Sunrise peeks through the ‘bushveld’ woodland of South Africa; a lone female giraffe stands just metres from me, craning her neck to reach the higher, tastier branches of an acacia tree. With each mouthful, she looks in my direction, unsure if I’m friend or foe.
On a group walking safari in Sebatana Private Reserve, three hours north of Johannesburg, wildlife encounters of this nature are regular occurrences. With only one of the famed ‘big five’ within the property, the elusive leopard, visitors are free to roam and appreciate animals up close.
After five minutes of viewing this living David Attenborough documentary unfold, it’s time to move on. Giraffes eat as much as 29kg of acacia leaves and twigs every day, so she’ll be munching a while yet, and there’s so much more to see.
Among the reserve’s other notable residents are zebras, wildebeest and mongoose, not to mention an abundance of kudu and impala.
And they’re not going to photograph themselves.
Fast-forward to the afternoon and our party has switched gears, now zipping down the dirt roads of nearby Welgevonden ‘Big Five’ Reserve in an open-air landcruiser – a rust-red cloud of swirling dust in our wake.
As a child raised on a diet of Disney animation in the 1990s, The Lion King instilled in me a strong desire to one day see the biodiverse continent in person. Spotting an African elephant, the world’s largest land animal, was also near the top of my list. Finally, it happens.
Shortly after passing a white rhino grazing in an open clearing near a troop of baboons, we round a corner and dip across a causeway to find one of the enormous mammals blocking our path.
“It’s a solitary bull,” notes our local guide, Carel Brown, as he pulls the vehicle to a gentle stop. “With no herd, they tend to be the most aggressive… and unpredictable.”
Almost on cue, as if it heard Brown’s observation, the colossal beast flaps his huge, parchment-like ears once, then again. The act is both a sign of dominance and a not-so-subtle reminder he has right of way on these normally-deserted roads.
Taking our inaction and shutter-clicks as a challenge, he makes a brief mock-charge towards us, trunk swaying and ears flapping side to side.
Though we’re not in any real danger, Carel instinctively throws our vehicle in reverse, backing away to let the jumbo pass.
With eight years of guiding under his belt, the last three at Sebatana (my home for the next few nights on a TripADeal Qantas Frequent Flyer safari), reading animal behaviour comes naturally to Brown.
He’s also a fountain of knowledge, with not a single fact repeated during our time together.
While the absence of lions, buffalo, rhino and elephants – the remaining animals to make up the big five – is notable in Sebatana, it’s an advantage too. It means guests at the reserve’s four lodges (Lion, Leopard, Rhino and Elephant) can freely explore on foot…without fear of becoming a main course.
Besides, you’re likely to still witness these four at the nearby 38,000-hectare Welgevonden Game Reserve – visited once during the 10-day TripADeal package for only $3999, including return flights – in addition to hippos, hyenas and more. Additional safaris are available too, at an extra cost.
“It gives you a chance to see more of the ecosystem and animals of South Africa,” explains Carel, shortly after we witness a fight between two adolescent male giraffes (or at least part of one, with such displays of aggressive masculinity known to last hours at a time).
“Obviously if you’re going to a big five reserve, the main focus is those big five, so you might miss out on the smaller things like the skinks and the birds and the lizards. It gives you a broader spectrum of what South Africa has to offer.”
It’s not just animals on show either. Culture is too, both at Sebatana’s new Leopard Lodge – home to 10 thatch-roofed suites and a soaring main house with pool and bar – and when partaking in an optional tribal evening filled with song, dance and rustic cuisine.
Located just outside the actual reserve, Leopard Lodge is still frequented by animals like the ever-present kudu, which are known to stroll amid guest areas in the early hours. And even though only limited guided safaris are included, it’s not far to venture back solo.
South Africa is home to several internationally renowned and, as such, highly-visited reserves, together with some truly stunning luxury safari lodges. Yet there’s something to be said for taking the road less travelled, and Sebatana is definitely a road worth exploring.
It’s personalised and uncrowded; a thrilling combination of people, natural beauty and wildlife that feels instantly familiar, yet still fills you with wonder the moment you encounter it.
Getting there is easy too, with Qantas flying non-stop daily from Sydney to Johannesburg aboard its Boeing 787.
With my last excursion of the day over, and a few hours before dinner, I make a beeline back through the reserve’s Jurassic Park-like gate armed with a map, water bottle and mental bingo card of photos I still want to snap. Fingers crossed for the leopard...
The writer travelled as a guest of Qantas and TripADeal.