Conservationist Tara Lal gives us a magical tour of the South African wilderness
A perfect safari holiday—where you’re deep in the wilderness but couched in comfort—takes years of gruelling, collaborative hard work and effort to make a reality.
A large male elephant silhouetted against the sun.
There is absolute silence as we wait in our open-top vehicle along the dry riverbed. We had received intel that a leopard made a kill in this area the night before, and we can now see the carcass of an impala draped over a tree branch just ahead of us. But there is no sign of the big cat. Anticipation is half the fun of photographing wildlife, and I can feel a flutter of excitement as I adjust my light settings and find an uncomfortable but good angle for the upcoming shot. In the vehicle with me are Jaisal and Anjali Singh, owners of (Suján Luxury, both experts in photography and safari lifestyle.
Mashaba and her cub on the banks of the Sand River.
Just as the sun shines through a passing cloud, a female leopard named Mashaba steps out from behind the tall grass, accompanied by her cub. They had been there the whole time, watching us. They glance towards us with intense aloofness, entirely unperturbed by our presence and our clicking, and settle down on the silky sandbank. I take my eye off the lens for a moment to just take in the jungle around us.
Zebras against the golden sunset.
I love getting into safari holiday mode, and South African safaris are my favorite. It’s such a change from my research trips, which usually involve grueling weeks and months in the field, without electricity or fresh food, with nests of flying ants in my bed and broken bathrooms. Safari holidays, on the other hand, hold the anticipation of chilly morning drives into the wilderness, sunset gin and tonics under the endless African skies, and the chance to pack my khakis and tans, my beaded earrings, and a collection of bracelets from every part of Africa.
Varty camp at Londolozi
An evening gin and tonic in Mapesu.
And Londolozi, where we are now, located on the banks of the Sand River in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve of South Africa, is the ultimate ‘sofa safari’ trip: a pleasurable amble into the wild, with deliciously detailed comfort and a constant drip of food and wine.
A leopard in a tree with an impala in its mouth.
Mashaba and her cub stretch on the sand and start to move down the riverbed. At Londolozi, leopards have had decades of protection from hunting, which makes them very comfortable around vehicles filled with humans that follow them around to gape at their spotted beauty. But this has been the result of painstaking restoration over time in Londolozi, as well as in several other lush safari spots I frequent, all of which began as degraded land. This constant vigilance by authorities has created sustainable tourism systems, and formed strong ties between stakeholders and local communities.
A few years ago, I joined a restoration project in the Northern Limpopo region of South Africa, an area that has a fantastical landscape of towering rocks and baobab trees, but holds an air of torpid apathy. It is dominated by hunting and cattle farms full of Afrikaans farmers (ethnically Dutch white South Africans) who even today are deeply racist and parochial, and kill wildlife for sport. The project, Mapesu Reserve, was started by a bushy-bearded Dutch entrepreneur named Quinten Knipping. On my first trip there, he took me on a tour of the property, dressed in his ranger uniform with a rifle slung over his shoulder. We climbed into his well-used Land Rover and set off to survey the 8,000 hectares of un-mapped land.
A lioness with wildebeest in the background
Protected areas are the cornerstone of wildlife conservation, but creating them takes a lot of time and money. Land can regenerate if it is left undisturbed, but it also requires investments like building water catchments, setting up anti-poaching security, buying equipment to track animals, and installing fences (legally required in South Africa).
Painted wolves with the camp at Londolozi in the distance
Unlike at Londolozi, I was not a guest basking in the illusion of seamless beauty and perfection. At Mapesu, I was a part of the process and got to experience activity behind the scenes. Each day on the reserve brought new challenges—dealing with flash floods that wiped out months of work, elephants that decided to push down fences, and surly neighbors who threatened to kill a leopard that wandered onto their property.
Axel monitoring cheetahs as his dog Blu sits in the pick up truck
Axel, the conservation manager at Mapesu, would take me on early morning drives with his mongrel dog named Blu, who would sit in the back of the pickup truck. We would check the perimeter fence lines for holes, track the newly reintroduced cheetahs to see how they were adjusting to this new land, and change a set of camera traps to look for a hyena den we knew was in the area. But even behind the scenes, a gin and tonic at sunset was an essential, and Mapesu has its own locally produced sumptuous Golden Rhino gin. The name is a nod to the gold artifact of the same name that was found in this region and belonged to the medieval kingdom of Mapungubwe. This area is rich in history but almost none of it has been researched, and sites filled with ancient cave paintings done by the Khoi and San tribes—some of which date back between 10,000 and 12,000 years—are still being unearthed.
A hippo soaks in an algae-covered pond.
We would pull up under ancient baobab trees that stood like giants reaching for the sky, and as the sun grew bright orange as it sank below the horizon, we would hear the call of leopards in the distance. There were many in the area, but they were still a bit shy and uncertain of human behavior towards them.
Under a baobab tree at sunset
Mashaba and her cubs advancing down the riverbed in Londolozi show no such apprehension. The sun fades and the temperature drops quite suddenly. I start layering up for the cold drive back to camp. I’m silent on my way back, soaking in every last detail of the evening drive: the lightning bugs that dance over the Sand River, the sound of fiery-necked night-jars reverberating in the dark, the first hint of the southern cross glimmering in the night sky. It’s a privilege to be in the midst of this protected wilderness, and an experience we can no longer take for granted.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Fly to Johannesburg from Delhi and Mumbai on Emirates (Emirates.com), Etihad Airways (Etihad.com) or Ethiopian Airlines (Ethiopianairlines.com). Fly onwards to Londolozi or Sabi Sands from Johannesburg on Federal Airlines. (Fedair.com)
WHERE TO STAY:
Founders Camp or Varty Camp– From Rs. 83,304 per person per night. Londolozi.com
Tree camp- From Rs. 1,21,485 per person per night. Londolozi.com
Sabi Sabi- From Rs. 79,156 per person per night. Sabisabi.com
Mopane Lodge- From Rs.17,503 per person per night or Rs. 1,54,034 for a five-day conservation trip. Mapesu.com
Photographs: Tara Lal