I am at Baobab Ridge, and over many years of spending time in the bush, I have come to learn that there is a big difference between a game drive and an actual safari experience. For some, the extent of a game drive is ticking the Big Five and a few other list-worthy animals and, at a push, a few birds off a list. This kind of game drive however misses the point of being on safari. The whole point of a bush experience should be, dare I say it, the EXPERIENCE – being immersed in nature and coming out with fresh knowledge and a greater understanding of conservation and the natural world.
On a recent visit to Baobab Ridge, we experienced just this – a safari that ticked all the ‘experience’ boxes. Did we see the Big Five? No. Did we learn about conservation and the natural world? Yes. Did we enjoy every minute of it? Absolutely!
Baobab Ridge is a small and intimate private lodge that lies within the Klaserie Nature Reserve which is part of the Greater Kruger National Park. Here, guests are promised an ‘upmarket, comfortable, authentic and affordable wilderness experience’. On arrival I had wondered if we would tick all these boxes too.
The wonderfully warm welcome we received was a good start, as was our beautiful suite located at the end of one of the walkways with great views into the surrounding bush. Ours was a superior suite, stylishly decorated to reflect its African bush surroundings. I loved the modern take on this aesthetic, it was not your typical safari décor, and instead made use of pops of colour to brighten its neutral palette. A sanctuary one could relax and unwind in.
Strolling around the grounds is safe as the area is discreetly fenced off with the surrounding bush spilling in. The pool area a great place to refresh after a long drive, to scan the bush for activity, or just relax with a book or take a nap. A fridge with on-site bottled water in glass ensuring that hydration is taken care of – well done Baobab Ridge!
We head to the deck outside the dining room where afternoon tea, which is more of a light lunch, is served. The traditional shweshwe cloth placemats and serviettes add a splash of colour, and the chicken salad wraps are delicious – we drink what looks like iced coffee and ask chef Petunia Mohlili what it is, with a hearty laugh she tells us that it’s rice coffee, an idea she found watching the Food channel. This was just the first of many imaginate and creative culinary twists by team of lady-chefs that man the kitchen.
Thereafter we meet JV our ranger, short for Jabulani Victor Silinda. “Hurry”, he says, “there are cheetah nearby. He wasn’t kidding, we drive what is barely a few kilometres and there in the grass alongside the road lie two cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). “A coalition of brothers”, he tells us.
Not only do we have the two cheetah in our midst, but a young spotted hyena (Crocuta Crocuta) as well as a petite little black-backed jackal (Lupulella mesomelas), both keeping their distance and both hoping for a kill. “It’s not uncommon to find cheetah like this, or indeed any other big cat, being followed by hyena or jackal, who shadow them to watch if they are going to hunt and possibly cash-in on a kill,” JV says.
We watch enthralled, as first one, then the other brother sits up and starts to preen, all-the-while keeping a watchful eye on the intruders. Likewise, the intruders keep a watchful eye on them. JV tells us that this behaviour indicates that they are likely preparing themselves for action. Cheetah are mainly active during the day to avoid confrontations with lions, who primarily hunt at night. So, with the sun beginning to sink towards the horizon their window of opportunity to hunt is diminishing. Slowly they stretch and then begin to move their sleek and stealthy bodies.
Are we in for some action? I wonder.
They cross the dusty road in front of us into the grass beyond. Just when we think they’re off to hunt, they plonk down again into the grass. It’s not too long, so we can still see them, and so can the hyena, who had followed their move closely and moves closer still. The young hyena almost has an ‘I’ve got spots too, so can I come play?’ look on her face, all-the-while edging closer and closer to the one brother.
Deciding that enough is enough, the cheetah lunges at the hyena with a snarl, as if to say, ‘get out of my face’. Not to be deterred, the hyena tries again. But this time is warned away with a bit more intensity. Getting the message, the hyena slinks off to sulk with a very hang-dog expression on its face.
All the while our cameras are whirring to catch this moment on video – so enthralled am I that I forget to take any photographs. But then again, what is the point of an exceptional wildlife experience if all it comes down to is a photo opportunity? Sometimes it’s best to put the camera down and just enjoy the moment.
We drive past the hyena, who glances up at us with a ‘nobody loves me’ expression. This cute and cuddly creature, however, can be as nasty as ever with an exceptionally mean set of teeth and a jaw that can crush at 1,000 PSI (pounds per square inch). The jackal watches us drive by, quite unperturbed, which is unusual for this relatively shy canine.
Time to move on. But can this drive get any better?
The birds are enjoying the cool of the late afternoon. We spot a flock of magpie shrikes, and a couple of red-billed buffalo weavers in a small Acacia (now known as Vachellia). A stately tawny eagle perched a dead tree is silhouetted against the pale sky, as is juvenile bateleur eagle. The light is fading, and a storm is brewing, it’s time for sundowners and JV knows the perfect spot.
A small breeding herd of elephant have a different idea and stop us in our tracks, not that we mind. We watch as they move through the vegetation, their dark forms in striking contrast to pale grass. An inquisitive, adolescent male heads our way with determination. He comes closer, lifting his trunk to give us a thorough inspection. JV is talking to him quietly, saying words to the effect of ‘it’s ok, you can go now, we won’t hurt you’… with a slight shake of his head he turns around and saunters away. Whew, what an incredible interaction.
JV parks alongside a huge marula (Sclerocarya birrea) tree, we sip our G&T’s, not caring that all that is left of the sunset is a tinge of pink on a darkening sky.
We dine in the boma under a starlit sky, the storm clouds that threatened earlier a distant memory. The fire is crackling, and casts dancing shadows on the crisp white tablecloth. The aroma of an authentic South African braai fills the air as our host, Jason Fleisher, fills our wine glasses with an exquisite South African red. Life is tough in Africa…
During our dinner conversations the history of Baobab Ridge comes up. Jason tells me that it was originally a hunting farm and that the huge shed near the staff village was where the carcasses were prepared – the height was to accommodate giraffe. There was also lion camp, evident because of the hundreds of animal carcasses found there. Was canned hunting an activity I wonder… a distinct possibility, unfortunately. But on a happier note, the farm was sold, and the hunting operation became a tourism venture, the lodge was built and eventually the fences dropped. All now under the watchful eye of the Baobab Ridge team.
Up at sparrows there’s time for a quick cup of coffee before setting off for our early morning drive. It’s a quiet morning, but that doesn’t daunt JV as he gives us an introduction to ‘Botany 101’. Starting with a lesson on the leaf structure of trees and shrubs – we learn about compound leaves, are they pinnate or palmate? In this case pinnate. And are they pinnate odd, pinnate even or twice pinnate? It’s easy to see, he says. If the leaflets are attached evenly opposite one another leaf, and there’s a leaflet at the end, the terminal leaflet, there are an odd number of leaflets, so it’s pinnate odd. The extent of JV’s knowledge makes the mind boggle!
We learn how grass species differ according to soil type, and the geology of the landscape, about bugs that utilise seed pods and stems to lay their eggs, and about termite mounds that change the size and direction of the opening to regulate temperature. JV stops the vehicle and we all hop out, bending down, he picks up some dry pebbles of poop – scrub hare scat, he tells us that when it is dry it can be crushed and used to start a fire.
How cool is nature, I think?
A flash of blue and our eyes are draw to a woodland kingfisher, iridescent in splendour with a melodious call to match. Birdwatching here is a delight, with several new species being added to our personal bird list such as, Bennet’s woodpecker, sabota lark and my favourite, the Levaillant’s cuckoo. There are raptors a plenty, with the two new additions being the Gabar goshawk and black-chested snake eagle.
We see the beautiful saddle-bill stork with its striking beak, both male and female, and JV points out the difference – the male saddle-billed stork has a dark eye with two small yellow wattles at the base of the bill, whilst females have a yellow eye and no wattles.
Our birding highlight though was driving slowly down a sandy riverbed on our last afternoon game drive. Ducking under branches and peering into trees had us tick off Stierling’s wren-warbler, Jameson’s firefinch, and a brown-hooded kingfisher – which like woodland kingfishers, aren’t fishers at all, but feast on bugs instead. We watch a pair of squirrels scurry up a tree, hide, and then peek out to see if we’re still there.
In a huge tree were two giant (Verreaux’s) eagle owls, which of course took flight just as we got a good view of them. No stress to JV though, we followed them, only to have them fly back to the original tree. Time for JV and Daryl to follow on foot. Not to be outdone by mere humans, the owls flew back to where our vehicle was parked to perch in a tree nearby. The explorers returned and the owls were photographed. Mission accomplished.
Time for sundowners… or so we thought. Rounding a corner, we came upon a grassy clearing bedecked with a beautifully set table, complete with silverware, wine glasses and fairy lights, along with the Baobab Ridge team smiling and waving in welcome. Freshened up at the Covid-19 sanitation station it was time to toast the setting sun with a G&T.
The fire was lit and the candles flickering, laughter and conversation filled the air. Soon the braai was going, and starters were served. The wine flowed and main course followed – all under a canopy of twinkling stars with the accompanying soundtrack of the African bush. There was a pause between dinner and dessert, time for a star-gazing session with JV sharing his knowledge of the African night skies. Using a laser pointer, he indicated the Southern Cross and Milky way, as well as other stars, planets, and constellations.
A pair of hyenas hovered at the edge of the circle of light, hoping to scavenge some scraps from the braai no doubt. We drove off and the Baobab team set about dismantling everything, making sure that nothing remained of our wonderful evening under the stars. Except our hearts, perhaps?
So far, we had seen giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, herds of impala, buffalo and even rhino amongst others, but leopard and lion remained elusive. So, as we headed out on our last morning drive it was kitty footprints that we were after.
While JV keeps a watchful eye for tracks, we scan the surroundings for birds. There are European rollers aplenty, their turquoise chest feathers shimmering in the morning light, in contrast to their chestnut-coloured backs. They’ll be heading home soon, back to their breeding grounds in Europe, Asia, and northern Africa, only to return in the summer.
JV spots tracks – leopard (Panthera pardus)! He alights from the vehicle for a closer look. A female he says, as he wanders off to see where they lead. We spend the following two hours following the tracks, as she criss-crosses from one road to the next. We hear impala bark in alarm, the nearby zebra and wildebeest are also on the alert. Watching their body language, we drive into the bush to try find her. Nothing. They still aren’t happy, then we spot a hyena, then another – a dead giveaway that she must be nearby, the opportunistic hyena always in hope of stealing a leopard’s kill before she gets it out of reach up a tree. We watch and wait.
Still nothing… so JV decides its coffee time. Heading back to Baobab Ridge for breakfast, but still on the lookout for tracks, he shrieks, “No! How could I have missed her?” There were fresh leopard tracks over our tyre tracks. She must have been right there in the undergrowth when we first stopped. Annoyed with himself but resigned to the fact that she had outfoxed us, we take a slow drive back to the lodge.
We pause to photograph a crowned lapwing; they may be relatively common but are still worth pausing for with their pretty black and white crown and bi-coloured beak. A crested barbet with its multicoloured plumage and a black-bellied kohaan.
The alarm bark of a kudu has JV springing into action. We listen and follow… then we find her. Following her concerned gaze, we spot a leopard. “Cleo”, JV tells us, “she’s a young mum with cubs”.
At last, we had found her.
This game of wits had us at JV 1- Leopard 1 – an even score. Despite this the leopard certainly still had the upper hand, proven by her ability and camouflage to just disappear into the long grass, as she gave us the slip several times. But with JV’s skill and bush knowledge we found her again and watched quietly as leopard and kudu eyed each other out warily.
“The kudu has likely hidden her young and has lured the leopard away”. Another vehicle approaches and Cleo turned tail and ran, so did the kudu.
As we drive down the road, we spot mommy kudu with her little one trotting quickly beside her. Kudu 1 – Leopard 0, I think. For now, anyway. Such is life in the African bush.
An exceptional safari experience, with quite moments and moments of action, of birds and bush and creatures and critters. Of exploration and contemplation. And a privilege, to say the least.
Besides our safari experiences, the luxurious accommodation and fabulous food, it was the wonderfully warm and welcoming smiles of the Baobab Ridge team that blew me away. The authenticity of every interaction, and the warm hearts behind every action. Here was a place where one arrives as strangers, are made to feel like friends and when one leaves it’s like saying goodbye to family.
A remarkable feat, one that sets Baobab Ridge apart in so many ways, and one that certainly ticks all the boxes.