CAROLINE HURRY speaks to Londolozi’s DAVE VARTY about our relationship to the natural world
Londolozi: late afternoon. A charged atmosphere as a leopard sinuously stalks her prey. Not a juicy young buck this time, but a Brad Pitt of a male she’s had in her sights for days. She’s on heat and, as our ranger explains, will follow him out of her territory to mate.
Mindful of her pursuit, the “Camp Pan male” plays hard to get. Wearing his bored rock star expression he accepts her overtures as his due, preening and gazing languidly about. Delicately he sniffs the air. He has smelt fresh meat. He pads forward to investigate but returns to the reeds on discovering a lion and lioness feasting on a waterbuck.
There’s no love lost between the two predators. It’s a venison thing. Lions don’t appreciate the competition and will kill leopards every chance they get. Three meters from the lions on the causeway lurks a crocodile big enough to make a few suitcases for Grace Mugabe!
We drink in the scene from our open vehicle. Surrounded by a semi-circle of reeds, the Camp Pan male settles down on a flat granite rock, radiating feline confidence and independence. Vomba, the female, is determined to crack his resistance. She stalks him openly, this magnificent wild cat, using her amber eyes as much as her deep throaty growls to ensnare him. And he is bewitched. You can tell by the way he stops preening and sniffs her.
Is there anything more libidinous than the wilderness? The overgrown luxuriance of the riverine forest only enhances the tension as the Camp Pan male pins Vomba down with a massive paw and assumes the position. Her hunger for him is finally reciprocated. We sit entranced at the seductive beauty of the beasts. This the first time I’ve seen leopards mate. And within a few metres of their arch enemies – the lions – nog.Such an experience borders on a religious awakening. And when, a little later on the drive, we escape certain death via a charging elephant, my faith is sealed. Our ranger called it a mock charge, but was the ellie playing by our rules? Once humans lived in caves and had to outsmart predators. Now, many species need to outsmart humans to survive. Nobody realises this more than Dave Varty, co-owner of Londolozi, a 15000-hectare slice of heaven in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin. A latter-day St Francis of Assisi, albeit with a bigger budget, he leads people into – rather then out of – the wilderness. Not that he wishes to increase his client base. His aim is to lessen the number of beds and increase the amount of land. He’s talking “environmental intelligence, sustainability, and not just preservation but regeneration”.
Varty is the real deal. This is the man who championed transfrontier reserves and facilitated the dissolution of the borders between the Kruger and Mozambique’s Gonarezhou Parks. He was the first to fit a seat onto the front of game vehicles for the tracker – an innovation copied by every other game lodge in Africa. Like his mould-breaker brother John, co-owner of Londolozi and wildlife film maker famous for saving tigers – he barely survived a mauling last year – Dave’s passion for wildlife conservation is unequivocal. After his son, Boyd, survived a crocodile attack, he noted with some relief that “clearly, crocodile populations are recovering.”
Going to the bushveld is part of being South African. It harks back to the days of our sunburnt forefathers in vellies, hacking their way through buffalo thorn, hunting lion, skinning kudu and dispatching puff adders. Londolozi, co-founded in 1926 by Dave’s great grandfather, Charles Varty, has come a long way since then.
Tree Camp, our accommodation, looks like something Sir Percy Fitzpatrick might have built had he won the lottery. Cradled by 1000-year-old Leadwood trees overlooking the Sand River, each cottage has floor-to-ceiling windows, private plunge pool, outside shower and a sala from where you can feel one with nature.
Leather wingback armchairs invite pre-prandial snoozes if you feel like a change from the vast bed, draped in hand-sewn linen that wouldn’t look out of place in a sultan’s seraglio. Dave Varty may not have invented the safari but he certainly perfected it. Now he says the safari industry is beginning to eat itself by the tail. “Even though Londolozi targets the super rich, the model is becoming flawed as consumers leave a bigger carbon footprint. Nature is an enduring partner and Africa is the greatest theatre on earth, but how do you measure criteria for game lodges?” he asks. “These days anyone with a bokkie and a bakkie can set himself up as a safari leader. Where is South Africa’s environmental lobby?”
Indeed, with neither set criteria for eco-tourism in SA nor a viable environmental lobby, corporatism will continue to urbanise the wilderness, convert bush-veld into golf-courses, build hotels in the Kruger, and so on. Where to from here?
I say: let Varty lead the way. The man is mesmerizing. He speaks in visions, changing accents like a seasoned actor as he declares a new Age of Restoration that takes eco-tourism to another level, creates more revenue for wildlife, delivers something multi-dimensional. “It’s a consciousness shift. The wilderness is deep in our psyches. People go on safari to reconnect with themselves and Nature’s energies. Hopefully the wealthy will want to help preserve and rejuvenate the bush.”
Londolozi is a landscape that heals the heart. Savagery there is, heart-stopping violence as predator meets prey, but in the end it is not the adrenaline rush of a charging elephant, lions devouring a carcass or even mating leopards that gets to you. It is the smell of the grass, the immense horizons, the cries of hadeda ibises in the open skies; the sense of wildness and solitude. It is the taste of freedom.
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