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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | SOUTH AFRICA

The Civilized Safari

Luxurious Lodgings and Abundant Wildlife Make a Visit to Sabi Sand Private Reserve an Indulgent Adventure

October 15, 2000|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Christopher Reynolds is a Times travel writer. His last article for the magazine was about driving the Mississippi River from its headwaters to the Gulf

We were between animals for the moment, a mile or two from the oasis of stilted bungalows and personal plunge pools that we called "camp." The sun was sinking low in South Africa's Mpumalanga province, and our Land Rover was purring through the bush. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, hyenas--we'd seen them all in the last 48 hours. I tossed out an idle question.

"Why is it," I asked, "that we don't look for elephants after dark?"

Because, said Sean Lindsey at the wheel, we're afraid.

Of course he didn't actually use the word "afraid." Rangers never say "afraid." Instead, Sean, who looked to be about 20, reminded me how dangerous elephants can be.

The animal will square off to face you if it feels confronted, then bluff a charge. If you lose your nerve and run, or maybe just make a sudden move as you're seated in the Land Rover, the beast, weighing in at 4 tons to 6 tons, may charge in earnest.

In 1998, at a South African game reserve much like this one, a pair of German cameramen lost their nerve in the face of a bluffed elephant charge. One ran, the other yelled. With a tusk, an elephant speared the one who yelled. He was fatally impaled; the elephant was shot.

Sean didn't tell us all this; just as they don't say "afraid," rangers tend to scorn the phrase "dead guest." Instead, Sean simply explained that at night, when bush animals are more active but human senses are duller, an elephant is even more dangerous. That was good enough for me. Night fell.

Then we rounded a thickly wooded corner and the beam of our game tracker's hand-held spotlight stopped dead ahead on a wall of gray. Gray flesh, deeply wrinkled. Half a dozen elephants, audibly unhappy elephants, stood in our path.

"Hmm," said Sean in the professionally even tone of a fighter pilot whose instrument panel is melting before his eyes. "Elephant at night."

Just moments before, I'd been thinking of all the costly comforts waiting back at camp. And now, out there in the meadow, an elephant was trumpeting--not a zoo sound effect, but the honest voice of potentially fatal nature--and I was thinking: "Ah. So this is how it feels to be a weak link in the food chain."

*

FOR A CERTAIN STRIPE OF TRAVELER, THE IDEAL SAFARI HAS ALWAYS INVOLVED moments of mortal fear, surrounded by hours of creature comforts.

The thrill may be what drew the first European and American hunters here in the late 19th century, but the creature comforts were not far behind. Blaine Harden, author of "Africa: Dispatches From a Fragile Continent," has noted that the Swahili word "safari" entered American vocabulary in 1909, when Theodore Roosevelt ventured into the East African bush on a hunting and specimen-collecting expedition with about 250 porters bearing such necessities as cases of Champagne, collapsible bathtubs and a library including works by Cervantes, Goethe and Moliere.

Guests these days wield long lenses instead of rifles. And as quaint as a collapsible bathtub sounds, we want more. In the scramble to capture the wealthiest international visitors, the continent's leading safari lodges have been furiously renovating and rethinking their business, the better to deliver an experience both elemental and elaborate.

In Tanzania, home to many of the fanciest lodges, World Tourism Organization statistics show international tourist arrivals tripled, to 450,000 a year, between 1990 and 1998. In South Africa, where the proliferation of luxury lodges has followed the lifting of apartheid-era sanctions, the WTO has estimated 6.2 million arrivals in 1999--twice as many as in 1993.

Money has rolled in from investors and philanthropists you might not expect to be placing bets in Africa--Getty family money, for instance, and money from the Harvard-educated Shia Muslim Imam the Aga Khan, who in the past decade has invested more than $32 million in a string of Tanzanian luxury lodges. There is also money from Howard Buffett, son of stock market wizard Warren Buffett, and from the ever-spreading empire of Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson.

South Africa's Londolozi is a big part of this trend. Ten years ago, it was an independent, family-run enterprise. Now it's the flagship property of Conservation Corporation Africa, a company that owns or manages nearly two dozen high-priced wilderness lodges throughout Africa and counts the Getty family among its principal investors, and Howard Buffett among its philanthropic partners.

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