Life in Umlani Bush Camp


Umlani in Shangaan – the mother tongue spoken by most of the rangers and trackers – means place of rest, but we don’t get much of that. The day starts at 6 a.m. with a gentle knock on the rondavels bamboo door and a wake up call for coffee and rusk (a rough equivalent to biscotti) around the fire before leaving on the first of two game drives. We return to a beautiful buffet of fresh fruit, muffins, and yogurt with staff taking orders for a full English breakfast if still hungry. Now’s the chance for that rest, whether drinks on the sundeck overlooking the water hole, a nap, sunning by the pool, or a visit to the treehouse out in the wild alone. If really adventurous and/or romantic, you can reserve it for the night.

Our gourmet lunch is served at the bar/sundeck overlooking the animal parade to the water hole, while we get to know the other guests. Jane and Douglas are the middle-aged safari addicts. This is there eighth trip and second to Umlani. The other returning trekker is the only bachelor in the group, a contemplative guy, Pete. The two honeymooning couples, one from the UK, the other from Ireland, are both named John and Clare, (thank God their accents are different at least). I question the other young couple from the UK, Alf and Alice, “On your honeymoon, too?” They shake their heads no, but Alf chuckles suggestively. They’ve just reserved the treehouse for the night.

After the usual ‘what do you do?’ conversations, these hip young couples engage us in intelligent funny conversations, not saying “fuck” every other word, nor are their heads down, fingers texting like their American counterparts. There are no working cell phones, and the internet is down more than it’s up. The only nod to technology is all the fancy camera equipment. The cliché ‘breath of fresh air’ works for both the environment and the people. Though Cindi and I are two old single American women we’re totally accepted as being pretty hip ourselves.

After the evening game drive the lanterns lead us to the reed boma where we gather around the fire with cocktails to enjoy Giles’ wild animal stories until the drums sound for dinner. The chef appears like a witch doctor in native turban to announce the menu for the evening meal. It’s always a delectable and uniquely South African dish: whether bobotie, a combination of minced beef, curry, raisins and egg; oxtail stew or lamb kabobs. The meal ends with liqueur of choice and a different homemade dessert every night.


As exhaustion sets in, we set off for bed alone, but Giles follows with a torch, “in case a leopard lies crouching in the shadows.” We twitter good night and turn to the flickering lanterns illuminating the bed now covered with delicate mosquito netting straight out of Dinesin’s Out of Africa. I dream of cuddling lion cubs until awakened by the sound of huge hooves crashing through bush right up to the flimsy wall of the hut. With a loud crunching a large animal, probably one of those quick-charging water buffalo, settles down a few feet from the bed. Brave independent Jill is too afraid to get up and see what it is. Sleep eventually takes over.

We sit in the Treehouse the next day. Moses has dropped us off for a few hours this morning. After our night visitor we have decided on a day trip. Even if no animals wander to the waterhole below us I am full in an Eckhart Tolle moment.


But they do. A herd of impalas materializes in the distance mimicking the lights and darks, browns and greys of the bush. They emerge step by delicate step toward the water, dozens of lithe dancers heads high, noses turning on the wind. They drink in momentary safety, trip back and forth and drift in a loose but alert formation back into the bush.

A couple of warthogs blunder in from the other direction, slurp up a drink and trot away in total contrast to the impalas. Two strong-bodied kudos watch a brown snake eagle perch on a gnarled branch. We’ve already scared away the young turtles he was looking for. Seeing nothing he soars away.

p91003691-225x300-4386942Cindi and I sit on different levels of the tree meditating in the utter absence of human sounds and sights. We could be in any era of history from the beginnings of time, but humanity re-emerges. The lorry picks us up for our last game drive.

Umlani Bush Camp


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?

Jill and Cindi’s Excellent African Adventure

p9110453-300x225-3974186Cindi on Umlani Safari, Kruger, So.Africa                    Jill in Kampomo Village, Malawi


In the fall of 2008, my dear friend Cindi and I were planning a trip to Europe together. I had not been there since my childhood when I had lived in France, and both of us wanted to travel in Italy, too.

But the trip was not to be. Cindi received life-threatening news. I remember the debilitating fear upon learning the news that she had breast cancer. I pledged to help and be with her any way I could through her surgery and its aftermath, not knowing then that the ordeal would include three surgeries, radiation, anti-cancer drugs, warring doctors, varying opinions, and finally a clean bill of health and remission.

Her relief was complete and for the first time in months she began to look to a future she had given up on. “Remember that trip we were planning?”

“Yup, seems like eons ago,” I wondered what she was getting at.

“Well, are you still interested?”

“Of course! You know my Sagittarian travel impulses. Do you think you’re up to it?”

“I’m not only up to it, I’d like to make a few changes.”

“Like what?” I raised my eyebrows.

“How about Africa instead?”

“Africa?!” I was stunned.

“This whole cancer ordeal has changed my life. I realize how short it is. I need an adventure to blast the past right out of me.”

“Wow! I’m in.”

Cindi plans the whole thing while I’m in Costa Rica. Through her connection with a non-profit group called Water for People, she finds a week country tour of Malawi, a landlocked impoverished place in southeast Africa, that will monitor and report on progress of installing bore holes (wells) and eco-sanitation (latrines) in out-lying villages and urban areas. Although this should be experience enough, it will probably be sad and emotionally draining. She sends me an email, “How about a safari first? Let’s start with some excitement.”

“All right! Never thought I’d do such a thing, but why not.” And thus our African adventure begins.