You want savage big cats? Inscrutable elephants? Your own private pool in the wilds of the African bush? Us too. And that’s just what we got: an exciting animal adventure plus stylish après-safari. Thrills with luxury frills is the motif of our trip from the very start: we land on a dirt strip in a tiny aircraft and hear tales of today’s lion sightings from our driver; then, when we arrive at our boutique safari lodge in the Kruger National Park, we’re greeted by our own personal butler.
Angel is a constant presence during our stay at Singita Boulders Lodge, always making sure we’ve got everything we need (when Mr Smith decides we'd like an open fire in our room, she has one burning within minutes). She shows us around our home for the next two nights: a thatched-cottage lodge whose rooms look almost sculpted, with whitewashed plaster curves flowing into one other organically. The style is African contemporary, with polished teak floor, stone-stack walls, animal rugs and a modern central fireplace that rotates between bedroom and the bathroom, giving a retro, Hollywood Hills feel. And here’s our very own bean-shaped pool – perfect for a plunge after a dusty drive through the bush.
One side of the lodge is all glass, looking out over the eponymous boulders to the dry riverbed below. My safari experience has already begun: I’ve spotted a beautiful fish eagle looking intently down from its high perch. Mr Smith is unruffled. It’s got to be big and ferocious for him to get excited. We’d better get out amongst it… We’re introduced to the tracker and ranger who are to be our fearless guides out in the open Kruger, bringing us into contact with wild beasts and protecting us from harm. This team of two make our trip with their amazing knowledge. Our tracker can tell, from the footprints in the dirt, how long it has been since any animal, large or small, has passed, and what its intention is.
The truck stops every time we see something interesting, and we gradually learn a little about the ecosystem and the food chain. About an hour into the drive, we drop off our tracker, who sets off on foot into the bush; a female leopard’s tracks were found here this morning and he has gone to see if he can track her down for us. In the mean time, we come across a big herd of elephants. They come right up to our truck, seemingly unconcerned; seeing them so close up is incredible – looking into their eyes makes you wish you could communicate with them.
I can tell Mr Smith is hankering after a bit of big-cat action. Just then, our tracker radios in, and off the trail we go, into the bush. We are excited – this is real adventure, now. Ten bumpy minutes later, we pick up our man, who has been waiting by a tree, and move on slowly. Our guide tells us to be quiet as he approaches the leopardess. There she is, crouching in a dry riverbed. She is stunning – one of the things that strike you about seeing animals in their natural habitat is how healthy they look. Her coat is glossy and sleek; she is bright-eyed and alert, looking not at us but something else. We edge a little closer and hear the crunching before we see the hyena, gnawing down on an impala leg. The sound is mesmerising. As the sun goes down, we realise the leopardess has had to forfeit her kill to the bigger, meaner hyena.
We wonder why the quick and powerful cat doesn’t defend her prey. The guide explains that she has a cub with her and can’t risk endangering it. Right on cue, the little fellow appears. The leopardess, eyes still on the mangy hyena, calls to him. We watch in wonder as he pads up to his mother, a bundle of fur that I can only compare to a perfect Hamleys cuddly toy. I just want to pick him up and take him home. We watch a little longer and then as the light fails, we move slowly away.
Back in our room, we need to come down from the exhilarating high of our first night’s tracking, so we indulge in a bath in our enormous bathroom; it’s a bit cold for the outdoor shower. With candles flickering and the glass wall mirror-like in the dark, we wonder what is peering in at us, now that we can’t see out.
Dinner tonight is in the central lodge, in an elegant room with an ostrich-egg chandelier and a huge fireplace that gives the entire room a warm glow on chilly evenings. (On our second night, we choose to dine alone in our room in front of the open fire. It is just the seclusion we feel like, after a day of being sociable with the other people in our truck.) François the sommelier explains the sharing ethos of Boulders Lodge. The vast wine cellar is for everyone, he tells us. You are allowed, at any time, to go and pick a bottle of your choice; they dare you to pick something extra-special… For now, François recommends a few wines for us to taste, to complement what we are eating, and invites us on a tour of the cellar tomorrow.
Peering out through our ivory mosquito net, bright and early (wake-up call for the morning drive is at 5h30), we are greeted by a huge kingfisher staring at us from the deck outside. One big cat down, Mr Smith lets go of his obsession with the Big Five and reaches for the bird book. We’re hooked. Each minute in Singita Private Game Reserve brings you an encounter with nature; I could tell you many more stories about all the ferocious cats, serene elephants and jewel-like birds we saw, but nothing can prepare your imagination for you own experience of safari. Kruger National Park is a treasure to be protected and respected. With its luxy, cool style and pampering service, Singita Boulders Lodge is a bit of a natural wonder itself. We're wild about it.