Thatched with savannah grass, lantern-lit Sabi Sabi Selati Camp provides old-school luxury. Decanters of sherry, hot-water bottles and impeccable service pay nostalgic homage to yesteryear’s safaris.
Although there isn’t a television in sight, a digital detox is not compulsory. If you really have to stay in touch with the 21st century, the wi-fi is flawless. Selati, once a family’s game lodge, sits in the private Sabi Sabi Game Reserve adjoining the Kruger National Park.
Just seven Tsonga house-style suites, shaded by jackalberry trees, make up this intimate lodge. Pretty purple kalanchoe line the pathway to each detached suite. Six of the seven lodges are named after stations on the gold-hauling Selati railway line built in the late 19th century. A gloriously indulgent Ivory Presidential Suite, fit for royalty, is the seventh.
The lodge overlooks a watering hole where elephants, leopards, lions and rhino drink. Guests can tick off the Big Five as they take their breakfast or lunch. Sometimes elephants and impala walk through the fenceless camp. This is an Out of Africa experience that would have thrilled Karen Blixen who wistfully sighed, “If there’s one more thing that I would do, it would be to go on safari once again.”
Collected from the Skukuza airport’s tiny, thatched terminal, a safari vehicle takes us to Selati. It is a 40-minute game drive taster. Within two minutes of leaving the airport we have spotted giraffes browsing on acacia trees. We drive past camera-shy warthogs, grazing impala and a basking crocodile eyeing up a grey heron.
On arrival at Selati, we are welcomed with citronella-fragranced flannels and a rock shandy. Relaxing into sofas in the bar, our passports are scanned, then we are given our reassuringly chunky key fob.
Mosquito-nets are draped around a vast four-poster king size bed. The nets are largely for dramatic effect as this part of the low veldt is a low-risk malaria area. Black-and-white photographs, stokers’ shovels and steam engine name plates recall the age of the Selati Railway. A tough era when passengers waiting for the trains climbed ladders into the trees to escape marauding lions.
A carved African standard lamp lights a sumptuous sofa looking out on monkeys swinging through branches in the garden. “Mini-bar” is an utterly inappropriate adjective for an extensive selection of drinks that flows beyond the refrigerator and is included in the price. Glasses are available for beer, wine, spirits, cocktails … Things are done properly at Selati.
In warm weather, an al fresco bath in the secluded garden alongside a refreshing outdoor shower, are the bathing options of choice. In the indoor bathroom twin his-and-her granite basins look out over the garden.
Mid-bathroom, circular curtains surround a shower next to the free-standing oval bath.
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Our first lunch, served on a podium overlooking the swimming pool, demonstrates that Selati caters for every guest.
You could opt for three courses beginning with a carrot and ginger soup. followed by the Selati burger, finishing with the Chef’s dessert of the day. A lighter option could be just an ostrich wrap of grilled chicken and jalapeño peppers. Locations for meals vary, perhaps on the terrace overlooking the watering hole, in the boma or by the swimming pool.
Although breakfast and lunch appear on written menus, for dinner the chef personally visits each table to explain the choices of red meat, poultry, fish and vegetarian. Servers’ uniforms feature embroidery of traditional vibrant Tsonga colours: burnt oranges, blues and yellows. Calling guests by their first names, servers soon create a bond with guests.
Morning and evening game drives are Sabi Sabi’s star attraction seeking out the Big Five and coming across some of the Ugly Five in the process. Perhaps a flying kettle of vultures, a committee of vultures waiting in the trees or a wake of vultures circling a carcass. Or a dazzle of zebra. Collective nouns are precise in Africa.
Ask reception for a vehicle and a driver will drive you 15 minutes to Earth Lodge’s gym or spa.
Sabi, to the indigenous people screamed “Danger” as many crocodiles basked in the Sabi River. Taking its name from that river, Sabi Sabi private game reserve is on the low veldt. On the horizon to the west stand the Drakensberg mountains. Whilst the peaks of the Lebombo range lie to the east. Exhibiting extensive biodiversity, the Sabi River Valley, features open areas, woodlands, sloping hills, rivers and pans.
Remember to pack binoculars, around 350 species of bird fly through Sabi Sabi. Skukuza airport is a 40-minute flight from Johannesburg and 2 1/2 hours flight from Cape Town. Sabi Sabi’s private airstrip receives flights from other destinations.
Other nice touches
The Sabi Sabi Story, a glossy book written by Rael Loon, the son of founders Hilton and Jacqui, appears on every suite’s coffee table. On the morning game drive, spotters hand-grind Rwandan beans for the coffee break. Nothing is overlooked as non-dairy milk is available too.
Evening drives pause for a sundowner before the sky darkens and the ranger points out the Southern Cross shining brightly in a Southern Hemisphere dark sky.
The tariff begins from around £975 per person, based on two people sharing a suite. This is inclusive of all meals, two 3-hour game drives per day, a well-stocked mini-bar and most drinks from the bar.
The best bit
Spotters have “bush eyes” able to spot prints in Sabi’s soft sand. They are alert to a swish of an impala’s tail signalling big cat danger. Sensitive to the aroma of leopard urine. Able to hear the territorial cry of a distant leopard.
In constant radio contact, Sabi Sabi often has over 20 vehicles on the sandy tracks working together to track down elusive game. Our vastly experienced spotter Donald had correctly identified 135 out of 135 tracks on a recent Cyber Tracker examination.
The final verdict
Selati representing yesterday is just one of four lodges located within the Sabi Sabi reserve. Little Bush, a quiet spot for romantic celebrations, is even smaller featuring just six suites.
Potential visitors should think through their needs. Bush Camp is ideal for families with its self-service buffets, family suites and children’s activities centre. If Bush Camp represents today’s safari, then Earth Lodge, literally constructed from earth, represents the eco-conscious future.
Disclosure: Our stay was sponsored by Sabi Sabi Selati Camp.