It’s still dark outside when the phone trills politely. As Mrs Smith gurgles insensibly beside me, I spring out of bed, excitement levels exceeding the previous record set on Christmas Day, 1980. Considering how divinely comfortable we are in our huge bespoke bed at Etali Safari Lodge, springing up at 5am is the last thing I’d usually choose to do. If it weren’t for the call of the wild, I doubt we’d ever leave our suite, with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows and our own private deck and plunge pool. A blast under the shower, watching the African landscape light up outside, and we’re ready for action.
Our first encounter is with a 16-foot giraffe and her calf at a watering hole. Graceful as a supermodel, she splays her legs and elegantly dips her head to drink. We also see funny little owls, prehistoric-looking rhinos, impala, zebra, and wildebeest by the dozen – as well as cuddly lions asleep in the shade. Well, they look cuddly. What we really, really want is to get close to an elephant. Our guide assures us that there are plenty in the park, but all we come across is evidence of their passing: trees stripped of bark, where the big guys have sucked out nutrients.
Slightly regretful about the lack of pachyderm action, we drive back towards the lodge for breakfast. The Land Rover’s rocking motion nudges both of us into a bit of a snooze. Then, blam! We’re suddenly thrown forward as we brake like mad, and swiftly pull back as the 4x4 slams into reverse. I open my eyes and find I’m staring straight at a five-ton bull elephant. He’s charging at us, ears flapping, trunk flailing (thank goodness – if he were pointing it upwards and trumpeting, we’d be in real trouble).
Nadia, our ranger, Land Rover captain and resident wildlife expert, points out that he’s ‘in must’, thus looking for a mate, and more dangerous and unpredictable than usual. We reverse away from him at speed. ‘Do people often die on safari?’ I shout. ‘No, they don’t…’ Nadia shouts back. That’s OK, then. ‘But when they do, it tends to be an elephant.’ Great. Fortunately, as we take it in turns to make a move – the elephant charging, us backing away – we realise this is a display to show who’s boss. When he’s finally satisfied that he has come out ahead, the big guy turns off into the bush. We’re pretty satisfied with our sighting, too.
Etali Safari Lodge is set in the Madikwe Game Reserve on South Africa’s northern border with Botswana. We’re here during a heat wave, which is quite something in African terms; just being outdoors in the middle of the day is akin to being blasted by an invisible hairdryer set to 40 degrees. The staff couldn’t be more helpful, greeting us with ice-cold towels and thirst-quenching juices, and responding to our swinging moods of elation and exhaustion with equal kindness. Etali has a relaxed and peaceful guesthouse atmosphere and, with only eight private suites, it never gets too busy. A big wooden deck overlooks a private waterhole; acacia trees provide shade, bright birds flying in and out of the branches; cicadas burr in the background.
While we’ve been playing chicken with Mr Elephant, it turns out lions have been chasing baboons from the Etali waterhole onto the roof of our room. As we ravenously attack our three-course breakfast, we can’t help but scan the savannah for any signs of the greenery moving with intent. The spa is next on our agenda (the treatments are good enough to tempt staff and guests alike from other lodges around here); then we spend our afternoon in the privacy of our room.
Mrs Smith takes advantage of the plunge pool while I flick through some of the wildlife books I picked up in Etali’s lounge. The contemporary decor is years ahead of the colonial style that many of the original lodges are famous for, with an earthy, neutral palette, teak furniture and brown leather armchairs to curl up in on colder evenings. The spacious bathroom features his ’n’ hers ceramic sinks, walk-in shower, an outdoor slate-tiled shower on the deck and an oversized cast-iron roll-top bath, from which you might spot a big cat or two if you doze with one eye open.
The timetable divides the day neatly into chill-out and stake-out: after high tea, we meet wild boar, buffalo and a hippo. Our sundowners are a complete cliché – in a good way. Mrs Smith has pre-ordered a vodka and tonic; mine’s a cold Castle beer; lions roar in the background – a sound that can make your ribcage rattle. As it gets dark, the sky is filled with more stars than I’ve ever seen.
We’ve already sampled a braai, the traditional campfire barbecue, with the rest of the guests. Tonight we’re treated to alfresco fine dining for two: refreshing strawberry and cardamom soup, followed by pork medallions in a garlic and pesto sauce. We chat to Koos, one of Etali’s owners, who tells us that Madikwe has too many lions, which means the onus is on him, and the rest of the park’s board of directors, to relocate some of them elsewhere. After coffee, we try to appear calm as we’re escorted back to our room by one of the guards and his torch in the dark.
Knowing how disappointed we are to be leaving, our driver tries to make our ride back to the airstrip a memorable one. And it is: we are rewarded with the sight of 16 giraffe standing tall together. It seems fitting that these exotic creatures – the first to welcome us when we arrived – have turned up to bid us farewell. Our driver seems equally struck by their presence, claiming that, in all his years as a ranger, he has never seen such a sight. That’s the thing about safari: no matter how many sightings you tick off, you’ll always find yourself adding more. Our advice on ticking boxes is to make sure you have Etali on your list, and you can’t go far wrong.