Oh, Naledi Lodge, how do I love you? Let me count the ways!
You may recall that we had a bit of a rough time getting to our safari camp near Kruger National Park in South Africa. There was that little matter of the extortionist cops and the bad maps and getting lost and almost stuck in the mud and all that. There were brief moments of minor recrimination. There was sweating. Well, my brothers and sisters, all the cares of the world melted away when we finally arrived at the luxe lodge in the bush called Naledi. Upon arrival, Alicia, our Managress (that’s what it says on her card) handed us a welcome drink and led us to one of the most splendid hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in.
People took our bags, they took our car (and washed it, we later discovered, which was good, because after our little jaunt through the mud it looked like a work by Jackson Pollock), and for all I cared, they could have taken both of my big toes. I was vulnerable little Tobias in Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett was singing “No one’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around…” (Of course Tobias goes mad and then dies, but that’s not important.) We were welcomed lovingly into the gentle arms of the African bushvelt. (Okay, that’s also a rotten metaphor. In the African bushvelt things get killed and eaten before your eyes, unless it’s you that’s getting killed and eaten before your wife’s eyes.)
No matter, we had arrived at a safari camp that offered welcome drinks. Our room had indoor and outdoor showers, polished concrete floors, and a glorious view of the Olifants River.
Even though we missed lunch by an hour and a half, within minutes there it was, hot and delicious. Thirty minutes later we were on the safari van off to explore the bush, and forty one minutes later we saw our first pride of lions.
After another hour and a half or so of driving around looking for wild animals, our tracker Sipu and our ranger Sydwell pulled to the side of the road at a picturesque little spot, set up a table, arranged some snacks, and poured sundowners. Things were looking up.
Life at Naledi went like this – we received a gentle tap at our door each morning at 5. (Yes, 5. If you are not a morning person, you will just have to suck it up. Game drives start early.) Coffee was waiting in the bar and we headed off for our morning safari drive at 5:30. By 7:30 or so the trackers would pull over for coffee and cookies and by 8:30 we were back to the lodge to clean up before breakfast at 9ish. Then we would take a little nap or contemplate a dip in the pool. Before lunch, guests can go for a nature walk with a guide or be dropped off at the water hole hide for a few hours. Lunch was at 2:30, followed by another little nap and then everyone heads out for the evening game drive at 4:30, highlighted by sundowners out in the bush at about 7, and then back to the lodge for dinner at 8 or so.
The place has a capacity of eighteen guests, but there were never more than ten when we were there. It helps if you like each other. We had our meals together and we went on our two-a-day game drives together. Thus, it turned into just another version of the puertos cerrados of Buenos Aires – a great big dinner party with strangers, although this one also featured wild animals. Fortunately, the strangers were loads of fun. One American couple and their two daughters are now living in Buenos Aires, of all places. Another young couple from the UK did an eight month around-the-world trip of their own a few years ago. The people we’ve come across have been similarly situated – they have a sense of wonder and a willingness to scratch that itch. They are usually lots of fun to spend time with, although the occasional exceptions can be almost as entertaining.
The folks who work at this place have a schedule like a merchant seaman – they work forty two days straight and then take twelve days off. They’re up every morning to prepare for the 5 a.m. game drive and they sit with us at dinner – including the trackers and the rangers – telling us stories of life in the bush and other tales of derring do. I can’t imagine this kind of schedule, but the staff seem to really enjoy their work, bless them. Nevertheless, it can’t be easy to be as cheerful and helpful as they are for forty two straight days. They were also shockingly good at their jobs. One morning, for example, Janine noticed a tear in our mosquito net, but she forgot to mention it to Alicia. By the time we had returned from the morning drive, it has been mended anyway. Now that’s good service.
The Naledi game drives felt a bit like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. We’d all pile into this tricked out Toyota 4Runner and go barrel-assing through the reserve looking for charismatic megafauna. Some news about the whereabouts of lions or leopards would crackle over the radio and our driver would floor the gas pedal and we’d go speeding and bouncing through the bush until we’d find our animal – and we almost always did. As I mentioned, we hadn’t been on our first drive of the trip for ten minutes when we were gaping at a small pride of lions, who were well aware of our presence, although they could not have been less interested.
On the first morning after we arrived we set out for our second drive in a very light drizzle. We were unfazed, but we should have been. After about a half hour of fiddling about, the drizzle had turn to rain, and then it was just Noah’s Ark time. Not every game drive yields a leopard, I guess.
Naledi sits on the Balule Nature Reserve, a piece of private property that borders Kruger National Park. Since there are no fences between the areas, animals are free to roam anywhere, and they do. During our three days at Naledi, we saw the so-called “big five” – lion, leopard, cape buffalo, elephant, and rhinoceros – and tons more. There were giraffes and kudus, hippos and impalas (called the McDonald’s of the bush, either because there’s one on every corner, or because everyone eats there, I’m not sure which). We saw lion cubs, a baby hippo and a very rare rhino baby.
Vervet monkeys played outside our window, and one little voyeur watched Janine take a bath. A trio of hippos spent an afternoon splashing around just outside our room. But we got nearly as much enjoyment out of watching a humble dung beetle roll his little ball of doo around as we did watching an elephant push a tree over like it was a skinny twig. The dung beetle, by the way, is a fascinating creature. It rolls a ball of elephant or rhino or some other dung around, deposits its larvae inside, and then buries the thing in soft sand, where, if it’s lucky, a honey badger won’t unearth the whole works and eat the bugs inside. The beetle will push and pull and roll that ball of doody to and fro, seemingly exerting its last bit of effort. Then, like a harrier jump jet, the thing turns into a helicopter and flies away. Ain’t nature something?
We only planned three nights at Naledi because it’s expensive, but also because we wanted a variety of perspectives on the safari experience. On the other hand, the price of our lodgings came with three very good meals a day and two game drives, so there’s that. But we couldn’t keep this fancy schmancy lifestyle up for long.
Next time – a guest house without fences (where elephants and everything else roam) hosted by a Dutch cop and his detective wife on a game reserve up river a bit.