terrors facing the first African explorers who were brave enough to venture into its dark heart, never knowing what they were about to encounter: a black-maned lion, a mammoth-tusked elephant, a crocodile-infested river, or a deadly disease that flies on silent wings in the dead of night. Africa truly is a continent of two halves: its savagery and brutality perfectly balanced by a raw, aching beauty and an immense spirit found nowhere else on earth. Both Justin and I have African blood in our veins and it’s on the continent’s red soil that we feel most alive.
We dress in jeans and hiking boots and wander up the winding walkway through the ombré dawn to the thatched boma of the main camp. After dissolving the remaining remnants of sleep with a shot of caffeine, we climb into our open-topped game-viewing vehicle and set off for our morning drive. Chapungu is situated in the 14,000-hectare Thornybush Private Nature Reserve, which lies adjacent to the world-famous Kruger National Park. With its dense foliage, rocky outcrops and fertile gullies, the Big Five reserve is renowned for its sightings of the elusive leopard – and it is this beautiful creature that we’re hoping to see.
On the previous evening’s game drive, all thoughts of leopard are instantly forgotten when we catch sight of a far bigger cat lying right next to the road. The lioness eyes us sleepily like she would rather have a scratch under the chin than grab us by the jugular. But all benevolence is instantly revoked as the most primal of sounds shatters the peace: the roar of a male lion. It rings of pure power and the lioness is on her feet in a flash, turning to take refuge in the bush.
We drive on in search of the sound, and right on the road in front of us, appear two fully-grown male lion. Their massive manes and huge paws are as impressive as their deadly jaws. We snap and click, point and whisper as the lion walk past our vehicle within arm’s reach from our tracker, Viktor, who is precariously positioned on his bonnet seat. Our ranger, Kilmon, manoeuvres the Land Cruiser like it’s a London taxi cab to follow the lion in a thrilling chase through the adjacent Acacia. After the lion have disappeared, he explains their full family dynamic and why the king of the jungle was driving the unwilling lioness’s sister away.
This morning, the bush reveals itself to us more slowly. From the smallest dwarf mongoose to the tallest giraffe, our curiosity is mirrored as each creature watches us as inquisitively. Broken branches, melon-shaped footprints and steaming piles of fresh dung – like clues on a treasure map – lead us deeper and deeper into the bush. There’s no guessing what we’re looking for. Viktor communicates with Kilmon in their local dialect, and Kilmon kills the engine. Both are local Shangaan – born-and-bred bastions of the bush. Their innate ability to identify the tracks we encounter and interpret the animal’s intended behaviour seems nothing short of a sixth sense… and it serves us well again this time.
In the distance, a branch cracks. Then closer, the dry scrape of bending bushes. A low, guttural rumble fills the air, which is pregnant with expectation. Then all of a sudden, they’re all around us. The large breeding herd of elephant move with effortless ease and surprising swiftness through the bush, passing metres either side of us. A gentle flap of the ears… a slight rotation of an eye… a lumbering flick of a trunk… All signs that the herd is relaxed with our vehicle in their path. But if these massive monoliths were so inclined, they could flip our Land Cruiser over in a heartbeat. A female with her calf stops alongside us, lifting her periscope trunk to sniff us out. Instinctually, I can tell she’s simply curious and intends us no harm.
The morning turns darker and the breeze is cold sitting on the exposed seats of the converted Land Cruiser. It’s unseasonably chilly and I’m unprepared. I wind my scarf around my head and pull the blanket we’re sitting on over me to keep warm. In the distance, birds of prey circle on the thermals overhead. Then, my olfactory senses are assaulted by a rancid smell. Both clues of the macabre scene about to unfold. In the road before us, a wake of vultures bob and weave like prize boxers over scraps of putrefying flesh. They jump and flap as a squat head, held high, holding a large slab of meat in its powerful jaws runs out of the bush. A hyena. Like a thief making a dash with his stolen loot, it runs at an angle, meat dangling between its legs as it weaves swiftly through some young saplings. We track it like a fugitive until it makes its escape, disappearing underground into its hidden den.
While the hyena pups feast on their flesh, we head back to the lodge to wolf down the best homemade granola I’ve ever tasted, followed by plates piled with scrambled egg, creamy mushrooms, crispy bacon and plump sausages. During breakfast, we share photos of our animal encounters with our fellow guests: a group of ten friendly Canadians who are about to embark on a true African adventure. From the ghostly beautiful Namibian Skeleton Coast, they are set to sail around the Cape of Good Hope – stopping off at the Western Cape winelands – to tropical Mozambique with its bleach-white beaches and salt-swept seas. The previous evening, we dined with them at the large communal table. Their warm family dynamic, combined with the hearty, homemade food and a few bottles of wine we shared, couldn’t have created a more welcoming atmosphere. We exchange heartfelt goodbyes, sad to see them go, but happy that we now have the camp entirely to ourselves.
We return to our tent, number one, which we were delighted to discover is situated right at the edge of the camp. Chapungu, named after the six-foot wing-spanned Bataleur eagle, consists of eight en-suite tents, which have been generously positioned to give its guests complete privacy. Dried elephant dung lies metres from the back of the tent, while the raised wooden balcony, featuring an oval outdoor bath, is separated from the surrounding Lowveld Acacia scrub by a simple wooden railing. We are truly immersed in the bush.
But for me, it’s the fact that there are no concrete walls to separate us from this untamed landscape and it’s intriguing inhabitants. Here, we can tap into Africa’s primal heartbeat and feel its pulse in our veins.
Stepping inside the spacious tent is like entering a bygone era of romantic African adventures. A wooden chaise longue, antique armoire and leather wingback chair lend a colonial grandeur, while the cleverly designed bathroom offers double basins, a separate toilet section and a shower with a view, leading out onto the balcony. A billowing mosquito net covers the king-sized bed and the cool, white linen calls. For the first time ever, I manage to overcome the habit of not being able to sleep during the day and pass out for an hour.
I’m groggy when I wake (and grumpy) so Justin suggests that we take a dip in the pool. The day has heated up and the cool water refreshes, but my mind is still fuzzy, so I relax on a sun lounger to read my book: The Kite Runner, written by the talented writer Khaled Husseini. A must-read. With no fellow guests, Justin and I remain in our swimwear to enjoy a light lunch of curried Coronation chicken, colourful salads, homemade breads and mini pods of dense chocolate cake. Then it’s time to dress for our afternoon game drive at 4pm.
I’m not sure if it’s from being in the heart of the bush and connecting to its primal instincts, but on our afternoon game drive, my intuition starts to function almost as clearly as another sense. I see an image of a leopard walking through sunlit grass like it was a physical picture in front of me. I say nothing to Justin, who has had bad luck photographing leopard in the past. Instead, I focus on the young giraffe that is lying down right next to the road. “Mothers often leave their young resting together in a ‘crèche’ while they browse nearby,” explains Kilmon, “They’re less vulnerable to predators in a group.”
The radio crackles and we receive a static tip off over the airwaves. Using code names for animals or local dialects, the rangers on the reserve never give the game away, but I knew what we were about to see with 100% certainty. We head off faster than normal, slowing as we turn off the road. As we reach a clearing, I follow the direction of Viktor’s finger to catch sight of an exquisite pattern of black, white and gold moving through the sunlit grass, almost identical to my vision. It is a female leopard and she’s breathtaking. She sniffs the air, reverses into a tree and stakes her territory. Her proud head, limber movement and strong limbs are testament to why these ultimate silent hunters are able to take down prey twice their weight.
As we stop for our sunset drinks, the sun slides behind a billowing bank of cumulonimbus clouds, turning the landscape sepia. I’ve barely taken a sip of wine, when there’s a movement in the bushes near us. Kilmon believes it is a black rhino and instructs us to climb back into the Land Cruiser. Once the drinks are packed up, we head towards the sound… and he’s right. The black rhino – a more elusive, aggressive and solitary species than white rhino – is already making its escape.
Guided by Viktor checking the ground in front of us, we’re able to track it off-road. When we reach a clearing, it turns to confront us, giving us a God-given moment to capture its image with its raised dust turning gold in the dusky light. When I ask Kilmon how he knew it was a black rhino without seeing it, he explains that he heard the noise its hooked lip made while browsing the bush, giving me new respect for our ranger’s knowledge.
Back at camp, candles and hanging lanterns illuminate a smaller section of the main boma, which had been set up with a romantic table for two. We clink wine glasses and drink to our luck – our sightings of both the evasive leopard and the endangered black rhino – as unobtrusive staff serve us carrot soup, tender slabs of kudu and crème brulée. We return to our tent with the help of our night guard, where I light more candles and run the outdoor bath, luxuriating in the warm, soapy water as the gentle night breeze caresses my skin. It’s not long after we fall into bed that the bush lullaby draws us into a deep sleep.
At dawn, I dress in boots and take only my camera around my neck. Today will be the first time that I walk on foot in the bush, an experience that I’m looking forward to sharing with Justin, who has spent several months in the bush as a wildlife photographer. I’ve seen photos of him, thick set from all the protein, camera in hand, parading the bush in just a sarong and slipslops. We set out on the dust track past the resident nyala, which graze in the safety of the camp, protected from predators. The slanting sunlight highlights the tracks on the sandy road in front of us in high definition, some of which Kilmon points out to us.
On foot, we can zoom into the smallest living organism. Each plant in Africa seems to have a different medicinal purpose and each insect has a job to do. Nature’s economy is neither wasteful nor unproductive.
We stop to look at a hardworking dung beetle, one of the strongest species on earth, which can push manure weighing 50 times more than their body weight up a steep slope. An emerald green starling catches the light in a flurried, awkward flight from one branch to another. I fear the bird is injured but Kilmon’s excited explanation imparts better news: it is a baby learning to fly.
A wide-open blue sky flexes above us, cloudless and still. As we walk down to a waterhole, I’m completely at ease, until a primal heave, deep and guttural, breaks the magical spell of the morning. It is a sound that has the innate ability to make us human beings feel completely inferior. Kilmon speaks into his walkie-talkie and reports that the lion are most likely heading to the waterhole for a drink. I glance at the large rifle slung over his shoulder (a last resort) and suggest that we ‘move along’. Apparently, my concerns are unfounded as the lion are still some way off, “A lion’s roar can be heard by another lion up to five miles away,” explains Kilmon.
We disappear into a thicket of trees, their sparse branches pierced by spears of sunlight, illuminating spider webs and scurrying bugs at random. Exiting in a clearing, we manage to catch some mohawk-maned zebra and long-faced wildebeest unaware before they canter off with a swish of their tails. Impala skip away from us, snorting out an alarm to their fellow teammates, far more skittish of us on foot than in the vehicle.
After about an hour’s walk, we spot Viktor waiting at the designated spot at the wheel of the Land Cruiser and continue our game drive on four wheels. But not for long. We’re on the trail of one of the most vulnerable and poached of all the animals, the white rhino, when we drive into some dense bush and can go no further. Justin and I are already climbing out of the Cruiser when Kilmon asks if we would like to continue on foot. Although severely lacking in sight, rhino have a superior sense of smell and good ears, so we need to move stealthily. What’s more, they can run unbelievably quickly over short distances, reaching speeds of up to 58 kilometres per hour.
Kilmon grabs a handful of sand and lets it slide through his fingers. Using hand signals, he instructs us to walk back the way we’ve come so as to approach the rhino from downwind.We move as silently as possible through the cracking-dry bush. After about 50 metres, Kilmon motions us to squat down and points out a massive, grey bulk with its distinctive double horn. Without the safety blanket of the Land Cruiser, the fully grown male’s size is hugely intimidating and I’m happy to stay squatting, despite my dodgy left leg. We see another two rhino in the distance; the female and perhaps her offspring. My heart stops as the big male closest to us flicks an ear in our direction and stops chewing for a second or two, then continues as he begins masticating again, deciding that there’s no imminent threat a hand.
If only that was true and no human being was ever a threat to these magnificent beasts. Then they would not be facing extinction as a direct result of our misplaced beliefs and insatiable greed. Africa is indeed ruthless in its nature, but there is a perfect equilibrium in its savagery and a complete balance in its law of survival of the fittest. It is our species, us human beings, who are the bottom feeders. We don’t deserve our place on the planet for what we’re deliberately and systematically doing to destroy it every day – with no regard for anything but ourselves. I return to camp with this prophetic conclusion and a newfound affinity with the bush. As I pack up my belongings, I realise that the true African adventure I’ve had at Chapungu has been one of my favourite game-viewing experiences and one that I will never forget.