Since September 11, the world has turned upside down. South Africa, the wild country, the Cradle of Life, the Cradle of Mankind, has suddenly become one of the safest places to travel and tourism has increased significantly.
Naturally, when one thinks of South Africa, wildlife spotting is top of the priority list. And there’s nothing more amusing than to be staying near or at Kruger National Park’s lodges and seeing the look of amazement on tourists’ faces when they come out of the bush after they’ve seen the big five..elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, buffaloes- dashing through the wilderness on the 2 million hectares where there are no borders or boundaries..
The two year old Ngala Tented Safari Camp sits on 15,000 hectares and is a major gateway into the Kruger National Park, the largest wildlife sanctuary in South Africa and one of the biggest controlled nature reserves in the world.. The guided twice daily safari tours in specially equipped open Land Rovers, will undoubtedly give guests the opportunity to see a dazzle of zebra, a raft of hippos, a parliament of owls, a harem of impala, a crash of rhinos, a herd of jackals, and amazing colourful feathered friends like the Fire Finches, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Brown Headed Parrots and Crested Barbets.
Perhaps when you book to stay at Ngala, you may have a preconceived idea of sitting cross-legged around a fire before heading to your tiny tent while avoiding poisonous serpents. Wrong. The reality is that even if it wasn’t a tent, it would still be considered one of the most beautiful bedrooms.
Conservation Corporation Africa (CCA), a very Eco conscious foundation, not only has lodges in South Africa but also in Zimbabwe, Zanzibar, Kenya, Botswana, Namibia and Tanzania and a mandate to integrate the neighbouring communities, help the local economies, build classrooms, support clinics and AIDSs education among so many other positive projects, plus a commitment to Africa’s wildlife and the South African people.
When it comes to famous faces who have visited Ngala, mum’s the word. Nobody tells. Privacy is a priority but with only a maximum of 12 guests in the 6 tents, if there happens to be a celebrity, zillionaire or politician, it would be hard to keep it a secret especially at mealtime (no room service here) where there are only a handful of tables in the dining area, also an elaborate tent. Sshhh,don’t tell but Prince Barnard of the Netherlands was here not too long ago.
The staff are young and one wonders if they were sent down from Central Casting-all are so attractive and friendly. There’s a hard and fast rule at Ngala Tented Safari Camp, nobody goes to or from their tent alone. There’s always someone from the staff, sort of an animal security guard, (are they protecting us or the animals?) who must accompany you at the early morning and late afternoon pickups for the safaris. Wild animals roam freely since there are no fences in this massive area. It is, after all, their territory. Hoteliers and travellers are the interlopers. Even while you sit at the infinity lap pool at the reserve, and watch the sun go down, perhaps contemplating a life change, there’s always some staff member hovering close by. They seem so content that this far-off getaway makes even the most dedicated urbanite think of lifestyle altering.
These days, an available computer for faxing and email is a must at all hotels and here there is unlimited access-gratis. However, trying to receive a phone call seems to be problematic. Many in-coming calls either go unmentioned or aren’t connected to the front desk. Since none of the rooms has phones, in case of accidents or other incidents, a whistle is located in the room. Somehow, it just doesn’t have the same effect as being able to press ‘0’ for the desk.
In a medical emergency, all guests are covered by CC Africa for evacuation from the lodge to the nearest suitable medical facility. All front line staff at Ngala are trained First Aiders with 5 staff qualified as Advance First Aiders.
Omar the tentmaker could take some lessons from master tent maker Hirschel Falkson. Who would believe that a canvas construction could be made to look like a room at the Ritz? The design was the work of South African architect Nick Plewman and the interior design was by CC Africa’s in-house South African designer, Chris Browne.
A huge centre pole, which becomes part of the décor, holds up the tent and the ceiling fan. One has to touch the taut, framed walling to believe that it’s really canvas.
Open wood shelving , Saligna, (a commercially farmed South African hardwood) flooring, polished patina concrete walls with twin modern molded sinks, divide and hide the large claw foot tub, the dressing area and loo exquisitely designed to fit in with the environment but also with the elan of an five star hotel room.. King sized bed with dark brown wicker headboards, fine Egyptian linens, electric blanket for cool nighttime comfort and the remarkable out door shower with branched dividers for privacy,( mostly from the Peeping Tom eyes of the baboons) makes these some of the most beautiful and unusual bedrooms in the hotel industry. Even the trees have been integrated, when necessary, into the room.
The reception area, a brief walk from the tents, has walls which have been decorated with indigenous gemstone discs. The interior is so stylish with retro pieces from the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s hard to believe that you’re in the midst of total wilderness. The fire in the stone fireplaces heat the cool evenings, fresh flowers add color to the khaki tenting which has been cut in various strips adding a dramatic pattern to the canvas. Groovy, may be a word from the past, but it’s the perfect description of this retro lodge.
AMBIENCE/ FOOD AND DRINK
With a handful of guests who see each other only at meal times, since most go on safari with their travelling companions, there’s a constant swapping of stories, a sort of competition of the animal count for the day. Another daily highlight is when the on-site trained chef comes out of the kitchen to describe his culinary creations-all triumphs. Guinea Fowl with Zanzibar spice, caramelized baby onion, goat’s cheese and leek tart, Moroccan grilled turkey breast with roasted Macadamia nuts, mint, chili, raisins and Zatar spices followed by date and pecan nut ‘Pannkaka” or chocolate Pavlova , all served with choice South African wines. A favourite choice is Pinotage, a full bodied red wine.
There’s ‘sweetness’ about the trackers and rangers who admittedly adore their work and have unlimited patience to discuss and answer the barrage of the questions that neophyte safari travellers, have. There’s an ‘other worldliness’ that seems to say that this ‘simple lifestyle’ is what living is all about.
Only a magician or a genius could have contrived this enchanted environment.
THINGS TO DO
The knock at the door at 5:30AM is the wake up call and notice to be ready for 6AM. Safaris with rigorously trained rangers and trackers have no time limit if you’re tracking animal or searching for some exotic species. So by the time you return to the lodge about 10.30AM, where there’s a hearty buffet breakfast awaiting , shower, change and perhaps a visit to the gift shop, read a book, check your emails, it’s time for lunch. Times flies when no one is clock glancing and suddenly it’s late afternoon and there’s another game-drive with bird-watching or stargazing. Moonlit drinks and nibbles under the blanket of stars is a memorable event. Birders will see feathered friends with an unexpected array of colours. The rangers can tell which they are just by the flutter or size of their wings. Case in point is the lovely lilac Breasted Roller.
Dinner starts with drinks in the bar or on the wraparound deck followed by the meal in the attached dining room at one of the smaller or banquet tables, depending on your wishes. Finally bedtime when the noise of the wilderness, part of the evening’s entertainment, lulls you to sleep which could be short lived as elephants brush up against the hardy tents releasing a torrent of water or jackals and baboons vie for air time.. For those wanting a closer look in the African wilderness, armed rangers will take guests on an interactive bush walk, pointing out animals tracks, identifying the various animal dung, butterflies, unique trees, bird and driving over sandy, dry river bed of the seasonal Timbavati River.
Per person per night including all meals, two game drives per day, nature walks, drinks including house wines and local brand spirits and laundry- July and August 2002 /US $340
September and October 2002 – US$475
Guests are recommended to have their own travel insurance.