Riding on an elephant at dusk, I can peep at birds roosting in the treetops - a sweet and intimate sight. It is a remarkable feeling to have my feet in stirrups, to be astride this huge animal.
Jabulani - who was the first of the orphaned elephants to be rescued by Camp Jabulani - treads so quietly I can’t hear his footfall. It is surprisingly quiet, considering his vast bulk, until he spots his favourite tree and turns to crack off a branch.
He has been trained to pick any object the riders may drop, for which he receives the reward of pellets - the ellie equivalent of Lindt chocolate balls.
I have a good laugh when he picks up a bone in the veld and extends his trunk to the groom in hopes of food. What a spectacular way to experience a sunset.
Before I rode Jabulani, I was allowed to touch him, and slide my hands over his lightly hairy trunk. It was astounding and humbling to be so close to a wild animal and to look into his intelligent eyes, as he patiently waited for his pellet reward for tolerating my awed gaze and hesitant embraces.
Although I have seen the mud marks on trees where elephants have rubbed their immense sides, nothing prepared me for the size of Jabulani, as I stood on tiptoe to pat his tall shoulder.
“It was an awesome experience,” agrees James, my seventeen-year-old son. “I could feel Sebakwe, my elephant, calling her calf with a low rumble when the baby walked too far from her side.”
The evening has turned cold when we get back, and we are escorted into the dining room and across to a blazing fire. Our dinner is outstanding - beautifully presented and carefully prepared. Each course is a masterpiece and we rave to Andre, our chef, when we meet him.
He tells us that Camp Jabulani is a member of the Relais & Chateaux group, which is so strict that they send anonymous guests to check the food standards. James is so taken with the chocolate mousse that he asks if he may have some for breakfast. “With pleasure” responds Andre without even blinking.
Vegetarian food is my preference, which often causes concern in South Africa where we are so meat oriented. Here, I am served creative, appetising fare.
Our suite, poised on a dry riverbed, is uber-luxurious and totally private. Despite the cold, James hops into the plunge pool. I have my trusty binoculars out and am trying to classify all the birds that are foraging in the area. A special sighting for me is the notoriously shy grey-headed bush shrike with it’s bright yellow underparts faintly washed with orange. A Southern Boubou is calling and a white-browed robin-chat is hopping in the riverine thicket. I am one happy and contented woman.
The elephant theme is sustained throughout the lodge and we have fun spotting the ellies: etched in gold on our personalized welcome card, clipped into a leaf placed on our facecloths, in silver on our serviette holders, small bronze statues and in paintings.
Our up close and personal experience with wild creatures is not over. We are driven through the bush to Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, where we walk into an enclosure with baby cheetahs. One hisses at me as my silky skirt blows in the wind, then as I sit, he approaches me and begins to taste and chew my skirt.
What an emotional experience for me to stroke these little mammals and hear them begin to purr. They purr as they breathe in and as they breathe out. We can’t believe we are playing on the ground with baby cheetahs.
It has been a deeply fulfilling experience and we feel that our souls have been refreshed and restored after our close encounter with habituated, but wild animals.
For more information, and to book online, visit http://iafrica.safarinow.com/go/CampJabulani.