Never having set foot in any part of Africa before, the prospect of a trip to South Africa carried mixed feelings.
On one hand, it would be an exciting journey to the birthplace of humanity. On the other, it would be a passage to a world whose history still resonates with the sad and traumatic echoes of colonial bloodshed.
Still, bearing in mind the words of Saint Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page,” I sallied forth full of expectation. After all, this wasn’t Africa with a backpack, this was Africa Virgin-style, where my every whim would be catered to at Ulusaba, South Africa.
It was just pushing Evensong as the manager led me across the rope bridge to my lodge on stilts. Suspended over the dry river bed, we ambled and swayed to the surrounding cacophony of unseen African birds and insects as my slightly jet-lagged eyes accustomed to the sight of six enormous elephants drenching themselves at a water hole less than 30 m away.
As ivory tusks glinted in the rays of a dwindling sun over a parched horizon, memories of Dublin were suddenly erased as the reality of this netherworld time zone began to take hold.
“In an hour or so when the sun goes down, you will see the animals appear,” the manager told me as the baggage was placed beside the gigantic Papa Hemingway-style bed that would be headquarters for the next few days.
“Do not be alarmed by the strange cries and bellows you will hear as the light fades,” he smiled “You are in the heart of African wildlife now.”
Then it happened. Bidding me a pleasant nap, he opened the door to depart quietly. And there, less than 10m away on the swaying bridge sat a full grown leopard, yawning and stretching as his green, predatory eyes regarded us with idle curiosity.
“Stand very still,” the manager ordered me quietly. No worries on that one, mate, I thought, pondering, as one does in such moments, on the vast number of middle-aged men who neglect to make a proper will before embarking on overseas adventures.
Licking his paw as if in welcome, the noble creature then turned, executed a lazy, balletic leap, and was lost in the dense undergrowth.
“You are so fortunate, sir,” the manager smiled with the zeal of the true believer. “You have just experienced a true African moment.”
Bought in 1999 by Richard Branson as an addition to his eclectic group of worldwide hideaways, Ulusaba Game Reserve is part of the Sabi-Sand Wildtuin, a 66,000-hectacre privately owned reserve within the greater Kruger National Park.
Located in the vast Lowveld, Ulusaba has been unfenced since 1993, allowing greater movement of game within its vastness, all the way to the Lebombo mountains bordering Mozambique in the east and the Drakensberg range to the north.
Born of a history of perseverance for conservation by Transvaal president Paul Kruger, dating back to 1894, the Sabi-Sand area had long been the preserve of big-game hunters from the 18th century —- pursuing the famed Big Five — elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo.
An observer of the period wrote: “If sportsmen want to ‘do’ Africa, they had better make haste, as at the present rate of decrease, in a very few years, the wild animals will have ceased to exist in this territory.”
Despite the political upheavals of the Boer War and other-turn-of-the-century empire building, the Kruger National Park received its official status in 1926 rendering it one of the largest, and most successful, game reserves in the world today with well over 1m visitors a year.
Perched at the edge of a mountainous outcrop, Ulusaba offers spectacular views of the surrounding bushveld. Christened ‘place of little fear’ by the native Shangaan tribes who used it in ancient times as an elevated advantage in battle, the Safari and Rock Lodges manage to combine the creature comforts for which the Branson brand is famous, with the unadorned rawness of the true African experience.
In an environment of plush domesticity comprising copper baths, infinity pools, five-star cuisine, and the Aroma Boma spa complex, the scent and atmosphere of the area’s ultimate lure — wild and untamed animals at large in their natural habitat — is everywhere.
Regardless of how many glasses of vintage wine or champagne are quaffed under the dusky stillness of a balmy night, the realisation that we humans are merely guests in the animal’s domain remains a constant and thrilling wonder.
Wandering woozily bedward from a pleasant after-dinner discourse in the main lodge, is an experience tellingly contrasted by having the company of a watchful field guide lead one safely to the deep repose waiting within those epic four-posters.
Add to that the occasional chattering of baboons who sometimes scamper across the thatched roof during the night — and the gulf between this world and Ireland’s winter damp could not be greater.
While the comforts found within the lodges are notable even to the weariest of travellers, the true joy of Ulusaba lies in the dawn and dusk jeep safaris.
And in the same way that specialist sports such as fly-fishing, white-water rafting, and rock climbing require an expert guide to fully expand a novice’s horizons, local bush ranger Karl Langton is just such an expert.
Born less than 50km from Ulusaba and having slowly and successfully attained his full Ranger Guide credentials, this soft-spoken individual positively brims with enthusiasm for what he described as “a life that was always going to be my first choice even when I was a kid of 10”.
Deftly handling our multi-tiered, open-air jeep, he led our group deep into the undergrowth in search of that elusive game.
Seeming to know every elephant almost by name, and bearing as much rapt wonder at the sight of lion cubs playing with their mother as we jungle debutants, Karl’s vast breath of knowledge - and his adroit skill at imparting it made even a 4am start to the day something no hungover head would wish to avoid.
Whether it be the hunting skills of a cheetah, the complex organisational structure of a termite mound, or the sexual mores of in-heat rhinos, Karl’s talent for communication evoked instant memories of those few beloved college lecturers whose words still echo down the decades.
“Regardless of the care and attention given to comfort and luxury for our guests in Ulusaba, we are hugely aware of the importance of having the best guides that can be found” is the management ethos of this special place. “People like Karl are the bedrock upon which we flourish or fail.”
Among the many sights and sounds that will likely remain in visitors’ memories long after the plane departs Ulusaba, the bush dinner by campfire continues to haunt the senses.
After a dusky drive through the veldt with the trusty Karl getting us to within five feet of a lioness playing with her cubs, we drove through a dry river bed to come upon the surprise package of a torchlight barbecue.
As the last rays of the dropping sun withered in the gathering darkness, a group of Shangaan women dressed in traditional robes danced their ancient native rites around the campfire’s eerie glow.
Singing lustily in the native tongue as their dancing shadows mingled with the fire smoke, it created a vision of Africa still vivid to this day as we, the onlookers, sat in a semi-circle.
This vision of antiquity has remained on many a sodden Irish evening as one dreams of foreign shores.
Rooms at Safari Lodge and Rock Lodge start at €650 per person, per night, including all food, drink and alcohol.
Flights from London to Johannesburg start at €780 per person, return, on Virgin. Connecting flights with Federal Air, between Johannesburg and the airstrip at Ulusaba, from €300 per person, return.
Although game drives are the main attraction, there are plenty of other activities at Ulusaba to keep you entertained. Sunbathe by one of the two outdoor pools, star-gaze at the bush observatory, work-out in the gym, or play tennis on two stunning courts. Ulusaba also organises walking treks, wine-tasting evenings and special foodiedinners.