The Birth of Safari Sarah: Royal Malewane Near Kruger National Park

May 17, 2013 11:05 am

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There are two things you should probably know about me:

1) I don’t like nature.

2) I don’t like animals.

Now that you’ve processed those fundamental facts, capsule let me throw this mind-bender at you:

I love going on safari.

So how does that work, you might rightfully wonder?

I never really had any interest in going on safari. For years I wasn’t able to sufficiently articulate to anyone why The Lion King is my least favorite Disney movie (I KNOW, I KNOW, stop yelling at your computer screens), until one day it dawned on me: it must be all the nature — and the animals! Duh! The only animals I typically allow within a 100-yard radius of me are of the cracker variety, and that too just when my nephew is eating them. But I’m also firmly of the school of travel thought that when one visits another place, one must experience everything that country has to offer. And so, when I planned a trip to South Africa last year, I knew I had to include at least a brief gander at the animals somewhere in my plans. After all, when was I ever going to go all the way back to Africa?

I’ll pause as you all chuckle knowingly.

And so the fine folks at Micato Safaris added a two-day stint to Thornybush Private Game Reserve, adjacent to the legendary Kruger National Park, to my itinerary. I figured it was just enough to get a taste of safari, but not long enough for the lions to get a taste of me.

My mom was deeply confused by my travel plans. “Beany,” she said one day (that’s my nickname), “what’s gotten into you? Don’t you hate animals?” she asked. “Yes, and nature, too, don’t forget” I replied. “So why are you doing this?”

“Because… I like to travel?” We both agreed I was crazy.

I flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg, then transferred to an adorable tiny thatched-roof terminal that services airstrips in Kruger. Two puddle-jumpers later, I landed deep in the middle of the bush and began animal spotting on the drive from the runway to Royal Malewane, an ultra-luxe retreat that’s hosted the likes of Bono, Shah Rukh Khan, Adrien Brody, Elton John — and, if rumors are to be “beliebed,” Justin Bieber may have stayed there just last week. The structures seem to rise organically from the ground, as much a part of the surroundings as the monkeys and nyalas that roam the pathways freely. And as you might expect of a lodge frequented by the A-list set, the setting does not disappoint.

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My suite was sumptuous with a massive bed, an expansive shower that could understandably be mistaken for a carwash, vast windows overlooking the bush, and a terrace with an infinity plunge pool — it’s not uncommon to see elephants raising their trunks to sip out of them, we were told, though we never hosted any thirsty visitors on our deck.  IMG_5170

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Our highly skilled ranger Juan, his ranger-in-training Matthew, and tracker Wilson were determined to make sure no thicket was left unturned in their mission to show us the Big Five — lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, elephant, and black rhino — and their mission was accomplished. There’s something surreal and otherworldly about driving through the jungle for hours, following prints and roars and dung until you piece together clues and find the animals you seek in their natural environs. The experience is meditative and spiritual, and very, very peaceful. You become deeply connected to God when you’re surrounded by all His creation like that. But there’s also an incredibly romantic element to it, feeling like you’re all alone in a vast jungle. Too bad I was there with two girls.

In the city, when the wildlife consists primarily of rats and roaches, you’re justified in fuming about them intruding in your domain. But out in the bush, you’re in their world now. This is the animals’ lair, and you’re lucky they’re letting you nose around for a few days. And there’s something so humbling about realizing how completely insignificant you are, how the animals are barely bothered by your presence enough to look in your general direction, let alone eat you.

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At one point our vehicle was completely surrounded by what can only be described as an elephant party: a herd of dancing, frolicking, playing pachyderms just steps away from us. Never had I been so appreciative of an exclusive party invite (and never had I been so concerned about being potentially trampled by my hosts).

Of course, I can’t exactly pretend that I became one with the beasts just like that. There may have been an incident where I called the front desk in hysterics over a bat I swear flew into our suite from the fireplace (no one else ever saw said creature, so more than a few “she’s batty” jokes have been bandied about since), and yes, I am that girl who needed two staffers summoned to evict an unwelcome frog from my bedroom (in what I like to call The Great Frog Invasion of 2012).

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But by the last morning, when I stepped out onto the deck to take in the sunrise, I didn’t even flinch when a spider bounced off my head.

A year later, I’ve just gone on my second safari — more on that coming soon, I promise! — and I’m off to a third in a few weeks. I’m also eager to experience more adventures throughout Africa, from Kenya to Tanzania to Zambia to Rwanda. My day-to-day feelings on animals and nature haven’t evolved too much, but I love the transformation that takes place as soon as I hop in a Land Rover and become Safari Sarah…

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Royal Malewane
Thornybush Private Game Reserve
South Africa

3 Comments

  • Kareema Bahamou

    Love this entry, mainly because it made me laugh and secondly because I LOVE animals and I’m dying to go on safari as well as Tiger Kingdom in Thailand.

  • What a fabulous transformation and a delightful read. For your followers though, I do need to point out that Royal Malewane is NOT in Kruger Park, but is rather a lodge in the more game-dense Thornybush Reserve, which is some 30 km from Kruger. Thornybush’s game viewing is infinitely better and the bush experience truly authentic.

  • sarah

    Thanks Karin, I’ve updated the post to reflect that. Much appreciated!