Strolling from my Luxury Suite to the newly constructed underground photographic hide in Kings Camp - sited in Timbavati Private Nature Reserve that is famed for its rare white lions - I am greeted by birdsong from branches of ancient indigenous trees. Early morning sunlight gilds the trunk of a baobab, as a herd of impala huddle together. Perhaps they also heard the cough of a leopard, as well as the grunts and growls of the local lion pride that punctuated my night, as they are alert and facing in the same direction. Two Spotted hyenas lope past, their backs sloping downward in characteristic motion and posture. They don’t stop at the waterhole, so the impalas become less vigilant.
Image by Andrew Morgan
Image by Kings Camp
My cameras at the ready, I sit in one of the armchairs in The Kings Warren, as the hide has been named, to honour Warren Moore, the manager who has worked at Kings Camp for 28 years. Warren and Lisha met at the camp in 1996, had their engagement and wedding here and are now the parents of young adult children. Their son Cathan is an accomplished wildlife photographer that won his first award at age 18. This continuity has contributed to the relaxed family atmosphere and congeniality between staff members here. Warm and genuine, the management couple greet guests each day, to ensure that they are comfortable in their suite and to invite requests and feedback. I experience the service as attentive, personalized, but not intrusive.
Image by Gillian McLaren
It’s a chilly winter morning, so the coffee machine provides welcome warmth and the shot of caffeine that I enjoy. The waterhole is an eye level, right next to the still water surface, with perfect reflections of the aged Knob thorn tree - with its Red-billed buffalo weaver nests comprising a mass of thorny twigs forming a multiple chambered communal structure - as well as a clump of reeds and pink-tinged clouds. A pile of field guidebooks are my companions and when a solitary bird - that I identify as a Striated heron - darts out of the undergrowth to catch a fish. As it is mostly a crepuscular hunter, I already feel well rewarded for my early morning venture.
Image by Cathan Moore
A breeding herd of elephants visits the waterhole regularly, so the hide enables a view of their flat feet with calloused foot pads, with toe nails that have been polished by rough surfaces as they walk through the bush. These feet pick up low-frequency rumbles and vibrations caused by animals up to 20 miles away. As well as slaking their thirst in the water, the “ellies”- as they are affectionately known in South Africa - spray mud and water over their backs and joyfully play with one another.
On an open-sided patio, we savor a delectable lunch that creatively presented and paired with a local house wine. We then set off on a game drive, to find the lion pride that has been vocalizing nearby. Grant Murphy, our erudite game guide, locates the sighting then drives off road to be right next to the action. Three impressive male lions are on a kudu bull kill, while two submissive lionesses’ inch forward towards the food, in an attempt to get close enough to eat. As one female licks a bone, a black-maned lion roars furiously and hurtles towards her. She hurriedly backs off and assumes a submissive posture down on her belly. Fascinated by these interactions, we watch and photograph, until the sated male allows the lioness to have her share.
Heading through the savanna back to the dust road, Grant chooses a suitable safe space for us to relish our evening gin and tonic - or tipple of choice - in the wild, as the sun sets in a blaze of melted vermillion.
Back in Kings Camp, baboons have been romping next to the waterhole, while a Pied kingfisher was kamikaze-diving to catch fish. One could relax in this underground hide all day long and probably observe any of the Big Five, African wild dogs, or even one of the smaller cats, all at eye level. The padded bar-type stools are free standing, so can be moved around to get the best vantage point. This is no hard bench, utilitarian area. Like the Luxury Suites, décor tends towards the classic safari style, with dark wood, safari memorabilia from a bygone era, historic images, and animal-themed objet des arts. A quirky touch includes bronzed baboon sculptures forming book ends and metallic baboons presenting serving plates. In the hide, the backrest of one of the armchairs is upholstered with the design of a one penny stamp from the Union of South Africa.
Despite the unique beauty of each spot where meals are served while at Kings Camp - including on the deck of my Luxury Suite; under the milky way in the lodge boma; beneath a giant Nyala tree adjacent to the Nhlaralumi River bed; inside the dining room with its cozy fire - my firm favorite is to snack inside the hide, where I gaze out at the water, with a sense of anticipation and deep peace.
For more Travel features by Gillian Mclaren: www.gillianmclaren.blogspot.com
Federal Airlines has shuttle flights from their private air terminal near to Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, to lodge landing strips in the lowveld. I enjoyed a flight in their Cessna 208B Caravan 1 - a nine seater aircraft - to Rock Fig airstrip, near to King’s camp. Back to Johannesburg, I was turbopropped in a luxurious Pilatus PC-12. The private terminal lounge, has an indoor and outdoor area, where drinks and snacks are served. It is a simple, comfortable space, right next to their runway.