A Walk On The Wild Side
A baby cheetah scurries across the road just as we enter the Kruger National Park gate to continue our 80-kilometre journey to Imbali. He’s a scruffy one, almost hyena-like, until you zoom into his unmistakable spots. We drive on, passing a bunch of giraffes who kindly condescend to look directly into the camera for a beautiful portrait picture. Zebras and deer scuttle away at the first sound of engine noise, but then look back to see if they are being followed and again, a perfect image capture right there. A lone elephant shakes his snout at us, his gargantuan tusks a clear warning to stay away. Buoyed by this surge of thickly populated wildlife, we enter Imbali, our home for the next couple of days.
It’s rustic African style all the way, but adapted to fine living. As we sip on some welcoming lemonade, a giraffe is trying an acrobatic bend down to get his head into a watering hole, just opposite from where we sit on the outdoor restaurant deck. Elephants are grazing nonchalantly just below us. This is why South Africa is the kingdom of the wild – there’s a welcoming home for them all here.
We are guided to our respective chalets; a total of 12 generously proportioned rooms with big baths that look out to forest foliage and a smattering of Impala deer, as curious as they are shy. An outdoor patio plays host to either a small plunge pool or a Jacuzzi and some sun beds that beckon an afternoon of shut-eye.
But we’ve got a photoshoot to finish and some lions to find. Nickolas, our safari guide, is our best bet to get both done. Born and raised around the area, he has worked in the business for 16 years and has the eyes and ears of a supremely trained being who can find a hidden rhinoceros crouching down almost a kilometre away from our jeep. Nick’s facial scars tell a tale of living dangerously but it’s his wondering gaze and hushed respect on finding the big cats feasting on their prey that makes him so endearing – he admits that the lure of the wild is eternal and one can never fail to be mesmerised as by the animal kingdom as they play out their day of survival in the jungle.
The sun sets, melting into a rippled potpourri of colours, “like a shaded chiffon sari”, as cover girl Aditi Rao Hydari so eloquently puts it. Nick arranges a makeshift picnic table, where we nibble on some dried mango, beef rolls and mixed nuts as our pre-selected drinks are handed to us in chic steel goblets – local Stellenbosch Merlot for the girls and a stiffer gin and tonic for the boys. A proud Kudu deer (South Africa’s national animal) stands tall amidst the bushes, silently alert.
The evening plays out in three courses; aromatic broccoli and almond soup with home-made milk bread, a choice of entrée (beetroot risotto, steak or quail) and sticky toffee pudding. The chef is happy to customise an Indian meal for us – good to know when recommending this place to future visitors back home.
The next day is simply a frenzied blur. Five a.m. wake-up calls are nobody’s idea of fun but seeing the dappled rays of morning sunrise coupled with a flurry of mammals and birds on a breakfast trot gets everybody into a fine mood. Costume changes in the middle of jungle land (10,000 hectares of concession land belongs to Imbali and one is allowed to get off the jeep in some spots – in totality Kruger spreads itself across two million hectares), climbing atop sturdy tree branches, rushing to Hoyo Hoyo Safari Lodge (a sister concern of Imbali and a smaller, charmingly authentic resort with just six rooms) to catch a herd of elephants who have made their customary afternoon halt at a watering hole just outside the lodge, catching the last rays of golden yellow-simmering orange-slate grey-hazy blue light for that inimitable beauty picture….it turns out to be a long, bone numbing but soul fulfilling day.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that we find the time and energy to pack in a safari in the midst of all this fashionable chaos. The guides have heard the pained wails of a dying buffalo the night before and have correctly surmised that a big cat is feasting somewhere close to our lodge. We begin the witch hunt in our jeeps and are soon rewarded with the priceless sight of two tawny, healthy young male lions chewing the guts out of the now dead wild buffalo – a gory scene, yet a hypnotic one. You would think the day doesn’t get any better but in Kruger, one fantastical opportunity is simply topped by another. As we drive along, a pair of cheetahs crosses our path and we zealously stalk them until they pause to rest in a forest clearing. Unfazed by us, they bask in the warm sun, occasionally darting a piercing gaze at the now crowded group of jeeps that have all stopped to stare, jaws hanging.
All in all, Imbali makes for the most unforgettable few days; weaving memories that will be etched in our minds. The sense of being truly sated? We now know what it is.
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