It's nearly summer in the Sabi Sands, one of South Africa's most successful game reserves near the border of Kruger National Park in the Mpumalanga Province.
Famous for its big five game viewing, Sabi Sands is equally known for its unparalleled luxury lodges that include Londolozi, Ulusaba and Singita. Located at the northwestern border of the park,
is part of
and its global resorts owned by Sir Richard Branson.
A safari trekker pauses at the main watering hole near Ulusaba.
Ulusaba is divided between two lodges. The Rock Lodge is the most iconic, perched atop one of the park's highest mountains with suspended chain bridges connecting a series of suites fresh off a recent renovation. The Safari Lodge offers a more traditional safari resort, with a series of native lodges and suites interconnected by suspended walkways along the Mabrak River.
Arrival to Ulusaba:
Most people arrive to Ulusaba via Federal Air, a private air taxi connecting the lodges of Sabi Sand to Johannesburg International Airport via an hour-and-a-half flight. We arrive by private car from a neighboring lodge, which catches the reception off-guard as almost everyone arrives by plane. Visitors are greeted at the private airport lounge, which features a thatch-roof design, with a champagne reception. Our driver takes a back road, traverses a ditch and then drives up and across the runway to a tarmac ramp where three workers are meticulously shellacking a layer of gloss. An Indiana Jones-like guide named Duarte greets us, grabs my new Tumi luggage and rolls it across the wet ramp, as we tramp behind with sticky, wet feet into the arrivals area.
We missed most of what Duarte said during orientation as we contemplated the effect of high-gloss paint on high-grade designer luggage. We abstained from champagne, snubbed the appetizer plate and signed anything placed in front of us, which essentially said we had no legal rights if mauled, maimed or attacked while breaking one of the numerous game-drive rules. The Rock Lodge was still in the midst of renovation upon our arrival, so we made the short drive to the graveled entrance of the Safari Lodge. A one-room check-in area swiped our credit card, issued our room key and returned us to Duarte, who showed us the new pool deck, gift shop, main lodge with TV room and Internet terminal, as well as the outdoor terrace where most of the human feeding would take place during the day.
The main lounge of the new Treehouse Suite is rustic yet comfortable.
Our room is accessed along the dry riverbed where Duarte insisted, "You'll have a lot of game action." There are a lot of rules to remember, even when it's just you in your room. You can never leave the room at night unless with a guide. Over a walkway suspended from trees, and warning of tree snakes, we arrive to a single glass door leading to our lodge room. A two-story thatch roof contains a four-poster canopy bed draped in mosquito netting. A small seating area with ottoman-style coffee table and well-worn sofa sit opposite a small writing desk. The room is surrounded by unobstructed views of the riverbed, wrap-around deck with two loungers and small Jacuzzi-size plunge pool that can double as a late-night critter bar. Our location meant a lively night of hippo shrieks, lion roars and occasional rooftop thump of swinging animals on the move.
Heavily glossed redwood floors lead to a large master bathroom with eclectic painted soaking tub and wide-open views of the African plain. Devout toiletry snobs, we expected Miller Harris or Joe Malone and instead got oversize Virgin bath products that look like something plucked from an aisle at Wal-Mart in economy-sized plastic bottles too big to stow in our luggage. Worse yet, the bottles were only half full as if left by previous guests. A large stone shower is positioned in front of floor-to-ceiling glass doors opening to the terrace. Need something bigger? Book the new Treehouse Suite located on an elevated walkway 15 minutes from the lodge, complete with an all-night security guard and extravagant spa-style bathroom overlooking a watering hole of hippos, bathing elephants and grumpy crocodiles.
The safari drive:
Two drives a day feature sunrise and sunset. A 5:30 a.m. wake-up comes with a thump at the door. Guests gather in the main lodge huddled under layered clothes with considerably less camera equipment than we've seen at other area lodges. We meet up with Duarte, who, with his trekker, gather a total of four guests into our Land Rover and speed away. What Duarte lacks in luggage couth, he makes up for in driving, preferring to make his own tracks in the bush than sticking to pre-made trails that many safari lodges follow. Duarte manages to find leopard, cheetah, lions and rhino in the first hour of the morning game drive, a feat that usually takes days to accomplish. A flat tire after a 6-inch tree branch penetrates our back tire only adds to the adrenaline of a surrounding pride of lions on a hunt.
Dining at Ulusaba:
During daytime meals, guests sit in strategic groupings of two and four along the outdoor terrace to minimize interaction. Ulusaba may not be the priciest or most luxurious safari lodge, but it captures sophisticated, well-traveled guests. A small buffet of salads and pastries accompany a breakfast and lunch menu of traditional salads, sandwiches and hearty meal items like steak and pasta. To spice things up and remind you of Africa, local specialties and wild-game meat add an element of flavor. Dinner comes at the end of the evening safari drive, in the dramatic main dining room with its regional furnishings and river views. A long communal table means you'll be getting to know all the guests as you sip South African wines, sample regional cuisine and share stories with the Ulusaba family like the hotel manager, Duarte and even Sir Richard Branson himself on occasion.
Ulusaba is a first-class luxury lodge more about the safari experience than cutting-edge bathrooms or first-class spa. On average 20% cheaper than Londolozi or Singita, the location at the edge of the park means you may be able to see lights from a neighboring village or even the electric fence of Sabi Sands on some game drives. But the unparalleled staff of adventure-seekers, like Duarte and his crew, offers the leading safari experience currently found in the Sabi Sands.
Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.