Sitting silently on the Thornybush game viewing vehicle, all appeared still. There was a smell of popcorn in the air. ‘Leopard’ we were told, ‘scent marking after last night’s rain’.  Alighting from the vehicle we see perfect tracks in the soft damp sand. ‘He went this way’, John, our tracker, says. His skill at reading the signs quite astounding. Tracks, slightly flattened grasses – unseen to the rest of us, and an intimate knowledge of animal behaviour and his surroundings, has John giving direction as we continue our way through the bush in search of him.

Tucked in a corner of the 14,500-hectare Thornybush Nature Reserve is the luxurious Thornybush Game Lodge. We had arrived the previous day to a warm welcome, chilled hibiscus lemonade and quick and easy pre-check in Covid-19 protocols. The stylish reception area is light and airy, the natural earthy colours brightened with pops of colour.

This décor style, I would soon discover, is prevalent throughout the lodge even though it was the first of its kind in the reserve, opening its doors back in 1961. There’s no fuddy-duddy old school lodge décor here – sophistication and comfort epitomise the gorgeous main deck and lounge area, which overlooks the seasonal Monwana River.

Our luxury suite was no different. Soft and subtle, and inviting with its king-size bed beneath voluminous mosquito netting, spacious bathroom with both indoor and outdoor shower and a bath ‘to die for’, as well as giant sliding doors to a deck with incredible views over the riverbed. A private, somewhat decadent, space inviting afternoon naps, lengthy bubble baths and reading on the deck.

In addition to its good ground water levels, perennial rivers, and healthy vegetation, Thornybush shares a fenceless border with the Kruger National Park. This allows a free movement of wildlife and often results in magnificent herds elephant and buffalo, abundant plains game, as well as consistent sightings of predators, including the Big 5. So it is with great expectation that we set out on our first afternoon drive with expert guide and tracker team, Sean van Graan and John ‘the best’ Ndlovu.

Being a private game reserve, we are ensured uncrowded encounters with wildlife. The animals are well habituated, and generally behave in a very docile manner – perfect for photography! Soon we are ticking off magnificently horned kudu, a herd of impala, a bevy of beautiful zebra, giraffe as well as several species of bird.

A pesky Egyptian goose persistently chases a pair of white-faced ducks and their nine chicks, a giraffe wraps its tongue around the tender shoots of a buffalo thorn and a lone elephant bull feeds as the afternoon light fades.

Our sundowner stop is cut short as news comes of a leopard sighting. We are some distance away and by the time we get there she has hunkered down in the long grass, with just a few spots and occasional ear movements visible. We wait a while hoping that she will move. No such luck, but Sean assures us that there are plenty of leopard around and we are likely to have several other opportunities to see one.

Dinners at Thornybush are often ‘roaming affairs’ located out in the bush or in the boma, but our visit is in the early stages of reopening after a lengthy shut down during Covid-19, so we dine back at the lodge. This is no less special, and as the pre-dinner drinks and conversation around the crackling fire flows, we get to know our fellow guests better.

There is no such thing as going hungry at Thornybush, portions are generous and the menu diverse – superbly prepared with an ethos of farm-to-table, much of it sourced from local artisanal suppliers, by chef Solly and his team. Eating happens with clockwork regularity: starting with early morning coffee and rusks before the first game drive, bush coffee (with or without Amarula) and more snacks out in the bush; returning to camp breakfast awaits, and a few hours later there is lunch.

High tea with homemade iced tea and delicious teatime treats precedes the afternoon drive, sundowners in the bush with more snacks and then a dinner back at the lodge. Thankfully getting to our suite entails a bit of a walk – good exercise to help reduce the extra calories!

A crisp and clear morning precedes a glorious sunrise, the vegetation outlined against an orange-hued sky. In the early dawn we glimpse a spotted feline disappearing into the thick vegetation, ‘darn’, I think, ‘we just missed it’. No flies on Sean and John though, they work out her likely trajectory and soon we are waiting in anticipation on the other side of the river. And sure enough, she made her way down a drainage line and across the dry riverbed, only to flop down in the long grass, out of sight.

Some stealthy vehicle maneuvering soon had her in view. We waited quietly and our persistence paid off.  She lay quietly for a while, gazing at us occasionally, quite unperturbed by our presence. Her belly rising and falling rhythmically as she panted. A vigorous scratch to the ear and then she was up, stealthily moving through the grass. Then with one last glance in our direction and with a flick of her white-tipped tail she ambled down a game path out of our view.

We see evidence of white rhino, and watch a courageous young elephant, boosted by the presence of its mum, shake its head vigorously, trumpet loudly and entertain us with a mock charge – all while mum continues to feed, pulling up tufts of grass, shaking them and with incredible dexterity pops them into her mouth.

Around a corner in a drainage line, we come across a pack of African wild dog. They squabble with one another, quite viciously, and soon we see it is over an old piece of skin and bone. These ferocious hunters, when at play, are entertaining to watch, the pecking order obvious as they alpha female takes charge. A lone spotted hyena makes an appearance, watching the proceedings but keeping a safe distance. There are only about 150-200 of these incredible canines left in the Greater Kruger area, so spending time with them is an incredible privilege.  

After breakfast we take some time out to explore – we pass the shimmering pool, the loungers inviting relaxation and the clear blue water, a respite from the heat and following a beautiful wooden walkway we meander past several more luxurious suites, and crossing a bridge, find the drainage line that ‘our’ leopard had used that morning.

We meet the resident nyala male snoozing in one of the few flower beds, discover the well-stocked library and games room, and browse the curio shop before relaxing a while on the deck. The ever-cheerful Sandile (his smiling eyes clearly indicating the broad smile behind the mask) offers us a drink from the bar – it’s almost lunchtime, so we oblige.

A lone elephant ambles through the bush, a waterbuck tentatively comes down to the waterhole to drink and pesky vervet monkeys cavort in the trees, waiting for an opportune moment to sneak some of our lunch.

An afternoon drive has fleeing a thunderstorm, we miss the worst of the rain and survive without being drenched – and as quickly as it came it moved on into the distance. Three dagga boys (old male buffalo) are wallowing in a pool, the water a welcome relief from the summer heat and the mud offering protection from flies; a woodland kingfisher calls from a nearby tree.

John spots a crash of rhino in the distance, they’re moving in our direction, relatively quickly, which is unusual. A large male is bothering them, ‘one of the females must be coming into oestrous’ Sean tells us. They linger near our vehicle, appearing to seek protection from us. It is fascinating behaviour to watch.

Sean tells us that a lioness and her three cubs were seen earlier in the day, we search for them along the dry riverbed, but to no avail. A tawny eagle perches in a dead tree, a leopard tortoise creeps across the road and hippos honk in sunset dam – we wait for sunset, enjoying the ambiance of the late afternoon.

A herd of elephant emerge from the bush, they rush to the water to quench their thirst. A little one, who hasn’t quite got to grips with how to use its trunk, decides to go face first into the water to achieve its aim. Some wander off to feed whilst others frolic in the water – one gets a little too close to an inquisitive hippo and is told off dramatically with a chase and much splashing.

As night falls the spotlight comes out, it’s time for the nocturnal creatures. John spots an incredibly well camouflaged chameleon, an eagle owl hoots nearby, a fiery-necked nightjar play chicken with our vehicle, flying off at the very last moment from its resting spot in the road ahead of us, and a black-backed jackal slinks into the bush as we near the lodge.  

Of the Big 5, it was only lion we were missing – we had searched for the lioness and her three cubs but to no avail, tracked lions that had been on the hunt the evening before, but only found the remains of their kill, what was left of it after the vultures had cleaned up. We are delighted to finally find them, two lionesses and a large male lion, relaxing on the side of the road.

He is known as the Mapoza male and is easily recognised by his bluish-grey right eye. We are told that this milky eye is the result of a congenital glaucoma and was more than likely born with this defect, which has unfortunately progressively degenerated over time. I felt quite sad for him, such a magnificent beast in every other way. Sean tells us that it has not, however, stopped him from taking over new territories, conquering prides or being an extremely skilled hunter.

A safari experience at Thornybush is not just about seeking out the Big 5 (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino); Sean and John take pleasure in finding some of the smaller creatures of the bush and explaining the finer details about the fauna and flora of the area – from the cultural significance of the buffalo thorn to the fact that an African elephant can weight up to seven tonnes and can live to 70-years old, and that its the female golden-orb spider that weaves the web.

We learn that the reserve is home to several antelope species alongside the giraffe, zebra, blue wildebeest, impala, and kudu, as well as hippo and hyena that we have seen.

And that there are more than 500 bird species in and around the property – a fact we have delighted in, adding several new species to our bird list!

And just when we thought we were done, John points up into the branches of the tree – Thornybush had somehow left the best to last… a leopard lay on a thick branch, one front paw tucked under its chin, the other hanging lazily on the other side of the branch. She was beautiful, her whiskers white and long, and her yellow-green eyes piercing, in their intensity. The white fur beneath her chin clearly visible above her delicate pink nose, and the creamy-yellow of her body dappled with black rosettes encircling golden fur.

We sat mesmerised, awed by the power and grace, and fully aware of the privilege of being in such proximity to this beautiful cat. Not wanting to monopolise the sighting, Sean reverses out slowly to give a waiting vehicle the chance to come close.

There are so many things to love about being in the bush: the wide-open spaces, the spectacular colours of sunset and the night sky studded with a million stars. Where your senses are heightened, your soul is full and where all is right with the world.

But for me it’s about more than just being on safari in the bush and the exceptional experiences it offers – it is about the people, the local communities that are positively impacted and the conservation programmes that rely on these experiences at Thornybush.