Four creepy, cackling spotted hyenas are looking up at us in our open-to-the-skies treehouse. We’re on our first safari drive, and the feeling of being in the middle of all this nothingness is incredible. There’s an incomparable sense of space – the South African plains stretching hundreds of miles into the distance – and real silence. We breathe unpolluted air. There’s no TV, no music, just healing for the soul. For the first time in months, I feel completely at peace. All this (plus the spotted hyenas that we’ve only previously seen on Planet Earth) makes home seem a thousand time zones away.
A 20-minute drive from the warmth of our lodge at Lion Sands, and complete with four-poster bed, lanterns and table set for dinner, the roof-less treehouse has been prepared for a brave twosome to stay the night. Camping doesn't get much posher. But, much to Mr Smith’s disappointment, we’re not staying over. We’re here for the ritual sundowners with our ranger and new-found safari pals, to drink wine, chew biltong and watch the sunset. Once the sky has turned a stunning blood-red, and darkness has fallen, we descend the three flights of stairs, jump into the Land Rover, and make our way back towards the comfort of our animal-proof room at Ivory Lodge, the more grown-up, private and exclusive of the two lodges at Lion Sands, with River Lodge a less luxurious, earthier neighbour for families or groups of friends.
We chat about the evening drive, and our sightings of black rhinos with their young, a herd of 100 Cape buffalos, a family of elephants, hippos snoozing in the water, and birds of all colours: reds, blues, oranges. Just as we’re settling in for a Land Rover doze (we’re not the only ones…), the radio crackles to life. A change of direction, and we enter a clearing to see a leopard leaning over its recent kill – an impala. The big cat looks up at us with panicked eyes, protective and bloody-mouthed. Feline and elegant even as it tries to drag the impala up a tree, it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. We leave it to feast alone and return in contemplative silence.
The rooms at Lion Sands are fabulously roomy and luxurious. Neutral colours and a simple but sleekly designed interior contrast strikingly with the backdrop of the bush, visible through the all-glass exterior. A huge, raised bathroom is sumptuous and sensual, with freestanding bath and alfresco shower. As soon as we'd arrived, we jumped into our own private infinity pool, watching thrilled as Cape buffalo came to drink and hippos bobbed about in the water. Now, with half an hour till dinner, Mr Smith attacks the fully stocked super-size bar in our separate sitting room, furnished with deep, comfy sofas, a ready-to-light open fireplace and lots of games. I lie on our bed with the binoculars, staring out at the happenings of the animal kingdom; a fish eagle is circling above, ready to pounce.
In the candlelit dining room, its doors open to the stilted terrace and the river lurking below, purple furniture looks modern and chic against the dark wood. Our charming ranger, Diana, joins us for dinner and fills us in on the lodge gossip. We drink fine South African wine and, encouraged by Mr Smith, we feast on impala and wildebeest, the most common of game – lion-feed, so to speak. We’re told how, a week earlier, a young leopard was spotted at night by some merry guests on the wooden walkway that lead to the rooms. Exhausted, we trundle off to bed, squeezing the security guard.
The wooden gong sounds outside our room at 5am, when hot coffee and biscuits are pushed through the hatch. We enjoy another perfect moment on our deck as the sun rises, watching the buffalo drinking at the river’s edge – until we are rudely interrupted by some cheeky monkeys. ‘Close all the doors,’ shouts Mr Smith in mid-laughter as he claps them away. We leave them to finish our breakfast on the deck, and embark on our morning’s nature drive.
We soon catch up with our leopard from the night before; they never wander far from the scene, and it can take them up to four days to devour their kill. There he was, perfectly poised, having a wash on top of a rock – a giant version of our Tigger back home. I experience an urge to reach out five foot and touch him. We certainly don’t need the binoculars or the giant lens. We quietly follow him back to his kill and see more of the impala than we perhaps need to just before tucking into the lodge’s hearty breakfast.
Home-made muesli and jams, fresh juice, bacon, eggs, sausages… ‘I never want to go home,’ says a pensive Mr Smith. It is now 10am, but I’m secretly looking forward to climbing back into that huge bed, lover in tow. In the guestbook in our room, one guest has written that she saw a lion kill a wildebeest on the banks of the river as she was having a massage. When the masseurs come and set up side-by-side beds on our private deck, next to the infinity pool, I promise myself I’ll keep my eyes open as long as possible.
Not a chance. My mind wanders off among thoughts of endless wilderness and a life of wholesome activity with this incredible backdrop of savage beauty. Lion Sands manages its share of the beauty sensitively: in the More family since the 1930s, the lodge is the only reserve in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve to employ a full-time ecologist. You can tell when you’re staying at an owner-run property – rather like eating in a family-run restaurant, it tends to be an environment with heart. Lion Sands is just such a destination, and its ethos of elegance and respect for its location will stay with you after you leave.