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Game Plan

At South Africa's Ulusaba lodges, you can stay high up on a rocky outcrop or down by a riverbed. Either way, the accommodations are luxurious and the animals bounteous.

At first glance, the hot and tangled bush of the South African low veld appears an unlikely place for Sir Richard Branson to set up camp. The irrepressible British tycoon, who has made billion-dollar fortunes from Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic Airways, doesn't outwardly seem the sort of person who would be given to the leisurely contemplation of nature; an attraction to rock groups and huge jet airplanes generally indicates a rather different temperament. Attempting to circumnavigate the globe by hot-air balloon is clearly a more suitable pastime than tranquil game-viewing for someone accustomed to surfing on crests of adrenaline. Maybe it's the Darwinist bit, survival of the fittest, that appeals to him, I thought as the Land Rover skidded over a dirt road rendered almost impassable by the annual rains. Or maybe he does take it easy now and then and has bought a new place to chill out.

One of Branson's latest acquisitions, purchased in June 1999, is Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, a significant chunk of the famous 255-square-mile Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which lies along the western boundary of South Africa's vast Kruger National Park. I'd been to Ulusaba in its previous incarnation, before the property's two contrasting lodges had been restored, refurbished, and in many ways reinvented by the Branson millions. They had struck me then as pleasant enough, recommendable even, although not quite of the first rank and certainly not comparable to the local heavy hitters: Mala Mala, Londolozi, and Singita. At first, little seemed to have changed since my earlier visit. The most striking aspect of the property is its location: It crowns an isolated pinnacle of rock known as a "kopje" (koppie in Afrikaans), which rises abruptly from the flat surrounding terrain. For the most part Sabi Sand is a secretive place, its dense vegetation only occasionally interrupted by grassy glades where antelope graze distractedly, keeping one eye on the undergrowth for the slightest suggestion of danger. Although only 450 feet high, the Ulusaba kopje soars above the bush like the spire of a medieval cathedral over cottages huddled at its foot. Before the arrival of Europeans, local chiefs had used it as both a stronghold and a lookout point, and a faint trace of its former significance still seems to linger, despite the passage of time.

On reaching the base of the kopje, my driver radioed up to Rock Lodge, perched on its summit, to ensure that no one was currently on his way down. Given the go-ahead, he then selected first gear, in low-ratio four-wheel drive, gunned the accelerator, and shot off up the track. Having negotiated this unconventional driveway without incident, we swung around the final bend and parked abruptly next to a waterfall, which hadn't been there on my previous visit. Briefly disoriented, I looked around and quickly discovered that there was almost nothing left that I recognized.

The centerpiece of the new lodge turned out to be a dramatic vaulted space ingeniously constructed around substantial boulders and rocky outcrops. A steeply pitched thatched roof now enclosed a combined living and dining area, the dominant feature being a magnificent 35-foot banqueting table, behind which an immense stretch of glass afforded a mesmerizing view across the inscrutable veld to the distant hazy ridges of the Drakensberg Mountains. The decorative scheme was a flamboyant assembly of African artifacts and paintings complemented by leather sofas, tribal rugs, and piles of wildlife publications. At the far end of the room, glass doors led out onto a split-level deck, clinging to the precipitous hillside and commanding a glorious 180-degree panorama. There, peering through a mounted telescope, I spied an elephant in the middle distance, lazily flapping its ears.

I was accompanied on a further tour of the lodge by a member of the management team, Martijn Brouwer, who it turned out had recently been transferred from Necker Island, Branson's hideaway in the Caribbean. To break the ice, I suggested that it must seem rather strange to be working in the West Indies one minute and the middle of an African game park the next. There was a moment of baffled silence. "No, not really," he replied. "You see, Rock Lodge is intended to be the overflow for Necker.At peak times of the year we often can't find room for many of our best customers, so from now on we'll have something else to offer them. And we plan to fill this place primarily with private groups, family reunions, that kind of thing, just like we do at Necker."

A bit incredulous that a safari lodge might be regarded as "overflow" for a tropical microdot 10,000 miles away, I too fell silent. It struck me as a remark that implied so much about the modern world and the way some people now live that I would need a hile to ponder its implications. "So I imagine Sir Richard Branson comes here to relax," I suggested lamely. "Richard?" Brouwer chortled. "When he was here at Christmas I saw him sitting with six mobile phones laid out in a row in front of him. He was making and taking calls the whole twenty-four hours he was here—other than when he was asleep, I guess."

Immediately beneath the main living area we toured a library and video room, while on upper levels I was taken to inspect a health spa offering reflexology and aromatherapy. "And down there is our tennis center," Brouwer remarked, pointing to a complex of buildings at the base of the hill. However, the highlight of our tour was the stunning horizon pool constructed at the summit of the kopje and artfully designed to appear natural amid weathered boulders and encircling vegetation. (Its overflow turned out to be the source of the mysterious waterfall next to the main entrance.)

An hour or so later, sitting on the private sun deck outside my room, I was reminded of a conversation that I'd had with a friend a few weeks earlier. Just back from South Africa, he had remarked that some of the safari lodges there had recently become so luxurious that guests often checked in for periods of up to a fortnight. In other words, such places are now effectively resorts. Ulusaba Rock Lodge seemed clearly part of this trend..

In the evening, having called my wife in London on the direct-dial phone beside the bed, contemplated checking my emails, and then dallied for nearly an hour in the deep and indulgent sunken bath, I strolled over to the lodge just in time for dinner. In spite of management's stated intention of filling the place primarily with private groups, my fellow guests were all independent travelers. Around the bar Ulusaba was getting extremely good notices, and the lavish facilities, obliging staff, and all-round competence of the whole operation were each in turn the subject of extravagant praise. And this was before the arrival of a superb meal prepared by the executive chef, Josie Stow, whose splendid book, The African Kitchen, not only contains some remarkable dishes ("Fritz Rabe's family recipe for puff adder" being one of the more compelling) but is also a magical evocation of life on safari—an old-fashioned safari, that is, the kind on which you rise at dawn to kick some life into the embers of last night's fire, only to discover the footprints of a leopard that has passed within a couple of feet of where you were peacefully sleeping.

The next morning, after a game drive on which we were able to follow a group of calmly grazing rhino for more than an hour (the conservation of this famously imperiled species is one of the great success stories of Sabi Sand and the adjacent national park), I was driven over to the second Ulusaba property, Safari Lodge, little more than five minutes away, hidden in the bush just south of the kopje. To my surprise I found the old manager, Trevor Carnaby, still in charge, though virtually nothing remained of the former buildings. "It took a bit of getting used to," Carnaby ruefully conceded, looking around. "I suppose I was fond of the old place."

It is astonishing how different the two Ulusaba lodges are, given their common ownership and proximity. Rock Lodge is defined by its spectacular setting, unique in the Sabi Sand, whereas the new Safari Lodge has been constructed amid thick vegetation on either side of the Mabrak riverbed. Dry for most of the year, this river flows sporadically at the height of the yearly rains, from January to March. "The riverbed is an elephant trail," Carnaby explained, "and we have a permanent water hole, so whatever the season there's always a lot of animals nearby." To make the most of the site while allowing the wildlife to wander freely as before, the new lodge is held together by an extraordinary web of rope suspension bridges, some at least 200 feet long. "I guess the elephants could reach up with their trunks if they wanted to, but actually they don't seem to notice them at all," Carnaby remarked while showing me across to my suite. (Despite the elephants' indifference, it soon became clear that the local baboons absolutely adored the bridges, spending hours jumping on and off and chasing each other with screams of delight.)

Settling into one of the new River Suites (of which there are three, Safari Lodge having accommodations for 20 people), I was immediately struck by the balance that had been achieved between the competing demands of comfort and authenticity. In addition to plenty of space, there was air conditioning, a splendid freestanding bathtub on claw feet, a walk-in shower, and a direct-dial phone. But at the same time there was an elegant simplicity and appropriateness to the furnishings and decoration. The walls were plain white, the windows were screened so I could listen to the endlessly intriguing sounds of the bush, and a gleaming teak floor led through sliding doors onto a wide deck, where I spent most of the afternoon contentedly observing various species of antelope as they wandered past on their way to the water hole. At Safari Lodge I felt that I had returned to a place which acknowledges wildlife as its primary reason for existence.

"This time of year the animals are rather spread out," Trevor Carnaby explained, back at the bar. "But in the dry months we always have elephants and hippos around here, and quite often lions and the local leopards come through. In fact, the view from the observation deck is so good that we sometimes have trouble persuading people to go out on game drives. They reckon they'll see more if they just stay here and wait."

The perpetual nightmare of most camp and lodge managers in Africa is a failure to provide their guests with an adequate supply of big-game animals. It's a problem considerably exacerbated by the television wildlife documentaries that have often inspired people to go on safari in the first place. The trouble is that real life can seldom hope to compete with the National Geographic Channel, whose teams have generally been working for years to compile the kind of sensational footage that is casually screened in one's living room on any given night. On a majority of game drives in most game parks you don't really see that much in the way of action. The lions are usually asleep, and the leopards and wild dogs are chiefly conspicuous by their absence. I've been going to Africa regularly for 20 years, and to this day I've never seen a kill. However, if any game park makes a satisfactory stab at meeting the expectations of the television age, then it is Sabi Sand. Not only is big game extremely numerous, but it is habituated to human presence more completely than anywhere else in Africa.

Trevor and I waited for the heat to go out of the sun before driving off into the reserve in the late afternoon. After about an hour, having already pulled over to watch a young male elephant casually uprooting trees, we came around a bend and almost ran over a pride of lions, two females and four nearly full-grown cubs, sleeping in the middle of the road. One lioness raised her head and glared briefly before promptly resuming her slumber; otherwise, our sudden arrival caused not the slightest concern. Trevor edged forward to within 15 feet of the nearest cub and turned off the engine. A heavy silence descended on the bush, disturbed only by the flies, which buzzed around the lions before settling on their muzzles and wandering about with impunity. Why the animals in Sabi Sand are so unfazed by vehicles remains something of a mystery. They clearly don't associate them with people—and the smell of diesel effectively masks traces of human scent. Of course there has been no hunting for 30 years, and many of the creatures have had uneventful encounters with Land Rovers every day of their lives. All this accounts for a lot, but such factors apply equally to dozens of other game areas throughout Africa where there has been no equivalent habituation; in these places the animals' behavior, particularly that of shy species such as leopard, remains much more skittish and unpredictable.

Nothing happened for half an hour, so we continued our tour of the reserve. But as we were driving slowly away, trying to identify an eagle soaring in the sky overhead, a lion suddenly roared nearby, its call echoed by another male farther in the distance. No matter how many times you've heard it, a lion calling as the sun sinks behind the thorn scrub remains a thrilling experience. Even guides who've spent most of their lives in the bush are rendered speechless. The sound is so powerful that it has a physical effect—a vibration that resonates somewhere deep in the human unconscious. We searched until nightfall, with the lions roaring every few minutes as they moved invisibly through the undergrowth. But despite Trevor's frequent checks for fresh tracks in the dust and educated guesses as to where we might intersect their route, the lions remained elusive. Eventually we conceded defeat and returned to the original pride, whose members were still lying exactly where we'd left them. Hoping the arrival of darkness might prompt them to thoughts of food, we pulled up, killed the engine, and switched off the headlights.

We had been sitting for about 15 minutes when we became aware of some slight movement on either side of the vehicle. It was the two males. Evidently they had decided to rejoin their extended family and were now flanking us, no more than six feet away, close enough to rip us to pieces within seconds if the impulse had moved them. We had tried to follow them, but instead they had followed us.

It was a salutary experience and a forceful reminder of how vulnerable humans are in the natural order of things. No matter how luxurious safari lodges have become, no matter how many Jacuzzis and gymnasiums they may install, it is still this feeling of being abruptly cut down to size that, for me, remains the principal reason for embarking on an African safari.

Worth Watching

GETTING THERE There are regular nonstop flights to Johannesburg from New York and Atlanta on South African Airways. All flights take approximately 15 hours. Virgin Atlantic Airways, American Airlines, Delta, and Northwest run several daily flights from major U.S. cities to major European cities, with connecting overnight flights (about 11 hours) to Johannesburg. From Johannesburg to Skukuza airport, in Kruger National Park, there are regular flights on South African Airways ($186 round trip; 75 minutes).

WHEN TO GO Winter (May-August) is the driest and coolest time of year in South Africa, with temperatures in the Sabi Sand area ranging between 45 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The thinner bush conditions can produce very good game viewing, as animals will be on the prowl for food and water. Summer (October-April) is much hotter and wetter, with temperatures often exceeding 90 degrees. Vegetation is thick, and water holes are more plentiful during these months, so the game is spread out, but the viewing is still good, especially around dawn and dusk, and the birdwatching is excellent.

CURRENCY At presstime the exchange rate of the South African rand to the U.S. dollar was R6.80=$1.

RATES Rooms at Ulusaba can be booked by both individual travelers and groups. Rates at both lodges include accommodations; all meals, wines, and drinks; daily game drives and special walking safaris; and the 14 percent VAT. Rates do not include the road transfer from the airport at Skukuza ($48 per person, round trip). Rock Lodge: $580-$725 per person per night; Safari Lodge: $325-$505 per person per night. Prices are based on double occupancy. Tipping (per person per day, in rand) for the guide and tracker should be equal to $10-$20 each.

RESERVATIONS Ulusaba Private Game Re-serve, Box 71, Skukuza 1350, Mpumalanga, South Africa; 27-13-735-5460; fax 27-13-735-5171. Also, Limited Edition c/o Resorts Management, Inc.; 800-557-4255; fax 203-602-2265. Web site: www.ulusaba.com.

Andrew Powell wrote about an air safari along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia in Departures' last issue.