Long term followers of my other blogs and my Twitter or Instagram feeds will know that while Australia is my place of birth and London is my second home, Africa owns my heart and soul. I fell in love with that diverse continent back in 2009 on my first trip to Zimbabwe and Mozambique and the love affair has continued over the years. As much as I love Africa as a whole, it took me several visits to actually like South Africa as a country.
SA is volatile, a country still finding its feet after years of racial discrimination and outbreaks of violence and xenophobia. Crime rates are high, and in some places they’re higher than the rest of Africa combined. It’s country of stunning mountain scenery, with a backdrop of tense bitterness experienced by its people. South Africans that I know who live in Australia tell me wild tales of assault, rape and murder. People who have never been ask me constantly what it is about Africa that keeps drawing me back, but people who have been know. It gets under your skin like no where else on Earth.
Recently, I was lucky enough to be escorted by Swagman Tours through some of the most beautiful spots in SA. We started in Cape Town and headed out along Cape Peninsula, hitting the Garden Route hard and fast before flying north to Kruger National Park. I was looking forward to this part of our itinerary the least. I had been before, and I wasn’t overly enthralled with it last time. In my subsequent visits I avoided it, marking it in my head as a tourist trap – a sprawling mass of land that was far too big for me to explore on my own and still have some understanding of what all the fuss is about.
It rings true today. Since my visit to Leopard Hills, in the western sector of renowned Sabi Sands private conservancy attached to Greater Kruger I’ve completely changed my tune on safari in Kruger – but only if it’s done right. And lucky for me, the team at Leopard Hills definitely know how to make your stay into a trip of a lifetime.
Sabi Sand Game Reserve comprises 10,000 hectares of incredibly diverse ecosystems where the Big 5 wander freely, and the ability to view them at close proximity and watch them in their natural environment and witness their normal behaviours is a high priority for the team at Leopard Hills. Situated on a rocky outcrop to maximise the magnificent views over the bushland and an active waterhole, the small lodge has only 8 glass-fronted suites, each complete with their own private pool and sundeck. The lodge facilities include an extensive library with internet access, a traditional Shangaan boma, a fully stocked wine cellar and a curio shop as well as a tastefully appointed restaurant with quality food and service from friendly staff. There is also a gym and spa with glass frontage to make the most of those game viewings while having a massage. Leopard Hills has understated luxury down to an art. The small touches from our housekeeping team made me feel so welcome, it was like being a part of their family. A family you never see, because I honestly did not even see my housekeeper. She came and went while I was out, tidying and leaving me little notes and restocking my Amarula so that I would have plenty there when I came back.
Now, while the rooms were beautiful and the bushland so accessible, what really impressed me was the staff. They remembered our names even though we stayed one night only, and our guide and tracker team were unbelievable. I’ve been on a lot of safari in my time, and I’ve had some really incredible experiences in Africa. But at Leopard Hills, their knowledge and spotting abilities meant I got an in-depth understanding of how Sabi is different to those conservancies in the northern part of Kruger, and indeed different to other parks I have visited in Kenya and Tanzania. I was able to quiz the guides on routines around the reserve, what happens when they find poachers, the different behaviours of even the smallest creatures – these are guides who genuinely love what they do and have a passion for sharing that with their guests.
In the two game drives I had with Reese (guide) and Congive (tracker) we managed to find all of the Big 5, including four different leopards. We were surrounded by elephant and witnessed a pride of lion with a buffalo kill. As much as these remarkable sightings thrilled me, I was also especially glad to find small lizards sunning themselves on boulders, chameleon hiding in the bushes late at night, beautiful lilac breasted rollers, red beaked and black feathered drongos hiding in the cold mornings and many other birds, including eagles and owls.
Promise me, if you have the time and the budget – fit a stay at Leopard Hills into your African itinerary. You absolutely won’t be disappointed, this is one place I will guarantee it.