Singita Kruger National Park Concession

Magical safaris a notch or two above most others in Africa

BY SARAH KHAN — Winter 2018

It’s a memory that still gives me goosebumps, several thousand miles away in New York and several weeks later: sitting in an open Land Rover under an endless carpet of stars, holding my breath as a pride of 19 lions silently parades in front of us. Each one appears for a moment in the eerie glare of the headlights before stealthily gliding behind a veil of darkness.

I witness this spectacle in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, on a private concession operated by safari stalwart Singita. I’ve arrived to this remote region along the country’s Mozambican border via a two-hour flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg followed by an hourlong puddle-jumper deep into the bush. The only lodges in this 33,000-acre reserve are Singita’s Lebombo and Sweni camps, meaning guests rarely must share a sighting with others — unlike at more crowded game reserves, where animal viewings quickly become crowded with scores of people craning for a glimpse. Here, the animals vastly outnumber our vehicle: One afternoon we watch a herd of more than 100 elephants approach a watering hole; soon after, 50 giraffes that seem to emerge out of nowhere surround us. In one thrilling five-minute span, we stumble upon three of the famed Big Five: elephants, a solitary white rhino, and lions. This is my 11th safari, but one of the most magical, thanks to the unfathomable density of wildlife at every turn.

That otherworldly feeling continues when we return from each game drive to be cosseted in Singita Sweni’s plush surroundings. Reopened last June after a complete renovation, the intimate camp delivers a fresh take on safari chic — don’t come expecting hulking horns on the walls and dusty zebra hides on the floors. Sweni’s trendy aesthetic brings the outdoors in with bold colors and shapes that recall iridescent beetles, chameleons, lichen, and moss. “We’re inspired by the jewels of nature, the special little things you don’t think of when you see a tree,” says Georgina Pennington, Singita’s head of creative direction, who worked with South African design practice Cécile & Boyd on the new look. The seven suites hover above the Sweni River like opulent glass treehouses awash in turquoise, emerald, mustard, and scarlet. The rich visual palette extends to the public spaces, where the bar is clad in marble, brass light fixtures mimic berries hanging from trees, and geometric paintings by Sarah Pratt hang in the lounge and dining areas. The bush is seamlessly integrated into the design — in fact, elephants, leopards, and lions have been known to meander around camp.

With 12 lodges across South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, Singita is often the first choice for safari-going presidents, royals, and movie stars, so I knew the wildlife and décor would impress. The food takes me by surprise, though. Singita has partnered with Cape Town chef Liam Tomlin to overhaul its menus, and head chef Andrew Nicholson and his team ply light, sophisticated shared plates with complex flavors and Asian influences from an open kitchen — quite a change from the heavy, predictable fare at most lodges I’ve been to. One afternoon I sample tomato risotto, springbok curry, and beef satay with bok choy; another evening I try cauliflower steak with onion puree and salt-and-pepper calamari with pineapple, miso, and coriander.

“Sweni’s restaurant has a bit of a hipster appeal. You could be sitting in a pub — it’s more relaxed food, not pretentious,” says Nicholson. “We’re pushing the boundaries and being innovative. We want it to be like a hip place you’d go to in Cape Town.”

The restaurant pairs meals with South African wines from Sweni’s 2,000-bottle cellar, which Singita matures in its own facility in Stellenbosch.

Come the end of our stay, the only one of the Big Five we fail to spot is the elusive leopard, but not for a lack of effort from our guide JP and tracker Dan. But I don’t mind. It’s a good excuse to return to Sweni — as if I needed one.

WHERE TO STAY IN KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

Singita Sweni Lodge: from $1,870 per person. singita.com

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