(By Janine Avery)
The wind wakes me with a start in the night. I look around and all the lights, bar one, are out. I start to panic…
If there’s one thing I remember the game ranger saying before leaving me alone on a deck in the middle of the bush it was to keep the lights on. Leopards don’t like lights.
I frantically shake the sleeping body next to me. He groans, and somewhere far off in the distance I hear the gentle rumble of a lion roaring, as if in response to my husband’s mating call. But hubby hasn’t heard it, he just turns over and straight back to sleep he goes. “The lights are off,” I whisper, although I’m not sure why I bother. Finally he stirs and after a bit of cajoling agrees to help me get them going again.
Unfurling ourselves from the cloud-like duvet in which we’re cocooned, we peer out through the thin mosquito net draped around our four-poster bed. In the inky blackness we can see close to nothing, except thousands of tiny stars that twinkle above. Caught somewhere between the pristine African bush below and the heavens above, we’re suspended on a deck in the trees. During the night, the wind has built up and, while the warm breath of Africa has allowed us to sleep soundly, our gas lanterns haven’t fared so well. It takes a few tries to get them going again but eventually we do.
We return to bed until the first few fingers of the morning sun start to spread across the deck, bringing with them the sound of birds and the promise of a fresh new day. It’s a glorious sunrise. A giant red ball rises up over the trees illuminating the waterhole below us as we sit down with a cup of coffee (thanks to the handy flask left for us the night before). With a rusk in hand we drink in this little piece of paradise.
How did we get here?
We’re surrounded by nothing but bush, there are no fences or man-made barriers to protect us from the wildlife that roam these parts. And having spent the past few days enjoying multiple game drives around the reserve, we know that it’s home to lions, elephants and a fair number of leopards. We’ve just spent the last night on Garonga’s sleep-out deck – a unique experience in the 22 000 hectare Greater Makalali Private Nature Reserve, which is located west of the Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Having enjoyed a fantastic private dinner and a good few tots of Amarula on the deck, before settling down for the night, it has been the pinnacle of our safari experience, which began just a few days ago in Cape Town. Don’t get me wrong – this has been no bush-wacking, backpacking experience. This has been experiencing nature at its rawest, but without sacrificing the luxury comforts we have come to love.
Getting from our home city of Cape Town to the bush was easy-peasy
We just hopped on an Airlink flight and, just over two hours later, we were touching down at Hoedspruit airport – a cute little place set just metres from some of the wildest grounds in southern Africa. Another couple of hours, and a bumpy road later and we had arrived at Garonga Safari Camp. We spent our first night at their tented safari camp, acquainting ourselves with the area, enjoying some amazing game drives, a few obligatory safari sundowners, a boma dinner with newfound friends and even a majestic bush bath experience. And then, it was time for our sleep-out experience.
What to expect
Having travelled to the Kruger and a number of private game reserves around South Africa a number of times, I fancy myself a seasoned bush hand. However, a sleep-out right under the stars has always been just a thing of my dreams until now. Garonga Safari Camp was a unique choice for us in that the sleep-out experience is included in their daily rate so we could just swap out a normal night in our tent for the sleep-out. We could also rest assured knowing that, if we did chicken out, our comfy luxury tent was just waiting for us.
Nevertheless, I was nervous. Being alone in the bush with just some netting to ward off the elements and animals, is something to wrap your mind around.
The sleep-out experience here started with a short afternoon game drive. As we had to get to the sleep-out deck before darkness fell this gave us the opportunity to enjoy another unique experience – a private vehicle with our own guide and tracker. We went in search of cheetah but found a lone elephant and some ginormous python tracks before arriving at our home in the trees.
Here, everything had been set up for us. A pre-cooked meal, including dessert was stashed in a hotbox while enough booze to calm the nerves had been brought up from the lodge. We were given a radio, spotlight, flashlight, whistle, horn, bug spray and strict instructions to call, no matter the time of night, if we wanted someone to come and fetch our scaredy-cat asses.
We never called.
“One of the most incredible days of my life”
Spending that night on the sleep-out deck will go down in my memory as one of the most incredible days of my life. We watched the sun set over the horizon while waiting to see what would show up at the waterhole and when darkness finally fell we enjoyed searching for constellations with the handy star guide that had been left for exactly this purpose.
When it did come time to settle down for the night, I was surprised how warm it was. My super-thick pyjamas where completely unnecessary and I found myself throwing off the covers just to keep myself cool. It did, however, take some firm discussions between mind and soul to convince myself not to startle awake at every noise, but instead appreciate them… and eventually I fell asleep just listening to the sounds of the bush.
Until the lights went out.