Friday, December 29, 2017

South African Safari, Part II: Londolozi and Johannesburg

The second of our flights from Cape Town to Londolozi. Weight and size restrictions on luggage are strict on bush planes.
by Delia von Neuschatz

“I haven’t seen anything like this in seven years,”
said our tracker, Innocent Ngwenya, as we all breathlessly stared at a leopard and her three cubs frolicking mere feet away from us. “A leopard usually has one cub, two at the most,” he explained. Our small group had been tracking this leopard throughout the morning. Now, round a bend, suddenly there she was, minding her adorable cubs.

And amazingly, none of them paid any attention to us. That’s because they were accustomed to and felt secure in the presence of humans in the Sabi Sands Reserve flanking the south-western edge of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Ditto for a white rhino and her calf, a hippopotamus bobbing in the water with her baby and a lioness keeping an eye on her offspring.
That we had experienced an embarrassment of animal sighting riches should have come as no surprise for Sabi Sands, the oldest private reserve in South Africa, also boasts the highest density of big game in the country.  Home to all the big five — lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and African buffalo — the 65-thousand hectare sanctuary is particularly known for big cat game viewing, especially phenomenal close-up leopard sightings.

Careful conservation efforts pioneered by local landowners in the 1950s and carried out today by third and fourth generations lie at the heart of the reserve’s success. My husband, Kevin von Neuschatz, our friend, Charlène von Saher and I had traveled a long way for these sightings, traversing the Atlantic and then crossing South Africa from Cape Town on successively smaller planes — and boy was it worth it!
Sabi Sands comprises a number of smaller private reserves and it is one of these — Londolozi — which we had chosen as our base for the next five days.  Founded some 90-years ago, the family-run wildlife sanctuary is particularly known for its impressive track record on leopard sightings.  The luxurious lodge, made up of five camps, also boasts Relais & Châteaux status garnered in 1993.  On our first night there — at Tree Camp — we were treated to a 5-course tasting menu with wine pairings.  (All the wines are South African, of course!)  At breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, the food was consistently delicious and the service top notch.  Dietary requirements were duly fulfilled.

In keeping with the gracious atmosphere, the interior décor was chic and sophisticated.  And our spacious lodgings consisted of generously-proportioned sitting rooms, bedrooms, dressing areas and bathrooms. In the afternoons, we looked out on a variety of animals (lions, hippos, nyalas) passing by in front of our large picture windows and private wrap-around decks complete with plunge pools.  The minibar too was munificently appointed (and wildly attractive to the crafty resident babboons).
Phil Selwyn-Smith and Laura Hodgkinson, managers at Tree Camp.
But perhaps even more than its luxury, Londolozi prides itself on its decades-long conservation and community development efforts.  The reserve has won international plaudits for its far-sighted and progressive land and wildlife management, as well as its effective community involvement.  The name, “Londolozi,” in fact is derived from a Zulu word which means “protector of all living things.”

The Londolozi Development Model which focuses equally on caring for the land, for the wildlife and for the people, set a new standard for conservation and helped establish Africa’s modern-day luxury safari industry. 
Nelson Mandela:  “During my long walk to freedom, I had the rare privilege to visit Londolozi. There I saw people of all races living in harmony amidst the beauty that Mother Nature offers.  Londolozi represents a model of the dream I cherish for the future of nature preservation in our country.”
The lodge creates work for 270 people, who in turn support over 2,700 dependents.  It supports local businesses and community projects and delivers world-class digital education to rural school children, through the Good Work Foundation and the on-site digital learning centers.

An ambitious program to recreate the river systems has helped make Londolozi largely drought resistant and has provided employment for surrounding communities.  Likewise, Londolozi’s “Corridors of Hope” project aims to combine conservation with economic stimulation by linking vast swathes of land to establish wildlife corridors. This will not only create one continuous giant wildlife sanctuary, but it will also have the effect of economically uplifting as many as 600,000 rural people living in the region.  These programs form an integral part of Vision 2020, Londolozi’s plan of becoming a futuristic African village characterized by making a more meaningful contribution to South African society while treading lightly on the earth. In short, Londolozi prides itself on its values founded on the African tradition of Ubuntu – “I am because of you.” 
“Only when wildlife, people and land can work together can we find abundance for everyone,” says owner Shan Varty

So, it was with a good deal of sadness that Kevin, Charlène and I said our goodbyes on the morning of our departure for we knew that we would miss it all terribly — the animals, the land and the people.  Our tracker, Innocent, and our guide, Alex Jordan, had kept us informed, amazed and entertained with their deep knowledge, keen eyes, easy sense of humor and cocktail-mixing skills.  We had learned so much about various species of animals and birds, about plants and about how beautifully symbiotic the natural world is.  We left Londolozi even more in awe and respectful of nature than when we had arrived.
Our guide, Alex Jordan and our tracker, Innocent Ngwenya, preparing excellent sundowners.  Trackers and guides are not only expert at spotting animals, they are also first rate drivers and have enviable cocktail-mixing skills to boot.
And now, it was on to Johannesburg for a couple of days.  There, we luxuriated at the Saxon hotel and had just enough time to tour the township of Soweto and visit several other historically important sights.  Exploring the Apartheid Museum, Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s house and the Hector Pieterson memorial were very moving and eye-opening experiences. Our trip to Cape Town, Londolozi and Johannesburg has left a deep impression on all of us.  Weeks later, we still reminisce about the natural beauty and the warmth of the people.  We all very much want to return for there is still so much to do and see in South Africa.  A closer, in-depth exploration of the country’s winelands, with ample wine tastings, for example, is a must!
Vervet monkeys welcoming us into camp.
A pride of lions spied through our sitting room windows.
A beautiful nyala – a spiral-horned antelope – roaming the grounds of our lodge.
Taking our seats in the Land Rover.
A white rhino and her calf.
A lioness staying close to her two cubs.
The majestic giraffe.
We were so close, we could practically touch this beautiful young elephant.  Unlike Kruger National Park, the Sabi Sands reserve is not open to the general public. Consequently, visitors share the wilderness with only a few other people.  Furthermore, the safari is not bound by the strict rules of the South African National Parks Board, so rangers can drive off-road, taking guests closer to the action.  They can also drive at night and lead visitors on guided walking safaris.
A hippopotamus skull.  Those teeth are not to be trifled with!
There’s nothing quite like having a drink in the wilderness while watching the African sun setting.
Charlène striking a stylish pose while enjoying the view.
Back at Tree Camp, we enjoyed fireside drinks and dinner.
Dining with new friends.
Our spacious and beautifully-appointed accommodations consisted of individual cottages with a large sitting room, bedroom, bathroom, dressing area and a wrap-around deck complete with a plunge pool and an outdoor shower:
The afternoons were spent at camp where we took a yoga class on a deck high up in the trees …
… and visited the camp’s village which houses the staff.  The staff lodging is modeled after African thatched-roof huts known as rondels.  The village is home to between 150 – 170 people.  Staff members typically work for six weeks and then get two weeks off.
The staff members’ occupations (chef, housekeeper, etc.) are depicted on the outside of the buildings. The village includes a school, a nursery and an infirmary along with communal areas.  This is a tracker’s hut.
It was in the village’s communal space that Innocent gave a very moving talk about his journey from poacher to tracker and animal protector.  He and his three siblings were raised by his grandmother.  They were so poor that a rare treat consisted of a teaspoon of sugar dissolved in hot water.  To augment the family’s meagre income and put food on the table, Innocent, in his childhood, poached small animals, typically birds.  Things changed when, in his teens, he met his father for the first time.  His father, a tracker, passed his love and respect of nature and living things on to his son.  The apprentice learned well for Innocent graduated at the top of his class at the tracker academy.  He aims to found his own tracker academy one day.  When asked why he was named Innocent, he replied that his mother gave him that name so that he may always remain that way.
Innocent leading the way to more incredible animal sightings …
... like this rhino joining a herd of buffalo ...
... and a pack of African wild dogs – a very rare sighting as this species is endangered.
Innocent also spotted this chameleon on the top of a tree in the dead of night!
In the mornings, Alex and Innocent would make the most delicious (and fortifying!) ama-choco-ccinos:  hot chocolate + coffee + a splash of Amarula, a cream liqueur from the fruit of the African Amarula tree – better than Bailey’s and a most pleasant way to start the day!  It is so delicious, that I pilfered a bottle of Amarula from the minibar.
Back at camp, there were more pre-breakfast treats and then breakfast served out on the deck high up among the trees.  The menus changed every day and at every meal.  The food was fresh and delicious.  We all returned home with our waistbands a little tighter.  There are certainly no complaints about the service as it too was wonderful.  Our butler, Edward Nkhatu, pictured here, took great care of us throughout our stay.
The setting for our meals and cocktails:
An outdoor party was set up for the guests one evening.
Charlène taking the lead on our way to Londolozi’s airstrip.
One last group selfie!
Our friendly pilots.
Heading to Johannesburg.
Luxuriating at the Saxon Hotel set on 75 lush acres of land in the middle of arid Johanneburg.
Soweto which stands for South Western Townships, is home to some 1.3 million people, roughly 30% of Johannesburg’s population.
Vilakazi Street is the most famous street in Soweto, if not in all of Johannesburg.  Both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived there, making Vilakazi the only street to claim two Nobel prize winners as residents.  
The Nelson Mandela National Museum, aka Mandela House, is where Nelson Mandela lived from 1946 to 1962.  The house is a single-story red-brick matchbox built in 1945.  It has bullet holes in the walls and the façade has scorch marks from apartheid-era attacks with Molotov cocktails.  Mandela came back to the house after his release from prison in 1990, but moved out again after 11 days. 
Mandela’s inspirational words are dotted throughout the property.
The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum commemorates the tragic killing by police of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson during mass anti-apartheid student demonstrations in Soweto.  On June 16, 1976, police opened fire on 10,000 students on the first day of rioting, killing 23 people.  A newspaper photographer captured the now iconic image of Pieterson’s body being carried by 18-year-old-high school student Mbuyisa Makhubo, with his sister running alongside.  After the photograph was published, Makhubo was harassed by the security services and was forced to flee South Africa. The last time his mother had heard from him was in 1978.  She died in 2004 seemingly unaware of her son’s whereabouts or fate. 
Visitors to Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum are given a taste straight away of the injustices of the racially prejudiced system that ruled South Africa for half a century.
And now, it was time to head home.  We all returned to New York with indelible memories and so much richer for all the things we had seen, learned and experienced in beautiful South Africa.