I might have appeared as calm as ever but I definitely had a case of the ‘night-before nerves,’ the kind that can make anyone compulsive. My bags had been packed and repacked. I could hardly sleep. My imagination was already starting to run way ahead of me.
Eight o’clock came and I hit the road, under the beautiful Lowveld morning sky. This trip had to be a good one – it was the start of an epic journey into the wild and the unknown. I had already chosen to take the route through the Kruger National Park, it had been a long time since I’d been to the bush and it would serve as a great introduction to life at the Sabi Sands. A brilliant idea… So I thought, until the Toll Gate and park entrance fees, park speed limit of 50 kilometers per hour, the scorching Mpumalanga sun and having to ‘hurry’ past any sightings to make it on time all convinced me otherwise. The wildlife was, however, out and on display that day. I even caught my first glimpse of a Leopard – it was as if they were to say ‘welcome’.
If the snail-paced rush through the Kruger wasn’t enough preparation for the pace of life in the bush, the drive through the Sabi Sands was. The dust roads and the ‘bush bumps’ meant that my small student hatchback car often had no choice but to negotiate the terrain a meter at a time, barely reaching the 40km/h limit. It was just as well since the beauty of the surrounding environment starts to become apparent at that speed. The big gate and guards sent a very clear message: the Sabi Sands are serious about nature conservation and they aren’t afraid to protect wildlife.
I did not know what to expect, I was nervous, I was shaken from the trip (literally). These feelings all vanished the instant I saw the security guard, Mr Humphrey Thiledi, armed with a big wave and a warm smile (not to mention other slightly more intimidating weapons). He greeted, signed me in, opened the boom gate and let me through. This was Londolozi.
Another short and scenic drive took me to more friendly greetings. Camp managers Tyrone and Ralson welcomed me to Varty Camp. The ‘Grand Lady’ of Londolozi was to be home base, these were two the camp managers I was to be shadowing, and their expert team of butlers were to take me under their wings for entire stay. The trip had ended, the journey begun.
It was lunchtime by the time I had settled in. I waited on Varty Deck to meet Duncan, the operations manager. The guests had already come down to eat and share stories about their morning game drives. Some were reaching the end of their stay and had seen everything they had wanted to – and more, others had only arrived the day before and were already raving about some of their sightings.
A week of introductions and orientation for training camp managers and rangers unveiled the day-to-day activities of game reserve. From the work of those glamorous cowboys the game rangers and trackers who know everything there is to know about life in the animal kingdom, to the crucial preparations done by the staff who deal with the smallest of details, we learned about every job and every detail that makes a Londolozi safari the magical experience that it is.
The next week was spent learning more about what the men and women on the ‘frontlines’ do: the butlers and camp managers. The end of the second week meant I had to meet again with Duncan. Would I get to stay another two weeks or would I have to leave? It was all playing out like a survivor show in my head. I was relieved to hear that I had been doing okay and could stay on another two weeks.
The second half of my stay taught me more about the hospitality industry; the gruelling and not-so-glamorous side of it. More importantly, I found out more about the people who live in and around the game reserve. The Sabi Sands is situated in a land that is historically the cultural home of the Shangaan people. Now, people from different parts of the country – and different parts of the world – also call it home. Nelson Mandela once visited the place and says about it:
“During my long walk to freedom, I had the rare privilege to visit Londolozi. There I saw people of all races living in harmony amidst the beauty that Mother Nature offers. There I saw a living lion in the wild. Londolozi represents a model of the dream I cherish for the future of nature preservation in our country.”
Twenty years ago, Londolozi was already the story of today’s South Africa. It has proven itself as a place that achieves the rare balance of being the best of its time as well as ahead of its time: a trend-setter. I think one of the secret ingredients is the passion and the level of spirit there. No doubt, the location of the place is almost unbelievably beautiful and rare, but the people really make it what it is. The sense of hospitality, community, fun and… ‘magic’ there isn’t a mask they put on whenever visitors arrive but something genuine; something innate. It’s their way of life.
Soaking in the view from the camp decks, it’s not difficult to imagine that the Garden of Eden might have looked quite similar, or to lose oneself in thought and time as it becomes clear why God commissioned man to be the guardian and protector of all living things.
All too quickly, the second two weeks came to an end and time came for me to make the most difficult decision I would ever make: do I stay or do I go? I knew it would be tough to find the same kind of opportunities as the ones that Londolozi held but I was now equipped and prepared for the mission I was on: to find what my life had in store for me and to do it by following my heart. I said my goodbyes. A month before, where quite a clueless and timid person had walked in, out stepped a man, still as clueless as before but with the blessing and wisdom of the people he’d met. It’s amazing how much you can live in a month.
Driving out, I couldn’t help but notice how the dust road seemed a lot more like a yellow-ribbon pathway, draped over a vast and fascinating landscape. It was as if I was looking at the life that lay ahead of me. Now it looked like a life worth living. Six months down the line and the memories are almost as vivid as they were the day I left. They are not just stored in my head but etched somewhere deep inside of me. This is the charm of Londolozi.
Written by Zanokuhle Mabuza