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Luxury, Comfort, and Safari Sundowners with a Wild Bunch in South Africa

A little after 5.30am at a small clearing in the Kwazulu Natal bush, and I was sipping a mug of coffee and stifling a yawn. Sam, my guide, pointed behind me. I turned to see a giraffe's neck and face emerging from behind a line of acacia trees. Within moments, I and my five companions were taking breakfast surrounded by a dozen curious giraffe.

They seemed moderately interested in us. They were joined by a group of ten or so Nyala antelope grazing in the long grass. Then they loped off towards their own morning meal amid the bushwillow trees of the Lowveld.

It is this kind of intimate moment with the natural world that inspires ever-growing numbers of people to book safari breaks. How authentic a 'bush experience' you can find these days is debatable. Still, it seemed real enough to me, even if carefully managed. It is hard to be too cynical while breakfasting under a big sky with giraffe and antelope.

It was the fourth game drive we had taken from Ulusaba, Sir Richard Branson's private reserve in the Sabi Sand game reserve, near the Kruger National Park. On our first, we were told that in three days we would be lucky to see all the 'Big Five', the A-list of animals that all African safari tourists aim to encounter - lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. Yet within 48 hours we caught up with them all, plus a few unusual extras. The first afternoon, at dusk, Sam turned off the engine of our Land Rover and motioned us to be quiet. Two huge roars broke the silence, from a lion barely 20m away. The earth shook.

At first light, Sam said some leopards had been tracked nearby. We set off, away from well-beaten tracks. On the way, we almost bumped into three white rhino grazing in grassland, and a couple of water buffalo.

Sam drove down a deep ravine in country hairy even for a 4x4. But he found what we were looking for: not only a real leopard, but a real den.

That evening, at twilight, we had a personal encounter with a herd of 30 elephants, including several babies born within the previous fortnight. They were so close some had their trunks in the back seat of the Land Rover.

So that was the Big Five - not including the cheetah we saw gnawing at the carcass of an antelope he killed an hour or so earlier, a herd of zebra crossing a road (where was the lollipop lady, we wanted to know) and a mamba snake slithering by a track, so lethal its bite can kill within 20 minutes.

Safari tourism is big business. It forms a huge part of the economy of Africa. Naturally it has critics, particularly at the luxury end - Ulusaba is very much at the luxury end. Sir Richard himself stays at least once a year, in a palatial cliffside apartment with magnificent views of the savannah below. It is a special place, ideal for a honeymoon or to celebrate. Or a Lottery win.

The fabulous rooms have every amenity, the service is impeccable, the surroundings glorious. This is high-end travel. Yet Ulusaba remains relaxed, the atmosphere friendly. You never forget that a step away is the bush.

The same goes for the food - from multi-course MasterChef-syle meals to the local favourite, kudu burgers, barbecued antelope and chips. It is said that wildlife tourism is unsustainable economically and envi ronmentally.

Too many people from the rich hemispheres are going on safari, using up energy and water, destroying forests. The argument has taken hold in the Green movement.

Yet surely the greatest danger to African wildlife is not tourists filling photo albums, but poachers shooting game. These are not local people killing for food, but smugglers killing for profit. A single rhino horn can fetch £73,000 in China, where it is widely used in herbal medicines. There are anti-poaching units and security along all the fencelines of Sabi Sand to prevent poaching.

Rural South Africa is desperately poor. At the local village, Dumfries, where many of Ulusaba's staff live, the problems are obvious: generations of unemployment, made worse by the spread of AIDS. Ulusaba helps to support two schools, orphanages, water pumps. Would the villagers be better off without these jobs? The best way to find an answer is to share a moment, albeit fleeting, with a wild creature in its own world. Then you won't need David Attenborough for a reminder that we are so small, and nature is so vast.

Travel Facts

Prices at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve start from £421pp, per night, including accommodation, all food and drinks, twice-daily game drives.

Children, aged up to 11 years, go free in 2011. Call 0208 600 0430 or visit www.ulusaba.virgin.com.

 

 

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