Hacktreks in Africa: Sabi Game Reserve

A Passage to Africa
Dan Millington

lpheos signaled for an abrupt stop. "Lion," he said. "Into the bush, this way." A third generation Shangaan bush tracker, his grandfather and father before him tracked animals with guns. Alpheos now tracks animals for people with cameras. It was as if he had x-ray vision. Peering through dense undulating lowveld plant life and sprawling knobthorn and jackalberry trees Alpheos whispered, "There, over there, move closer."

Sabi Lion

The driver, Steven a park ranger crept slowly through the bush. About 10 feet off to the left we came upon them. Three young male lions lounging in the midday sun newly forced to leave the pride by the matriarch female. Riveting to watch, over and over I kept saying to myself, "This is not a zoo, except perhaps in their eyes." The thought of Hemingway and his big gun and how easy it must have been.

The flight from New York's JFK into Johannesburg via, South African Airways, makes a stop in Sal one of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Dakar. The flight is a long one – about 18 hours. Having arrived early evening in Jo-Burg (as the Afrikaans call it) Stu a fellow journalist and I were met by Merle with RETOSA (Regional Tourism Organization of Southern Africa) and ushered five-minutes away to, of all places, Caesars Hotel and Casino. The invasion to my sense of hearing by the constant clanking of coins being dropped into slot machines sent me running directly to my room for a good night's sleep before an early morning flight to Skukuza and the Sabi Sand private game reserve.

To fathom the vast expanse of South Africa's savanna it has to be seen from the air to be believed. Kruger National Park (named after the South African statesman who established the park in 1884) encompasses 5.7 million acres. The Sabi Sand, within Kruger, is composed of 153,000 acres. There are no fences here. The animals that live within it reign over this enormous playground unhindered.
As we approached the Skukuza airstrip for a landing, off to the left, Merle excitedly said as she pointed, "look, down there." It was to be the first sighting of what is known as the Big Five, (buffalo, lion, elephant, rhino and leopard). A herd of elephants was crossing the Sabi River. At that precise moment, adrenaline surging, I knew what lay ahead would be an extraordinary experience.

At Skukuza's small airport where ground connections are made to the various game lodges in the area, Piet, with Tamboti Tours, met us. A jovial Afrikaner, he had spent the last 35 years in Kruger and knew every plant, animal and bird species in the park.

Deep within the Sabi Sand Reserve we were headed for the Idube Game Lodge. Suddenly Piet slams on the breaks. I'm thinking what have we hit? Piet shouts, "Look, over there! Whoa, you don't see that every day." It was a large Saddlebilled stork – an odd but stunning bird with legs that looked as though a child had constructed them with a Lego set and colors that resembled the German flag.

Do not leave your chalet at night unescorted. Later I was to find out exactly why. Set in the heart of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve Idube (Zulu for zebra) Game Lodge is in an ideal location for viewing the prolific abundance of game and bird life. Why, it's because of the available water. It is where the Sabi and Sand rivers meet. The lodge consists of 10 individual chalets with air-conditioning, outside private showers, mosquito nets (weren't needed), a boulder swimming pool, an outdoor bar, and a suspended walkway that leads to a secluded sunken hide next to the wall of Shadulu dam. This is where one can sit in an enclosed structure to view and photograph the wildlife arriving for an afternoon drink.

The ground's keepers here are meticulous. The flora is kept in constant check by resident warthogs, bush pigs, mongoose, nyala (a type of antelope) and vervet monkeys. The latter will steal anything that isn't tied down, particularly jewelry. One little bugger almost heisted my watch.
Piet left us in the capable hands of the staff at Idube with lunch planned and an afternoon – early evening game drive. He would return the following day for a drive through Kruger to Crocodile Bridge and the cross into Mozambique.

The ubiquitous impala – there are enough of them to feed every carnivorous animal in Africa, forever, with still plenty left over for Ravioli a la Impala, which was our lunch. This unique meal was served on a stilted open-air deck overlooking the small Idube Lake. On every table was a freshly cut bush, as a matter of fact this cut bush was everywhere – in our rooms, bathrooms and just outside our doors. The reason for the absence of mosquitoes was as a result of this bush – the quarri bush. A natural insect repellent due to its high tannin content.

There are two cardinal rules to remember on a game drive – never, never leave the vehicle. And, do not make any sudden moves. With a high-powered rifle mounted on the dashboard of the open-air Land Rover, we were off into the African bush. All of a sudden it was as if we were on a heightened sense of euphoric alert.

Seated in a chair attached to the bumper, Alpheos raised his hand and Steven stopped. "Rhino dung, fresh, this way." Veering right, now off the dirt road, we came to a clearing of tall grass and a few jackalberry trees. Recent rains had made this clearing an ideal spot to feed for two imposing, yet seemingly docile white rhinos. With little to fear in the wild, these beautiful creatures barely paid attention to us except with their dark, piercing eyes. A red-billed ox picker delicately landed in one the animal's ears and began the systematic removal of ticks – the miraculous ways of nature. One animal lumbered over to a tree to satisfy an itch. Merle, Stu and I agreed that this tree would never be the same.

How could he possibly have seen it? Back on the dirt road a sighting by Alpheos astounded all of us including Steven. Perched 30-feet above, virtually invisible, Alpheos spotted a rare sighting of an eagle owl, one of the larger birds-of-prey in the Sabi Sand. "Well, this has made my day," Steven commented.
Tracking wild animals is definitely a complex art. However, sometimes it's made easier by following the remains of what they eat. We came across mass quantities of fresh dung. Based on the configuration after the explosion of it landing, Alpheos determined in which direction the animals were headed. He pointed left and we were off-road again, this time pursuing elephants.

Without warning an abrupt hand went up and Steven stopped immediately. Moving towards us through dense bush was a small gray silhouette. "No sounds please," Alpheos whispered. A young elephant calf emerged from the bush with ears outstretched as if to charge. No big deal right? Wrong – mom was right behind her offspring as was the entire herd. After careful scrutiny and sensing no danger from us mom and the herd went about their unusual business.

The Marula tree went into a state of shock. A male bull elephant with tusks intact was ramming it. The glistening green fruit from the tree rained down all around them. A tasty dessert after consuming hundreds of pounds of vegetation. Upon eating their fill, as easily as these grand animals came they disappeared into the veld bush.

The golden hues of twilight were fading behind the Drakensberg Mountain range. Steven set up a small picnic table and produced an assortment of dried nuts and fruit. Along with this was beef-jerky of the warthog kind. I had asked to bring along a dry South African Astonvale Chardonnay which Merle, Stu and I enjoyed. Reassuring to us, Steven and Alpheos both had orange juice. The game drive wasn't over yet. It was time now to venture in to the African night.

Alpheos produced a powerful floodlight illuminating all our surroundings. As we approached a curve and made the turn Alpheos shouted, "Stop!" This in itself was alarming. What was directly in front of us was downright horrifying. It was a patriarchal, enormous male bull elephant charging. Steven threw the gears in reverse and we were backing up as fast as we could. "Close one, huh?" As, Alpheos chuckled.
Our final sighting for the evening came with a little help from Steven's ranger friends. Over his radio headset he was getting information. We veered off-road and met another vehicle. We looked off about 10 feet to our right and suddenly we were surrounded by a pride of lionesses on the hunt. As we followed these magnificent cats I kept thinking, "Where are the impala when we need them?"

Warthog steaks in a mustard sauce, salmon and prawn salad with a sweet and sour sauce, cheesecake, and an out-of-body experience – a dessert wine from the South African estate Klein Constantia called Vin de Constance. Dinner was served in the Idube Boma, an open-air setting with semi-circular seating around a wood burning fire pit. Swazi candles illuminated the affair with breathtaking views of the stars above. That's when it hit me – regret. My wife was not with me. Under those stars and that setting, I'm sure I would have asked her to marry me again.

I don't remember falling asleep; my head was so full of the day's events. But, I know I will never forget what awoke me that night. Outside my window came a low intense guttural growl. Three figures were moving around my chalet. I crawled over to my front door in time to see a lioness with her cub's pass by. Never leave the chalet unescorted at night – a point well taken.

Piet was excited. He had been given news that a herd of African buffalo had been seen in the area. We bid farewell to Steven, Alpheos and our new friends at Idube and began our drive through Kruger to reach the Mozambique border.
"There they are," Piet said. About 50-yards off-road surrounded in tall grass was a herd of black, ominous African buffalo. Their horns alone were enough to put the fear of God into us. Piet crept slower. "This is as far as we go," he cautioned. We couldn't agree more. The intimidation of the stare these animals gave us sent shivers up the spine. At any given moment these beasts can turn very, very nasty. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that it was time to make a hasty exit.

How they manage to get to the fresh leaves through two-inch thorns on a knobthorn tree without doing serious damage to their mouth is mind-boggling. We stopped to gaze at a herd of giraffes feeding delicately on this treacherous tree. These graceful, dignified animals had an aristocracy about them just by the way they casually crossed the highway. The Big Five, we missed it by one. A sighting of the illusive leopard had escaped us. It was time now to leave South Africa and venture into Mozambique.

At Crocodile Bridge we gave our thanks and said good-bye to Piet. We were met by Adviser Tours and Joao who was to be our guide.
The Renamo and Frelimo warring parties wrought havoc on this beleaguered country for 18 years. Imagine this: The civil war began in 1975 and did not end until 1993. Who or what could have sparked such long-lasting hatred? To this day experts are brought in to locate and disarm the insidious land mines that plague the countryside. However, on a more positive note, Mozambique appears now to be approaching political stability, with democracy in the forefront of leader's thinking – and in certain areas it also seems poised for economic recovery. Hungry again for tourism, Mozambique is going to great lengths to attract tourists from the world over. Oh, but is it safe? Yes, if one does not deviate from the tourist path.
At the border's busy immigration office Joao was taking care of our entry visas. Outside while we waited, as I viewed my surroundings and who was there, a profound, humbling revelation occurred to me. Being Anglo I knew then precisely how it felt to be a minority.

The drive to the bustling seaport-city of Maputo took about an hour. Before checking into the Hotel Cardoso we were taken to the legendary Costa do Sol restaurant overlooking Maputo Bay for lunch. Whenever I read on a menu, allow 35 to 45 minutes for preparation, I know I'm in for a culinary adventure. Rissóis (4 prawn cakes), Camaráo á Alhinho (garlic shrimp), Salada Grega (Greek salad), Marisco Misto á Costa do Sol (a seafood platter with langostine, lobster, calamari and fish fillet charbroiled in an herb garlic butter sauce). And, if this wasn't enough, a superb South African Chardonnay from the Darling Cellars – a first-rate dining experience.

For the remainder of the afternoon Joao escorted us on a city tour of Maputo. Evidence of economic recovery and in a few instances the historic beauty of this city can be seen, for example, by touring or staying at the lavishly restored Polana overlooking Maputo Bay – with an ornate front lobby being a veritable museum depicting the history of this majestic hotel. Or, by visiting the strikingly beautiful colonial train station in the downtown square where the ticket office is now a disco.

Prior to entering Maputo's Municipal Market Joao had a warning. "Don't go into the market unescorted. You will leave with less than you came in with," he said. Inside I had the eerie feeling that every eye was on my camera. As with any municipal market around the world everything and anything under the sun can be purchased here. From fresh fish, shellfish, fruits, vegetables, spices and suntan lotion to stunningly handcrafted African woodcarvings. The latter I purchased for 180,000 Meticais – about $15 US dollars. (Mozambique really needs to lose a few zeros on its money).

En route to our hotel as we passed by the many lively outdoor cafes, Joao made a stop. "Nelson lives here," he said. Stu and I both in unison said "Mandela?" – a nice home in a well-to-do neighborhood – a far cry from the small jail cell he occupied, unjustly, for a good portion of his life.

For the average tourist entering Mozambique, the city of Maputo essentially is a stopover en route to other destinations. Ours, the following day was to be the island of Bazaruto, the largest of the islands within the Bazaruto Archipelago.

The next morning Joao met us at our hotel for the short trip to Maputo's airport. At the outskirts of town the dichotomy of Maputo visually surfaced. Post-apartheid inequalities and indignities became evident. We passed through a vast shantytown and into a sea of poverty. In all my travels I don't believe that I have ever come across an area in which such economic diversity existed.

Flight time, via Air Mozambique from Maputo to the miniscule Vilanculos airport lasted about an hour and a half. Dotted along the lush green countryside were hundreds of palhotas surrounded by numerous lakes. Huts made from dry river reeds – I was reminded of how simple living can be.

Once at Vilanculos our 20-minute transfer to the Bazaruto Lodge would be by helicopter. As we ascended the remarkable beauty of the Indian Ocean took us by surprise. Jade hues of lucent, tranquil water, African dhow sailboats like miniature colored butterflies skimming across the ocean, the manta rays effortlessly traversing the oceans floor, clearly visible from the air and Bazaruto's vast dunes resembling the Sahara – the thought of Gauguin, his brush and making sense of it.

No phones, no television and no locks on the doors, completely cut-off from the outside world with the exception of a two-way radio at the front desk. The Bazaruto Lodge consisted of 15 open-aired thatched bungalows, an outdoor dining area, a bar, a game room, and a pool overlooking the tranquil bay. Merle, Stu and I all instantly had the sense of never wanting to leave.

The waters off the coast of Bazaruto Island are known for its abundance of marine life. Deep-sea fishing here doesn't get any better. With marlin (tag and release policy) migrating through these waters during October, November and December, and sailfish, dorado, king mackerel, blue fin tuna and bonito passing through during the months of May to January. Fishing enthusiasts have a veritable field day during these times.

The first order of business was to grab a raft, a Manica (Mozambican beer) and float aimlessly around Bazaruto Bay. With the warm Indian Ocean winds gently blowing, the 75-degree water – the sense of time forgotten, a curious event occurred. Actually, more like a phenomenon. All of a sudden I found myself floating on dry land. As far as the eye could see the water had disappeared. During the cycle of the full moon the tides here recede for some two miles out in the mid-morning and return just as quickly in the mid-afternoon. How odd it was to observe all the African dhows stranded in the sand awaiting the tides return.

The drums sounded, dinner was being served. A guest earlier during the day had the good fortune of landing a gigantic job fish. Jeremias, head chef, knew exactly what to do with it. The fish was charbroiled with garlic butter and accompanied by a dish called matapa (cassava leaves filled with a mixture of fish, crab and prawns cooked in peanut oil). Without a doubt, the white meat from this fish was the best I had ever tasted. That fish fed every guest at the lodge and probably most of the help as well.
The following day we were driven to a snorkeling spot known as Neptune's Nursery. There is no doubt that Neptune created his magic here. The fish had spectrums of color that I didn't think existed. Stu excitedly tapped my shoulder. He pointed, off in the distance was a spectacular sighting, an enormous manta ray glided by. Although harmless, nevertheless a daunting sight. For what could have been hours or days we floated in wonderment through these pristine waters.

Back at the lodge Jeremias had set up the dinner camp on the beach. With several drum barbecues all fired up, we were in for a culinary treat. Local dhow fisherman had brought in the day's catch. Fresh, hours out of the water, lobsters were slowly simmering over the hot coals. Served with garlic butter, au gratin potatoes, mixed cabbage cole slaw and the full moon, like a diamond jewel above. Again, I was wishing my wife had been with me.

Our all too brief visit to South Africa and Mozambique had come to an end. The following day Merle and I made our way back to Johannesburg and I hopped a flight back to New York City. Stu had decided to remain behind. For how long is anyone's guess.

Useful information:
Before during and after a visit to South Africa, Lariam pills must be taken to prevent Malaria. I also chose to get a shot for the prevention of Yellow Fever as well.
A natural remedy for jet lag is ENADAlert. It worked for me, (800) 636-8261. Web:
Getting there from USA:
South African Airways has flights leaving for Johannesburg from either New York City or Atlanta. Call 800-722-9675 for current fares. One can also book transfers from Johannesburg to the Skukuza airstrip through South African Airways.
From Europe: British Airways, KLM, SAA, Lufthansa, from Heathrow, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt
Tour operators:
RETOSA, (Regional Tourism Organization of Southern Africa) can be helpful in arranging tours through Kruger National Park and with connections from Johannesburg to the airstrip at Skukuza. Telephone: 27-11-315-2420-1, Email:, Web:
Tamboti Tours and Transfers is a first-rate company to escort one through Kruger National Park. Contact Piet Smit or Hester Viljoen. Telephone: 27-137-511957, Cell: 082-451-8149, Email:
Adviser Tours:
If traveling into Mozambique this company can make all the necessary arrangements for lodging, rental cars, tours and can pre-arrange entry visas. Telephone: 258-1-309-477, Email:, Web:
Caesars Hotel and Casino in Johannesburg: Telephone: 27-11-928-1000, Web:
Idube Game Lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve: Telephone: 27-11-888-3713, Email:, Web:
Hotel Cardoso in Maputo, Mozambique: Telephone: 258-1-49-1071-5, Email:
Hotel Polana in Maputo, Mozambique: Telephone: 258-1-491-001, Email:,

Reservations for the Bazaruto Lodge can be made through a booking company called Pestana in Maputo. Telephone: 258-1-305-000, Email:, Web:
The US dollar goes a long way in this part of the world. The South African Rand was trading at 11 to one US dollar. The Mozambique Meticais was at 12,500 to one US dollar.
© Dan Millington Oct 2003

Dan Millington, a Southern California native, has provided creative writing and photography to the publishing, advertising, and travel industries for more than 15 years. Dan has traveled throughout the United States, Mexico, Europe, Asia (Philippine Islands), and has just recently returned from an assignment to South Africa and Mozambique.
© Dan Millington

For the past nine years Dan has devoted much of his energies towards experiencing Mexico – and loving it! As a writer/photographer Dan has contributed to many publications such as, Moon's Baja Handbook, AAA's Mexico TravelBook, Fodor's Yucatán Gold Guide, Departures Magazine, Caribbean Travel & Life Magazine, Orange County Magazine, and is currently on the masthead as "Travel Consultant" for South Coast Magazine. Dan has been the "ask the expert" host for Fodor's Mexico Web site, providing travel advice and answering questions to more than 200 people in a six day period. When not traveling, Dan currently resides in San Clemente, California.
Member: MWA Mexico Writers Alliance

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