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Living with Lions: Tracking big cats from the lap of luxury at Ulusaba, the private African game reserve of Sir Richard Branson, south africa safaris, wildlife viewing, african resorts, high-end luxury resorts in South Africa, luxury safaris - ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine

by Bob Plunkett, Travel World Syndicate

Lion Lounging on the Reserve
Lion lounging during the day
Photo by Bob Plunkett
Lions are on the prowl.

By day these kings and queens of the food chain are snoozers lolling in the shade, but when night falls in the hills that Afrikaners in South Africa call the bush, the lions arise. These are huge cats, ferocious carnivores with fangs the size of fingers and as sharp as spikes, and at night they're hungry - and searching for supper.

Through the dark we suddenly find them, their golden coats shining in the glare of a game tracker's spotlight. The lions surround our open-top Land Rover in a hunting party of six gaunt females of various ages plus one adolescent male, his mane sprigged in sporadic tuffs around a thick and muscular neck. We're struck by the size and proximity of the pride - they're as close as an arm's reach from my wife Tanya and me as we huddle on exposed seats in the wagon.

Did I mention it's very dark?

When the tracker's light moves away from each lion, the predator disappears into the blackness, but we know it's still close because of the sound of a panting breath and the swooshy snap of tall grass as enormous claw-packed paws plod through the brush.

I'm feeling like a feline hors d'oeuvre served up on seats of the Rover, just waiting for plucking by one of the powerful females. Yet our guide and driver, a South African wildlife expert named Duard Terreblanche, tells us not to worry about lions leaping into the vehicle.

"They're accustomed to seeing the wagons around them, so they ignore us," Duard whispers. "Besides, they're on the trail of a more interesting meal."

And so they are. They're walking, silently but purposefully, in a line through the bush with perhaps ten yards separating each hunter.

"We say they're on their way to McDonald's for supper," Duard says, explaining that the lions are probably stalking the most common hoofed prey in this game reserve, the Thompson's gazelle, a small but swift and agile antelope. "You can even see McDonald's arches in a black 'M' marking the rump of each gazelle."

As the lions proceed through the bush we follow in the Rover, the tracker's light moving from one cat to another although he's careful not to shine the light into their eyes or point ahead of the procession.

"The light's allowed on the hunters, but we don't want to give them the advantage by showing off the prey," Duard tells us.

We continue like this, a line of lions moving side by side through the bush but trailed by a Land Rover filled with spectators who have journeyed half-way around the world to observe big cats in the wild.

Then, as quickly as a twig snaps from shrub, the lions sprint into the dark.

Lions With Their Kill
Pride of Lions Surrounding Their Prey
Photo by Bob Plunkett

Deep and throaty snarls are heard plus a high-pitched yelp followed by a loud roar as fangs connect with forgiving flesh of the antelope trapped by a wave of pouncing lions. It's not a pretty scene, and certainly not so to watch one animal die for the nourishment of others, but it's electrifying to witness this age-old drama played out by wildlife in Africa, hunter connecting with the hunted in the endless continuum of the food chain.

"What do you want to see the most?" Tanya asks me during our journey to South Africa and the private game reserve at Ulusaba.

"I hope to observe a kill," I tell her, explaining that, despite being an impassioned proponent of wildlife conservation, I understand that the struggle between hunter and hunted and the rule of the food chain is as much a part of natural order of Africa as thunderstorms and brush fires. Also, I want to see Africa's large cats - lions, leopards and cheetahs, each unique in social behavior and habits.

We had already been on safari elsewhere in Africa. We peered into the gaping mouth of a hippopotamus on the Zambezi River of Zambia and observed herds of elephant and giraffe, zebra and wildebeest, on dusty plains in Zimbabwe.

Yet we met few big cats on these treks.

Ulusaba at Sunset
Ulusaba at Sunset
Photo provided by Ulusaba
One place that specializes in close encounters with Africa's wild cats is Ulusaba, a luxurious lodge and game park owned by Britain's Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Airlines.

Ulusaba amounts to an elegant spa and retreat occupying high ground in the midst of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Sabi Sand abuts vast Kruger National Park, which extends for two hundred miles or more along South Africa's eastern border with Mozambique. The area boasts the world's greatest concentration of wild species and it teams with Africa's Big Five game animals - lion, leopard, cheetah, rhinoceros and the cape buffalo.

Tanya and I spent four nights at Ulusaba and discovered an uncommon safari resort in the wilderness that caters to adventurous travelers wanting to get extremely close to African wildlife.

Now this isn't camping in the bush in the manner of Hemmingway or Jungle Jim - tents pitched around a fire pit and lions at bay just beyond the light of the fire. Rather, accommodations at Ulusaba more closely resemble a five-star hotel, only it's located within Africa's largest preserve of wild animals.

Facilities consist of two different fortified encampments - Rock Lodge and Safari Lodge - each a cluster of thatched-roof bungalows surrounding a spacious lodge house and gourmet restaurant with adjoining swimming pool and sun decks. Each compound has a well-stocked kitchen staffed by chefs trained in fine cuisine as well as indigenous African fare. Also, even in such a remote outpost there are telephone and internet connections, a fitness center rigged with top-notch equipment, plus the Aroma Boma Spa, even a tennis court and nearby private landing strip hacked from dense brush.

Morning Safari Ride
Elephant sighting duriing a morning safari.
Photo provided by Ulusaba

Daily routines at Ulusaba revolve around the wildlife, with early morning and late afternoon forays in convertible Land Rovers to view the game. Between these sunup and sundown safaris there's leisure time for brunch and lounging by the swimming pool or working out at the gym followed by an indulging massage at the spa.


After the evening safari, each lodge hosts a sumptuous candlelight supper involving multiple courses and perhaps a taste of wild game such as kudu or impala.

During daylight safaris we encounter an ark's assortment of game - giraffes with their long necks stretching into thorny acacia trees to munch on tender leaves, elephants bathing playfully at a water hole as hippos eye them with only twitching ears and nostrils evident above the water line, herds of menacing horns on cape buffalo lurking in shadows of the bush, or lions, napping in a meadow.

Over several days we track a lanky female cheetah and three youngsters as these endangered creatures, swiftest runners in the animal kingdom, hunt for impala. One morning, mother parks the kids in a field, then out-sprints the antelope and holds its neck in her jaws until the young ones arrive to render the coup de grace. And as cubs subsequently feast on the prey, mother cheetah, still panting from her race, stands over her wards as sentry.

"Uh-oh," says Duard as his binoculars pick out the spots of a leopard lurking in tall grass.

Mother cheetah also sees the leopard and for ten tense minutes the two big cats eye one another from a distance as the cubs devour the little antelope.

We wait for a confrontation between leopard and cheetah, but it never comes. Instead, the leopard eventually slinks off in the grass, with cubs still unaware of the danger.

"That must be a female," Duard speculates, "because a male leopard would come right up and take the kill."

And one reason the cheetah population continues to shrink, he says, is because these are Africa's only large cats that will not stand and defend a kill.

Safari Break
Taking a break from the evening safari.
Photo provided by Ulusaba

At sundown during our evening safaris the Land Rover stops in a meadow as Duard and his tracker, a Zulu tribesman who uses the Anglican name of Simon, retrieve from the tail of the Rover a folding table and picnic basket, then set out refreshments - high tea of sorts in the bush at Ulusaba.

We sip and munch while standing around the vehicle, careful not to stray too far because we've seen the kind of critters that dwell here.

But on several afternoons, Duard and the tracker Simon, each shouldering a powerful hunting rifle, escort us on a hike into the bush where we physically place ourselves at risk in the African food chain. We walk for a mile or so, crossing river and meadow and following game paths but stopping to observe even the lowly dung beetle toiling to roll a tiny ball of elephant dung. Elephants are Africa's behemoth eating machines, according to Duard, consuming up to a hundred pounds of fodder every day but digesting less than half the foliage they eat. Their droppings, still rich in nutrients, fuel many other creatures.

Duard points out the three-foot-long monitor lizard camouflaged against brown bark of a tree. He picks off a three-inch-long African chameleon flashing vivid green skin against the green leaf of a tree, spies a stately kudu and calf across a clearing and finds in the sand the tell-tale tracks of lions, each paw print wider than the span of my hand.

Near a water hole our guide discovers the scat from resident hippos.

"They venture out of the pools at night to forage, but watch out because a hippo is the most dangerous animal in Africa." If a person gets between a hippo and the sanctuary of its water hole, he says, the animal will charge, swinging that huge head back and forth with mouth agape to expose sharp tusks that can slice a person in half.

Game Viewing from Resort
Game viewing from the resort.
Photo provided by Ulusaba

On our last evening at Ulusaba, we're in the safari wagon searching for rhinos.

Shy and solitary in nature, the white rhinoceros is elusive at Sabi Sand. We drive around for several hours looking for these animals that seem as big as box cars yet all we find are occasional tracks on the trail plus their spore - lots of spore, in fact, indicating a very large rhino.

We return to camp without sighting the creature, although if we catalog all face-to-face encounters with the wild things of Ulusaba it amounts to an incredible show. To prove it, we load the best images from a digital camera into our laptop computer, then get on the Internet from a bungalow at Safari Camp and send home digital post cards.

"Greetings," we write, "from the lion's den."

Ulusaba - safe haven among the wild things
by Tanya Plunkett, Travel World Syndicate
Ulusaba's Rock Lodge
Ulusaba's Rock Lodge
Photo by Bob Plunkett

The name Ulusaba means "place of little fear" because the towering pinnacle where Rock Lodge stands provided the perfect lookout point for ancient Shangaan warriors who once hunted here.

Nowadays there's little for visitors to fear at Ulusaba, despite the remote location in a wilderness populated by the most ferocious animals in Africa.

But it didn't seem that way at first.

When my husband Bob and I arrived at Ulusaba, following several days on jets from the United States plus a long ride from the nearest airport, we spotted a two-track trail leading out of camp and I asked our guide, Duard Terreblanche, if that would be a safe place to run for our daily exercise.

"You can't run outside the camp," he told us, "because the lions might get you."

I thought he must be kidding, although later I would discover just how many fierce animals inhabit the seemingly tranquil forests surrounding Ulusaba's camps.

Duard suggested we use the gym instead. It's at Rock Lodge on the granite peak called a koppie. The highest bungalow, reached by many steps up a suspended catwalk, houses Ulusaba's fitness center. We find Cybex weight-lifting machines, StairMaster steppers and deluxe treadmills, the type of equipment stocked by the best gyms in the United States. So our runs at Ulusaba take place on the treadmills, which face a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking a water hole in the forest. During my first steps on the treads, I watch as three elephants wade into the pool.

Safari Lodge's Rope Bridge
Photo by Bob Plunkett

While Rock Lodge stands atop the koppie, Safari Lodge is half a mile away built on piers over banks of the Mabrak River which, except during the rainy season, resembles a dry river of rocks. Swinging rope bridges across the river connect several isolated bungalows to the main compound. Each camp has an electrified fence around the perimeter, with boardwalks and sidewalks linking bungalows to the main lodge and dining room.

Quarters at the camps are constructed from stone and native hardwoods, then decorated in distinctive colors of a specific African tribe. A four-poster bed in the wood-floored room is draped in diaphanous white mosquito netting, while the spacious bathroom contains a cave-like shower with cascading waterfall plus a zebra-striped tub strategically set near a picture window so you can watch a parade of game even while soaking.

In the evening an armed sentry awaits to escort you to a dinner by candlelight. Still, monkeys come into the camp through the towering fig trees and one night a leopard lurked in granite crevices above Rock Lodge. And those lions are always out there - we hear them during the night from our bed, along with the sing-song bray of the hyena and honking snorts from hippos.

In the midst of this menagerie, though, we find chefs capable of turning out menus worthy of Michelin's favored stars. A request for low-fat fare brings the head chef to our quarters for consultations, and the meals that follow are creative in selections and brilliant in execution - including African stock like the yam and exotic-for-the-bush spiny lobster.

One dinner under the stars on decks at Safari Lodge is interrupted by passing visitors - a pride of lions meandering across the river. We watch them from the deck as the cats fade into the night, then return to the table with goose bumps tingling.

The tab for safari at a private game reserve like Ulusaba may seem steep - about $1,000 in U.S. dollars per night for a couple sharing quarters. But that fee covers a lot. Included in the day rate are luxurious accommodations in a romantic room with en suite bath and sun deck, the two-per-day game drives with a ranger and tracker plus optional hikes on foot into the bush, access to the swimming pool and fitness center and tennis courts, all meals and all beverages from a well-stocked bar including fine wines, even same-day laundry service with your safari suits starched and pressed and returned to your quarters each evening.

Luxury Accomodations at the Resort
Resort Room
Photo provided by Ulusaba

Ulusaba, the private game reserve of Sir Richard Branson, is situated in the western section of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve abutting Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga province of South Africa. Operating year-round, the resort consists of two separate camps - Rock Lodge and Safari Lodge. Accommodations include all food and beverages, twice daily game viewing drives, optional walking safaris, access to lounges, swimming pool, fitness center and tennis court, plus daily laundry service.

Per day rates for two people sharing quarters begin at 7,000 South African Rand (current conversion rate of $1,040 in U.S. dollars).

Access is by charter single-engine aircraft landing at Ulusaba's private air strip or commercial air service via South African Airways from Johannesburg to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, coupled with a car transfer by road. Johannesburg has daily international flights from Atlanta, New York, Sao Paulo, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Singapore and Sidney on such carriers as South African Airways, Varig, British Airways, Virgin, KLM, Air France, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Qantas.

Contact Ulusaba at the United States office, (800) 557-4255 or (203) 602-0300, or by email at Or visit Ulusaba's website at