Guest Blog: Travelling with teen boys to Singita for a life-changing adventure
You just never know what’s around the corner in the bush… It could be an impala. Maybe a leopard. Or even a 2.5 tonne rhino in a bad mood. Surprise was a common thread of editor and author Max Anderson's experience of travelling to Singita Sabi Sand with his teenage sons just before the onset of COVID-19. And, as none of us were prepared for what really was around the corner, travelling here with his family when he did ended up being a brilliant decision.
My wife Lainie and I decided to do a family safari while we could – before our twin 16-year-old boys got too immersed in their final years at school and before travelling with their parents became too ‘lame’, ‘cringe’ or ‘awks’.
I, for one, knew we were in for a good time. As a travel writer of 25 years, I’ve enjoyed 20 safaris across Southern Africa. But two experiences have always eluded me: doing a safari with teenagers (guests at lodges are usually adult couples); and doing a safari at Singita, a company whose excellent name has been around since 1993.
We arrived at Singita Ebony Lodge in Singita Sabi Sand at 3pm. The main lodge had an elegant air, with a vaulted space and great crown of thatch. The cool, fragrant interior suggested the 1930s, with a deco-style bar, antique wooden chests and a great stone fireplace decorated with tribal masks and hide shields. It was buzzing with some two dozen guests and staff members, readying for the afternoon game drive, a heady mix of internationalism and energy.
It was at that moment I worried how Jack and Harry – two lads from suburban Adelaide – would fit in.
Immersed in nature
Our hosts Tiffany and Ryan took us through the lodge to a vista as spectacular as it was beautiful. We were looking down on a series of terraced decks, some dressed with dining tables, others with deep lounges and firepits, all shaded by the weighty boughs of a giant knob thorn tree. And beyond that the Sand River in full flood.
“There's a hippo out of the water on the bank,” said Tiffany.
“I can’t believe it,” said Harry, somewhat in spite of himself. I wasn’t sure whether he was talking about the hippo or the lodge.
Lainie was in love with Ebony from the get-go. The moment she saw the villa – after the boys were ensconced in their own adjacent suite – she was planning the ways she'd immerse herself in everything: the great clawfoot bath, the plunge pool, the loungers on the sweep of stone decking looking out to the river. But she saved her biggest sigh of contentment for the art kit made up of a little canvas wallet with brushes and tubes of watercolour – possibly one of the loveliest touches I've ever seen in a safari lodge.
Our wilderness team
At 4pm we were introduced to our safari team: Field Guide Marc Bowes-Taylor and Tracker Golden Shebangu. Our muscular Land Rover Defender in dark green had elevated seating open to the sky.
Marc took us deep into the landscape, 48,000 hectares of huge bronzed boulders, broad river valleys and thick forests. Then he took us even deeper into the ecosystem, a thrilling place of grazers, opportunists and predators. “Look how alert they are,” he said, pulling up at a herd of impala. “There's a bit of wind, which makes them anxious, and the light is getting low. Anything that moves, they'll want to know ‘what’s that…?’”
Our guides soon had the boys as alert as the impala, open to the possibilities of untamed Africa. We had an exciting encounter with an elephant, which was in ‘musth’ and in no mood for our vehicle. When Jack spotted two young hyenas atop a termite mound, we sat watching them play. “Hyenas get a bad reputation from The Lion King, but they're brilliant to watch,” said Marc. “They're equipped for stamina and a large part of their brain is dedicated to problem-solving. I once watched a hyena remove a branch so it could get to a kill stashed in a tree by a leopard.” Small things were just as compelling: we jumped out of the vehicle to pick up a millipede larger than a cigar.
Drinking it all in
I adore sundowners (what’s not to like about drinking chilled South African MCC next to the hot bonnet of a Land Rover?), but to see my boys engaging with Marc and Golden took this to another level. Jack and Harry were fascinated and quizzed them on their tracking skills and their experiences. Marc certainly didn’t lose any points when he shared how he used to breed snakes…
The drive ended with us watching a leopard sleeping at the base of a great granite boulder. He was metres away, close enough to fill our Vortex binoculars with the finest details – his whiskers, muscle definition, his scars.
Storytelling at dinner
Dinner was enjoyed by candlelight. Chef Dave came out and introduced himself to the boys. “Have you tried ostrich, gentleman?” he asked. “Good for biceps – nice and lean!” Zimbabwean Sommelier Ngoni was brimming with ideas for wine pairing with our dishes – a lush Chardonnay with kinglip and a gorgeous Pinot Noir for the kudu – always accompanied by his catch-cry of ‘Fan-TAS-tic!’
“These people are so nice,” said Jack. “Ngoni is so happy! How does someone get that happy?”
The dinner was crowned by the Ebony choir, a dozen ladies singing and two men on drums, filling the great hall with Shangaan words, rhythm and joy. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw lodge manager Ryan, dancing, caught up in it… After dinner, Ryan came to talk with the boys. He showed them some footage of a shingleback lizard grabbing his foot, and confided to them about the time an infamous wild man of rock turned up at the lodge with his guitar around his neck. “On the outside, I was all formal handshakes and ‘Welcome to Ebony, I hope you'll have a great stay with us…’. On the inside I was like, ‘Ohmygod, It’s HIM!!’”
I left my young men to it, laughing and joking with the manager of a lodge where presidents, CEOs and Hollywood royalty come to stay.
A newfound respect
Day 2 was busy. After another stellar drive, Marc arrived at noon with fishing rods (I’d earlier asked if the fishing was any good in the Sand River). He drove us to a river crossing where we baited up among breezes and dragonflies, some 30 metres from a hippo and her calf. “They're pretty relaxed,” said Marc. “But Harry, maybe stand a bit away from that bank – you might not see them, but there are crocodiles in there!”
Harry hooked within moments, bringing in a small catfish. Lainie did the same. Then Marc got the prize, netting a 3.5-kilogram monster catfish, a metre in length. All the fish were returned thanks to barbless hooks – our photos of casting lines beside an African river with hippos in the background were trophies enough.
After lunch, the boys and I were introduced to Rory Guthrie and his Belgian Shepherd dog, Makulu. Before Makulu’s retirement, he was part of Rory’s canine anti-poaching unit. Coffees were delivered, and Rory told us his business.
“The Greater Kruger National Park had approximately 8,000 rhino seven or eight years ago,” he said. “Now that's down to 4,000. We're losing one a day to poaching.” It was yet another world, both real and raw – one comprising poachers on the ground and highly resourced syndicates with money and lawyers to protect horn-trafficking operations worth millions. Rory’s operation entailed (among other elements) a 24-hour patrol that used night vision goggles, Bell Jet Ranger helicopters – and of course dogs. “We haven't had a problem here since 2015.”
Harry asked if dogs were used for combat. “No, they’re too valuable for that. They just take us to the poacher, and we do the rest.” As Makulu languished at Rory's feet, Rory explained how he had more than a little respect for his adversaries, describing them as strong, fit, bush-wise people. “These are men who will walk for days then get within 25 metres of a rhino. Let me tell you, that’s not easy…”
Adventuring on foot
That evening, we learned just how difficult it is to track a rhino on foot. “We walk in single file,” said Marc, unshouldering his .458 rifle. “Golden will be out front tracking, I'll be watching behind. Keep an arm's length from the person in front and stay quiet. If we surprise an animal, whatever you do, don’t run.”
We entered some light bush, headed for where rhino had been sighted earlier. Golden whispered as he indicated large clover-shaped prints: “It gets more difficult in grasses, but there are signs. A rhino bull has been here – you can also smell that he’s spread his urine. And look here – there is a calf.”
All of us were focused, not least on the possibility of rounding a copse and surprising a family of rhinos. Thirty minutes and two kilometres later, we stood beneath a fever tree, squinting into a low valley of dense bush. A crested francolin started squawking. The guides listened. Then a monkey sounded its alarm, and Golden grew anxious. “The rhinos will be nervous,” he said. “There's a calf. The mother will be vigilant…”
Marc reinforced how important it was to be quiet and tread more softly as we entered the valley. The twilight was upping the tension. It suddenly felt like anything might happen. At a Tamboti tree, Marc inspected fresh scores left by a rhino rubbing its horn. Again the francolin began squawking furiously. “It could be a leopard,” he murmured to Golden. Lainie started coughing, possibly out of nerves. The odds were stacking and not in a good way. “We need to go back,” said Marc.
We were disappointed of course, though I was sanguine: I like my nature wild, not served up. Moreover, the tracking adventure had been a thrill and a privilege.
As we were heading out the valley, Marc walked some 30 centimetres past a dense clump of grasses. Golden burst out in alarm – “Look out!” – and instinctively jumped back. The head of a huge python was in striking distance of Marc’s shin.
Marc, too, jumped but his look of shock was replaced by one of delight. “It's a Southern African python!” he exclaimed. “It’s incredibly rare! I’ve never seen one!” The snake’s solid brown and black body coiled through the grass. Marc circled to an exposed section of coil and used a finger to gauge its temperature. The great snake moved in a flash causing us all to jump back. “That's got to be three metres,” he said. “A snake like that will eat a young impala…”
It was a brilliant end to the drive. We'd seen a creature far more difficult to locate than the critically endangered white rhino. “It's how it is,” smiled Marc. “You just never know…”
My family and I left Singita on a high, feeling enriched, energised and enlightened. As for what was round the corner – well, it wasn’t a leopard, it wasn’t a rhino, it wasn’t even giant python. It was a virus. The day we landed home, news broke about a contagion of flu-like symptoms. Within a matter of weeks, international travel was halted or curtailed for close to 18 months.
Today, in 2022, the boys are 19 and off on gap-year adventures. Their field of vision was unquestionably widened by their Singita experience, in fact both still reference Ebony and its people when talking about ‘the sort of place they’d love to work’. Our decision to do a family safari was a thing of whim rather than calculation – something we thought we should ‘do while we could’.
We count our lucky stars that we did.
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