Kruger National Park: Nature in the roar
His name was Collin, and for a few heart-thumping moments, he was the coolest man on the planet.
We were on safari in the far eastern fringes of South Africa on the trail of the Big Five that roam Kruger park.
Collin, our guide and driver of our massive Land Rover, saw everything minutes before his city-innocent guests. He quietly pointed us in the direction of a clump of trees. Camouflaged among them was a family of elephants, more than a little irritated that we were interrupting their tea time.
The mother gave us a glare and started flapping her ears as her youngsters carried on grazing. Collin carefully reversed back, only to find another pod of the magnificent creatures blocking the path behind us.
He went off-track, but suddenly it seemed there was no way out as the angry mum headed our way.
Thousands of miles from our comfort zones, the scenario was getting scary. If we'd been on our own, we would have been petrified. But Collin inspired such confidence that it just seemed like a great adventure.
Slowly, he took his hands off the wheel and gave the side of the vehicle a whack. The startled elephant stopped, then retreated, ears still waving, but in a slightly defeated way.
And off we went. Bravo Collin, our hero! He didn't seem at all fazed by the incident. But a couple of hours later, as we drove through the darkness, he and his tracker Andrew went wild, pointing and whooping while the rest of us wondered what all the fuss was about.
They had spotted an aardvark, a creature I thought was a Monty Python invention or a made-up name to get an early listing in the telephone directory.
In fact, it's a three-foot long, reclusive mammal with an enormous snout, who passes his days snoozing and his nights snuffling out feasts of unfortunate ants with his massive, sticky tongue.
Collin and Andrew grew up in the bush, but this was the first time they had ever seen one and they were thrilled, especially since we were there to share the special sighting with them. Their passion for the job and determination to make sure they tracked down every species of animal for us during our short stay was impressive.
Using traditional techniques picked up from their parents, they conjured up a fascinating array of camouflaged game from before dawn to long after dusk, patiently tracking paw prints and droppings along the way.
When Collin switched off the ignition and put his finger on his lips, we always knew something special was about to appear.
We saw graceful giraffes chewing on tree tops and deceptively plodding hippos, whom, we were warned, can turn on the speed at will.
We spotted rhino and crocs, buffalo and baboons, vast herds of zebra, wildebeest and waterbuck, and even an outraged cobra whose path we got past alive.
On one of our final treks, we spotted a pride of lions, three gorgeous sisters with bursting bellies, purring and stretching in the afternoon sun after a night on the prowl.
Strangely, the creature I found most fascinating was a bird I've seen occasionally in Ireland: the kingfisher. Out fly-fishing on trout streams, I see them from time to time, whizzing past so fast that all you see is a flash of violent blue.
But here it was, just a few feet away on a bridge, greedily gobbling a dinner that seemed almost as big as him.
Its prey, a wriggling catfish, was meeting a painful end as its predator whacked it again and again against a rock until it finally gave a shudder of death. We watched in wonder as the bird struggled to fly away with his huge breakfast inside him.
After the raw, primeval excitement of the bush, it was wonderful to return to the comforts of our secluded base, Lebombo Lodge, perched over the stunning N'wanetsi river gorge.
It's made up of 15 romantic, loft-style suites, spread so far apart you'd never know anyone else was staying, and kitted out with outdoor (and indoor) showers, personal butlers and viewing decks that hang over the waterside.
But what makes this lodge -- and its sister property Sweni, which sits almost invisibly beneath -- so special is its empathy with nature.
The motto of its owners, Singita Game Reserves, is "touch the earth lightly", and that's exactly what they do.
No ugly bricks or concrete spoil the age-old beauty of the valley where they have sensitively built their retreat. If it were all taken away tomorrow, the landscape would be back to its pristine condition within weeks.
If you're the sort who would rather watch wildlife while sipping Champagne or bobbing about in an infinity pool, you've come to the right place. Even if you never even venture into the bush to watch game, you could spend your days gazing over your very own David Attenborough show from the sweeping wooden decks.
Crocodiles, elephants, baboons and river eagles are all there, minding their own business. The only sound that breaks the silence is the grunt of local hippos basking in the water below.
And this is what makes the place so unique. The animals don't need to put up 'Do Not Disturb' signs, so discreet is the human footprint. But there's nothing low-key about the way guests are spoiled.
From morning to night, the kitchen is always bustling, conjuring up sublime dishes using simple flavours and fresh ingredients.
Local produce such as kudu (antelope) and ostrich are specialities at dinner, served under the stars.
The cellar boasts some fabulous South African wines - not all of them in the millionaire bracket. I vowed to try more of them when I got back home.
In the mornings, breakfast is a three-phase affair. The 5am wake-up call sounds like a killer, but with the smell of fresh coffee wafting through the air and granola cakes and Danish pastries hot from the oven, you feel human again in no time.
Then it's out for a four-hour trek in the bush, where another feast of goodies and a flask of hot coffee is served up, before you return back to base for breakfast part three: a buffet bursting with mango, papaya, pineapple and kiwi, followed by a selection of freshly cooked dishes such as poached eggs on muffins, served on the deck.
By now, all you want to do is cool down in the pool or saunter back to your room for a snooze.
Romantic as it sounds, sleeping on the balcony terrace beds under the stars and a mosquito net is a noisy affair.
The snorting and grunting of hippos and the screeching of baboons make you want to yell down the river 'have you no homes to go to?' until you remember that this is their home and you are the interloper.
With two safari treks a day you do need your sleep, but try not to opt out of the dawn ride. You'll get to see the animal kingdom in its rawest state -- well, the predators at least -- stretching and yawning, digesting dinner and getting ready for a long nap in the shade. Their would-be victims, who've escaped with their lives for another night, will be venturing out for food themselves, confident that their enemies are safely snoring.
You'll see the ubiquitous impala -- pretty little antelope who are devoured like snacks by the big cats -- in a totally different light during the day, relaxed and grazing, not twitchy and jumping at every rustling leaf.
As our safari came to an end, we left Lebombo with just one disappointment. We'd been spoilt by sightings of the Big Four -- lion, buffalo, elephant and rhino -- but that elusive member of the quintet, the solitary leopard, had failed to make an appearance.
Driving to our mud-track airstrip on the first leg of our journey home, we joked with Collin that he'd managed to track down an aardvark but not the smallest of the four big cats.
Then, quite suddenly, he slammed on the brakes and drove off the road.
"Look!", he whispered gently wanting to screech.
"Up in that tree!"
Sure enough, almost as though he had planned it, there was a sultry leopard, sprawled on a branch, sunning herself in the morning rays.
Bravo Collin! Our hero.
NEED TO KNOW
We flew to Johannesburg through London. From there, a 90-minute flight takes you to Kruger Mpumalanga Airport, where a Federal Air charter handles the 20-minute flight to Lebombo.
Stays at Singita don’t come cheap. A nightly rate of about ¤1,000pp includes three meals a day, all alcoholic beverages (bar Champagne), two game drives a day, picnics, guided safari walks, return surface transfers from the airstrip to the lodge, and all laundry.
A nine-day package with Africa specialists Tropical Sky (01-807 7996; tropicalsky.ie) costs ¤3,999 per person including flights from Dublin, two nights at Singita Lebombo, and seven nights exploring the Winelands, coast and Cape Town.
Special offers on the website, singita.com, are also worth a look while boutique experts Mr and Mrs Smith (mrandmrsmith.com) feature deals from time to time. Two nights in the lodge is sufficient to see all the wildlife you need to.
THE INSIDE TRACK
Lebombo and Sweni lodges are in malaria areas. You’ll be protected to the max at night with nets, but it’s wise to take antimalarials before you go.
Get South African rand before you go or at the airport ATM and not from over-priced bureaux de change.
Jo’burg International is a shopper’s paradise but a lovely shop in the Singita lodge is packed with tasteful souvenirs.
Don’t stand up in your jeep the first time you spot one of the big five. Sudden movements scare wild animals and could result in a dangerous charge.