Our journey got off to a flying start, as we flew premium economy with Virgin from Heathrow to Johannesburg. On arrival, we explored Maboneng, the cultural hub of Johannesburg and epicentre for inner-city renaissance. Here, we discovered a thriving art scene, with strong sense of community, colourful architecture, vibrant music and innovative culinary scene - it was a real treat for the senses and a complete contrast to Cape Town.
Having toured the eclectic shops, absorbed the palpable city history and tried some artisan produce, we departed the city for the iconic haven of Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa. World-renowned as the residence where Nelson Mandela wrote his famous autobiography, this boutique property provides privacy and refined service in addition to a host of luxurious facilities. We were fortunate enough to stay in a villa adjacent to the main building, so were able to fully appreciate the sense of space and the beauty of the gardens, along with the pool, and spa of course! Dining was a real pleasure here and we enjoyed a wonderful evening meal seated within the impressive wine cellar. I savoured Salmon Gravlax and pan-fried Sea Bass, before retiring for a wonderful night's sleep. The next morning, we were greeted with an extensive choice for breakfast, including oysters, sushi, home-baked pastries, a buffet section, eggs Benedict and a traditional South African breakfast on the hot counter. As sorry as I was to leave the luxurious sanctuary of Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa, I was eagerly anticipating my first safari in Sabi Sand.
Following a smooth transfer back to Johannesburg Airport and check-in within the dedicated Federal Air lounge, we boarded a small plane for the 45-minute flight directly to Ulusaba's own private airstrip. I couldn't help but stare out of the window - as it was my first safari experience I was eager to see what awaited me. As we got off the plane we were greeted by our ranger, Trevor, and he escorted us to our vehicle. I sat at the back, so I could take in the sights of the bush before entering the lodge. I was taken aback by the beauty and nature and couldn't get over how friendly everyone was - it felt like I was a longstanding guest that was coming home. We were taken through the main reception to the deck for lunch, walking through the lodge appreciating the homely feel that runs throughout and admiring the decor that was cleverly integrated with the surroundings. Enjoying my delicious duck salad on the deck, I could've sat in awe for hours, just gazing out over the bush. I was simply mesmerised by the small impala.
Later, I was taken to my room, Elephant 3, which was located on the far left of the lodge, closest to the bush. The room was stunning, the first thing I noticed was the floor-to-ceiling windows which led out to my private deck. These unrivalled views of the bush will stay with me forever, as I could've sat in that spot all day! Then it was time for my first game drive, up again on the back seat my stomach was in knots in anticipation. Within 10-seconds of leaving the lodge, we were greeted by a mother and baby giraffe walking through across a path - I knew at this point that this was going to be an experience of a lifetime! We were then told that there was a small pride of lion waiting for us, so off we went. On the way we came across more giraffe, wilder beast, zebra and an abundance of stunning birdlife. We were told to be quiet and still as we approached the lions as they had cubs with them. Being a few feet away from a pride of lions lazing around whilst their cubs play-fought, was one of the best experiences of my life. They weren't at all fazed by us, or the vehicle, they just carried on regardless. As dusk approached, we stopped for sundowners and enjoyed South African beer and snacks (traditional meat biltong) whilst watching the sun go down over the clearest backdrop.
Safari Lodge Pool at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve
Safari Lodge at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve
Afternoon Tea at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve
On returning to the lodge, Trevor greeted us with chilled glasses of champagne and we were introduced to three other couples staying at Ulusaba. Two couples were on honeymoon and one had just proposed whilst there! I could understand why - it was one of the most romantic places on Earth! Dining out on the deck, we gazed above at the beautiful clear sky and brilliant stars - the night sky was incredible. After delicious calamari and butternut squash with feta tagliatelle, we were joined by an inquisitive hyena for a few minutes before the staff shooed them away, it really makes you realise that you are in the bush!
Surprisingly, my 5am wake-up call was welcome as I was so excited for the day ahead! Our early morning game drive started with a herd of elephants surrounding our vehicle - I was anxious at first, but purely down to the size of the elephants! During our morning drive, we encountered countless zebra, giraffe and hippopotamus before our tracker, John, and ranger Trevor advised that they had a surprise for us. We were advised to keep very quiet and turned a corner to see a female leopard with two cubs. As soon as I laid eyes on them, I knew straight away that they were my favourite animal and this would be the highlight of my trip. Trevor explained how lucky we are, as usually leopard, especially with cubs, are skittish and shy away from the vehicles. We turned the engine off and sat for half-an-hour watching the two cubs crawl all over their mother. The mother leopard eventually got up from her sleeping position and took the two cubs to a nearby river, walking just inches away from the back of our vehicle something that will stay with me forever. Later, we came across a pack of wild dogs and Trevor advised how endangered as there are, with only 400 left in south Africa. We were so incredibly lucky to see the wild dogs.
Spotting elephants during a game drive
Leopard in the wild
When we returned to the lodge, we ate breakfast on our deck accompanied by our ranger, Trevor. He was so knowledgeable and passionate about wildlife, we could've listened to him all day. I indulged in the Eggs Benedict, which were the best I've ever tasted - everyone commented on what a high standard the food was at the lodge. Later, we took a trip to Dumfries which is the local community to support Ulusaba's Pride & Purpose charity. We met the children from the community and the school that had been built by the supporters of Pride and Purpose. The children were adorable and we went to see the pre-school, which was for children aged under four. English isn't their first language, however they were so proud in relaying the alphabet and nursery rhymes to us. It was so emotional to see these children so happy, and so pleased to see us! We spent two-hours singing and playing with the children and on our departure we were allowed to give them 1 lolly and a packet of crisps each - they looked like it was Christmas day - which really brought home just how lucky we are.
Our afternoon was spent touring Ulusaba's adjacent lodge, the child-friendly and lofty, Rock Lodge. We were lucky enough to experience a spa treatment, with the unique soundtrack of the bush! The evening game drive started off very wet, but it was interesting to experience the bush in a different climate. We saw lots of hippopotamus which come out to play in the wet weather - I didn't realise just how noisy they were! As we reached a clearing, we were lucky enough to see a rhino with her baby - such striking creatures! Extremely placid, they came within inches of the vehicle. Afterwards, we were then taken to a surprise location and as the sun set we turned a corner to spot trees covered with fairy lights and a roaring fire. We had been invited to a bush dinner and were greeted by champagne, an enticing buffet and some lively local dancing.
Our final day was my favourite game drive, since we headed off to a hyena den complete with cubs! They were so inquisitive and surprisingly cute, going underneath and around the vehicle. We were then told of another final surprise, we turned a corner and looked up in the tree to see a leopard which had just made a kill. What was even better is that there were hyenas all round the bottom of the tree waiting for the carcass to drop. We left the site feeling overwhelming lucky at what we just witnessed. We next went for our morning coffee, unbeknown to us we were actually driving to a secret location. We arrived on a dry river-bed to find bucks fizz and pancakes. I was quite emotional at this moment, as I knew home was in sight. My first safari had been the best experience of my life and I certainly wasn't ready for it to end. We walked back to the lodge, which was exhilarating. It was with an extremely heavy heart that I packed my case and departed for the airstrip. Saying goodbye to such a memorable place and the warm, friendly team was hard. It was an unforgettable experience - by far the best travel experience I've ever had.