Ever since I re-housed a pair of newts in a Robinsons jam jar in August 1977, I have been fascinated by wildlife. Unfortunately the only animal magic I normally encounter is on TV, Sir David Attenborough’s reassuring tones transferring me to a world far away from quality M&S ready meals and drizzly England. I can’t get enough of it.
Somewhere like the Seychelles or the Maldives were clearly a non-runner when the soon-to-be Mrs Smith and I came to plan our honeymoon; I was fixated on turning my TV dreams into the ultimate fantasy safari. Thanks to our relationship being at the ‘Yes, honey – whatever makes you happy’ stage, I bounced straight through to booking one of the world’s most celebrated luxury safari lodges: the Royal Malewane in South Africa.
A tiny plane carried us newly-weds from Jo’burg to the Kruger National Park, where ranger Craig and tracker Shadrack meet us at the Royal Malewane’s private airstrip. It’s not much more than a clearing, so I hold Mrs Smith’s hand reassuringly (for me) as we make our landing. Dressed head to toe in khaki, we climb into our open-top Land Rover and the adventure begins. A second welcoming committee scurries past: a sounder of warthogs (the correct collective noun, trivia fans), their little legs going 19 to the dozen and their tails raised vertically like car aerials. Brilliant! I can’t wait to get out there for real.
A series of dusty tracks delivered us to our destination, where we are greeted by RM employees, beaming from ear to ear. Presenting us with beautifully prepared fruit-punch cocktails, staff lead us down to the lodge via a winding teak pathway. As we enter the main building, our smiles grow as big as theirs.
‘Beautiful,’ says Mrs Smith. I’m silent, nodding in agreement as I head to the balcony to see two giraffes drinking at the waterhole right in front of the hotel. Wide-eyed beckoning, accompanied by small grunts of excitement, brings Mrs Smith over, to utter her second word since we arrived. ‘Amazing.’
Duly impressed, as a pair of safari novices should be, we are escorted to our secluded thatched-roof lodge. As soon as we step inside, we embark on a rampage of ‘Oh my God/Look at this/You have to see this/Wow!’ We even have our own plunge pool on the balcony. The discreet member of staff must have witnessed this sort of reaction many times before. As he leaves, I lie back on the mahogany four-poster bed, and sink into enough white fluffy cushions to drown in. This is one of the most beautiful hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in – and I’ve seen a few. The colonial-style decor is impeccable, and there’s an open fireplace (lit for us nightly), a travertine bathroom with freestanding tub, and a glass frontage with views that mean we’re on 24-hour safari.
After following animals around, eating is the second biggest pastime out here, and when we see the food at Royal Malewane, we understand why. This is not bush tucker. This is some of the finest cuisine we’ve been served in any hotel – and it’s only lunchtime. The sun is shining at full strength, and it’s perfect T-shirt weather (not bad considering this is their winter). We sit in a sheltered corner on the verandah and place our neat little digital camera on the table, in case we see any animals to snap. Another couple then walk in. Mrs Smith whispers to me: ‘Have you seen the size of that guy’s camera?’ I discreetly turn around and see (and I’m not kidding) a 30-inch lens flopped gently onto their table. Size clearly matters on safari, and I am helpless with lens envy. I wonder what car he drives back home. Be warned, male readers: it’s a jungle out here and you’d better have the right equipment if you are to survive.
3pm: Shadrack sits on the front bonnet of the Land Rover, identifying animals. Obviously, we pick up on the elephants and giraffes, but I’m talking about a blended chameleon in a tree 50 yards away, a red hornbill, or a mongoose that briefly pops its head out of his burrow; this guy really does have eyes like a hawk. We then hear over the radio that there are cheetahs about 20 minutes away – a rare sighting in these parts. We arrive to find three sitting on a termite hill, in triangular formation so they can survey 360 degrees for game and predators. Just five metres away, we watch them do what cats do – very little, the odd stretch or yawn. It’s not like TV: I start to appreciate the time and effort that must go into capturing wildlife footage.
Sundowners are a civilised affair: a white-clothed table is conjured up, and ranger Craig turns into a barman while Shad (we’re old friends by now) passes around the bush snacks. For dinner, we’re driven to the middle of nowhere, to a temporary tent surrounded with fires and candlelit tables. Romantic isn’t the word: Mrs Smith, glowing in the firelight, looks more beautiful than ever. Blankets over our knees, we talk about the day’s sightings with our fellow adventurers. As happy as you can possibly imagine, we’re escorted back to our room (you’re not allowed to walk around at night on your own, since there is a genuine threat that something might make a meal of you). It’s straight to bed; the next day starts City-trader early.
After a couple of strong coffees at 5am, we were greeted by a cheery Craig and Shad then, an hour in, we are treated to a brief, exhilarating lion hunt. If you see a kill, you are extremely lucky. Although we don’t, we do find a pride of lions just after they’ve taken down an impala. We get so close we could almost stroke them (not advisable, even though they can look really cuddly after a glass of wine at lunchtime). We needn’t worry about whether we’ll tick off the Big Five (lion, Cape buffalo, rhino, elephant, leopard); we go on to have a close encounter with a herd of elephants who destroy everything in their path, and some Cape buffalo that just eat grass and raise their heads occasionally to look at you as though you owe them money.
The Royal Malewane’s spa is as stylish as the rest of the lodge, with treatment rooms set around a rectangular swimming pool. Mrs Smith unwinds with a couple of beauty treatments while I opt for an hour and a half’s massage, which prepares me for a siesta before lunch. We round off the perfect day with a night drive that is every bit as exciting as we’re hoping. As well as meeting more wonderful creatures, we learn how to navigate by the stars, courtesy of Craig.
All the staff here are people whose care for their guests, and passion for the bush, is completely genuine. We had been warmly taken in and made to feel part of the family, and it was with sadness that we took our leave of this elegant safari lodge. As the four-seater revved up and I held tight to Mrs Smith’s hand, I wondered: is it too early in our marriage to already be planning a second honeymoon in this magical place?