The animal house

At Richard Branson's magnificent South African safari lodge, you're in the thick of the action. From baboons stealing your clothes, to lions stalking nearby, there's a constant parade of captivating wildlife. Lucy Gillmore is bewitched

Ulusaba, Sir Richard Branson's safari lodge, is strung across a knobbly escarpment in the Sabi Sand Private Reserve which hunches up against the Kruger National Park. The granite
koppie was once the ancient lookout point for the Shangaan warriors - the name Ulusaba means "place of little fear". Tell that to Will Smith's beefy bodyguards. After the actor and his entourage jetted in, sweeping down to the tiny private airstrip in the bush, they swaggered up to Karl, the head ranger, and demanded to be taken to the action. Karl was happy to oblige. One crazed-elephant charge later, he turned round to check that everyone was OK and found the huge men cowering under their seats. That's the thing about the bush - it's a real leveller. Street-smart tough in LA means nothing out here, face to face with nature at its rawest.

Ulusaba, Sir Richard Branson's safari lodge, is strung across a knobbly escarpment in the Sabi Sand Private Reserve which hunches up against the Kruger National Park. The granite koppie was once the ancient lookout point for the Shangaan warriors - the name Ulusaba means "place of little fear". Tell that to Will Smith's beefy bodyguards. After the actor and his entourage jetted in, sweeping down to the tiny private airstrip in the bush, they swaggered up to Karl, the head ranger, and demanded to be taken to the action. Karl was happy to oblige. One crazed-elephant charge later, he turned round to check that everyone was OK and found the huge men cowering under their seats. That's the thing about the bush - it's a real leveller. Street-smart tough in LA means nothing out here, face to face with nature at its rawest.

Our group did rather well in comparison - we might have been glued to our seats as a testosterone-charged bull with only one bloodied tusk thundered towards us. Karl revved the engine and reversed at high speed, but no one uttered a peep.

Will Smith isn't the only film star to have graced Ulusaba. Salma Hayek and her family had booked Safari Lodge for their exclusive use and were checking in as we were checking out. The Branson factor has definite celebrity appeal. However, Ulusaba has a star quality of its own and you don't have to be Hollywood A-list to enjoy glamour and adventure in the bush.

Branson bought Ulusaba in 1999 and it opened for business in 2000. He shipped in the designers from Necker Island, his Caribbean retreat, to give it a stylish makeover. It comprises two lodges: Safari Lodge sits on the banks of the dry Mabrak riverbed, while Rock Lodge is perched on a koppie with panoramic views over the veld. Both offer very different experiences of the bush - you can stay at one or the other or split your time between the two.

At Safari Lodge the rooms are built tree-house style among the tangle of verdant vegetation. The Mabrak riverbed is the well-trodden path to a nearby watering-hole and from your private deck or the bar you get unrivalled views of elephant and rhino ambling past. Some of the rooms are connected by rope bridge so as not to disturb the wildlife. The rooms themselves are a mix of teak and thatch - hardwood floors scattered with coir-matting rugs; brown leather director's chairs; soaring beams and thatch ceilings. The huge bush beds, built by local craftsmen, with gnarled logs at each corner, are draped with mosquito netting. On the walls are framed sepia photographs of the Big Five. In the bathrooms claw-foot baths also have enviable views - as do the open, slate showers.

At Safari Lodge you're right in the heart of the bush, a fact hammered home at around five each morning when the baboons start to party - screeching, scampering and jumping over your roof and deck. If you don't lock your door, your underwear is likely to end up hanging from the nearest branch.

Up at Rock Lodge, 700ft above the plain, the Drakensberg mountain range hazy in the distance, the design is on a grander scale. Many of the rooms are styled around the colours and textiles of different African tribes. The Rock Cliff rooms are literally perched on the cliff edge. A spiral staircase leads down to the bathrooms, one wall of which is a vast expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows - claw-foot baths positioned accordingly.

It's up at Rock Lodge that you find the Aroma Boma spa. One of the perks of the job for the in-flight Virgin Touch masseuses is the opportunity to spend three months working at Ulusaba. Unsurprisingly, most don't want to leave.

But the real draw, of course, is the wildlife. Although it's mesmerising to stand and survey the miles of parched savannah with a chilled bottle of beer in hand and a pair of binoculars at the ready, or glance up momentarily from your Hydro Hippo facial to scan the plains far below, there's no substitute for heading out into the thick of it. There are twice-daily game drives as well as bush walks. The first is at 5.30am when the open-topped Land Rovers come stocked with welcome blankets and hot-water bottles. After tea the second game drive heads off in time for sundowners in the bush.

With Karl at the wheel, and Jack the tracker perched on the fold-away seat on the bonnet, we bumped along the dusty tracks each morning and evening. When the sun goes down the temperatures drop dramatically and you find yourselves plunged into pockets of icy air. The tyres crunching through wild basil release a pungent aroma. Early evening is the perfect time to spot lion, waking from their daytime snooze, yawning, stretching, rolling over like huge pussy cats to reveal the whites of their stomachs - before they head off on the night hunt. Hippo who've been underwater all day protecting their delicate skin from the searing African sun also lumber out of the waterhole to feed. One evening we watched a leopard with her cub playing in the long grass. One morning we followed a cheetah and her offspring through the scrubby thickets - she had lost two to the leopard the night before.

The Land Rovers have been adapted to cope with the terrain; reinforced undercarriages allow the rangers to veer off-road and crash through the undergrowth, on occasion driving over whole trees which miraculously spring back up again.

The rangers' skill and knowledge of the bush is humbling. Karl, a true son of Ulusaba, is a man of little fear. Sipping sundowners on a sandy riverbank, he told tales from his marathon walk across Africa. With two friends, he carried a canister of sand from a beach in Cape Town, determined to deposit it on Egypt's coast. Hiking the length of the continent, trudging across country after country, they were only defeated by war in Sudan. Even the Somalian bandits who set upon them while they slept in the desert didn't halt them. The trek took almost two years.

He also talks to the animals. When we encountered a herd of elephant crossing the track, the matriarch agitated and flapping her ears, he calmed the situation with his voice. At the dam in the dead of the night, the velvety sky pinpricked by stars, he pointed out the different constellations - including Scorpio, my star sign. Walking through the bush in single file, Karl, rifle to hand, had a story, a use or a warning for each tree and bush we passed. He cautioned that one trunk oozing white latex was poisonous. If you burn the wood it will knock you out. But catch the latex in a cup and put it in a river or lake and you have an alternative type of fishing: the latex will kill the fish - which remains safe to eat as the poison stays in the guts. The tiny, tomato-like fruit from another plant can be used to remove warts. Plucking a handful of leaves from a bush, Karl added water from his bottle and rubbed them together, producing nature's soap. Twigs from another bush can be turned into a toothbrush after stripping away the bark, handfuls of another can be used as toilet paper - or a bandage. Within a short patch of ground we collected enough for a whole wash bag. Karl was a cross between David Bellamy, Patrick Moore and David Attenborough, and we lapped up his every word.

Ulusaba is just an hour by private jet from Jo'burg. One of the team told us that Sir Richard swings by here for lunch whenever he's in South Africa - and he usually can't pull himself away for at least 24 hours. We were starting to understand why. Heading home after an all-too-short stay, the engines of our tiny jet roared as a group of local women sang and danced a traditional farewell. There wasn't a dry eye on the plane.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled as a guest of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Limited Edition. Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) operates direct flights to Johannesburg from London Heathrow from £559. A return Upper Class flight which includes limo transfers costs £2,880 per person.

British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), and South African Airlines (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com) also offer non-stop flights from Heathrow.

STAYING THERE

Prices start from £290 per person per night including all meals, drinks and game viewing. Return flights between Johannesburg and Ulusaba's private airstrip cost around £265 return. For information contact Virgin Limited Edition (0800 716 919; www.virgin.com/limitededition).

Virgin Holidays (0871 2220307) offers a five-night package from £1,989 per person including flights, all-inclusive accommodation and car hire. Other operators offering packages to Ulusaba include Steppes Africa (01285 650011; www.steppesafrica.co.uk).

INFORMATION

South African Tourist Board: 0870 155 0044; www.southafrica.net.

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