5am and that damn wake up call, especially painful this morning as I've now reached the ripe old age of 60 years, but this is Ulusaba and there is no sleeping in! So up and dressed Kelly and I headed for the bar to meet up with Johan and the rest of our crew and what a cruel bunch they, are no sympathy for old folk. After a bit of digging how they would tow me behind in a wheel chair and the fact that they had an additional ranger joining us so two of them could lift me into the vehicle I climbed aboard, unaided, and we set off.
In no time we’d come across another herd of elephants (I’m not sure if it was the same one we saw yesterday or not). This group was quite funny as one of the baby elephants, while crossing the road in front of us, decided to challenge the vehicle. He spread his ears and lifted his trunk and started toward us, as the got close to us he realised that he was quite a way from mum and the rest of the herd and quickly spun around and ran back to her.
Further on we saw a Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill,
and then we came across a solitary lion looking for his missing lioness, he was going from bush to bush trying to pick up her scent.
We followed him to a dam full of hippo’s where he started calling for his mate. This had the effect of making all the hippos, who until now looked just like stepping stones in the water, to pop their heads up to see what all the noise and fuss was about.
We headed to the river for a quick break and some coffee and on the way saw a beautiful White-fronted Bee-eater. This bird likes dense bush near water and they wait for insects to fly past, then agilely hawk them in mid-air before returning to perch and eat.
The best bit of the early morning start was the first cup of coffee, always spiked with, Amarula. Today we stopped at a beautiful spot on Sand River.
Moving on we came across our long awaited sighting of Warthogs, so named for their facial warts. We had been giving Johan a bit of a hard time that we hadn’t seem them yet while he wanted to show us the big 5 we wanted the little 5!
Not long after the warthogs we came across another Lion and a lioness. According to Johan this was the mother of some cubs the Rangers had been looking for. The lion was called Mister T and you can see why in his photograph. Apparently though he is quite aggressive toward his offspring and the rangers were concerned he may have killed them.
After that it was back to the Safari Lodge for breakfast and time to pack our gear because today we are moving to the Rock Lodge. The Rock Lodge is situated on the top of one of the largest hills in Sabi Sand and has a commanding view across the whole area. We had booked 3 nights in Safari and 2 in Rock so we could get a feeling of both locations.
The thing was that we thought the Ulusaba Lodges were both part of the same lodge community, but in reality they are considered separate lodges and have their own managers and their own culture. The Safari Lodge is probably a tad more laid back and you are close to the ground so you get to have casual interactions, albeit at a distance, with animals that come down by the water hole.
On the other hand, the Rock Lodge is, they say, for couples with children, as they are not allowed at Safari and facilities for them. But the one thing Rock Lodge does have is a kick-ass view!
To get to Rock Lodge you have to travel up an incredibly steep road, and the height of the lodge precludes close up views of animals. However we were told that an elephant once made the trek up and down the road, which would have been a remarkable feat having seen what it takes to drive up there.
Even though they are different the great attitude from the team at Ulusaba remains the same. The wonderful food, rooms, common areas, and the attention to detail is a given regardless of whether you are at Safari or Rock.
Our room, Mowani Dawn, at Rock was amazing, as you enter the first thing you see is the plunge pool on the balcony. The room was enormous with high ceilings, a small office with it’s own computer, a sitting room, a bedroom, a large bathroom with “egg” shaped bath and a wrap around balcony with views back over Safari and the veld.
It was a scorcher of a day and within 5 minutes of checking into the room we were outside skinny dipping in the plunge pool (sorry no pictures :-( )
Our friends Julia and Steve, and Ian and Vicky were invited up for tea at before the evening drive and we had great fun in showing them around and the staff put on a great afternoon tea with jugs of iced coffee and iced tea and little snacks. Of course we could resist a dig about the lifestyle of the highlanders vs. the lowlanders :-)
After tea it was time for the evening drive but as we were getting in the vehicle we could see the head of the highly venomous snake the Boomslang poking out of a hole in a tree right next to the vehicle. As we watched he started to pull himself up the tree and out of his hole. Apparently the Boomslang is an extremely venomous snake.
So off we went looking for the Leopard with the cubs as we had heard she'd made a kill that day. Well try as we may we couldn't find her anywhere; Greg & Johan took off into the bush to see if they could see them, Anois went off down the road to see if he could see fresh tracks. That left the rest of us sitting in the vehicle wondering what to do if they didn’t come back. Fortunately they'd left the keys in the ignition for us.
Sadly no sign of the cubs, but we did however run across a couple of giraffes and a Cheetah and the carcass of an Impala.
For sundowners tonight, Johan drove the vehicle onto this giant granite rock sitting in the middle of Sand River. We all sat around have our sundowners while the sun set.
After our Sundowners we came across a lion sprawled in one of the many tracks that crisscross the veld. This was the same one we had seen earlier looking for his lioness’s. As we watched him he started this spine growl that was so deep and rumbling that we couldn't believe what we were hearing. In the still of the night it must have carried for kilometers.
A few minutes on from the Lion we came across a Leopard resting in the fork of a tree.
It was getting to the end of the ride and we started heading back toward the lodges. As we approached the Safari lodge I saw in the distance 3 huge trees strung with fairy lights and I thought to myself who in the hell strings up fairy lights in the middle of the African bush.
Instead of going straight to Safari lodge, Johan took a track toward the lights and we could hear the sound of African drums in the distance. The closer we got the louder the drums and we could see a huge fire pit and a roaring fire lighting up the darkness.
Getting down off the vehicle we were given hot towels to wipe away the dust from the tracks we had just been driving down, a glass of champagne and escorted into the firelight. What an amazing sight, the trees with the fairy lights ringed a clearing in which I could see tables set up as a bar, a line of BBQ’s and food tables, enough tables and chairs for everyone staying at both lodges, and a line of African drummers beating a welcome.
Oh my God, this was their answer to the BBQ we had been wanting.
All of the guides, had been secretly coordinating the timing of their safaris to all meet at the clearing at the same time. We all walked in completely stunned at the effect. The pitch black moonless night lit only by Kerosene lamps, the glow of the bonfire and the lights in the trees made it feel as though you were a million miles from anywhere. There was a fully stocked bar, sizzling BBQ’s and tables with salads, fruit, breads and a beautiful U shaped dining table for about 60 people.
By this stage I'm so overwhelmed by the occasion that I’m just taking it all in and completely forgetting to take a photograph of any of it. I think someone must have grabbed our camera cause there’s a couple of stunned mullet shots of yours truly and Kelly. Remember we have just finished 3 hours of driving around in an open top Safari vehicle through thick scrub and dirt roads. No time to clean up before the party.
Once we all had drinks a group of African dancers, from the local village resplendent in their traditional clothing, performed songs and dances around the fire, showing incredible strength and grace with their singing and dancing.
After the dancers had finished the general manager of the resort welcomed us all and acknowledged that we were here to celebrate my 60th birthday and that we should enjoy the food, the wine and the company.
For once in my life I was speechless!!
After the main course a number of the Ulusaba staff came out of the darkness carrying a huge chocolate cake made of the letters 6 and 0 with candles blazing singing happy birthday. I have to say it made one quite emotional.
After the cake was cut I gave a quick speech, having regained use of my vocal chords, and thanked all of the Ulusaba staff for the hard work they had done to put this all together, thanked Johan for showing and teaching me about a side of nature that I'd never seen before, thanked Steve and Julia who had become great friends over the past 4 days and for all the Ulusaba guests for being there.
At the end of the night we were all escorted back to our lodges, back in our room there was a parcel, wrapped in Leopard paper and card waiting for me from the Ulusaba team.
Without a doubt it was one of the most memorable times of my life and a milestone birthday that I will remember forever. All that was left now was to get a few hours of sleep before that damn 5am phone call had us up and out on the trail again.