South Africa: A Safari At The Sabi Sabi Game Reserve

Meeting Goodness on the Path

A traveler is reminded of life’s tender mercies during a South African safari.

By Janis Turk

An elephant at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve. Photos by Janis Turk.An elephant at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve. Photos by Janis Turk.

I would have liked to take her picture, but I hadn’t expected Goodness when I came upon her on the path

Goodness reaches out. She extends her slim hand in welcome, her handshake soft, tentative — her skin, as lovely, raw and wind-scraped as the land around her. We stand in the sun. It’s fall in South Africa: spring where I live.

I like her already. Goodness is her name. She is part of the housekeeping staff at the handsome Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge that tugs at the sleeve of the restless wild edges of Kruger National Park at the Sabi Sands Game Reserve.

I am here for the adventure of safari expeditions; here to see the animals and take photographs, here to see the stars and whisper secrets to the Southern Cross like a lover late at night in a dark room. I have longed for an Africa like that.

Sabi means fear, I am told — how odd that a place so peaceful peaceful could be named fear fear. Sabi Sabi. There is only peace and stillness here. I tell her, and Goodness smiles.

The only fear I’ve known in travel is this: my two urgent, simultaneous, and mutually exclusive desires for both leaving and cleaving and the difficult truce I must arbitrate between them as I toss in the night. But here beneath sharp southern hemisphere stars, the fight has gone out of me, at least for now, and I sleep peacefully. But I don’t tell her that; I just grin.

But when Goodness smiles, it is with the whole of her body. We laugh together in the sun. I wish I had my camera. I would have liked to take her picture, but I hadn’t expected her when I came upon her on this path walking just behind a woman balancing a full trash bag on her head.

Goodness shakes my hand limply in goodbye, and she tells me her name again, as if I had forgotten. It seems the perfect name for her, a beautiful word, and I tell her this.

My room at the Sabi Sabi Earh Lodge My room at the Sabi Sabi Earh Lodge

I first met Goodness just outside the door of my large and lovely private Earth Lodge residence. It is not a tent or cabin, not exactly a hut or hotel room, but rather a largish gnome-like house built into the side of a hill, like a little brown rabbit’s burrow shaded from the heat. It features sunny living/dining areas, a spacious bedroom, an enormous bath, a broad porch, an outdoor shower, a serene patio and even a private plunge pool.

I could stay inside and never leave this room and be happy. My little kingdom, this little house, hugs the ground, at one with the wild breathtaking expanse, fields dotted with shrubby brush and Marula trees that drop their fruit and the canopies of sweeping shade from Acadia trees that shelter elephant, giraffe, zebra, rhino and kudu from the noontime heat.

Each day at dawn our little misfit company of nomadic women gathers for coffee in the lodge’s open-air dining rooms where the cool of the night has settled into the adobe-like finish of the walls of this three-sided space. One of the indoor/outdoor living spaces has plush cushions and pillows that look like a bag of smooth riverbed stones.

Our guides Goody and RichardOur guides Goody and Richard

Antelope and zebra hides drizzled with flecks of gold paint soften the cool stained concrete floors. One dining table stands ankle-deep in a shallow pool, and mod chandeliers made of long bare branches — sticks painted silver and gold — dangle overhead, sparkling in the morning light.

I’m not a morning person, but once I awake, I revel in being up early enough to sense the edges of the morning at first light in still coolness. Somewhere out there the animals yawn and stir and look for breakfast. I take my coffee and study the savannas, scanning for movement, color.

Our safari guide comes to gather us for the first morning game drive. Richard is 27-ish and Adonis-like: tan, lean, muscular. He carries a beautiful smooth simple wooden rifle — for safety. He wears khaki shorts like a UPS driver with tan legs and tall lace-up leather hiking boots. He flashes a neat row of straight pearly whites.

Goodman in the tracker seatGoodman in the tracker seat

I almost spill my coffee.

If the housekeeper’s name is Goodness, this guy’s name must be Good Looking. After meeting the rest of the staff, I surmise that being astonishingly attractive must be a job requirement at Sabi Sabi. I think I’m going to like these safari expeditions. I quickly take the front seat next to Richard in the Land Rover.

When we get to the vehicle, we meet our tracker who rides on a little seat cantilevered over the front of the Land Rover: a precarious perch, it seems to me during a bumpy ride. He is a beautiful ebony-skinned man with a laughter-filled smile and a strong handshake. He tells us his name is Goodman, but Richard calls him Goody. Goodman tells me he has a daughter, whose name I cannot pronounce, and a little son named Great. I’m liking this good-name-thing all quite a lot.

Richard says there is also another tracker for Sabi Sabi named Good Will. “Good Will Hunting!” I laugh, and the men smile weakly: They’ve heard that one before.

Goody tracks a rhino.Goody tracks a rhino.

Then we are quiet together as the Land Rover rambles down a sandy road in search of the big five: the lion, the African elephant, the Cape Buffalo, the leopard and the rhinoceros, named such not for their size but the difficulty and danger involved in hunting them. I hunt with a Canon.

Goodman is a great tracker. He carries a long stick with him, a twig-like pointer, and he waves the flies away and points at the ground and talks in a low voice with Richard in Afrikaans, a West Germanic language that sounds strangely Cape Dutch, French, Maylay and Portuguese all at once.

Within a half hour, Goody has spotted the footprints of a leopard — tracks that we follow. In moments we spy an enormous leopard standing on the limb of a tall tree before us. He looks like a Kipling character from Jungle Book silhouetted against the sky at dusk. He jumps down, lean and languid as he moves, and slowly we follow him into the thick of the bush over thorn bushes, small trees, dense thickets and dry tall grass.

A lioness and her cubsA lioness and her cubs

The Land Rover, if it had a name, would be “Good God!” as those are the words I want to exclaim at every bouncy turn as we move deeper into the bush. We fold trees and scraggly large brush below our wheels and ravish the land with our vehicle. Then, miraculously, the trees pop up again behind us, and we are once more surrounded by the bush and left strangely alone with the leopard.

I feel vulnerable and afraid more than once. We never are inclined to kid ourselves into thinking this is the Central Park Zoo or confuse the movements of dangerous elephants with trained circus acts. We are in their territory, and the urgency of such knowledge is sharp, like the fresh pungent scent of a lion’s recent kill — a dead antelope which we pass in bush.

Goodman knows not to take chances. He knows the difference, the fine line, between beauty and danger and is mindful not to cross it. One morning a lioness tears at the flesh of a kudu as her five cubs pounce and play only feet from my seat on the side of the open-air Land Rover.

Sundowner Chef RyanSundowner Chef Ryan

Sensing my fear, Richard whispers, “It’s OK. Sit still. Take the photo. She isn’t interested in you.” Sometimes it’s not about me — most times it’s not. The wild, the good, the beautiful remind me.

The days pass quickly here with a simple routine: drive, eat, rest, repeat.

One evening the chef has set up tables with white tablecloths on the airstrip. Beneath the hazy white Milky Way, we dine surrounded by torches and Land Rovers that encircle us like a train of covered wagons, and we drink South African wine by the light of a full harvest moon.

Each afternoon on safari, a guide will spread a napkin over the hood of the Land Rover and lay out snacks like biltong (dried meat), almonds and dried fruit. Then, as the last sliver of light edges the horizon, we toast the sunset.

But for our last sundowner, we’re treated to a surprise. We come upon tables set up in the bush with white tablecloths where before us is spread a delightful feast that Sabi Sabi Executive Chef Ryan Weakley, himself, prepares in the wild: grilled prawns skewered and served with sweet chili sauce and a cilantro foam; seared beef bruschetta rounds with caramelized onions, oven roasted cherry tomatoes, basil pesto and mustard-cress; and colorful melon balls and fruit skewered on sticks.

Special sundowner treatsSpecial sundowner treats

That evening, after a massage at the Earth Lodge Spa, we still sit down to a four-course dinner and exquisite South African wines from the Stellenbosch region. Good things just keep coming until I am full — of food, wine and gratitude for this experience.

A line from Out of Africa loops in my brain: “God is great, Msabu.” In her autobiography, Isak Dinesen writes of a man who came to tell her that her farm was on fire, “One night, after midnight, he suddenly walked into my bedroom with a hurricane-lamp in his hand, silent, as if on duty. He spoke to me very solemnly, ‘Msabu,’ he said, ‘I think you had better get up. I think that God is coming.’”

On the final morning of my Sabi Sabi stay, I am up at dawn. My bag is packed and set by the door. But it isn’t until I walk up the path from my Earth Lodge den toward the light that I notice Goodness. She has been standing there, perhaps a long time, hoping to enter to do the daily housekeeping. I apologize for having kept her waiting. I hadn’t known she was there.

She smiles sweetly in the baby-fresh early light that glows golden, like a halo around the head of the day.

“It is nothing. I have been here for you,” she tells me.

For me?

Sabi housekeepersSabi housekeepers

I am thinking that it is not nothing.

Goodness, quiet and patient, stood waiting outside my door — there all along. Goodman has guided me through dangerous beauty, a place of fear fear, pointing a stick to go this way and that, tracking the beautiful, sharply mindful of the danger, always perched out before me, watching for signs, prints — leading me, protecting me through the thickest wild unchartered parts. Beauty sits beside me, drives me on. Somewhere out there Good Will serves us well. And Great? He sleeps in a little house in the bush next to a baby sister.

But some people will never get this. They will remain in their houses, locked inside their pretty rooms, content to stay there — or they travel trembling through the thick and thorny parts of a wild scary world alone, either sleepwalking, or simply sleeping in and missing the best parts, afraid or tired or simply oblivious to all that is good waiting outside their doors, “…here for you.”

Like the man in Dinesen’s story, I want to say to them, “I think you had better get up…”
In a world of fear fear, peace waits to come in.

How fortunate am I, it seems to me.

Goodness extended her hand in welcome. I grabbed it with all the happy strength I had.


Rhinos at Sabi SabiRhinos at Sabi Sabi

Go on Safari with Sabi Sabi, featuring award-winning luxurious African safari lodges to suit the needs/desires all travelers. Chose from a five-star stay at one of four elegant and oh-so-civilized safari camps: Earth Lodge, Selati Camp, Bush Camp, and Little Bush Camp, all set in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in the southwestern section of Kruger National Park. The U.S. contact for reservations or information for Sabi Sabi is Warren Green, who may be reached at 804/767-8770 or [email protected]

Fly in comfort and style on South African Airways with direct, non-stop flights from NY’s JFK to Johannesburg or from Washington’s Dulles International Airport. Great food, fine South African wines, and attentive English-speaking service on a smooth flight with good in-flight entertainment options.

Make you connection to your Sabi Sabi Safari Adventure in Johannesburg on a short Federal Aid flight. E-mail [email protected] However, Sabi Sabi can make these flight arrangements for you in advance so you don’t have to deal with the details.

Take a South African side trip after your Safari:

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