Thornybush: close encounters
View of the dry river bed from the swimming pool at Thornybush Game Lodge
Article By: Gillian McLaren
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A leopard! The young male is strolling through the bush and we are holding onto the bar in front of our seats as the land cruiser bounces over dead branches. Charles, our guide, expertly weaves through the veldt as our tracker, Peter, signals the way through the thorn trees.
The sun is low on the horizon and the sky perfused with an orange glow, and we are thrilled to find this elusive creature in Thornybush Private Nature Reserve and to follow him off-road as the day draws to a close.
Suddenly there is a pneumatic hiss from the side of our vehicle.
“A puncture!” declares Charles. We huddle on the vehicle - wondering where the leopard has gone off to - as a high-lift jack is fitted. “Please climb off now and stay close together.”
Charles is a consummate storyteller and entertains us with tales of his near death experiences in the bush that – while they certainly amuse - contribute to our nervousness as we feign bravery. We are palpably relieved that it takes Peter only a few minutes to replace the damaged tyre.
As we return to Thornybush Game Lodge, the staff welcome us home with hot facecloths and Amarula liqueur. We regale them with the stories of our amazing game drive, with sightings of three lionesses snarling over an Nyala kill, a cheetah on a Reedbuck kill and surviving the puncture in the fading light.
I am escorted back to my room, as the camp is unfenced. The luxurious suites are situated on the banks of a wide riverbed, which is now dry and so vast it resembles a beach. From my outdoor shower I can see an Nyala bull under a tree, in the moonlight. I wrap myself in the plush bath sheet and stroll to the private deck to hear a Fiery-necked Nightjar calling nearby, and enjoy the bright display of stars.
For our evening meal, tables are set on the deck of the communal area, which overlooks two water pools left after a recent flood.
Thornybush Game Lodge was established in the 1960s, but the only thing that is old-fashioned is the level of hospitality. The menu is modern and exotic: I choose roast butternut and coconut soup, followed by the vegetarian option of aubergines stuffed with vegetable risotto. They are delicious and beautifully presented. Vanilla cheesecake is served with a warm caramel sauce.
Back in my elegant suite, I sit on the verandah to enjoy the cool night air and debate whether I should go on the game drive in the morning, or take time to explore the camp and do some bird watching. What a delicious dilemma.
I wake to the sound of a variety of birds in the canopy of trees that frame the view from my bed, and decide to spend the morning spotting in and around the lodge.
After a leisurely breakfast I stroll to the swimming pool, toting my binoculars. With sunlight streaming down onto my face, standing in the infinity swimming pool, I observe a row of tiny blue waxbills on the pool rim as they drink water then dip their breasts and shake their feathers. Some flit away and a Green-Winged Pytilia, pair of Jameson’s Firefinches and Bulbuls joins the party.
A flash of red appears above me, as a Purple-crested Turaco lands in a tree. I saunter to a deck chair and lie in the shade, beneath a bright green umbrella. It is so relaxing I could easily fall asleep, but I don’t want to miss any birds coming to the poolside. After a lazy morning, I reluctantly leave this serene spot, as I must pack to leave for my next lodge.
Off to Waterside Lodge
Thornybush Waterside Lodge after half an hour’s drive from Thornybush Game Lodge and its airstrip. Set on a perennial lake, my suite is built at treetop level, overlooking the water. Gone is the old colonial look, with heavy furniture and dark earth tones. Instead, the walls are soft white and the room has a blue theme, to represent the water and sky. By candlelight I luxuriate in the bath, which has a view of the bush.
The next morning I meet our guide Stanley; a gracious man who has worked in the bush for decades. He is adept at driving the 4x4 and takes us along a sandy riverbed where we spot two white rhino.
White Rhino in a dry riverbed
Stanley assures us that the rhino are habituated to the vehicle and will not charge us, although they could do serious damage with their bulk. Further down the riverbed we spot a white-backed vulture on its nest of thick twigs.
After the exhilarating game drive, I laze in a deck chair facing the lake and watch a frenzy of bird activity in a flowering Boer-bean tree. Weavers are constructing nests, a Long-billed Crombec is calling, Sunbirds are sipping nectar from the crimson flowers and a Black Crake walks along a dead branch hanging in the water.
Nearby, a Water Monitor is lying as still as a sculpture. Two Nyala bulls are fighting on the bank. To crown it all, I hear a Fish Eagle’s evocative cry. This is sublime entertainment.
On the way home, aboard the Federal Air Pilatus PC12, I sit in the co-pilot’s seat. We take off and I watch the bushveld disappear below us, as we climb into the cloudless sky.
At Thornybush Main Lodge and Riverside Lodge, I have had close encounters of the thrilling kind with all of the big five, as well as cheetah and wild dogs - an adventure of a lifetime.
For more information, visit www.thornybushcollection.co.za or call 011 253 6500.
Federal Air bookings can be made on 011 395 9000 or at www.fedair.com.