The Sabi Sands Legacy

by Tess Paterson
Leopard at Dulini

The Sabi Sands continues to play a crucial role in strengthening our fragile connection to the natural world

Words and photographs Tess Paterson

It’s dawn in the Sabi Sands and the winter sun’s nudging the horizon. At Dulini Leadwood Lodge, tracker Prince Mtimana pulls on his beanie, steps up to the tracker’s seat. Guests huddle under khaki blankets like giant cocoons. Dressed in shorts, as if it’s December, field guide Mac starts the engine and we head into the pearly light.

There’s a low mist above the river bed, a soundtrack of raucous red-billed wood hoopoes, the gentle hoot of an emerald spotted wood dove. Ten minutes into the drive Prince spots a young male leopard, ears just visible above the tall grass. He’s watching two impala rams, horns locked in a clashing rut, snorting in staccato bursts. Suddenly, a rattling cisticola erupts into song. Cover blown, the leopard turns and lopes off, all supple velvet elegance. “That’s what I love,” says Mac. “An 80 kg cat foiled by a 12 gram bird.”

An estimated 85 leopards reside in the Sabi Sands, the 650 km2 private reserve situated on the western boundary of Kruger National Park. With its mix of dense thicket for cover and open areas where smaller antelope congregate, it’s become globally renowned for big cat sightings.

“We see the Sabi Sands as part of our global heritage”

“We’re privileged to be in this part of the Sabi Sands, in such a spectacular environment,” says Dulini founder and co-owner, Sue Garratt. “Conservation has always been our primary motivator, and we see the reserve as part of a global heritage. Our ethos is about a level of hospitality that is extremely personal and intimate. It’s a place of absolute luxury, yet one that makes you feel right at home.”

Sue adds that visitors’ expectations have shifted. “What guests are wanting to know is how this experience will make them feel. Who will it impact, how will it make a difference to our communities and these surroundings? Ultimately, it’s our people who bring them back every time. Our staff are a big part of that magic.”

The lodge itself is a triumph of indoor-outdoor design. It’s like hanging out in a beautiful tree house, and bar the four suites (your own private pool, people!) you’re never in an enclosed space. On our first evening there’s a braai in the courtyard, a candle-lit epic that’s pure South Africa: braai brood, ridiculously juicy chops, venison wors, pap and marog. Dessert is mini deep-fried donuts with homemade buttermilk ice-cream. Add a Highland Park and an hour of star gazing and you will never, ever, want to go home.

“In the wild, if you focus on the small things, you won’t miss the larger ones”

Mac, aka Andre McDonald, has been a passionate birder since he was seven years old. Right off the bat he tells us that we’re closet birders, we just don’t know it yet. But rather than being an evangelical twitcher, he conveys his love of the wild with a light touch and great humour. “If you focus on the small things, you won’t miss the larger ones,” he says. “There’s a language to the bush. Every time a Natal spurfowl raises the alarm you have to ask yourself why.”

Stopping at a dam for Amarula-spiked coffee, Prince points out a brace of terrapins, their tiny heads just visible on the surface. There’s a waterbuck with her carbon-copy calf, a massive croc, covert in the shade. Later we see a pair of secretary birds striding across a plain, their mad feathered crests like fascinators at a royal jubilee.

Things get properly Attenborough when we follow a pack of wild dogs on the run. In full sun, we marvel at a magnificent cheetah surveying the veld from an anthill. We’re watching a pride of lions on the remnants of a zebra kill when eight hyenas arrive on the scene. “Time for video,” says Mac, “this is going to be huge.” Silent at first, circling the pride, they build up their nerve with howling, blood-curdling whoops. Then the bravest darts in, nabs a zebra leg and starts to feed at a distance. Nature and its zero-waste perfection.

While experiences like these are almost a given, the reserve’s DNA goes even deeper. “For years the Sabi Sands has put significant effort into its communities and into employment,” says conservation consultant Les Carlisle. “Whether it’s pre-primary education or water supply, the outreach programmes run by Londolozi, Singita, andBeyond and Dulini, for instance, are rooted in sustainable, long-term projects. As far as securing the area for the future, Sabi Sands is probably in the best position of all the reserves.”

That said, the greater Kruger National Park is under severe pressure. “The onslaught of white rhino poaching has seen numbers in KNP plummet from 12 500 to around 2 500 in the past decade,” says Les. “When a critical level of poaching is reached, as it is right now, there is no choice but to initiate a de-horning programme.”

This complex process is not taken lightly. “It’s costly, and it’s a learning curve,” says Mac. “Seeing that first de-horned rhino on drive was incredibly emotional. It’s just terribly sad.”

In addition to anti-poaching measures, organisations such as the Peace Parks Foundation are managing to stabilise breeding rhino numbers in different, protected locations. Les adds that last November, in tandem with African Parks, 30 southern white rhino were moved from Phinda Game Reserve in KZN to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park. “Of that group, the first calf has just been born.”

“If you really want to help with a conservation initiative, become better informed”

With such emotionally charged debates around conservation and poaching, Les is unequivocal on the dangers of misinformation. “One of the biggest threats to conservation is hysterical, uninformed opinion on social media. You cannot ‘tweet’ conservation right, especially from another country. We’re dealing with complex ecosystems, and each local reserve needs a local solution. If you really want to help, become better informed. There’s a wealth of excellent information out there from trustworthy, reputable sources.”

On our last morning, overlooking the Sand River, I try to imprint this timeless scene on my mind. Sun-baked boulders, a herd of elephants crossing the river, a Bataleur rising on the first thermals. It is an utterly priceless corner of the planet. Always upbeat, Mac puts it this way. “People are changed when they reconnect with nature, when they start to understand its profound value. Our job is to keep them coming through the doors.”

How to make a difference: The aftermath of Covid has put SA tourism under increased pressure. These are just some of the organisations positively impacting wildlife areas and their communities: The Singita Lowveld Trust, Africa Foundation, Rhinos without Borders, Endangered Wildlife Trust, The esiDulini Community Trust.

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1 comment

Lauren Royston June 2022 - 1:57 pm

Thank you Tess for bringing the spectacular to life like this, with your words and photos. The reconnection matters hugely on so many levels. And in this epic style!


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