‘Lunch was a good tuna-fish roll with very average salads, on a deck with a huge tree growing through it. Then we went to our rondavel – a round room with a shower tacked on and gas lights. Perfectly adequate and nice hard beds … Dinner was an impala kebab followed by impala steak or fish pie and pineapple crumble.’
So I wrote of Londolozi in May 1983. The rate was R75 per person per night including all meals and game drives. It was more than a month’s salary to a poor hotel barman like me and I don’t think I thought it was worth it.
But it’s thirty years on and things have changed a bit.
On arrival at Founders Camp, our bags make their effortless way to our room, while we follow smiling camp manager Tammy down a winding path to a wooden deck the size of a tennis court and seemingly floating on air above the Sand River, and a glass of seriously moreish home-made iced tea.
In a place dedicated to the taking of magnificent photographs, the style is deceptively simple. For all their lightness and brightness, Londolozi’s five riverside camps blend discreetly into their environs in colours best described as dramatically black and white with superimposed splashes of sepia, matching the enlarged photos of the reserve’s founders gathered on the walls and cleverly picking out the yellows and browns of the veld.
The bedrooms are equally muted in colour, with soft light fauns and creams reflecting the light of the surrounding bush. The Founders Camp rooms have private decks and splash-pools. The massive high-roofed bathrooms have vaulted bay windows which look out into the trees but ensure privacy from human passers-by whilst not excluding the stares of the odd prurient baboon.
Just as the rooms have taken on a whole new dimension, so lunch, thirty years on, is certainly not a tuna-fish roll. Nor is anything average. The salads are imaginative and delicious, as are the gooey quiches, the sliced rare fillet, a chilled gammon, and smoked salmon with sour cream and fresh capers the size of grapes. Then comes cheesecake. Arguably the best in the world.
There are many aspects of this place that match the ‘best in the world’ label. Londolozi has been acknowledged as such in many ways and has been voted, on numerous occasions, one of the 100 top hotels in the world by the likes of Condé Nast Traveler and Tatler magazines.
It is renowned for the world’s best leopard sightings, largely down to its spacious traversing of great swathes of the Sabi-Sand and the combination of open grassland and towering riverine trees. We would see it for ourselves a bit later on. I would also put it out there that the game drive open vehicles are the best in the world; genuinely comfortable, so that you don’t bash your elbow on a sidebar every time your ranger takes on a tree and kitted out with blankets, raincoats and even hot water bottles.
Our ranger, Daniel Buys, has been at Londolozi for more than three years and personifies the ethos of the Varty philosophy – it is a gentle combination of courtesy, consideration and professionalism.
There are no Land Rover jockeys here. There’s no chasing through the bush for the best position; no bragging on the radio. Londolozi is a place of open spaces with room for everyone. And is if to prove it, our afternoon game drive among the elephants, buffalos and rhinos yields one particularly astonishing sighting, which we have to ourselves for almost an hour. We find ourselves completely transfixed by a leopard, lodged up a tree and cumbersomely skinning and eating an aardvark while, below, a skulking hyena is showered with falling fur as it picks up the leftovers dropping through the branches. A first for all concerned. In fact, maybe a regional first? Later, in the creeping dusk, we come across four male lions asleep in the long grass. We have, as if it matters at all, seen the Big Five in one drive.
Tammy had told us – or rather warned us with great glee but not much promise as far as I was concerned – that there will be a traditional South African dinner in the boma on our return and I am dreading it. How could Londolozi let itself down with such a crass and dull event as a boring old braai in a reed-sheltered enclosure?
I should have known better.
The warmth of the circular fire is reflected a hundred times by the light of dozens of paraffin lamps and candles, flickering across white-clothed tables and warm blankets over the chair-backs.
A warming sweet potato soup is followed by a juicy roasted coconut chicken, perfectly rare sirloin and a selection of superb side-dishes, among which the most unlikely success is a samp and bean stew. There follows an exquisite Amarula mousse. More than sated, I turn to my host to say good night. With the deception of the bush, it feels like midnight but it is in fact a whisker past ten o’clock.
Driving through the river in the cold light of the next morning’s dawn in pursuit of a leopard and cubs, I mull over what it is that makes Londolozi so particularly iconic of its genre and I realise that the answer lies in the realisation that this safari, this journey, will always be with me. It had started days before I arrived, in ‘stalking’ the Londolozi website, and it will be with me for months afterwards as I look back at a perfect experience.
How often can you say that? I may not have been saying it in 1983 when Dave and John Varty had recently opened their camp of adequate rondavels and average salads but I am saying it now: Londolozi is perfect.
Where it is: Right in the middle of the Sabi-Sand Wildtuin on the western border of the Kruger National Park.
Why go there: For the Before, the During and the After of a safari. Get involved with the Londolozi Family on their website before you travel – maybe buy one or two of their books and apps – and follow the blog to keep up afterwards. I am still following that leopard, three weeks on.
What it has: Five camps with varying high standards of comfort. Choose the camp that suits you best. Children are welcome and should join the Londolozi Cubs for an unforgettable safari, kids’ style.
What it’s like: Well, it’s nothing like it was 30 years ago in terms of facilities, but the emphasis remains on unpresumptuous hospitality, an unobtrusive ethos of community-minded sustainability and top-class wildlife-watching.
Rates: From R6950 per person per night in Varty Camp to R11950 in the Private Granite Suites. Includes all meals and game activities.
Getting there: From the R536 Hazyview-Skukuza road, just before the Paul Kruger Gate, turn left towards the Shaw’s Gate entrance to the Sabi-Sand from where you should allow 45 minutes to reach Londolozi. The route is well signposted.