Londolozi Safari Lodge Offers Wild Luxury

The South African vacation hotspot lets you see wild game, mix with other travelers and relax in the exotic nighttime air.
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After a nine-hour flight from Paris and further two-hours on a coffin-size Cessna, I showed no reaction watching my pilot unfold a tattered old map and then engage in a series of acrobatic swoops into the Londolozi Game Reserve.

I was tired, but my expectations were not. I want roaring lions, sparring tigers and raging elephants in between luxurious picnic lunches on Hermes blankets and Rosenthal china.

After all this wasn't just Africa, this was super-lux $2,000-a-night Africa -- and I skipped my July holiday on Capri just to be here.

My guide and trekker greeted me on the runway in an open-top Land Rover. They're also the ones who will lead my morning and afternoon game drives, but for now they simply grab my bags and take me to the lodge.

Londolozi is the most fabled of all the 30-or-so game lodges in the 35,000-acre Sabi Sands Game Park in South Africa. After all, it hosted Nelson Mandela immediately following his release from prison. Today, it's refining its mission to be on the most luxurious, eco-conscious safari lodge in South Africa.

I was greeted by Bronwyn Varty, granddaughter of the hotel's founder and a refreshing dose of realness amongst the hot hand towels on silver trays and flutes of bubbly that seem to contradict the ruggedness of true Africa.

The lobby lodge of Londolozi Tree Camp is an impressive sight. A spin on Ralph Lauren safari-chic, albeit the real thing, the lobby is an open air living area assembled in white-linen couches and oversize black-and-white photography of local game under a towering thatched roof.

The uninterrupted bush surrounds the lodge with little more than an elephant wire separating you for the preying elements that surround. Hence the ominous warning that "Guests are absolutely not allowed to walk alone during darkness."

Londolozi is not a new concept in safaris, but its ecotourism is on the cutting edge. The concept incorporates employees; workers' villages are equipped with modern health clinics, plus day-care and educational centers for staff members and their families.

My room is accessed via a private wooden bridge passing a freeform pool with waterfall surrounded by bronze lanterns glowing in candlelight by night. A series of baboon-proof twist-and-pull locks opens to a private house, a total of six at Tree Camp, assembled within a nearly 2,000 square foot sprawl of living space.

The living room is arranged under soaring thatched roofs, ones I'm always fearful of containing adventurous spiders or even worse. The room is spotless, lined in reclaimed hardwood floors with four-seat sofa and leather club chairs facing floor-to-ceiling windows onto the bush.

The bedroom is stuffed with an oversize King-plus bed with eight pillows and hand-pressed linens . A private dressing area connects to a massive bathroom lined in concrete floors with double basin sink and glass-enclosed rain shower overlooking a private deck with plunge pool, waterfall and separate outdoor shower. Organic South African toiletries and wall of glass surround a deep soaking tub where three Nala (small deer) are the occasional voyeurs.

A roam of the room reveals a few hits and misses. The mini-bar is arranged in premium alcohol and South African wines, with a big tin of homemade cookies for noshing. Although room service is available all day, there's nothing besides the cookies to chase away a midnight craving. The furnishings and woodwork are fresh and entirely unworn, the combination of a good decorator and owners that understand the demands of a six-star clientele.

At 3:30, it's high tea on the lobby deck. With no more than twelve guests at anytime, the small lodge forces even anti-social writers to interact with guests. The crowd of Londolozi includes a sophisticated bunch of stylish Londoners, two EU government workers from Belgium and a chatty general manager who is the glue to the lighthearted gatherings. Between rounds of African delicacies and cookie plates, the guides arrive to begin the afternoon safari drive with no more than two couples per car.

Safari drives are three hours in length and led by a cheery bunch of rangers and seasoned trekkers who look for miniscule footprints in a sea of sand and dirt. Between radio exchanges you'll eventually find yourself on the trail for the 'Big Five', the five most difficult animals to hunt including the rhino, elephant, leopard, lion and buffalo. Aside from the neighbor hippo at the lodge entrance and a few wildebeest and wild pigs on the roadside, so mundane for the rangers that they're barely acknowledged amongst my lightning show of flashbulbs, we turn the corner to find a prancing leopard a few feet from the truck.

Communication turns to a whisper as we inch closer the animal, and then even closer, without so much as a glance from the 200pound beast. Hovering within 10 feet of the leopard, for which Londolozi is best known, we spend the next hour or so in a truck and paw dance with the animal as it hunts its evening kill.

With hot water bottles and blankets, sunset comes and with it a swift stop from the ranger and scurrying of the trekker. Within four minutes a full bar had been arranged on the truck with a presentation of appetizers by flickering candlelight in the middle of the bush. The sun sets almost on queue as even the staff soaks in the African twilight.

Such moments seem more vivid in Africa, you immediately notice that everything is different. The trees have a different shape. The grass is a richer color. The three-sided sky questions your very existence, thrusting your soul to reconnect with the bigger picture.

By the time we arrive back to the lodge we had seen three of the big five, all that remained were buffalo and lion which were all but guaranteed the next morning by our torch-carrying entourage that led us back to our villas to change for evening dinner.

Africa is a bit unpredictable at night -- you're not even sure what to be afraid of as you walk the 100 feet back to your room. I felt better having my 120-pound torch carrier with me, although I wasn't sure what he would do aside from illuminate our death.

Dinner takes on a different form every night at Londolozi. Sometimes it's a wine tasting or an outdoor barbeque with fireside performance by the Lonodlozi Choir, a sisterhood of dancers and songstresses that fill the night with native African songs. Regardless of where, food is a whole-hearted feast that mixes local ingredients and African specialties with a cuisine familiar to Europeans and Americans.

Upon conclusion of dinner, you are once more guided back to your rooms where you are advised that the next day's game drive starts at 5:30 a.m., with a 5 a.m. wake-up call at your door of French-press coffee and scones. Your Londolozi day ends in the stillness of bedtime with the occasional whaling of the moving hippos or ferocious roar of a male lion.

I couldn't photograph it or document it on video, but somehow the sound of African night was the best part of my trip, engrained in my memory forever.

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.