We soon land at our lodge’s airstrip and we’re picked up by Richard, who will be our ranger during our stay. We chat on the short drive to the lodge, and suddenly, all I can say is “Wow!” The grounds and architecture are absolutely lovely! I knew that should be the case – I’ve seen the photos – but the view from our plane was so bleak, it was hard to imagine any beauty or life would be here to greet us. We check in at the open air reception area where we immediately sign up for spa treatments at the first available opening, which will be tomorrow morning, and we are then shown the rest of the grounds on the way to our rondavel. There is a small curio shop, a bar, the dining room, and the deck next to the infinity pool which overlooks the Elephant Plains waterhole, where animals gather for a drink and some shade. There is a live webcam set up at the waterhole, where I’ve been watching the action over the past several months via Africam, which hosts webcams at three different South African safari lodges.
As we continue along the beautifully landscaped pathways, we pass by the much-anticipated spa and then another pool and deck overlooking the waterhole. There is a riot of colorful bougainvillea everywhere – red, hot pink, purple. We haven’t seen so much color since we’ve been in Africa. We arrive at Rondavel #7, our home for the next few days, where we have just enough time to put down our bags, go back to the dining room for lunch, and then quickly unpack before the afternoon game drive. The rondavels are stand-alone accommodations with stucco walls and thatch roofs. We enter off a deck that leads into a large bedroom with a plush four-poster bed with mosquito netting. We have a beautiful, large bathroom, which has a door that leads to an outdoor shower. They’ve given us a double room, which has an adjoining bedroom with its own deck and bathroom, but we don’t really use it except as additional storage area. While I’m missing Zim, I’m looking forward to relaxing at this beautiful place that looks so different on the ground than in the air, and I’m looking forward to all the wildlife I hope to see.
Lunch is served buffet style and Craig and I are oohing and aahing at the spread. While we thoroughly enjoyed the food at AP, in front of us is a variety of textures and colors we haven’t seen for awhile. I’m particularly thrilled to see a platter of mango, guava, and strawberries. It’s the kind of fruit I thought I might see in Africa, but we certainly didn’t in Zim. We’re quite hungry after what’s already been a really long day with a lot of flying, and we sit down with our plates piled high with food. I once again begin to worry that I will gain weight on my African vacation because now I’m going to be relaxing in-between meals instead of working.
Richard comes to our table and asks if he can join us. He also has a plate piled high with food. We note this because Richard has a fair amount of girth. This is not to judge him, but it’s kind of like when you see an overweight policeman and you wonder how they’re going to be able to run after the bad guys. When we’re out in the bush, we’re going to be dependent on Richard for our safety. Luckily, with many animals, the key is not to run. After a few minutes, we’re also joined by the lodge manager. He was a ranger and has recently been promoted; a position he has accepted with mixed feelings. We chat for awhile about where they’re from, how long they’ve been working in safari lodges, and how long at Ele Plains. We tell them about our time at AP and what we do back in the States. It feels a little awkward, but I think it’s just because none of our group is overly gregarious at the moment. I take a peek over my shoulder at the buffet table and longingly look at the chocolate cake I noticed earlier. I’m silently thinking about getting a slice – because I am on vacation after all, although I’m trying to talk myself out of it – when Richard says, “I think I deserve some dessert today,” and proceeds to get a slice. I then make Craig get us a slice to share because we deserve it, too.
We head out for our first game drive, which starts at 4:30 pm, with Richard, and our tracker, Clement. Our drink order is taken for sundowners, which we’ll have later in the drive. As we hop into the open-air land cruiser, we notice each seat is equipped with bottled water, a blanket, and a rain poncho. We thought AP was beautiful, but this is certainly more luxurious. In our vehicle there is a trio of Germans, and a couple from the UK also on their belated honeymoon, all of whom will be leaving tomorrow. As we head into the bush the landscape seems similar, yet different from Zimbabwe. Here it seems a bit more dense with trees, and is a little greener here and there. The weather is also a bit different. It’s a little hotter and a little more humid. While it’s still light out, we see a breeding herd of about 100 cape buffalo, including lots of babies. We also see two male buffalo sparring. We see giraffe, which we note have a distinctly different pattern than the giraffe at AP. And much to our delight, we see a female leopard. She’s named Karula, and is about eight-to-nine years old. We’re told she has two cubs that are about ten months old, although they are nowhere to be seen. Leopards can be quite elusive, but this area is well-known for leopard sightings and is one of the reasons we’re excited to be here.
We follow Karula around, and she doesn’t seem particularly bothered by us. She is gorgeous and regal and her coat is absolutely splendid. Naturally, a leopard sighting is a really big deal, and we’re not the only vehicle around trying to get a look at her. The way it works here is that each lodge has its own property, which makes up a portion of the Sabi Sands Reserve. There are no fences between properties, nor are there any fences between Sabi Sands and adjacent Kruger National Park, which allows the animals to roam freely over a very large area. The lodges work together cooperatively and allow each other to trespass on to their property. The rangers also use their two-way radios to let each other know when they’ve made a particularly exciting sighting. However, when there are multiple vehicles all jockeying for the best viewing spot, it gives it all a bit of a Disneyland feel. That, combined with the fact that the animals are so used to the vehicles that they’re not bothered by them, makes it feel not 100 percent authentic; and I would have to remind myself several times throughout our stay here that these are indeed wild animals. That being said, at Sabi Sands there is a maximum of three vehicles allowed at any particular sighting, and only two vehicles are allowed if there are infant animals. We are told that other popular safari spots don’t have limits, so you may have to compete with 20 or 30 vehicles, potentially. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can confidently say that it would not be a good experience.
We spend quite a bit of time with Karula, and then we eventually leave to allow another vehicle to take our place. At this point, the sun is setting and it’s starting to get dark. We hear the sound of hyenas with their distinctive and chilling whoooop! whoooop! Craig and I excitedly look around us, but we only get a brief sighting of them because it’s pretty dark and they want nothing to do with the vehicles, and quickly dart away.
As we’re driving in the darkness, we come upon two male lions at a waterhole. They are brothers, about three years old, and not yet part of a pride. Our tracker, Clement, is shining a spotlight on them so we can see them in the dark. Craig and I start to feel really uncomfortable. These lions seem completely non-plussed about having this bright light – this really bright light – not just shining on them, but shining straight into their eyes. At AP, they would use a red spotlight so there’s some illumination, but it doesn’t light up the bush like a movie premiere spotlight, and most importantly it doesn’t negatively affect the animals eyesight. Animals like lions rely on their night vision, night time is when they hunt, and they always need to be on guard for other predators. I kept thinking about how I feel when I walk out of a dark movie theater into bright sunlight and I see spots dancing in front of my eyes; now imagine having a bright spotlight shining in your eyes for an extended period of time while having multiple people taking your photo with even more flashing light.
Now, I will admit that at AP they would change to a white spotlight after a kill, but at that point at least the lions were staying in one place eating their dinner; they weren’t hunting or even roaming around, and they would be escorted back to their enclosures, not left to fend for themselves with spots dancing before their eyes. I understand that without the light we wouldn’t see anything, but this just feels wrong and really disturbs us. We will notice on other nights out that you could see those spotlights from kilometers away, and we would wonder if we should really be out at night in the bush. This also reinforces some conflicted feelings I had before coming to Africa of whether it’s right or not to encroach on the animals lives out in the wild. Of course, I will admit the two boys are beautiful to look at, although at one point I get a bit of a scare. One of the males walks straight towards me. I’m not saying he was giving me “the naughty look” exactly, but his eyes were definitely locked on me. And while he was in a perfect position for me to photograph him, I didn’t dare move. He could have easily jumped up on me if he chose to do so, but when he reached the truck he just turned away as if he was intentionally giving me a fright just because he could. Cheeky lion.
After the lions walk away, it’s time to go back to the lodge for dinner. We skip our sundowners tonight as there was so much to see, which is not a bad problem to have. When we return to the lodge we’re greeted with hot towels and a shot of brandy to warm us up. As we’re used to by now, even with the heat of the day, mornings and nights are very cold. We make a quick stop back at our rondavel to quickly change clothes, trying to look somewhat presentable for dinner. I put on the one pair of earrings I brought with me for the first time since I’ve been in Africa, and call this my “dressed up” look. We then go to the bar, grab a drink, and show the UK couple some of our photos from AP on our laptop, as we’ve been chatting with them about our time there. Then, the drum beat signals it’s time for dinner. Craig bristles at the weak, soulless, five seconds of drumbeat. At AP – yes, everything is compared to AP because that is what we know – the drums, tattered and with holes in their heads, are played with passion and spirit. There is spontaneous singing and dancing. Volunteers, staff and clients gather around tapping their toes, swaying their hips, even dancing at times. It’s a true ritual. Here, it sounds like they’re banging a drum because, well, we’re in Africa and apparently that’s what you’re supposed to do. Disneyland comes to mind, again.
We follow the others to where dinner is served, outside in a boma. There’s a fire pit in the middle and the tables are arranged in a circle around it, but they’re placed far from the warmth of the fire in order to accommodate all the guests. The tables are each set up for two, so you aren’t sitting directly with other guests. It feels terribly awkward, and Craig and I are really uncomfortable. You’re far enough away from the other guests that you can’t really have a conversation with them, and yet you’re in a group setting and it feels like you’re supposed to socialize. The fire in the middle of our circle, combined with all of us looking across at each other, makes me feel like I’m on a reality TV show and that there is going to be a vote to decide which one of us is going to be thrown into the fire pit. We feel like we’re on display; like we’re being watched. You might say we feel like the animals do when a safari vehicle drives by.
Next, one of the servers announces tonight’s menu. And then we all clap. Another strange ritual that feels very awkward. Tonight’s meal is served buffet style; as we go through the line, and throughout the meal, we notice that the staff here appear overly servant-like. Yes, they are servers, but it feels a little too colonial for our comfort. It feels like we’re not supposed to acknowledge them, and that they’re supposed to remain silent in the background. But we want to chat with them. We want to hear their stories. But when we simply say “hello,” they respond in hushed whispers, making us think they’re not supposed to talk with the guests. And the thing is, while Elephant Plains is a really nice lodge, in über-expensive Sabi Sands it’s on the low-end of the price range, likely even at the bottom. It’s hard to imagine what the high-end must be like, because everything here is really making us feel awkward and out of place.
Finally, with our meal finished, we decide we can’t sit here any longer and want to go back to our room. But this is very awkward as well. Are we allowed to leave the circle on our own, or do we have wait to be excused as a group? There is no way to leave without being noticed, but we figure if they shine a spotlight in our eyes and demand to know why we’re leaving we can always use the excuse that we’re tired after our long journey today, which is not untrue. As Craig and I boldly get up to leave and walk back to our rondavel, we get into our one and only fight of the trip. The fight isn’t a disagreement; rather, it’s about how we are each, in our own ways, processing and dealing with our very similar feelings about being here. We’re both extremely uncomfortable after the safari, which took away from the excitement of seeing some amazing wildlife, and dinner has put us both over the edge.
From my point of view, being an optimist, I’m hoping our experience will get better. At least I’m trying to convince myself it will; and I want Craig to comfort me and tell me it will get better, that we’ll make the best of it and we’ll have a great time. I’m thinking in my head that we have already seen some amazing wildlife, even though it didn’t appear that wild, and this is a truly beautiful place. I’m thinking it’s the transition we’re going through, coming from AP, and we just need to adjust to a new routine. And, after all, we’re here together; this is supposed to be the honeymoon part of our honeymoon trip!
But Craig doesn’t tell me everything is going to be okay. He was hoping for the same thing I was: that this would be a simultaneously exciting and relaxing honeymoon ending to our incredible African journey. He’s dismayed with our experiences so far here: the bright spotlights in the lions eyes, the soulless drum beats, the weird cult-like dinner; and he’s fearful each day we spend here will be more of the same. He doesn’t want to be here, but unlike me, he’s not trying to convince himself otherwise. His frustration is increased by the fact that he feels trapped because he can’t leave; that it’s truly not an option. I will agree with him on this point and say he’s right, we can’t leave now. It’s late at night and we’re in the middle of the bush. We are trapped; there is nowhere to go. But I argue that we can leave tomorrow. Or, at least we can try. And while I don’t really like the idea of simply leaving, which will be anything but simple to orchestrate, and it will inevitably cost us money we don’t have, I’m willing to do this if that’s what we need to do to be happy. But he doesn’t see leaving as an option, and he can’t explain to me his feeling of being trapped because I don’t understand it. I believe we can leave if that’s what we want to do. No, not this minute, but tomorrow. Somehow. For a price.
Because Craig feels trapped and can’t explain it to me, or because I can’t understand, his only recourse is to stomp off ahead of me as we walk back to our rondavel. It feels like we’re having a big argument, but really we’re more or less sharing the same thoughts. The truth is, I’m feeling really disappointed right now, but I don’t want to admit it. I really don’t think I want to leave either. I’m not ready to give up after only half a day. Especially not if it means going home, because I’m definitely not ready to leave this continent.
Back in our rondavel, an hour or more passes by, each of us silently fuming as we’re reading, or pretending to read. We both acknowledge again that today’s game drive was upsetting, and the dinner set-up was creepy. We both feel out of place here and, most of all, we miss AP and want to be back there with the lions. We couldn’t have expected this, but leaving AP has been emotionally devastating for both of us, and we both feel lost, unable and unsure how to process everything we’re feeling. Having this disappointing experience here is only increasing our emotional confusion, but we come to the conclusion that we aren’t going to leave Sabi Sands just yet, although tomorrow morning I will continue to say that we can still try to leave if we want, and Craig will continue to say that we can’t afford to. We know we’re going to have more great animal sightings in the days to come. That’s what we’re here for, after all. And we can only hope that our feelings about this place will improve as we decompress from our experiences in Zim. Besides, I have a spa treatment scheduled and I’m not going to miss out on that! Plus, we can always skip dinner. Maybe not dessert, though.
My friends, we are not in Zimbabwe anymore.