Alighting our 12-seater plane in the Manyeleti Game Reserve, we emerge into the heat of the afternoon sun and are met by Craig, our host at Tintswalo Safari Lodge, proffering freshly squeezed orange juice and some cooling towels. With the option of heading to the lodge to settle in or catching the last hour of the game drive before dark we jump straight into a Land Rover for some instant safari. Our luggage taken care of, we join Patrick and his tracker Maurice and within minutes find a lioness lounging in the grass. We watch as she calls for her pride with deep, bone-trembling roars – we’ve only been on safari for moments and already we are totally immersed in an experience usually restricted to a TV screen in my lounge.
We hear a cheetah’s been spotted and drive off into the sunset in hope of finding him before dark. Shining a spotlight in their eyes at night can blind them for up to 15 minutes and, lower down the food chain, this can make them vulnerable to lions, so post-dusk we accept that we must give up the search until tomorrow morning and head back to the lodge through a herd of buffalo, a stripe of zebra and a scatter of impala.
The main entrance to Tintswalo Safari Lodge is along a raised wooden gangway that leads to a comfy-chaired living room and wooden deck overlooking the watering hole. With a cigar lounge and wine cellar, iron chandeliers hanging from the super-high thatched ceiling, and walls lined with wildlife paintings and bookshelves, the lodge has the relaxed air of a colonial country club. (Mr Smith gets carried away with the whole setting and lights up one of Cuba’s finest – before turning as green as a crocodile and nearly choking to death. He concedes it’s best left to the more experienced.)
The deck overlooking the watering hole was built carefully around an enormous old tree. Over 600 years old, we’re informed that it could bring down the entire lodge if it fell. So best not to shout ‘timbe-e-e-er’ during a visit here, we conclude. Perhaps for this reason, every effort has been made to stay on the good side of the local flora. No trees were cut down during the building of Tintswalo and the conservation of the surrounding habitat is clearly a very important part of the ethos.
The suites, like the main safari lodge, have stayed true to more traditional colonial decor with each of the seven named after an explorer from the 19th century. We are shown to the Livingstone suite; the name adding a wild romanticism to our room before we’ve even opened the door. ‘The first European to explore the Congo and to discover Vic Falls,’ Mr Smith tells me authoritatively, not twigging that I too have read the guidebook.
The centrepiece of our bedroom is a four-poster bed draped in a mist of mosquito netting, which we’re happy to see –this is a malaria area, so precautions must always be taken to minimise bloodsuckers having their wicked way. But the best surprise is out on the deck – we have our own private plunge pool. We head straight outside to inspect it, remembering not to leave the sliding doors unlocked – not mindful of a mosi attack this time, but thinking about our simian friends. Apparently we aren’t the only ones who think this is a fabulous hangout – the baboons love to get in, and know how to pull the handle. Cheeky monkeys, indeed; the Elan Vital spa was wrecked a couple of weeks beforehand, luckily without any guests in mid-massage. The things people will do for beauty treatments, these days.
Back in our Explorer suite and Mr Smith points out a crystal whisky decanter next to the minibar and can’t help reminiscing about childhood memories of his father. I have to confess the oval bathroom and a choice of glass shower and roll-top bath overlooking the watering hole so that you can enjoy a soak with a view of the zebras flitting among the bushes has won my attention over stories of Mr Smith Sr. After a long day we make the most of our very private location until the time comes for a guard to collect us for supper. The escort is necessary or else you might find the local wildlife wouldn’t mind adding you to their dinner menu.
As we sit underneath the Tintswalo tree, Mr Smith is happy to discover that he is definitely at the top of the food chain. He declares with an imperious air, his roast impala is delicious and tastes like a gamier version of beef. Having not wanted to rub the fur the wrong way of anyone who might be watching us, I savour a guilt-free wild mushroom risotto. Serenaded by a night chorus of frogs, and a bottle of red wine later and we’ve forgotten quite where we’re dining, and half jump out of our skin when a herd of 15 buffalo start rolling in the mud not 20 metres from the table.
A telescope is a small hint at the name of the Kruger game reserve where this luxury South African safari camp is located: Manyeleti means ‘place of many stars’ in the language of the local Shangaan tribe, people who even have their own form of astrology. As much of a sight as the sky here is to behold, it is the eye candy on terra firme that has us gazing out in awe and what better accompaniment to an after-dinner G&T on the main deck than peering out to see who turns up at Tintswalo’s watering hole for their own digestif.
The game drive the following morning (if 5am actually qualifies as morning), is full of excitement: tracking two male lions, finding a herd of elephants spraying each other with water and rolling in the mud, a tower of giraffe standing tall. We’re exhilarated as we head back to the lodge for a three-course breakfast and are joined by our ranger Patrick. Born in the bush, Patrick has help build many of the roads in the park and knows more about the habits of the wildlife than most. He tells us about the only time in 20 years he’s seen an elephant give birth. The herd formed a circle facing inwards around the expectant mother to protect her and when the calf is born, trunks in air began to trumpet to announce the newborn’s arrival. Each of the elephants then touched and stroked the calf to welcome it to the family.
Leaving Mr Smith to listen to Patrick’s storytelling, I slip off for a soothing massage on the private deck back at our suite. Pure indulgent luxury when accompanied by grandstand views of the magnificent wildlife at the watering hole right in front of me. To appreciate just how special this safari camp is, it helps if you know the meaning of another Shangaan word: ‘Tintswalo’, itself. It’s the feeling of love or gratitude that you feel for someone who has given you a meaningful gift. And that is just the sentiment this Kruger camp leaves us with.