There's a reason why Africa is the epicentre of animal viewing on earth, says Hilary A White.
The penny drops as soon as the lion is sitting upright. Lit by the guides' lamps, the lump of snoring fur we had left a couple of hours previously is now coming to his senses, his eyes dazed and squinting like an old man disturbed mid-nap.
The nose comes to life then, sniffing the breeze before the mouth cleaves itself open in a whale-swallowing yawn. He looks sideways, his face half coated in lamplight, half in the African night, and a profile is chiselled out of the blackness, proud and almost human in its wild determination. Millennia of religious and political iconography now makes perfect sense.
Little else blindsides you on your travels like wildlife, and Africa is for good reason our planet's epicentre of animal viewing. The connection made with that lion, that semantic link cementing its place in the consciousness with a drowsy glance, occurred in the presence of other furred, winged and scaled icons, no longer moving circuitry on a television screen but huffing, heaving and preening citizens of these expanses.
This is Kruger National Park.
To be more precise, Sabi Sabi, a privately owned chunk right next to the legendary 20,000sqkm national park in the South Africa's north-east corner. Over a few days in the company of this private game reserve, we are introduced to wildlife of the kind that you never seriously expect to get an audience with when you visit the Rainbow Nation.
We sat for a starstruck hour in our safari truck under a tree one evening while a female leopard ate its kill above. She then poured herself down the trunk like molten amber to clean herself on the grass beside us.
We heard the morning booms of ground hornbill on our way back from shadowing a troika of lion brothers through the grasslands. Hyenas loped by with smirking eyes and a huge martial eagle reassessed its kingdom from a riverside treetop. Traffic comes to a standstill as a baby elephant takes a dust bath near the feet of older family members. Pachyderms aren't used to making way for others, it seems.
When you stay at Sabi Sabi's Earth Lodge, a miraculous Bond villain's lair pressed seamlessly into the land, you feel in amongst all this. Golf buggies collect you from your luxurious private villa for fire-side fine-dining, just in case a big cat is wandering through. The gentleman serving us had been raised in the Bush and spoke 12 different South African languages fluently. This he told us as he set down game cooked to gourmet standards that only hours previously blinked back at us from the grasses. You can even shower beside nature, out on your patio with the sun on your back.
But the real clincher of Sabi Sabi are its guides. Before sunrise and again before sunset, they collect you in custom Land Rovers and take you ranging through the dirt roads. A radio grapevine means the fleet are informed when a leopard print is sighted or a rhino and its calf are happened upon. When the sun is up or just going down, they pull in and decant coffee or chardonnay, depending on the hour.
Wildlife, on roadside verges, billboards and car stickers, chases us all the way down to the southern tip of Cape Town. In some ways, it is even more untamed than the Bush, a city from which you can vanish in a prehistoric cloud up the top of the omnipresent Table Mountain or marvel inside a stainless steel cage at the humbling sleek beauty of great white sharks.
Winchester Mansions, an elegant hotel heirloom to times past, is a short stroll from Cape Town's swanky V & A Waterfront, where everything from designer footwear to organic food markets can be found, all encompassed in vintage maritime stonework.
Cape Town is peculiar, what with its tangled layout and unsettled weather. The words "beautiful" and "edgy" often appear near South Africa, but while I have certainly been in edgier cities than Cape Town, where a bit of loitering was the worst of it, few are as prepossessing. There is something incredibly romantic about its position, there in the pathway of two colliding oceans at the end of the world. Colonial architecture rattles through modern fixtures in the city centre, and things look better again out in the leafy suburb of Kenilworth, or the swanky seaside village of Camps Bay where the flush and fetching sip mojitos by sunset.
Other things collide here too. Expectations and sensations. You can sail out to Robben Island and get a tour of the unearthly penitentiary by one of Mandela's fellow inmates, and then wash lobster down with Stellenbosch that night for a fraction of European prices. No, they're not people strolling down the road out at the windswept talon of Cape Point - they're baboons. And yes, you did just see penguins on that sunny suburban beach.
Up in the rolling winelands of Wellington, the wonders don't dim, they just change flavour. One person who knows plenty about this is Roger Jorgensen. Describing himself as "just a farmer looking for an edge", he began producing handcrafted, artisan spirits after the Apartheid ban on distillation was lifted. Jorgensen's Distillery is now on the slow-food map for its potstill brandy, traditional spelt vodka and gin flavoured with wild herbs and berries. We're welcomed like old friends to his period farmhouse, where, with phrases like "top-notes" and "accents", he enraptures us about czars, stills and absinthe. "90% of our product stays in South Africa," he smiles. "Local is lekker."
We could stay all night but we have an appointment out at Bontebok Ridge, a private game reserve in the Limietberg Valley. The sun is setting as we drive slowly through the fynbos past zebra, springbok and wildebeest. Diffused dusk colours are washing the rocky hills in pinks and violets as our host pours buttery chardonnay for our "sundowner". Bontebok Ridge fulfils a role as a place for busy Cape Town professionals to exhale, but it does the job for Irish ones too.
"Doolhof" is the old Afrikaans for "maze", and the word lends itself to the Doolhof Wine Estate, where knots of cliffs and passes allow only one way in and out. Nestled in among the 380 hectares of vineyard, garden and horse paddock, the estate's manor house presides. This is Grand Dedale, our five-star lodgings and the subject of many Lotto-fantasy conversations since.
Dressed in cool whites, greens and blues, the spacious 18th Century abode is disarming, from the second you step on to the long veranda. All is calm and collected. A couple swirl wine on the terrace and a cat pads along the polished marble floors. Our room is one of six individually appointed masterpieces of muted interior design. Less is more.
It's all pleasingly understated, a quality prone to Southern Hemisphere nations. I've seen a New Zealander describe an All Black rugby stampede as "a bit of footie". or Australians call cordon bleu food "good tucker". South African's have it in spades, that ability to let perfect sunsets, birds and beasts and dramatic landscapes do the talking. Under a full moon on the veranda of Grand Dedale, our tummies and souls smiling, we're reminded that man is an impressive creature too. Lest we forget.
Follow Hilary on Twitter at @HAWhiteK.
Hilary flew Turkish Airlines from Dublin to Capetown, with the edge being taken off the long journey by the carrier's four-star service, excellent food and ease of transfer at Istanbul. Turkish Airlines also has a generous baggage allowance of 32kg, which came in handy. It flies daily to Johannesburg/Cape Town from Dublin (via Istanbul) starting from €620 return, all taxes included.
You can’t rock up to South Africa and just assume you’ll see the Big Five and the other wild riches that dwell there. No, you have to be with people who will help it reveal itself while hosting you in levels of resplendence that would make a Bond villain blush. Sabi Sabi is that place. If you are serious about seeing African wildlife, eating fine cuisine and unwinding in both comfort and vibrancy, these guys are the only show in town.
Forget Spielberg and bigger boats, viewing great white sharks is an experience that is unforgettable and possible in only a few locations worldwide. Located in Gansbaai near Cape Town, Marine Dynamics are the best in the business at getting you into these beautiful and imposing creatures’ world, blasting away the myths and revealing the grace and evolutionary perfection of these maligned and persecuted animals.
“Very hard to find as well as leave” was our guest-book note at this jewel in the wine lands of Wellington, an hour from Cape Town. Once the private residence of the owners of the Doolhof wine estate, this extraordinarily tasteful five-star country hotel had some of the best cuisine, luxury and service we’d found on our trip — or anywhere, in fact. Make a promise right now, this instant, to visit Grand Dedale before you die.
On the list of surreal moments in my life, this one is right up there. It's a Saturday evening in late October and I'm up on a plateau, leaning on a jeep, watching the sun sink over nearby Mount Kenya. Surrounded by a herd of white rhino, I drink Gordon's gin and tonic while I discuss the fate of a recent poacher with Ole, my charismatic Masai warrior guide. "They shot him dead," he tells me coolly.