Gillian Tsoi goes in search of The Big Five in Zulu country... and isn’t disappointed
'Are you afraid of the lions?" asks the safari ranger, the unmistakable tone of surprise in his voice.
"Yes!" I exclaim, ever-so-mildly indignant.
We're sitting in an open-top Landcruiser, parked just two metres away from this majestic and terrifying cat. I'm sweating... and it's got nothing to do with the 30° heat under the bright South African sun.
Here, on the Thanda Safari private game reserve, the chances of spotting 'The Big Five' - lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinos and elephants - are excellent. And over the next three days, as we zoom around the 14,000 hectares of its lush landscape, I'm lucky to see all five... and more.
Our ranger, Sobelo, has been working at Thanda since it opened 16 years ago, and together with skilful bush tracker, Ronie, the knowledgeable pair make sure that our stay is unforgettable.
We track a herd of elephants, watching them munch on the trees just yards in front of us. Minutes later, a gang of buffalo flash their horns within touching distance. We admire dazzles of zebras ("donkeys in pyjamas", as Sobelo calls them) on every game drive, and now and then, see giraffes crane their necks above the treetops. Majestic kudus (a beautiful antelope, native to this country) are around every turn, leaping gracefully through the long grass; and one day, we witness a cheetah cooling off in the shade of a tree.
As we purr around the dirt roads in our powerful all-terrain vehicle, ducking down occasionally to avoid stray branches overhead, Sobelo schools us on the animals - their lifespans, mating behaviours and feeding habits. At regular intervals, he points out tell-tale signs of their presence: a warthog's hole, an elephant's scratching post, lion tracks, a frog's nest.
One morning, we find a familiar lioness quenching her thirst at a watering hole. "This is all she will drink for the whole day," Sobelo explains, as we admire the wild predator. "After this, she will go back to her cubs and stay with them for the whole day."
The magnificent cat laps up the water, keeping her eyes on us all the while. A day has passed since we first encountered her, and this time around, I'm not as nervous about her close proximity. Sobelo's wisdom extends to the local flora and he occasionally feeds us interesting titbits. Stopping beside a small leaf sickle bush, he picks off one of its leaves: "You can chew it and put the paste on the snake-bite site... or if you have a hangover, you can chew and swallow."
Thanda Safari - located in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province near the east coast of South Africa - is also a birdwatcher's paradise: colourful starlings and huge eagles soar overhead, and even those birds that are out of sight are identified to us by Sobelo: he mimics their distinctive calls before telling us their names and pointing them out in his book of birds.
There's also stargazing: on one night-time drive, the ranger turns our attention to the sky, highlighting various constellations with his torch, teaching us how to use them to find true north and south.
One morning over breakfast, we meet Thanda's wildlife manager, Zimbabwean Lorraine Doyle. She speaks passionately about the endangered rhino.
The rhino horn trade was legalised in South Africa last year, but with horns fetching the equivalent of ¤1,100-¤1,650 in South Africa and more than ¤52,000 outside the country on the black market, illegal poaching is still a problem.
Rhino horns are sought after for their use in traditional medicines, or by socialites in Asia, who sprinkle it on their cocktails or snort it like cocaine to flaunt their wealth.
Doyle estimates that at the rate they're currently being hunted, rhinos will be extinct in the wild by 2026. However, there have been no poaching attacks at Thanda in the last two years, thanks to its strong two-layer anti-poaching system. This consists of a team of rhino trackers, who work closely with an anti-poaching unit, who are fully armed with semi-automatic weapons.
To further protect its rhinos, the resort also runs a dehorning programme, whereby the animals are tranquillised by darts shot from a helicopter overhead. Once it is sedated, the rhino is blindfolded and socks are put in its ears to desensitise it.
The horn is cut off about two inches from the growth plate (a quick, painless procedure, taking up to 20 minutes), before it is taken to a secret location. The rhino is then administered antibiotics before being woken up and released back into the wild.
For around 30,000 Rand (¤1,660), guests at Thanda Safari can accompany the dehorning crew to participate in this process; the fee covers the vet, medication and helicopter costs, we're told, and participants are given the opportunity to touch the rhino and hold its horn.
Doyle describes the experience as "action-packed, thrilling, terrifying", but I suspect it can also be quite upsetting to witness this drastic measure.
Thanda Safari is a stylish five-star affair. On check in, we're welcomed with the bright smiles of staff who offer us champagne flutes of iced ginger ale - and this warm hospitality and attention to detail continues throughout our stay: cold towels are presented to us as we climb out of the Landcruiser after every game drive; friendly, torch-wielding porters guide us back along the bush trails to our tents every night after sundown.
I was housed in one of the 15 private tents (there are also nine rooms in the main lodge and plans are afoot to expand). But don't be fooled by the word "tent" - this is pure luxury.
The decor reflects the natural surroundings of the Bush: textiles in shades of beige and green, cream rattan chairs, dark-wood floors and cabinets.
Candlelit lanterns are dotted around the room and overhead fans give a nostalgic, colonial feel. There's a heavenly super-kingsize bed, a giant ensuite bathroom and a choice of indoor and outdoor showers. The well-stocked mini-fridge will keep you hydrated, and in the wardrobes are complimentary slippers and robes.
Glass doors open out on to a private decking area overlooking the reserve, where you can chill out and enjoy the view - paradise.
When not on safari, we laze by the outdoor pool, located conveniently beside the bar. There's also an on-site spa, offering African-style massage among other treatments.
The food here is also top-notch, and before each meal, the chef presents himself to explain what we'll be feasting on. On our last night, we join other guests for a 'Boma' - a traditional African buffet, held al fresco by candlelight.
Starter is roasted vegetable soup with soft, sweet home-made bread, and then, it's time for the main event: the barbecue. We're given our pick of kudu meat, chicken or the native king clip fish, all accompanied by a variety of fresh, healthy side dishes, like spinach hummus, tomato stew and beetroot and pineapple salad.
To finish, there's a delicious dessert of apple-crumble and cream, and afterwards, we head to bed early in anticipation of the 5.30am safari the next morning.
Thanda means "love" in the local Zulu language, and there's so much to love about this South African safari resort: between The Big Five and the five-star accommodation, this truly was the trip of a lifetime.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Herald.
Given that the country is twice the size of France, it's probably not surprising that most visitors go to the Western Cape, and no further, in South Africa. The beautiful setting of Cape Town, the buzz of the waterfront nightlife, a trip down the Garden Route to the wine region, and then home, country seen.