A 4-night stay at Ngala Tented Camp near the Kruger National Park gave Gina Baksa the safari experience of a lifetime…

LOVE CAN STRIKE at any time. A feeling. A look. A whisper. An unstoppable force, South Africa demanded my attention like a valiant suitor and courted me until I surrendered. Beguiling and foreboding, lush and barren, united and divided, the country’s paradoxes delighted and infuriated in equal measure.

Yet I had no inkling of this imminent love affair during the flight from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit – where our group was collected in air-conditioned comfort for the 45-minute drive to Ngala, the jewel in andbeyond’s luxury tented safari crown.

Situated in Lowveld on the western boundary of the Kruger National Park, the wide flat grassy plains of Ngala cover some 14,000 hectares (34,959 acres) and are home to lion, elephant, giraffe, cheetah, buffalo, rhino, hippo and an incredible variety of birdlife. Ngala means ‘lion’ in the local Shangaan language and the reserve supports several prides.

A warm welcome from assistant manager Zané and her team – who greeted us with chilled towels – and we were guided to our accommodation. An intimate setting beside the Timbavati River, the nine luxury ‘tents’ at Ngala are the epitome of glamping. Privately spaced well apart on raised wooden platforms, some facing the (now dry) riverbed, others set back in the trees – each on a luxurious hotel room under an awning.

Exquisite interiors from designer Nicole Merlo reflect the warm, earthy tones of South Africa. Dark and light local wood, stone, hessian: the outside shower with its private stone surround especially inviting in the heat – and soft furnishings in accents of green and white lending a cool sophistication. Overhead fans assisted the gentle breeze that entered through the large gauze screen windows while indigenous trees provided further leafy shade. From the generous canopied decking, a beautiful view across tranquil green lawns towards the restaurant and lounge. Resident warthogs snuffled on the grass while monkeys played peek-a-boo with the small bushbuck deer that freely roamed, completely unfazed by our arrival.

Meeting our ranger Andrew for afternoon tea and chat before our first game drive, we learnt more about the reserve, savouring divine Amaruna liqueur (17% and addictive) – our imaginations in overdrive. Working with his tracker Adam for eight hours a day has created an almost symbiotic relationship between the two men.

Adam’s 18 years’ of bush experience means he knows the land and her animals like a second skin. In pole position on the Land Cruiser’s tracker seat; scouring the ground and using all his senses, his quick hand signals led Andrew to drive deeper into the bush. He deftly navigated the vehicle through dense scrubland, small trees and clearings until we spotted a female leopard and her cub. Barely visible between the trees we saw and heard teeth tearing at a fresh kill – a bloodied Kudu antelope – while her cub played nearby.

Barely visible between the trees we saw and heard teeth tearing at a fresh kill – a bloodied Kudu antelope – while her cub played nearby.

Seeing these incredible animals only feet away was beyond magical. Heart pounding, I remembered to breathe and use my camera. The whole group sat in reverential silence as Andrew shared his knowledge of these majestic animals. Senses dulled from city living quickly become heightened in the bush. Smell, touch, hearing and sight… all provide important clues to the wildlife whose territory we were driving through. All the while remembering that we are visitors. This is their land. A land supporting abundant tree life: thorns, bushwillow, wisteria and marula (a favourite of the pachyderms) and incredible birdlife.

Thanks to Andrew’s encyclopaedic knowledge we spotted lilac-breasted rollers, owlets, starlings, owls, tawny eagles and weavers. And the iconic vulture – perched precariously, almost comically on bent tree-tops, waiting to descend on fresh kill once our vehicle was out of sight. Sundowners are a safari ritual. Setting up camp beside a waterhole, before the brushstrokes of orange and purple swiftly gave way to inky star-filled night, we watched hippos swim together; only their ears, eyes and nostrils visible.

Elephants languidly arrived to quench their thirst as we also drank in the indescribable beauty around us. A safari is a heart-stopping experience. Never have I felt so connected to the land, to earth. Many people describe a visit to South Africa as a homecoming and I feel the same. She has a tangible heartbeat that re-connects the soul to Source.

Andbeyond’s successful brand of ecotourism has a three-fold focus: take care of the land, take care of the wildlife and take care of the people. Conservation is the bedrock of their business and the company invests heavily in the careful management and preservation of the environment in each country they operate. By engaging with local communities and ensuring they are supported economically – by helping to set up local businesses, and employing local people in their lodges – andbeyond’s eco-sustainability model creates a win-win for everyone involved.

Making our way slowly back to camp we saw the rare black rhino chasing a female object of his desire. Swift, despite their huge size, their backs muddied with dried earth to keep them cool during the heat of the day. And elephants – my favourite of all – came to commune, flapping their ears in curiosity and greeting.

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