A one-wire electric fence, just six feet from my thatched chalet's porch, keeps the elephants from coming into camp and tearing up the trees. Right now, a humvee-sized elephant is standing six feet from the wire. He's drawing muddy water from the lake's edge and spraying it over his back. It's the elephant equivalent of running through the sprinkler on a hot day, then putting on sun screen. Glancing at the crocodiles and hippos across the lake, he walks back into the field. So ends our first hour at Chitwa Lodge.
Getting here was just as impressive. We jetted two hours from Cape Town to Johannesburg . From Jo'burg, we flew, by prop, an hour and a quarter east to Hoedspruit. The final Out of Africa scene has us taxiing down the run way with the windows open in our tiny private charter. Andy, my nephew, sat in the co-pilot's seat. I shared the back seat with our luggage. On the hour-long flight to the Lodge's landing strip, we spotted a water buffalo herd gathered around a water hole and got a feel for the lowveld'a forested, tropical savannah of sparse, low knob thorn trees.
Chitwa Lodge is in Sabi Sand, a private game reserve with the reputation for being not only the best managed, but one of the best places in the world for seeing leopards and lions. For the animals, the Sabi Sand and the other half dozen or so private game reserves abutting Kruger National Park are just another part of their territory where they're protected, but not fenced.
For safari-goers, the private game reserves have far fewer visitors to avoid the safari-circus of dozens of jeeps gathered around one old lion. They have top rate game wardens that help develop one's "eye" for spotting game. They're rangers and trackers, all expert game finders, stay in constant communication with all the jeeps in the reserve, measurably increasing the chance of a sighting. They can also follow the animals off-road, something that is not allowed in Kruger.
Chitwa is has a safari luxury lodge for gathering and eight private chalets for cocooning. Woven into the surrounding trees, it's nearly invisible to the game that comes to drink at the lake's sunrise, sunset and sometimes in between. Besides elephants, there are hippos that spend their days submerged in the lake up to their eyes and crocodiles that spend theirs submerge in mud. The occasional giraffe shades itself under the tallest tree.
The large and air-conditioned lodge has plush seating, an elegant bar, an extensive wine cellar and a dining area for those evenings Chitwa's guests don't eat outside. Paths lead through landscaped grounds to the chalets. I stick to the paths; the recent rains, I am told, bring out the snakes. After dark, a rifle-toting ranger walks each of us back to our chalet, just in case there's a leopard out hunting. The electric fence only keeps out the elephants-the big cats don't eat trees, you see.
Every chalet has a lake view. They range from what Chitwa calls standard comfortable seating inside in the air-conditioning and outside on the lakeside porch, luxury linens and two-room bathrooms. Add a dip pool on a private patio, a separate dressing area, a separate lounge and exceptional African art for the deluxe.
Days at Chitwa start before dawn with the knock of a staff member to wake us for the morning game drive. Bundling up against the cold, although we'll be hot by ten, we stumble to the breakfast area caffeine and risk tasting slightly sweet, rather tasty, traditional dried bread. Still half asleep, we shuffle behind our ranger to mount our jeep.
Two exhilarating hours later, we're full of 'sightings' chatter as we chow down a sizable breakfast of fruits, meats, eggs, cheese, sweet rolls, toast and jam. Midday, the intrepid hike with a ranger rifle in hand to see how close they can get to a big ones before they (the intrepid, that is) retreat in fright. I sit in the shade by the black swimming pool and keep a close eye on the lake.
Up next, a varied and tasty lunch is served on the veranda. Then everyone, including the animals, snatches a snooze. Around four o'clock we collect again for the evening game drive. This drive culminates in a stop for sundowners, drinks in South African bush that often extend into 'moonrisers.' There is magic here - the moon rising over the knob thorn trees while the stars wink on across the bush's vast horizon.>
The magic continues with dinner in the boma'an open-air, fenced corral to discourage the beasts from attending our feast. We sit at linen-covered tables, in a semicircle around the mesmerizing bonfire that peppers the night with sparks. Grandly, the five courses of our safari-gourmet dinner arrive in procession. Sated and serene, we take the last sip of fine South African wine and are escorted back to our chalets.
Then to sleep, perhaps to dream? Dreams of Africa reverberating with a leopard's guttural growl and an elephant's sharp trumpet, only to wake and find we aren't dreaming.