Umlani Bush Camp
Cindi and I arrive in Johannesburg Sept. 7, 2009, after a 16-hour flight and almost 24 hours from the first airport to the last. I cry, “We’ve lost a day!”
“We’ve got one more to lose, don’t get impatient,” Cindi replies. We’re itching to get to our safari site, but must spend one more night in Joburg, as the locals call it, and take our last flight to the edge of Kruger National Park where we’ll stalk the “Big Five” – lion, leopard, elephant, water buffalo and rhinoceros – only shooting photographs.
We land at the quaint Hoedsprit airport that doubles as a military base, drive through the entrance to the park, and enter Umlani Bush Camp of, a classic African safari camp located in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, which is part of the greater Kruger park. Almost hidden in the bush, our primitive rondavels (thatched huts) huddle together on one side of the watering hole, a popular hangout for the wild animals.
Giles, a handsome fit white South African, greets us. Very friendly and helpful, he’s managed Umlani for a decade. His dedication to saving the African wildlife and environment has won the camp the Eco-lodge of the Year award. Though there’s no electricity, it isn’t a primitive experience by a long shot.
Tembi, our statuesque greeter is dressed in her working clothes – a long colorful sarong and tall turban – the beautifully etched features of her brown face smiling in welcome. She shows us our rondavel, a round reed-thatched enclosure, and gives instructions. “Do not wander off the paths, and at night do not leave your room. The camp is unfenced except for elephant guards. At dusk we will drape mosquito nets over the bed and light paraffin lamps.” Sounds a little scary and buggy.
There are roll down shades, and only half walls of bamboo. But the beds are plush and comfortable with beautiful animal batiks hanging above them. Hot water in the shower is heated by a wood burning stove, the same that the chef uses for meals. “Your hot water will take about 15 minutes to arrive,” she warns us. “And when you are settled we will serve you drinks and snacks on the deck overlooking the watering hole.”
We wander over to the bar for a cool drink and take a seat on the deck. “Oh my God, look!” yells Cindi.
“A herd of impala. There must be a dozen.”
“And those long-faced pigs trotting in. Must be warthogs.”
“It’s a regular zoo in front of us,” I laugh, “And we haven’t even left the camp.”
After a rest in the heat of the day – it’s so hot I have to strip off my clothes and dunk my head under the cold shower – we prepare for our first bush ride with Moses, our driver/guide, a charming, locally trained native. More instructions, “No feet or arms out of the lorry. Your leg might look tasty enough to chomp on. Stay seated at all times. Whisper, and mind what I say.”
The bush terrain is very dry and leafless – all the better to see wildlife – in all shades of brown, gray, olive. We drive through mostly grass mixed with stunted sticky trees and huge conical termite mounds. Before we leave the camp proper we see another herd of impala materialize out of their camouflage with sinuous curved horns and dark slashed M’s on their buttocks. “That M stands for McDonalds,” one of our Brit lorry mates laughs out loud, “fast food for the leopards.”
The parade continues: kudus – larger than the impala with heavier intricately twisting horns, elephants in the dry riverbed – mothers with babies strolling and eating, giraffes loping gracefully, their long necks undulating up and down to help them get air into their lungs.
Moses speaks into his walkie-talkie and announces, “There’s a huge herd of buffalo not far off. We’ll see plenty of giraffes later.” And off we go, stopping for a quick look at the immobile hippo almost submerged in his own watering hole. I groan, “We’re going too fast.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to see everything.”
Off in the distance a huge troop of water buffalo, large stocky animals with formidable fat horns across their foreheads blacken the horizon. “Be very still here. Any movement could set them off. They give no warning – just charge. Not like most of the other animals.”
How else can I start my African safari but with a list. Let me add more. A rare black rhino lumbers along dropping big chunks of dried mud that he has wallowed in, a dazzle of zebras, a jackal, grey drykers, and a multitude of colorful birds.
The intense red sun sets and night falls immediately. We hear crashing, shaking, howling and growling in the dark of the African bush all the more intense for our blindness. Then comes the coup of the evening – a stealthy solitary leopard picked out by Moses’ spotlight, shining yellow eyes to match the spots on her graceful body as she stalks her prey.
By the end of the run we have already seen the “Big Five” and shot them point blank with our cameras. This has been one of the most exciting days of my life. What will happen tomorrow?