2000s Archive

Call of the Wild

Originally Published August 2002
Life at a South African safari camp is more than lions, tigers, and wildebeests—it's also white linen, ostrich pâté, and a chilled Pimm's Cup.

Don't speak," our guide commanded as he abruptly pulled the Land Rover off the road and killed the headlights. So we sat, obediently mute, in a darkness interrupted only by periodic flickers of lightning from an approaching thunderstorm. Suddenly, a flurry of snapping twigs put the guide into overdrive—hitting the lights, roaring into the bush, and pulling up sharply some 30 yards away. There we watched as three lionesses who had been slinking down the road minutes ago crouched over the body of a young impala, growling and tearing into their prey. Flesh ripped, bones cracked, and the sweet, metallic smell of fresh blood filled the air.

At once gruesome and exhilarating, it was an overpowering sight, the kind of elemental drama that gives you an oddly dislocating sense of being in a different, more intense reality. And it was exactly why I had come to South Africa.

When your spare time is spent lounging around one of South Africa's sybaritic safari lodges, that sense of dislocation becomes even more intense. You're out on a game drive when an enormous bull elephant not 40 feet away suddenly decides you've come too close and, trumpeting loudly, advances toward you with ears waving, rips a tree right out of the earth with his trunk, and slams it to the ground. Suddenly, you realize that no zoo rules apply; nothing stands between you and 14,000 pounds of pachyderm. He lives here. You don't. Time to move on.

And when you do, it's to the Royal Malewane lodge, where you return to your villa after dinner to find a handwritten note or poem on the pillow of your hand-carved four-poster bed along with one perfect apricot. Walk into the bathroom, and there are candles burning and bowls of floating orchids. It's a strange dance, from food-chain ferocity to drawing-room niceties and back again.

Royal Malewane sits in the northwest corner of South Africa, in the Thornybush Game Reserve, just outside Kruger National Park. One of the world's oldest and largest national parks, Kruger covers an area nearly as big as Wales and is home to more wild beasts than you've seen on Animal Planet. Dozens of private reserves like Thornybush now border the park, most of them open to Kruger so that animals can roam at will. And watching those beasts roam is what days at Malewane are organized around-twice-daily game drives, conducted in open-top "viewing vehicles" that trace the spiderweb of dirt roads weaving through the scrubby bush. So successful are the sightings during these outings—not only of the famed "Big Five" of lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant, but also of what our group took to calling the "Funny Four," the giraffes, warthogs, wildebeests, and hippos that look as if they were put together out of spare parts—that after a couple of days another weird dislocation sets in: Spotting a lion becomes nearly as routine as opening your front door in the morning and seeing the newspaper lying there.

Despite the vastness of the reserves, animals tend to stay within certain well-defined areas and many are actually quite familiar to the guides, who go so far as to give some of them names. The guides also chat back and forth on walkie-talkies (speaking in fanagalo, a peculiar composite of English and several South African languages devised to facilitate communications among guides and trackers), summoning other vehicles when a herd of elephants is on the move or a hippo surfaces in a pond. Our guide, Marc Alkema, explains that to these animals, humans in a vehicle are a "stupid, slow, stinky animal of no threat and no particular interest." So lions laze in the road, barely lifting their heads as humans in big Land Rovers whizz past. Giraffes amble by with but a passing glance.

This attitude, which I begin to think of as "tame wildness," allows me to divert at least some of my attention from the trophy beasts to the astonishing bird life-lilac-breasted rollers cutting through the sky in shades of blue, purple, gold, and green; a paradise flycatcher perching on the railing outside my villa one morning, resplendent with its foot-long, brilliant orange tail. It also makes me bold enough to take a guided walk in the bush. The same pride of lions that had barely flicked a whisker when our Land Rover passed within 30 feet of them are instantly on their feet, tails switching and manes shaking, when they see us emerge into a clearing 100 yards across the river. Shocked out of my peaceful lull, I keep my distance.

Returning to Malewane just after dusk, I walk down the gentle curves of the elevated wooden pathway, round a bend, and segue from bush to a vast open-air living room that glows with light from dozens of candles. There, standing on a Persian carpet amid the plush sofas and chairs, is John Jackson, one of South Africa's best-known chefs, lured to Malewane by its food-loving owner. Flanking Jackson are two servers, their white cotton robes draped gracefully around their reed-thin frames. "Welcome," says Jackson, offering me a crystal glass. "You must try our Pimm's Cup—we've added a bit of tequila."

Dinner, served under the stars, is all white linen, crystal, and china, a demonstration of what Jackson calls Sun Cuisine: "It reflects the sun and blue skies of the bushveld," he says. Mildly gamy impala carpaccio and ostrich pâté are followed by the most tender prawns I've ever eaten and perfectly grilled Karoo lamb from the Western Cape of South Africa, subtly flavored by the wild herbs it grazed on. A lusciously rich tropical-fruit bread-and-butter pudding arrives, warm from the oven just as the mango muffins were at brunch and the chocolate cake at high tea.

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