A day on safari – Ulusaba, Sabi Sand

South Africa safari

What happens during a ‘typical’ day in a game reserve?

South Africa safari

You’ve booked your (perhaps first ever) safari and are raring to go and spot the famous Big Five – but might still be wondering what actually happens during a ‘typical’ day in a game reserve. It’s fair to say that most game lodges adhere to certain itineraries when it comes to safari schedules and the best time to observe wildlife – which is not to say however that they’re all the same, far from it. Levalux Founder Bibiana Smith recently stayed at two wildly different but equally riveting game lodges, Ulusaba in Sabi Sand and RockFig in the Timbavati, and shares a first-hand account of her experiences at both. Here’s what to expect at Ulusaba – for her account of RockFig, click here.

The 13,500-hectare Ulusaba Private Reserve, one of the top luxury safari lodges in South Africa, is surrounded by the larger Sabi Sand Reserve – itself renowned as one of the best places in South Africa for wildlife viewing, thanks to many waterholes and dams that function as an important water source for large herds of animals throughout the year. That, coupled with the fact that your landlord is Richard Branson (the reserve is owned by Virgin Limited), should give you an indication as to what to expect on a safari trip to Ulusaba.

Table of Contents

The reserve comprises just three lodges: Safari Lodge, Rock Lodge, and the two-suite Cliff Lodge. Flying to Ulusaba’s private airstrip (there are daily chartered flights), my husband and I received a warm welcome from the staff at the check-in hut, with our ranger then taking us to Safari Lodge, our highly comfortable base for the next two nights. Located in the bush under ancient trees, on the edge of the dry Mabrak riverbed, you really get the feeling of being in the heart of the bush here, with the chance to watch thirsty animals stroll past your deck on their way to the nearby waterhole.

Located in the bush under ancient trees you really get the feeling of being in the heart of the bush here, with the chance to watch thirsty animals stroll past your deck on their way to the nearby waterhole.

Virgin Limited Edition, Ulusaba, Safari Suite

Safari Lodge has 10 tree-house-style suites, some of them only accessible via rope swing bridges. The lodge caters to different types of travellers – the interconnecting rooms are perfect for families with kids over 12, while the tucked-away Treehouse Suite overlooking the nearby Xikwenga Dam is a secluded haven for honeymooners. For the ultimate luxury, book the Safari Suite, which comes with its own walled garden and boma fire pit – or rent the entire lodge on an exclusive basis!

Here’s what to expect during your stay at Safari Lodge

Stay at safari Lodge - Late afternoon

Even though we were a little late for our afternoon drive (in winter the drive starts at 3.30pm) there was absolutely no rush from the staff. They waited for us with snacks at the ready and gave us time to drop our bags before driving us into the bush to meet our ranger Eric and tracker Sipho. We were sharing the drive with two other couples from Joburg and the US – great to see foreigners returning to South Africa after the COVID pandemic!
From the moment we set off our game drive experience at Ulusaba was phenomenal. We started on a high that afternoon, spotting a pride of lions, including several females, two males and six very playful cubs.

South Africa safari

After sunset and the time-honoured ritual of sundowners in the bush (think an ice-cold beer or G&T from your safari-vehicle-turned-pop-up-bar, enjoyed in a scenic location in the middle of nowhere), we found two leopard siblings. The female was devouring an antelope on the top of a tree (interesting fact: leopards always drag their prey to the top of the tree to stop hyenas from stealing their bounty). Once she was satiated and moved away, the male climbed the tree and continued eating until he fell asleep in the classic ‘leopard in a tree’ pose, his stomach and head resting on a thick branch, legs dangling down each side.

To see both lions and leopards on our first drive was absolutely riveting.

South Africa safari

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“an ice-cold beer or G&T from your safari-vehicle-turned-pop-up-bar, enjoyed in a scenic location in the middle of nowhere

Stay at safari lodge - Evening

Exhausted after our long day, we returned to the lodge for a delicious three-course dinner. Every staff member came to our table to introduce themselves, even the chef, which was a lovely personal touch. Pre-dinner, you can enjoy drinks on the balcony or a private wine tasting in the wine room, while I highly recommend a stargazing session to complete the evening (the Bush Observatory is currently out of action, but just looking up at the sky proves to be an irresistible sight!)

Stay at safari lodge - ( Very early) morning

Being woken up at 5.30am (5am in summer) is tough, but so worth it for the chance of spotting wildlife in action before the searing heat of the day. Our guide Eric was waiting for us in the lobby with much needed fresh coffee, and off we went for another adventure in the bush.

We started our morning tracking the pride of lions from the previous day. Eric explained that the pride was trying to escape from two lions emigrating from the Kruger National Park, ready to fight for new territory. He went on to say that the new lions would try to kill or chase the male lions away, then kill the cubs and start mating with the females – nature at its most brutal and fascinating. We found our lions in the middle of the bush, where the parents were slowly preparing for a hunt, leaving the little ones behind.

That day we also saw six leopards, including two leopard cubs – one eating their prey on top of a tree, another just sleeping by the river, a mother with two cubs playing in the grass, two others randomly passing by our vehicle. Highly elusive in many other areas, leopards seem to be part and parcel of a stay here – if you’re a fan of these elegant creatures, then Sabi Sand really is the place to be.

South Africa safari

Following the obligatory coffee in the bush (made even more reviving with a shot of Amarula (a famous South African cream liqueur), we came across a baby elephant feeding – he was rather nosy and came super close to the vehicle. As he was about a metre away from me, he extended his trunk, almost to touch me. He was very calm, probably simply curious. A truly memorable experience.

Stay at safari lodge - Daytime

South Africa safari

Following our action-packed game drive and an indulgent breakfast back at the lodge, we spent the day relaxing by the pool. Ulusaba offers an incredible range of spoils and activities: have a massage at the Aroma Boma Spa, burn off your safari calories in the gym, play tennis, or simply relax on the treehouse viewing deck – overlooking the Xikwenga Dam, it’s a great place to spot hippos and elephants cool off in the water.

What we loved about Ulusaba:

The game drive experience was truly impressive, with wonderful sightings throughout. If this is your first safari, and you’re especially keen on leopards, a stay here will prove to be magical.

Game viewing from the comfort of your lounger. Our room offered mesmerising views of the animals as they stroll past on their way to the nearby watering hole.

The sheer amount of activities at the lodge, including swimming, a gym, spa, tennis, stargazing…

The choice of lodges. We loved Safari Lodge for its style and location, but were also taken by the hillside Rock Lodge during a site inspection – the views from the top were simply phenomenal (its location was once a lookout point for Shangaan warriors – ulusaba means ‘place of little fear’). Cliff Lodge meanwhile is the most exclusive offering, with just two multi-level suites that can sleep five adults and four children in total.

We were amazed by the architecture and the fact that no room is the same at Ulusaba. Each one has its own style, layout and design – my personal favourite was the master suite at Rock Lodge.

Choose your stay in Cape Town!