South Africa III

Singita Lebombo (Sweni Lodge) situaded inside Kruger National Park, close to the border with Mozambique, 1.-4.12.2004

On Sunday morning we left Southbroom for Durban under beautiful sunshine but with a bit of a nasty wind and hence by British Aerospace Jet stream turboprop to Nelspruit for an overnight stay at yet another but smaller Holiday Inn Express – this extra overnight is required because all charters leave before 1 PM for the Kruger Park and the first regular flight from Durban arrives at 3 PM.

Sweni river 30 km from the Lodge Sweni Lodge near reception magnificent tree at sundown

The pilot informed us before landing that the temperature was 32 C at Nelspruit but when we passed through the KMIA airport, two years old and very charming, it was cool even without air-conditioning. The area looked very green with much tobacco grown and many jacaranda trees, in blossom, with practically no leaves at the start, only light blue flowers, but then it is spring.

When we look out of our window at the hotel, we see a number of thorny trees with hundreds of hanging nests swaying in the evening breeze, but also because the spotted masked weaver parents are busy feeding their young from the bottom hole in the nest. Often, they are still building the nests or repairing them. Apparently, the male has to build the nest over and over again if his lady does not like it!

The air transfer on Monday morning was not as easy and straightforward as we had believed. First, the pilot was not there and when we were able to contact him, he was about to leave Singita with passengers for Nelspruit, and to pick us up together with a couple coming in from Johannesburg. They not only arrived a bit late but as well had lots of baggage which had to be repacked; 2 out of 3 of the bags had to be placed into storage there. He was a Frenchman of some 60 years with a much younger female companion with a large semi-precious stone in her navel. This repacking business took a further 30 minutes and if you think this <Frog> had the decency to mutter at least a little  “sorry” for causing this silly delay, you do not know the French: he blamed the airline for not allowing more baggage against payment (he did not read the conditions! – we did and had sent our heavy baggage ahead to JNB by courier service).

Low and behold, when I mentioned this snafu to the most efficient Singita Management, they not only apologized for the long wait, they also arranged for Federal Air to refund the full fare! That was quite an unexpected and wonderful treatment but when we experienced the world class accommodation and exquisite food expertly served by attentive waiters, I began to understand why Singita was Conde Nast’s 2004 Resort of the Year.

We had a rather bumpy flight in a practically new 6-seater Australian-built Airvan (similar to an Islander), owned by Federal Air, to an official landing strip used for a nearby camp. The strip is some 30 minutes away from Singita lodge, which was built only 2 years ago on land that had never been visited before for lack of roads. The Government only gave the developers a 20 year lease, therefore all is built with local wood and style, and glass, easy to remove after the lease expires. Already on that drive from the airstrip to the lodge, we had met with several herds of sleek and very shy impala and half a dozen giraffes.

Our glass and wood bungalow, with two toilets, inside and outside showers, Jacuzzi, dip pool, and large terrace, overlooks the confluence of the N’wanetsi and Sweni Rivers. There is also a large deck with double mattress and a mosquito net so you can sleep under the stars – Uschi preferred it inside!

After a short superb lunch, we went to change and left for our first safari drive at 4 PM, already spotting 2 hippos with 2 young in the river right below us. Also a nasty looking 12 foot croc was slowly swimming upstream without leaving a trail in the water.

Lee Fuller was our ranger and Omega the spotter or tracker. In order to visit all areas of the vast bush lands (150 km2), the developers had built nearly 140 km of access roads, all still in very good condition. A short 500 m from the lodge, we first saw 2 large male kudus, the largest antelope, then a large, solitary old elephant in front of a huge yellow-stemmed tree with his shoulder and ears powdered in a yellowish color; this is from rubbing at the bark of that fever tree, which was believed to be the source of malaria in the olden days, thus the name: fever tree. Later, we encountered a whole herd of elephants.

There were many sleek impalas, very alert and agile, a family of white (square mouthed) rhinoceros with one young, some gnus, some giraffes and after dark, 4 lions near an elephant carcass, lying down and panting heavily after having filled their stomachs to the brim. One young male had positioned himself right next to the dead animal so as to prevent lurking jackals, hyenas and vultures from devouring the remainder. On the way to the lodge, there was a young male lion on the road and he moved slowly over to his mate after we tried to pass him.

On Tuesday morning, at 5:45, we started out for our second drive. We saw the same types of animals again, plus a lion in his prime, patiently waiting for his lady lioness to let him make love to her. We did not have the patience to wait and left after about 20 minutes. It would seem that in the lion kingdom, the same rules apply as in human society… We also spotted a huge old buffalo, and as he moved slowly away we saw that he limped on his right back leg.

There is also a wonderful world of birds to be seen and heard, from francolins to weavers, and from yellow hornbills to bewildering variety of cuckoos, and kingfishers of all colors and sizes. There are also many species of doves and other water fowl. We also saw a Kori bustard, which is the world’s largest flying bird, up to 20 kg in weight, running into the bushes.

It is 1 PM whilst I am writing this in cool comfort, looking out of the glass wall, 10 meters wide and 3 meters high, across to the other side of the river where the ripples in the water make beautiful designs on the huge stem of another giant yellowish fever tree. Lunch was a joy with many appetizers and 4 main dishes to choose from, plus an array of dessert, served tirelessly by our always smiling waiter Sam.

On Wednesday, we left again at 05:45, this time together with a South African lady now living in the US. First, we observed for quite a while a herd of about 40 elephants, with a small baby, perhaps 2 weeks old, then a dozen lions having fed on a buffalo killed last night and panting but jealously guarding the remains of their kill, a white rhino family, a hippo in the water but not yawning, several kudus, impalas, herds of zebras, 7 giraffes, and then the crowning finale: a magnificent female leopard walking slowly downstream on the opposite bank of the N’wanetsi river, obviously very hungry, as she tried to catch a francolin, and missed… On the way to the lodge, we encountered another larger herd of some 60 elephants, with an cute even younger baby, perhaps 4 days old, on the banks of the same river, just a mere mile downstream of the leopard sighting. It cannot get any better, or perhaps a rare glimpse of a cheetah in this region?

Well, the afternoon drive was equally spectacular. The group of 60 elephants was now in a different spot, close to the road, and it was wonderful to watch how the youngsters played and how the mothers and aunts continued feeding but always kept a wary eye over them. Then, 5 minutes away, with the male lion standing on one side of the buffalo carcass, belly stretched and panting heavily, but not willing to abandon the kill, and 5 lionesses and 2 younger males eagerly trying to eat from the other side. There was growling and fighting, with one young male having his head constantly inside the buffalo’s body, looking filthy when he took the head out. A wonderful 20 minutes was spent there, with at least 2 dozen vultures observing the spectacle from two tall snags nearby.

During the afternoon drive, we met the lion with his lady again, in another spot from the day before. Today, we were lucky, as soon after our stopping for observation, obviously having received permission, he mounted her swiftly but finished rather soon, growling heavily (we do not know whether from the effort or the pleasure!). The lady behind us remarked oh, so quick and I detected a sigh, indicating she had similar experiences in her own life. Night fell slowly after the late sundowner drinks. Then the finale; the leopard mother had joined her 10 month old male youngster and we were able to follow them through the bush and later over a ford. They were wonderful, the young darting into the bush and all of a sudden dashing out in front of the mother. At the ford, they had to wait quite a while because there was a large hippo cow laboring to get out of the water, over the ford and into the downstream section, followed by her calf. There was another large one in the water but she fled the minute she observed the two predators walking carefully over the wet strip. We followed, but right on the steep embankment the two gave us the slip. Obviously, the mother had fetched the son to lead him to where she had hidden her kill for him to feed on, and she did not want to reveal its location. We tried hard to find them but they had really gotten away beautifully.

Another surprise awaited us. When we approached the lodge, it looked as if the bush was on fire. It even smelled like fire and smoke. The staff of the Sweni lodge had lit dozens of petrol lamps and hung them in the bushes; they also had made 3 big fires in large iron dishes for warmth, and set up a beautiful buffet for us 8 guests at the lodge. It was indeed a spectacle, and we enjoyed nice appetizers and a selection of charcoal grilled fish, ostrich fillet, chicken and a rolled sausage that tasted great. We finished the Vergelegen Chardonnay 2002, and then had a 1998 Vergelegen Red Blend for the meats, wonderfully aromatic, dark red and with a long nose. The tannin that was overpowering in the 2000 vintage 2 nights before had dissipated to just what it needed.

The last drive on Thursday morning proved counter-productive after the tremendous sightings the day before. We left Singita for the 30 min. drive to the airstrip and a 25 min. plane hop to Leopard Hills arriving there just before 2:00. The lunch they offered did not bode well for the days to come; we had been spoiled rotten at Sweni Lodge!

Singita Lebombo Lode (12 cliff villas)
they don’t look as comfortable as they are
Apero during a sundset drive Tracker Omega
Huge male elephant in front of large fever tree 2 elephants 3 female elephants with tinyyoungster
Elephant herd Elephant herd 2 water bucks
Lion & female Lion Lion feasting on buffalo, lionesses on sidelines
Lioness Lions mating 2 adult water bucks
Hyppos in front of Sweni Lodge 2 Hyppos at Sweni Lodge with croc in foreground First sighting of female leopard
Zebras in golden evening light 5 zebras Zebras taking a dust bath
Male Giraffe Giraffe with bird on neck Impalas
Impalas A mighty ebony tree Another magnificent ebony tree
Leopard cub at Singita
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