- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

HOEDSPRUIT, South Africa — Help yourself — to the open bar, to your totally private outdoor plunge pool, to hot-water bottles tucked into your bed each night and to morning and evening game drives in an open-air Toyota Land Cruiser.

To call Tintswalo Safari Lodge a welcoming place is to understate the case — a case made in several artful and dramatic ways for guests who come to experience a South African safari at this two-year-old establishment in the Manyeleti Game Reserve bordering Kruger National Park.

The word “safari” comes from the Swahili word for travel, and truth to tell, getting from Washington to Johannesburg — Joburg — and then to the private game reserve in Limpopo Province takes a considerable amount of travel. About 20 hours or more. However, Tintswalo does it right by arranging charter flights for clients in a six-seater Beechcraft prop plane that lands on a dirt runway the lodge shares with another lodge nearby. A trip overland by car from Joburg would take at least five hours.

On arrival, guests are greeted by lodge employees offering cold towels and a choice of water, orange juice or champagne arranged temptingly beside the landing strip on a table covered with white linen. Then it’s off for a short ride in the Land Cruiser to Tintswalo’s reception area — an elevated boardwalk in a lush setting that leads to an array of artwork, both humorous and serious, before an imposing front door.

It’s easy to describe the entire lodge as a work of art in several senses of the word. Each of the seven large stand-alone suites on the property is an inventive conical structure made of stone, thatch, metal and wood. The main lodge contains several open rooms, including a unique cylindrically shaped combination dining room and wine cellar, a formal dining room and a bar. Two larger separate rentals are known as the Manor and the Presidential Suite.

The furnishings are luxurious in a cozy English country way, with comfortable sofas, decorative fabrics and appealing art everywhere.

Our hardy press team was taken in hand by Patrick, our guide during a four-day visit. He grew up in the neighboring tribal community speaking Shangaan, but he was just as quick-witted and spirited in English as well as being adept at controlling a two-way radio and the steering wheel and acting as lookout. An assistant tracker was seated ahead of him on the front of the vehicle.

We were in lands populated by the fabled big five: the elephant, largest of all land mammals; the leopard, the most evasive; the rhinoceros; cape buffalo; and the mighty lion. We saw them all, along with zebra and giraffe, waterbuck, springbok, impala and other antelope in great numbers, often in unexpected ways. The sightings — often only yards distant— were preceded by the thrill of a chase that could take hours of waiting and tracking.

Patrick spoke of luck as his own guide, but it was more instinct and experience. He could see a camouflaged chameleon on a tree in the dark. By day, walking the bush in the early morning, he would instantly identify telltale footprints and droppings, even amusing us one time by challenging our party to a dung spitting contest using tiny impala remains. Coming upon a single male buffalo while walking the bush one morning was the closest we came to ambush under his care.

The male buffalo had most likely been banned from his herd for gross behavior of some kind and, being alone and possibly sick, was likely to charge. (You learn these things later.) Luckily, we were moving upwind, so he didn’t get our scent. With only yards to spare, Patrick turned around abruptly and silently commanded us to reverse our steps. Fast. His facial expression was severe. We understood at once that this was a do-or-possibly-die situation.

He was walking in front of the line with a rifle loaded with bullets large enough to penetrate an elephant’s brain — but firing it in this or any similar instance would be tantamount to failure. His professional codes were strict and every bit as impressive as his people skills.

Recent travelers to safari lands in Africa suspect foul play when guides almost miraculously locate prized game in a day or two. The suspicion is that certain animals have been implanted with microchips for easy identification by scanners. (Such devices have been used protectively as well, to ensure the health of a wild species at risk from poachers.) Such charges have not been proved, and it would seem unlikely for any lodge of quality to risk its reputation that way.

Tintswalo seems above all that, and it has gone one better over more traditional game lodges in instituting a Calves Club (named for baby elephants) for young children, providing a daily schedule of themed activities educational in scope and appropriate for their age. A guide takes the youngsters on a game drive and to a bush market and restaurant, but children are allowed only in the self-contained Presidential Suite and Manor House or by special arrangement.

The very personable owners, Lisa and Warwick Goosen, might be termed the new colonials — they prefer “new explorers” — pioneering a development and working hand in hand with the needs and desires of the Shangaan people, from whom they received a deed to the land. The Goosens’ vision was to establish an eco-tourist venture that would re-create as much as possible a sense of the mystery of the unknown encountered by the intrepid 19th-century explorers.

However, those hardy souls, after whom the air-conditioned suites are named, didn’t have queen-size mahogany beds or the services of a top-notch chef creating first-rank menus using local game to go with superb South African wines.

Spoiled Tintswalo guests sleep under mosquito netting behind floor-length glass walls, where the danger is a baboon taking advantage of an open door to drink out of the sherry decanter kept on a sideboard in the foyer. Baboons are able to lift the stopper without trouble, just as elephants wandering into the yard of the resort’s modest Clairins spa have been known to dip their trunks into the whirlpool bath on the deck. Mrs. Goosen’s mother, who was enjoying a soak at the time, had to wait until her friendly visitor had his fill of nourishment.

The all-inclusive daily price for all this is high, as might be expected, and spa charges are extra. The costs, though, are relative compared to offerings at a first-class hotel where game sightings occur only in prints on the walls. Prices vary with the season, but generally are a minimum $800 per person per day, which includes all meals, two guided safaris and a spa treatment of choice.

There was a moment early in our stay when I wondered if perhaps the luxury tag had been taken a little far. That was when I asked for a simple plastic spoon to use in my room. Not long after, I was presented with a tiny silver spoon on a china plate. This was reflective of the care the staff took in watching out for visitors’ needs.

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