Peering down from my cruising altitude of 21,000 feet, the sun-soaked terrain of the South African veld looks unearthly. A line of sharp hills resembling dorsal fins carves its way across the otherwise flat, bushy land. Nestled among the jagged peaks, the wooden bridges and structures of the Ulusaba lodge seem a sight befitting a distant planet. But no, these views are of a land left untouched by the ceaseless march of civilization and technology—a 10,000-acre nature reserve teeming with a rich tapestry of extraordinary wildlife and luxury safari lodges providing ample opportunity for a relaxing retreat from the concrete jungle of the city.
The trek to Richard Branson's private African game reserve began aboard a Virgin Atlantic flight—the luxuries of which provided diagonal rows of beds for weary travelers, leaving me as closely calibrated to the local time zone as possible. Having been dropped off at a runway in the middle of nowhere, the comforts of upper-class travel were quickly traded for a tiny bush plane that took us to Ulusaba's tiny landing strip. Waiting for us upon arrival was a 27-year-old Afrikaaner ranger named Duard (whose chiseled bone structure and piercing blue eyes might seem more commonplace on a Men's Vogue cover). Our Afrikaaner Adonis whisked us away in a Land Rover up the steep road to Rock Lodge, Ulusaba's aerie in the sky. James, our beaming Shangaan host, welcomed us to the safari lodge, had our bags taken to our rooms, and inquired about what we'd like for dinner. Chef Irwin De Vries awaited our orders with fare including steak, crocodile, and even wildebeest. Now, this is roughing it.
Our time at Ulusaba would be divided between two lodges—Rock Lodge and Safari Lodge—with each providing a vastly different experience. Rock Lodge is a tree-house-style lodge built atop a cliff face. It offers breathtaking views across the wide expanses of the South African veld. Safari Lodge is situated on a dry riverbed and is only accessible via elevated swing bridges. It is not uncommon to have elephants, wildebeests, and other exotic animals visit this luxurious lodge each day.
Getting up close and personal with the exotic animal population was the goal of the two game drives that took place each day at Ulusaba. The first morning I pried myself from the intensely comfortable beds to embark on the first of two daily excursions into the African wilderness. The difficulty of leaving my cotton-swathed bed behind that first dawn forced me to opt exclusively for the more palatable afternoon drives. That morning, however, our wake-up call came at 5 A.M. We walked, in that sleepy-eyed 5 A.M. way, to the lodge for coffee. Having satiated our caffeine needs, Duard pointed the Land Rover down the almost vertical hill, and we dove into the veld.
The animals were everywhere. Duard had a system for finding them—involving rangers cooperating via radio from all the lodges. "Zebra by the river," the voice would say in scratchy radio tones. Three minutes out, we came upon five huge rhinos. You feel pure astonishment as the most prehistoric of large mammals stare back at you—looking primitive, implausible, even unreal. We followed them into the brush. Those were the first of many rhinos we would see; Ulusaba's rhino population has exploded to the point that they are expected to be removed from the endangered species list within two years. We saw hippos and crocodiles in their ponds, eyeing us glossily. A gigantic monitor lizard walked across our path. There were zebras, unimpressed and nervously alert. We drove by giraffes, almost close enough to touch, towering over our Land Rover.
On one expedition Duard found a pride of lions—two lionesses and ten lion cubs—eating a wildebeest. He drove impossibly close to them. "If you step out of the car," said Duard, "she'll kill you." The cat looked at me from about 10 feet away, steadily, with a certain interest. Eyes greenish-gold. "They don't kill you because they're used to the vehicle and because we're not their natural prey. But on your own, they'll react the way hunters react: They'll attack and slice you limb from limb." The smell emanating from the wildebeest carcass was thick and raw. The growls of the lions—we could have taken three steps, bent down, and touched them—shot through us like shock waves. Moments like these make time at Ulusaba seem completely surreal.
Each game drive was different. We sang, laughed, or watched in stunned silence. One evening we were out in the bush in the Land Rover, the world cloaked in twilight. Duard drove into the green brush and turned off the engine. After a moment he said "Look!" as a leopard cub peered at us from the grasses. "Maybe two months old," whispered Duard. "His eyes are still blue."
Afternoons spent at the safari lodges were completely relaxing. One day a chipper English woman took me to the boma (Shangaan for a traditional round African thatched mud house) to indulge in a treatment at Rock Lodge's Spa. She took me over wooden bridges and up a cliff into a grass-covered room overlooking the veld. On the cool treatment table I enjoyed a massage with oils from England's Aromatherapy Associates. After lunch I treated myself to a facial. The instant my face was touched, I fell into a deep relaxing slumber, waking up an hour later, feeling stunned and thoroughly cleansed.
At 4 P.M. each day tea was served. We would walk into the dining room to find platters of chocolate cakes, scones, butter cookies, and shortbread. English tea and strong coffee were served alongside the baked delicacies. We would eat and chat, looking out over the searing South African veld. Dinners at the safari lodges were much the same. We sat together around an immense wooden table as the chef prepared exquisitely exotic victuals: items like delicious springbok carpaccio with papaya ginger compote, crocodile carpaccio with capsicum sambals (an Indian salsa-like salad) infused with basil, and thinly sliced ostrich with paprika and lime sauce.
I also sat down for a chat with the openly gay head chef at Ulusaba's Safari Lodge, Andrew Read. "It's really quite easy to be gay in South Africa," said Read, who is 37. "Not only in the cities—pretty much anywhere. If South Africa gets gay marriage at the end of 2006 as expected, my partner, Gary, and I are planning on getting married. We're hoping he'll move to Ulusaba and that there'll be a job for him here."
After dinner we weren't allowed to walk to our rooms unescorted, not even the 30 yards to our door. Why? "If a leopard sees you," the young, gentle African guard said to me with a smile, "and you turn your eyes away, he will kill you." Uh, OK, so what should I do? "Just stand, but look directly at him." He stared at a theoretical leopard on the path, then smiled, making a snaking hand motion. "He will go." It was with these words that I retired to the safety of my mosquito-sheathed bed, mulling over the extraordinary wildlife that surrounded me on the untamed and unspoiled African veld.
WHERE TO STAY
For reservations to Ulusaba, contact Sanctuare (456 Glenbrook Rd., Stanford, Conn., 800-225-4255). Packages include two daily Land Rover game drives—morning and afternoon—and a daily walking safari with ranger and tracker. Room rates range from $1,232 to $2,630 (valid through 2006). Safari Lodge can accommodate 20 guests sharing 10 rooms, and Rock Lodge can accommodate between 16 and 21 guests sharing eight rooms. Gratuities are suggested at 2.5% of the total accommodation rate: As part of Ulusaba's commitment to the neighboring communities and local staff, 1% is divided among the staff and the other 1.5% is put into a community trust fund. Rock Lodge's spa is three times the size of the spa at Safari Lodge and offers two beds for couples interested in having treatments at the same time, though at the Safari Lodge's Aroma Boma you'll be able to have your treatment in shaded open air while elephants wander just below you on the riverbed. The spas use Guinot products and Aromatics Essentials aromatherapy oils.
WHEN TO GO
Rainy season is generally October to late February, though weeks may go by without significant rain. Temperatures at this time are usually in the mid 80s to low 90s and humidity ranges high to delightfully low. Winter—from May to September—is typically sunny and mild: nights average 62 degrees Fahrenheit, days 79. This can be an excellent time to view game, as the bush is the driest.