Covered in savannah grass, lit by lantern Camp Sabi Sabi Selati offers old-fashioned luxury. Carafes of sherry, hot water bottles and impeccable service pay a nostalgic homage to the safaris of yesteryear.
Although there is no television in sight, a digital detox is not mandatory. If you really need to keep in touch with the 21st century, the wi-fi is flawless. Selati, once a family hunting lodge, is in the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, adjoining Kruger National Park.
Just seven Tsonga house-style suites, shaded by jackalberries, make up this intimate lodge. Pretty purple kalanchoe line the path to each individual suite. Six of the seven lodges are named after stations of the Selati Railway line built in the late 19th century. A gloriously indulgent ivory presidential suite, fit for royalty, is the seventh.
The lodge overlooks a waterhole where elephants, leopards, lions and rhinos drink. Guests can tick off the Big Five while eating breakfast or lunch. Sometimes elephants and impalas pass through the unfenced camp. It’s an Out of Africa experience that would have delighted Karen Blixen, who sighed wistfully: “If there’s one more thing I would do, it would be to go on safari again.
Collected from Skukuza Airport’s tiny thatched-roof terminal, a safari vehicle takes us to Selati. This is a 40 minute taster safari. Two minutes after leaving the airport, we saw giraffes grazing on acacia trees. We pass camera shy warthogs, grazing impalas and a basking crocodile staring at a gray heron.
Upon arrival at Selati, we are greeted with lemongrass scented washcloths and a rock shandy. Relaxing on the sofas in the bar, our passports are scanned, then we are given our reassuring key fob.
Mosquito nets are draped around a large four-poster king size bed. The nets are largely intended for dramatic effect as this part of the lowveld is a low malaria risk area. Black-and-white photographs, stokers’ shovels and steam engine nameplates recall Selati’s railway age. A difficult time when passengers waiting for trains climbed the ladders in the trees to escape the marauding lions.
A carved African floor lamp illuminates a sumptuous sofa overlooking monkeys swinging between garden branches. “Mini bar” is a completely inappropriate adjective for a huge selection of drinks that overflow from the fridge and are included in the price. Glasses are available for beer, wine, spirits, cocktails… Things are done well at Selati.
In hot weather, an open-air bath in the walled garden alongside a refreshing outdoor shower are the bathing options of choice. In the interior bathroom, two granite basins for her and him overlook the garden.
In the middle of the bathroom, circular curtains surround a shower next to the freestanding oval bathtub.
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Our first lunch, served on a podium overlooking the pool, demonstrates that Selati cares for every guest.
You can opt for three dishes starting with a carrot and ginger soup. followed by the Selati burger, to finish with the Chef’s dessert of the day. A lighter option could be just an ostrich wrap of grilled chicken and jalapeño peppers. Feeding locations vary, perhaps on the terrace overlooking the watering hole, in the boma or by the pool.
Although breakfast and lunch are on written menus, for dinner the chef personally visits each table to explain the red meat, poultry, fish and vegetarian choices. The waiters’ uniforms are embellished with embroidery in vibrant traditional Tsonga colors: oranges, blues and burnt yellows. Calling guests by their first names, servers quickly bond with guests.
Morning and evening game drives are the star attraction of Sabi Sabi in search of the Big Five and meeting some of the Ugly Five. Perhaps a flying kettle of vultures, a committee of vultures waiting in the trees, or a wake of vultures circling a carcass. Or a zebra burst. Collective nouns are accurate in Africa.
Ask at the reception for a vehicle and a driver will drive you in 15 minutes to the gym or the spa of Earth Lodge.
Sabi, to the natives shouted “Danger” as many crocodiles bask in the Sabi River. Taking its name from this river, the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve sits on lowveld. On the horizon, to the west, rise the Drakensberg mountains. While the peaks of the Lebombo Range lie to the east. Showcasing extensive biodiversity, the Sabi River Valley includes open areas, forests, sloping hills, rivers and pools.
Don’t forget to bring binoculars, around 350 species of birds fly through Sabi Sabi. Skukuza Airport is a 40 minute flight from Johannesburg and a 2.5 hour flight from Cape Town. Sabi Sabi Private Airstrip receives flights from other destinations.
Other little touches
The Story of Sabi Sabi, a glossy book written by Rael Loon, the son of founders Hilton and Jacqui, appears on the coffee table in each suite. On the morning game drive, observers grind Rwandan beans by hand for the coffee break. Nothing is overlooked as non-dairy milk is also available.
Evening rides stop for a sunset before the sky darkens and the ranger points out the Southern Cross shining brightly against a dark Southern Hemisphere sky.
Pricing starts at around £975 per person, based on two people sharing a suite. This includes all meals, two 3 hour game drives per day, a fully stocked minibar and most drinks from the bar.
The best piece
Observers have “bush eyes” capable of spotting footprints in Sabi’s soft sand. They pay attention to the rustle of an impala’s tail signaling danger to the big cats. Sensitive to the aroma of leopard urine. Able to hear the territorial cry of a distant leopard.
In constant radio contact, Sabi Sabi often has more than 20 vehicles on the sandy tracks working together to track down elusive game. Our very experienced tracker, Donald, correctly identified 135 out of 135 tracks in a recent Cyber Tracker review.
The final verdict
Selati representing yesterday is just one of four lodges located in the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve. Little Bush, a quiet spot for romantic celebrations, is even smaller with just six suites.
Potential visitors should think about their needs. Bush Camp is ideal for families with its self-service buffets, family suites and children’s activity center. If Bush Camp represents the safari of today, then Earth Lodge, literally built from the ground, represents the eco-conscious future.
Disclosure: Our stay was sponsored by Camp Sabi Sabi Selati.