KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa -- Where to put a road in the wild -- and among wildlife -- where humans had never built anything?
Before building 90 miles of roads around Singita Lebombo, a new game reserve on the eastern edge of this park, rangers consulted topographical maps, took aerial photographs, and studied which animals tended to congregate where. It is the animals, after all, that lure people to this remote corner of the Kruger, reached by an hourlong charter flight from Johannesburg.
While turmoil reigned elsewhere in South Africa -- the brutality of apartheid, then soaring rates of crime and AIDS -- the 5 million acres of the Kruger remained pristine wilderness, "owned" by the astonishing variety of animals that had roamed it for millennia. Only a crude ranger station marked human construction.
Then, three years ago, the South African Parks Board offered a very few concessions for development in the Kruger itself. Previously, private game lodges had been kept outside the park's borders. Now Lebombo, named for the craggy mountains looming over the property, holds a 20-year lease on 33,000 acres at the confluence of the N'wanetsi and Tsweni rivers.
In the local Shangaan language, "Singita" means "miracle." There were already two "miracle" lodges near the park -- Singita Ebony Lodge and Singita Boulders Lodge -- both under the same ownership, each with a distinct style. The architecture at Boulders is all curves and natural-looking shapes: Think "The Flintstones." Ebony, on the other hand, was designed as a throwback to colonial times: Think "Out of Africa." (That book was set in British East Africa, now Kenya, but white people in the bush came up with a rather uniform "look" all over the continent.)
In its short life, Singita Lebombo already has won numerous travel awards, and is possibly the most luxurious of the South African game reserves. That achievement is all the more impressive because of the severe restrictions the builders were under, regulations intended to make them "tread lightly on the land," as Lebombo general manager Jonathan Lithgow puts it.
The lodge, three years in the planning, was built on the existing footprint of the ranger station. The architecture is at once simple and spectacular, and makes ingenious use of indigenous materials. The stripped trunks of palm trees are dark sentinels near the lodge entrance: Their rich, deep brown comes from shoe polish. The floor of the dining room is red pebbles that crunch under foot, reminding you of where you are. Candle holders on the veranda are the shells of ostrich eggs.
"We use every part of everything," Lithgow says, "and that means the ostrich meat, its skin, and its feathers in addition to the eggs."
Not every material is natural. Curtain tie-backs in the rooms are colored safety pins strung together. Gorgeous gold and white placemats are woven from plastic supermarket bags. Baskets are made of telephone wire, which became a staple material for artists under apartheid, when isolation meant lack of art supplies.
Not every material used at Lebombo is cheap, either. Chandeliers, for instance, are Venetian, a series of clear glass hooks, strung together in giant cascades.
Lebombo's 15 "rooms" are actually individual villas, each poised near the edge of a cliff, which makes for spectacular views. Each has showers and beds, indoors and out. The interior is determined by curtains you pull to define the bed, bath, and sitting areas as you want.
Lithgow explains more of the rules and regs of the place: To keep human interference at a minimum, only 106 people -- including staff and guests -- are allowed on the property at any one time, which means staff have to serve in several capacities. The water allotment of 350 liters a day per person sounds like a lot, until you realize that ration takes in laundry, dishwashing, and other necessary functions in addition to drinking and bathing. Usually, hotel requests that you reuse towels to help save the environment strike me as a convenient ploy to save money. Here, the request seems real.
A day at a game lodge is as regulated and ritualistic as that in a monastery. Before sunup, a night porter knocks gently at your door. Instead of leading you to prayers, though, the porters guide you through the dark to a caffeine fix in the main lodge. Then you're off in an open Land Rover, with perhaps four or five other guests, a ranger to provide facts and commentary, and a tracker to search out animals great and small.
Of the 2,000 remaining black rhinos in the world, about 350 are resident in the Kruger, so there is a good chance you may see one, along with buffalo, badgers, antelope, monkeys, cheetahs, impalas, warthogs, zebras, dozens of varieties of reptiles, frogs, and tortoises, and birds by the hundreds. The flora is equally diverse, and used by both animals and people. The leaves of the knob thorn tree are protein-rich, which both game and humans appreciate. (They are a good substitute for spinach.) The blossoms make particularly good honey. The knobs on the branches that give the tree its name are used by local people for treating toothaches.
After a game drive of two to three hours, breakfast is served and you can loll around until lunch. Both meals are bountiful, and while you may want to sleep after each of them, it's just as well to try to get some exercise. The irony of this "adventure" vacation is that the primary activities are utterly passive: being driven and being fed, which can add up to being heavier on your return.
As the sun sets, you head out for the evening drive. Nocturnal animals include fireflies by the thousands, emitting a fluorescent flicker that lights up the sky. Leopards are notoriously elusive night creatures, but a female leopard at Lebombo has become so accustomed to the jeeps, which always keep a respectful distance, that she shows herself frequently.
You may also encounter drama that will remind you of the meaning of "wild." On a morning drive last month, guests found a white rhino lying in a pool of its own blood. It had been killed by repeated stabbings from an elephant's tusks, although the species usually coexist uneventfully. What happened later demonstrates how life in the wild goes on. First, vultures moved in and fed on the rhino. The next diners were two clans of hyenas. By the time the lions arrived, dinner was reduced to pitiful leftovers; unwilling to settle for scraps, the lions moved on.
The evening game drive is followed by your dinner, which might be in either the dining room or Lebombo's glamorized version of the "boma," the traditional African outdoor eating place, a circle enclosed by a fence with a fire burning in the center. At Lebombo, the boma is lighted by giant candelabra, and the versatile staff offers not only food, but a song-and-dance show. The food is divine, and most of the ingredients local: fillets of ostrich and springbok, for instance, and lots of fruits and nuts in dishes as innovative as Lebombo's decor. It's all washed down with great South African wines, which are included in the tariff. (The only thing that isn't covered is French champagne, and if you have to have that instead of one of the delightful native sparkling wines, maybe you should have gone to Paris instead.)
People come to Lebombo primarily for the animals, but also for the peace of mind and the pampering. A variety of spa treatments -- salt scrubs, mineral soaks, aroma therapy among them -- are available in your bathroom or outdoors on your private deck. Tastings of some of the 4,000 bottles of South African wines in the lodge cellars are another diversion. The library is particularly strong on wildlife books for those who want to learn more about what they have seen. Guided bush walks allow glimpses of the smaller animals, insects, and plants that may be overlooked on the Land Rover drives. Should the spectacular setting bring out your inner artist, each room is equipped with the kind of watercolor set that 19th-century travelers used.
After a long and dusty game drive, the serenity of Lebombo's long swimming pool, a narrow thread that widens as it travels along a wooden deck, is especially enticing. It's impressive the lodge even has a pool, given the water restrictions.
Indeed, water is a constant issue. To illustrate, Lithgow has an elephantine version of the "anywhere it wants to go" joke. Shortly after the lodge opened, an elephant walked over the pipes that carry the precious water supply.
"We lost 40,000 liters," Lithgow recalls. People have come and seen but not conquered this terrain. The animals are still in charge.
If You Go: Kruger National Park
How to get there
Kruger National Park is a one-hour flight from Johannesburg. The lowest round-trip air fare between Boston and Johannesburg at press time was $1715 on Virgin Atlantic. From Johannesburg, the 75-minute flight to Hoedspruit Airport is $390 on South African Express airline. A prearranged shuttle will take you to the lodge from the airport.
What to do
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park
Singita Lebombo Lodge is in a remote wilderness area of the park. Doubles about $1,034 per person, per day, including three meals, safari trips, and all beverages (including alcoholic ones) except champagne.