It was late afternoon in the South African bush and before us lay a moment of exquisite possibilities. From our vantage point on the open safari vehicle, we could see a giraffe grazing on an acacia tree, unaware of the danger lurking. Five lions – a huge male and four females – lay downwind in the long grass, snoozing in the setting sun. We waited. They flicked their tales and rolled over.
But night was coming – and with it the possibility of the hunt. I felt awed, expectant. One lioness sniffed the air, then she was up. The others rose silently and began to follow. By now the giraffe had melted away but Doc Themba, our game ranger, nursed our vehicle along, keeping us in the front row of this unscripted drama. Suddenly, not three metres from the lead lion, a rabbit hiding in the grass leapt up. The lion lurched forward to kill it but then decided it was too much effort for too little reward.
That’s the magic of the bush – you never know where the drama will come from. We trailed the lions for 45 thrilling minutes, then reluctantly headed back to camp, where preparations for dinner were underway.
My wife and I had booked in that afternoon to Little Bush Camp, one of four exclusive lodges owned by Sabi Sabi, situated in the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, which shares an unfenced border with the Kruger National Park. Our lodge was intimate, with just six rooms, each embedded into the bush and furnished with an understated yet luxurious design and an outdoor hot tub on a balcony that overlooked a dry river bed.
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These days, high-end private lodges with their eye-watering prices attract mostly international visitors who want to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) and enjoy a superbly curated experience with sumptuous rooms, exquisite cuisine and every need anticipated.
It’s a competitive market and, to differentiate themselves, lodges often make claims to give them an edge with tour operators – about community support or environmental sustainability – that can be hard to verify. In Sabi Sabi’s case, it was their chef mentorship programme and financial support of three villages just outside the reserve that attracted my attention.
Group executive chef Wilfred Mtshali oversees all 45 chefs employed by Sabi Sabi, but eight years ago, he went to the owners with a proposition. Wilfred, 53, had been dismayed by the rampant unemployment he saw in Huntington, a village of 14,000 people where 60 per cent of residents were out of work.
“I saw a lot of youths doing nothing, some with alcohol in hand,” Wilfred said. “I remembered my grandmother who woke me every day at 5am to cook sour porridge before school and every day after school she would teach me new dishes. I looked at these youths who looked lost and remembered how hard it had been for me even with such an inspirational grandmother and I thought, can I help them start a career?”
That was the beginning of the Sabi Sabi one-year chef mentorship programme which now takes 10 trainees annually and has so far had 75 graduates. Trainees get free food, accommodation, chef outfits, training, mentoring and free travel to Johannesburg where they attend a South African Chefs Association course on the basics of cooking. The vast majority have gone on to get jobs as chefs or in hospitality at Sabi Sabi, other high-end game lodges or at big city hotels.
Dzunisani Lubisi, 25, trainee chef at Little Bush Camp, said she joined after working in a local mortuary and being desperate to leave. “I love to cook and am always googling recipes so I applied,” she said. “I have learned to cook different soups, risotto, chocolate fondant and malva pudding. This is a big opportunity for me. One day I want to open my own restaurant.”
Freedom Masinga, 33, a 2016 trainee who is now chef de partie at Little Bush Camp, said the scheme changed his life. “I have been fully employed both here and at other lodges since I trained here,” he said.
Wilfred said Dzunisani was “passionate and earmarked to become a top chef” and that Freedom was “the coolest guy and very focused”. “But what I am most proud of,” he added, “is that for each of these trainees who now has a career, they are supporting up to 10 family members, so our programme is lifting the whole community.”
The food, international-style cuisine with a South African twist, is inventive and delicious, especially when eaten around a fire under the stars. Particularly memorable was the tasty barramundi (Asian sea bass), cooked with rice, pea puree, garlic, coriander and Romesco sauce, and the morish watermelon conserve which accompanied the cheese and biscuits before the afternoon game drive.
Over two days we saw the magnificent Big Five and more. Rangers are in touch with each other by radio and can go off-road, which you can’t do in Kruger, so visitors are more likely to get close to big cats. A highlight was when we tracked down a herd of buffalo; suddenly our tracker, Patrick Nyalungu, heard impala alarm-calling, the signal that they had spotted a predator. We headed off in hot pursuit and came upon a cheetah catching its breath. A rare sighting and one that had Doc punching the air, exclaiming to Patrick, “Still the A team!”, before radioing in the sighting.
For a change of pace, we did a morning walking safari where Doc showed us some medicinal and alternative uses of local flora, such as Devil’s Claw, which lavers like soap when you add water and rub it softly into your hands.
We also took the community tour along dirt roads to Huntington village and saw the difference the Sabi Sabi Foundation has made, donating, they said, around £200,000 to help fund a digital learning centre for schoolchildren and a project supporting HIV orphans, as well as £65,000 to build a well last year that has provided clean water to every street in Huntington. A village elder told us: “The government gave us electricity but until last year we had never had clean water. It’s been a game changer.”
The bush is all-encompassing – you leave the outside world behind and enter its simple rhythm of game drives, eating, waking early, sleeping early. It’s intensely relaxing and gut-wrenchingly exciting. Just walking to your room at night, escorted by a guide with a gun, is an adventure.
“There’s a resident leopard born under room one that was recently seen strolling through reception,” our guide said. We had seen a leopard on our game drive that morning, but in the middle of the night, I found myself on the deck, sweeping the river bed with my torch beams, expectant. I wanted to see that leopard. I never did; but the hope was reward enough.
To get there: Fly 11 hours to Johannesburg (BA from £630), then Airlink 55 minutes to Skukuza (£250) followed by a one-hour transfer (£31pp) through the Kruger National Park in an open vehicle. Alternatively, hire a car from Johannesburg and drive for six hours.
Little Bush Camp costs £800 per person per night sharing, including a morning and evening game drive, an environmental awareness walking safari and three meals a day including alcohol. A tour of a nearby village can be arranged for £80pp. Children under four stay free and children under 13 pay up to £350 each.
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