IN THE FALL of 2013, Matador traveled to South Africa to learn more about one of the most successful safari brands on the continent: Singita.
In addition to spearheading massive conservation projects across Sub-Saharan Africa, Singita now runs 12 super high-end safari lodges and mobile tented camps in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, and is building three new projects in Mozambique and Rwanda.
Below is a slideshow of images from the Ebony and Boulders lodges in Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa.
Words by Ross Borden; photos by Scott Sporleder.
World-class luxury + world-class wildlife
Each Singita lodge is built so that guests can observe Africa’s most majestic game in its natural habitat, often without even leaving the lodge. At Ebony lodge in Sabi Sands, Matador’s Scott Sporleder watches elephants from the private ‘plunge pool’ outside his room.
Mother and child
Singita’s free-roaming elephant population is thriving. This was readily apparent by how many tiny young elephants we saw on each game drive. Some of the youngsters are only a month or two old and are very well looked after by the rest of the herd.
Guides and gear
Guests are met at the Singita landing strip by their guide and tracker upon arrival. The Land Rovers that transport you on each morning and afternoon game drive can drive over and through just about anything, but the low-cut doors and absence of windows make for super intimate encounters with wildlife, including ‘the big 5.’
Scent of a buffalo
A mature male lion, one of two dominant male brothers in one of the local prides, tastes the scent of buffalo with a deep breath.
Although wild lions don’t recognize a person inside a vehicle as prey, we had a couple encounters where the adult male lions walked right by the truck. There was even one time where they made eye contact with me—a very tense moment.
Looking back at the lodge
The views are often equally spectacular looking back at the lodge from the game drive roads.
Singita Ebony lodge
Each Singita lodge has its own distinctive style and layout. The Ebony lodge features traditional colonial decor.
A private sanctuary
Each room at Ebony comes with its own private plunge pool, living room, sun deck, and both indoor and outdoor showers.
The 'tracker chair'
Each Land Rover is equipped with a chair just above the right side of the front bumper, off the front of the hood. This is where the vehicle’s tracker sits. These guys are pros and will spot tons of animals you might otherwise miss on the game drives. The view off the front also affords them the opportunity to look for fresh game tracks in the sand.
These guys got game
Between the expert guide and expert tracker, you will most certainly see any game you were hoping to see on a visit to Singita. Our tracker Lawrence stops the drive for a minute after spotting some female leopard tracks in a riverbed (left). Our guide Ricardo (right) constantly imparted knowledge about the wildlife and ecosystem and sprinkled in plenty of awesome safari stories. Between the two of them, each game drive was like taking a mini biology course.
Ghost in broad daylight
On the third day, the only big game we had yet to see was a leopard. I was deep in a nap when Sporleder barged through the door saying they had just spotted a large male crossing the riverbed below the lodge’s overlook. We grabbed the camera gear and called Ricardo on the radio, and he came barreling down the road in the Land Rover and swooped us. When we got down to the riverbed things were spooky quiet, as if all the antelope had seen him and run. Tracking a leopard in dense forest is like finding a needle in a haystack, but we got a break when we spotted him cross the road behind our vehicle. When we caught up with him he was resting in the reeds, and we got a great sighting only a couple feet away.
One of the game-changing things about Singita's wildlife is that you don’t need to share it with anyone else. All Singita properties operate in "private game concessions," meaning that if you’re staying at Ebony or Boulders, you're doing your game drives in massive swaths of Sabi Sands that no other visitors are allowed to drive. Not only does this mean the only other vehicles you might run into are those from Singita, but there's also a special set of rules within the concession, allowing the guides to go off-road to pursue big game. Most other game drives in Sabi Sands require vehicles to stay on paved roads.
The most intimate of encounters
The exclusivity and access to wildlife at Singita makes all animals more at ease with the presence of humans and vehicles. I've been on a lot of safaris, but I've never been this close to wild members of the big five.
Most of the Singita properties are home to both black and white rhinos. In order to protect these magnificent animals, Singita has ‘round the clock, heavily armed, anti-poaching K-9 units on the ground and even infrared planes and helicopters in the air. We were fortunate enough to see these incredible beasts during our recent visit to Singita’s brand New lodge, Castleton
Zebras at sunset
Always staying vigilant of predators, zebra and all the species of antelope often graze in herds in order to have more eyes and ears on the lookout.
A lethal display with a harmless yawn
Although we think of hippos as docile, slow-moving creatures, they are actually the most dangerous animals in Africa. Hippos feel safe in the water, so the worst place you can find yourself is between them and the water when they're grazing onshore. They usually only leave the water to graze at night, so walking along a riverbank in the early morning can be hazardous.
The Boulders lodge, right down the road from Ebony, has more of a modern feel.
Singita has style
The rooms at Boulders showcase just some off the incredible style of every Singita lodge. Each blends an aesthetic fit for Architectural Digest and the comfort you see in Dwell.
Plunge into infinity
Like the rooms at Ebony, each at Boulders comes with a private infinity plunge pool to cool off in during the middle of the day, when temps can reach 120 degrees F.
Attention to detail / passion for vino
Each Singita property has an in-house wine cellar where guests can choose from hundreds of bottles of fine wine to enjoy with dinner each evening. The cellar at Boulders (right) is massive and full of wines from all over South Africa.
Built around nature
Perhaps my favorite thing about the Singita lodges, and the one thing that's consistent across all the properties, is that they are built around the natural environment. The aptly named Boulders property is covered in massive rocks, and instead of moving them out of the way they chose to build around them, exemplified by this window in the library.
Family of cheetahs at sunset
Back to the wildlife—we came upon this gorgeous mother cheetah and her cubs just after the sun had gone down.
After giving birth, cheetah cubs will stay with mom for a few years before striking out on their own.
African wild dogs
Although these might look like hyenas at first glance, they are in fact super-endangered African wild dogs. Fewer than 2,500 of these charismatic canines still exist in the wild, and to make this even more of an exciting sighting, we got to follow them on a hunt and witness their unique pre-hunt ritual, where they approach the pack one at a time and are greeted with prancing excitement by their comrades.
It takes a herd to raise an elephant
We got to see some amazing parenting skills—not just of the mother elephants but the entire herd in caring for the little ones. We also learned on this trip that when you can just start to see the first inches of tusk on a young elephant, that means she's about 1 year of age.
An elegant giraffe taking a long, awkward sip of water from the stream after having a very careful look around for predators.
Unlike East Africa, which has the Rothschild's giraffe and Reticulated giraffe, South Africa only has the Southern giraffe, an equally spectacular animal.
A museum of African artifacts
The walls and living spaces at Ebony are decorated with a wide range of African art, crafts, masks, and pieces of local and anthropological history.
We got to follow this guy and his brother around for an hour, mostly spent spreading their scent to mark their territory and sniffing the air for nearby buffalo.
To conserve energy, lions are most active at night when hunting, and they typically sleep 20 out of 24 hours each day.
Plight of the rhino
Still highly threatened from poaching, black rhinos are targeted for their horns, which are used in products consumed mainly in China and Thailand. The horns can go for as much as US$25,000 per kilo. Even with high security in South Africa’s national parks and reserves, hundreds of rhinos are poached each year.
Sunset in Sabi Sands Game Reserve
The sunsets in Sabi Sands seem to last forever, but once the sun goes down, it gets dark fast and the night comes alive with all the nocturnal animals of the bush. At that point Lawrence, our tracker, would turn on his spotlight and look for animals in trees and under bushes on the drive back to camp.
Like the wine experience at Singita, the food experience is world class. From croissants that taste like they’ve been baked in a Parisian bakery, to dry-aged cuts of meat, we didn't have a single meal that wasn't excellent. There are also weekly BBQs where guests get a sampling of local game ranging from kudu to zebra, from ostrich to crocodile. Here, staff member Linneth Khoza delivers flawless “fisherman’s benedict” and mimosas.
The newest addition to the Singita family of lodges in South Africa is located in Sabi Sands. Castleton is a private residence that can be reserved by small groups or large families.
Castleton has a full tennis court, large pool, and gym, and the sprawling lawn surrounding the property looks out over a watering hole that attracts all of the big five. During our brief visit we saw zebra, buffalo, and a family of black rhinos drinking at the hole.
Adventure + education
Doing two game drives each day will feel like a crash course in African wildlife biology. Ricardo and Lawrence would spot tiny things that we would have missed, from an unusual wildflower to this active termite mound that gives off heat from the opening at the top.
Prepared for the worst
Each guide carries a hunting rifle and bullets on his/her belt of a big enough caliber to stop a charging elephant or buffalo. In years of guiding, Ricardo has never had to pull the trigger.
It’s a lazy life for hippos in Sabi Sands.
A daily drink
Each day, depending on how hot it is, large herds of animals make the trek once or twice from wherever they’re grazing down to the watering hole to cool off and hydrate.
A massive monitor lizard, which looks like a smaller version of the Komodo dragon, basks in the sun near the river.
Watching baby elephants roll in the mud on a hot day never gets old. The elephants cool down and protect their skin from sunburn with thick coats of mud each day.
In mom's shade
A youngster elephant stands in the shade provided by his mother.
At your service
Staff members Cheri Marshal (left) and Chantelle Maritz stand to greet us as we arrive. Every aspect of Singita, from the food to the wildlife, will blow you away, but it's the level of service they supply that's really driving this brand forward. I've never experienced anything like it.
Matador's trip to Sabi Sands was sponsored by Singita.
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