In proper South African slang: Howzit?!
Sonika here, welcome to a safari vacation in my homeland of South Africa. You may or may not know that I was born and raised in Pretoria, South Africa before my family immigrated to the United States when I was nine years of age. I have many fond memories as a child growing up in the city and vivid accounts of what daily life was like in Africa. Fast forward twenty years and here I am, now more culturally American than African, with a longing to visit my home country and explore with my husband a side of Africa I never had before: the bush.
This visual tour you’re about to embark on focuses on Rhino Sands Safari Camp located just south of Swaziland. Being an interior designer I chose this lodge for a three day visit for its beautiful design aesthetic and its picturesque location in the bush alongside a river. So if you’re someone who has an appreciation for good design, wilderness and animals, then you’re in for a treat. Geniet! (Enjoy!)
We arrived at the camp after a four hour drive north stopping just under Swaziland. We were greeted with an imposing wall of upright branches with a singular opening and pathway creating the entrance to the camp. The sharp and twisted lengths of wood provides quite the guarded presence sure to make any unwelcome animal think twice about approaching. A few footsteps beyond, the inside of the camp welcomes you with a manicured, stone-lined garden with the most interesting succulents I’ve laid eyes on. I still need to research this species of plant, but by the looks of them my best educated guess is that they’re in the agave or aloe family.
Our eyes lit up upon seeing the common areas of the camp consisting of stylish seating arrangements under a canopy of tree cover and a tented lounge of sofas and a large dining table for group meals. During our stay we learned that the owners of Rhino Sands were adamant about keeping every possible tree and branch in place while building. As a result, anywhere you walk around camp you are always shaded with lush greenery.
The three core missions of any safari are: 1) See exotic wild animals. 2) Relax among the wilderness. 3) Eat and drink to your heart’s content. This beautifully simple bar cabinet makes a statement in a sleek and rich, dark color in contrast with surrounding tree bark. Hidden doors slide out to keep all contents safe at night from roaming creatures. We were told that monkeys love to steal the lemons and limes that are used in cocktails when they notice the bar unattended.
A charming outdoor oven sits nestled among the wild wall of branches, designed as a replica of the ovens used in the early 1800’s by the Voortrekkers. These were groups of Dutch-speaking people in South Africa who would later become known as Afrikaaners as they created their own Dutch-influenced language: Afrikaans. While these ovens were historically used to make bread, this particular one baked the pizza we enjoyed for lunch. Yum.
This corner of the breakfast patio overlooking the river below was my favorite spot throughout the camp. Sitting here allows you to feel at one with nature with the graceful tree branches reaching out to bridge the gap between man made structure and Mother Earth.
Let’s break away from camp for a bit and explore the bush drives. There are two bush drives daily: 5:30am and 4:30pm. The sun rises around 5:45am in South Africa so it’s imperative to get out and explore while the animals are still active in the cool morning air in order to view them before they find shade to lay under as the day heats up.
A view of the landscape from above during my first helicopter ride, a complete surprise after an exhilarating morning observing a rhino dehorning. Rhinos are in constant, extreme danger of being poached for their horns that are sold on the black market. Dehorning them is a successful method of discouraging poachers from targeting these majestic animals.
The morning and evening bush drives last about three hours including a rest for drinks and snacks to stretch your legs and observe the surroundings. The ranger usually selects a particularly picturesque spot to stop and in this case, a serene pond with towering fever trees. Besides occasionally spotting a wild animal, these rests were my absolute favorite part of every bush drive. Our go-to morning drink included french press coffee with a packet of hot chocolate mixed in, and occasionally I asked for a shot of Amarula in there as well. Not pictured, the night drive “sundowner” rest stops usually took place on a hill overlooking the vast landscape turning red and purple during sunset while enjoying a cold beverage and snacking on biltong.
Pattern galore! Seeing giraffes in the wild just makes you smile, and in this particular case there were zebras grazing in the mix. We were lucky to get this close to them since both giraffes and zebras spook easily and usually keep their distance from the vehicle.
Back at the camp, our private tent exemplified the popular term “glamping”. Situated high within the trees, a wooden platform created a large patio around a waterproof canvas tent, providing a feeling of relative safety from roaming animals.
What’s an African safari without an outdoor shower? Completely exposed yet still private from neighbors, it takes overcoming multiple mental hurdles to work up the guts to use it. The design of this natural space is complete eye candy as the combination of copper and brass plumbing fixtures seem right at home with the wooden screen and surrounding trees growing through the floor boards. Reused rain water supply flows to the ground below, and earth-friendly biodegradable soaps and shampoo completes the au-natural experience.
The interior of the tent provides a smidge more optional privacy with canvas panels that separate the bedroom and bathroom. The interiors of the tent, designed and decorated with an emphasis on the romance of the classical safari experience, provide a nod towards traditional safari styling but including all the modern luxuries. Additionally, Rhino Sands is ecofriendly and has been constructed with minimal disruption to the natural forest, highlighting rather than dominating the surrounding environment. Electricity runs entirely on a solar installation and all water used on camp is collected rainwater from the summer rainy season.
Many naps were taken in this cozy bed given the atypical vacation schedule of 5:00am wakeup calls. Never too far from a pick-me-up, a mini coffee and tea bar situated inside a wooden chest provided an often necessary caffeine fix.
Bringing my safari camp tour to a close, I must say that it was an experience that I’ll never forget. Traveling to Africa exposes you to a culture so different and intriguing from ours in the United States, leaving every sense heightened. There’s just nothing to prepare you for sleeping in a tent separated from the wild outdoors with only a zipped-up screen enclosure, being startled awake in the black of night to the blood-curdling screeching howls of baboons fighting in the trees above your tent.
With that said, I hope to visit again in ten years.
Sonika Fourie Dechow