“Is it okay if I squeal?” I ask ranger Juan Pinto and my beloved Micato Safaris guide, Alan Petersen, before my first game drive in the South African bush. You see, I know in advance that the animals will be cute. And, I want to be professional about this: I don’t want to be the vision of some lovelorn teen who has just seen a celebrity film idol. So I want Juan and Alan to tell it to me straight. Alan smiles indulgently. “No squealing. But you can talk.”
But nobody really needs to say a word in the South African bush. Nature takes care of the sound effects: baboons bark, cheetahs chirp (yes, they really do), hyenas screech, hippos snort — and of course, lions roar. All the while, a chorus of birds whistles diddle-dos, carols, and trills. One feathery fellow, called the Go Away Bird, even emits a cranky warble that sounds as dismissive as its name. Add in the soft whirr of the jeep, the velvety purr of the breeze and the sound of our jackets brushing against leather seats, and we’ve entered our own symphonic sanctuary.
But hearing isn’t the only sense titillated to the max on safari. Here in the Thornybush Game Reserve, a 12,000-hectare expanse on the western edge of Kruger National Park, the world unfolds in myriad dimensions. We bump along dirt roads, lined with thorny Acacia trees, tall leathery-leafed Jacalberry trees, and the scrubby, chaotic mixed plants of the woodland savannah. Thick with chill, the air smells of dew, grass, rain, and musty earth. A sunrise explodes against the horizon in abstract splotches of purple, salmon and pink. And animals, as evocative as storybook characters, but far more real, simply go about their business. Before we stop for a bush coffee break, we’ve seen giraffes, wildebeest, zebra, lions, crocs, hippos, rhino, and elephants. And it’s only just 7 a.m.
Such is life at Royal Malewane, an illustrious, intimate lodge amid so much wild. Each morning, I awaken before dawn. When my phone rings in the darkness, I struggle within the confines of my mosquito-net canopied bed, feeling much like a spider caught in a web. In the distance, I hear the tinkling of china tea cups being laid out, while the aroma of fresh-baked muffins scents the air. I tumble into the lavish common room of Africa House, Royal Malewane’s private villa cum lodge and a favorite of such safari fans as Elton John and Bono, ready to rumble through the bush — but only after a civilized cup of hot tea.
Not rustic, the lodge was created by Liz Biden, one of South Africa’s most revered hoteliers — and long a fan of the Thornybush area. Her talent lies in her ability to spin dreams — and the lodge feels much like leaping into an Expressionist painting: it is colorful, fantastical, and courageous in décor. Meant to pamper, the superior service only guarantees the scene reaches the highest level of quixotic.
This over-the-top service extends to the game drives and exploration of the bush — which is really what the visit is all about. When I booked my bespoke safari with Micato Safaris, I didn’t know that the ranger team assigned to me, the aforementioned Juan Pinto and master tracker Wilson Maciya, was the best in Africa. But, later, when I discover their reputation, and contrast them with other guides, I’m not surprised to hear it. Without a doubt, it’s our twice-daily excursions into the bush with them that feed my soul and define my adventure.
Over several days we drive into the bush. Wilson perches on a chair in front of our tiered vehicle, while Juan drives. The two engage in nearly speechless communication, a discourse that involves a jumble of languages, nearly undetectable hand signals, perpetually roving eyes — all resulting in Juan suddenly turning the Land Rover, slowing down, or suddenly raging off road through the branches. Effortlessly, Juan points out animals and birds, names plants, and regales us with tales. Perhaps the highlight is the afternoon when we track — and find — a cheetah mother who had not been spotted for days.
But Juan and Wilson and our outstanding Micato guide Alan Petersen (perhaps more than any of them) don’t just tutor us on the species that inhabit Thornybush. They also teach us about geography, ecology, the stars, the horrors of poaching, and the changing social systems of South Africa. They mix cocktails for sundowners and dole out photography tips. They’re everyman’s gateway to transformative African adventure. In short, they give us the gift of the bush. And, that’s something worth squealing about.