Garonga is a corner of heaven. Remotely set in the middle of the bushy savannah and overlooking a plain, Garonga is a luxury tent and lodge camp. Bernie the owner, one of the grandsons of WHSmith, owns not only the camp, but also the reserve with all the animals in it. Mind though, we are not talking about a glorified zoo here. The reserve is huge and the animals are free to stay or to jump away. Every now and then Bernie would buy a rhino (10K) or an impala (much cheaper) at farmers' fairs to reintroduce certain species into the reserve and run conservation projects, but he doesn't interfere with the life in the savannah and has set very strict rules for the rangers: no more than two 4x4s at the time in proximity of an animal, no off-road rides at night, i.e. when nocturnal big cats are in action, etc.
Bernie, lives in reserve full time, in a huge villa (with private airstrip) which doesn't share with anyone. No wife, no girlfriend, no children. I was quite fascinated by this misanthropic figure who has swapped society for nature... in comfort. One night at the round dinner table he told us stories of this wonderful continent. You could read excitement in his eyes when he was recalling his ride on a micro light flight overlooking Victoria Falls, or his staying at his friend's Tongabezi Lodge.
Garonga boasts itself of offering a genuine safari experience, and it lives up to its promise. The food is sophisticated, varied and local. As well as eating beef and duck, I tasted for the first time in my life kudos and Warthog. It can't get more local than this!
The game drives (we counted 30 hours in total) were exhilarating. We had to hunt hard for the animals' trail and, admittedly, had a couple of unsuccessful drives. It was a bush safari, so rather difficult to spot the camouflaged animals, and in winter they tend to gather by the river which is quite inaccessible. However, every time we spotted one, it was such a rewarding feeling. We saw all the 4 big cats, including the elusive leopard. Every day we would see groups of coward impalas, cute kudus, clowny wildebeest, nervous zebra and clumsy giraffes. We also saw a chameleon, a jackal and many other funny animals I didn't even suspect the existence until then. Our ranger CJ joked that the *M* mark impala have on their back stands for MacDonald as they are the fast food of hungry predators. I personally loved giraffes because they are curious and gawky. They always acknowledge your presence by staring inquisitively at you and they run in slow motion. Did you know that they sleep 5 minutes per night and never lie their heads on the floor? Also, they don't eat grass but only leaves, preferably acacia leaves. This could well be the reason why their neck is so long: they survived through evolution stretching their neck to feed themselves with trees' leaves. Well, this is my interpretation of evolution...The highlight of the first day was the encounter of a rhino with her baby and a friend. Steve got moved at the sight of this prehistoric-looking bundle of sweetness.
The second day we admired a gorgeous young lion who was still hunting in the early hours of the day. I had never been so close to a lion. Actually I am lying. I have a photo of me as a toddler stroking a baby lion who belonged to a friend of my mum (?!?). I have discussed this recollection with Steve, and he reminded me that in the eighties it was still legal and in fashion to have a wild animal as a pet, in the same way people were allowed to smoke in cinemas and telefilms had a racist undertones. Anyway, that young lion reminded me of Tutankhamen: a young rampant king, fierce and vulnerable at the same time.The third day we watched a herd of elephants led by a matriarch crossing the road. They were many. They were heavy. It was fascinating to see how the tiniest baby elephant was protected by the grown-ups. While I was delirious in my bedroom, Steven had a solo game drive and met two cheetahs.
The fourth day it was the time of the aggressive hippos. They spend most of the day in water because of their thick sweaty skin but you mustn't undervalue their obesity, CJ explained. If threatened, they can run very fast and ferociously attack their pray. You may have heard that hippos are the animals with the highest record of human victims. When we approached the river, they launched a warning scream which they repeated when we left.
The fifth and last day our only mission was to find the leopard. We drove for miles in search of this solitary creature, but in vain, until we got a call from another rangers who was following a mother dragging a dead impala to her nest. When we arrived, the leopard was enjoying her meal. She was well hidden by trees and brunches but the crunching noises of the impala's bones under her teeth were loud and clear. How primordial! When the two cobs joined her, it was the sweetest vision. Just before retuning to the base, we literally bumped into two young lions. We couldn't figure out their sex...
Every day of our permanence followed the same routine: alarm clock at 6am, coffee, game drives from 7 to 10am with snack break, fat breakfast at 10.30am, tea at 3.30pm, second game drive from 4 to 7pm, dinner at 8pm, bed by 9.30pm, 10pm if we wanted to commit a transgression. The time in between the game drives and rich meals were spent getting massages, reading African Geographic, staring at the horizon and sunbathing... until I fell ill and stayed in bed for two days with nausea, vomit and excruciating chest pains and cramps. I still don't know what was wrong with me, but I think that Malarone played a key role. I gave myself 48 hours to get better, and after 48 hours I was on the mend, if not fully recovered. Cheeky monkeys were all around the lodge stealing food and making faces. One of them managed to grab a banana at tea time.
I chose Garonga as it was one of the most reasonable **** lodges in Kruger. If you stay in a luxury tent (equipped with shower, toilet and huge four poster bedroom in the winter, which I still believe it is the best time of the year to visit as it's the dry season), it is really affordable. And it is one of the very few all inclusive places. All the drinks, readily available to you at any time were complimentary. However, the water of the two swimming pools was too cold to swim. On the other side, it was too hot to lie in the sun for too long. So, a heated pool would have been the cherry on the cake. And this is my only criticism.
Amongst the authentic safari treats on offer, we had a bush bath, which meant we were escorted at night out in the bush where a free standing bath with soaps, salts and a bottle of wine were waiting for us. The African winter nights are very chilly but coming out of the hot bath was not as terrible as one can expect. It was in fact a milder version of the ice dipping we tried in Finland two years before.The other extravagance we tried was an open air massage, something I had never done before, especially with monkeys spying on me and huge lizards passing by.
But it was the sleep-out the craziest adventure we experienced. The last night of our safari, we swapped the comfort of our luxurious room to sleep on a platform built on a tree. The view was breathtaking, and we were equipped with a warm picnic meal and a comfy mattress, but we were out in the wild surrounded by hungry beasts and exposed to the natural elements. I tried not to think about it and concentrate on the beauty of the scenery and stars. For the first time in my life I saw the Southern Cross and the Milky Way, as well as a myriad of other constellations. Stunning. I saw the Scorpio, Orion, Sagittarius, etc. The night out, however, turned out to be an endurance test. We were in bed by 8pm (you easily lose sense of time in the savannah), and I managed to sleep a few hours, but by 3am the wind, which had never stopped blowing, got very strong. Tucked into our duvet we stayed warm, but it was impossible to escape the frightening noise of the wind. I asked Steve to escort me to the open-air toilet which was a few meters away, in the bush. On the way back I yelled at the sight of a red mouse. It was so cute but unexpected! By 4am we were back to our comfy room for a couple of hours of deserved rest before our last game drive and 5 hours of drive to Jo'berg to catch her connection to Mozambique, our last stretch of our holiday.