Spanning a success story of fifteen years, Jabulani, situated in Kapama Private Game Reserve in Hoedspruit, South Africa, is regarded as the benchmark for elephant conservation and sustainable tourism in South Africa. Named after the tiny four-month-old elephant that got stuck in the mud of a silt dam in 1997, his rescue and rehabilitation are a story worth knowing.
“Gently Jabu,” the mischievous elephant’s handler reprimands him. It’s feeding time during the Elephant Interaction at Jabulani, and this 3-ton 2,8-meter high pachyderm is getting overexcited for the treats he is about to receive. My daughter is standing with a fist full of ‘boskos’ in her hands, but it doesn’t seem to be quite enough for this gentle giant as he tenderly nudges her with his trunk, which has now snaked around her to search for more food. Not realizing his size, he nearly knocks her over.
It’s my turn to feed him. I take as much food as I can manage in both my hands, walk closer to Jabulani and tell him to ‘trunk up.’ His handler repeats, “Jabu, trunk up,” after which he lifts his trunk and opens his mouth for me to throw the food in. This isn’t very successful as a lot of it lands upon the ground, but it’s not a problem because an elephant’s trunk can also act as a vacuum cleaner! Failing that, the warthogs have become accustomed to the feeding schedule and are waiting their turn to clean up any morsels left by the elephants.
Jabulani has now mastered the art of ‘trunk up,’ which is also considered a shortcut in place of the trunk to mouth – this is a more direct route. Standing in front of him, the experience seems almost surreal – I can count his eyelashes one by one, I can see how many teeth he has at the back of his mouth, and I can feel the leathery texture of the skin on his trunk.
I’ll rewind a bit. My daughter and I are collected at Hoedspruit Airport by our ranger, Liesa Becker. The only female ranger at Jabulani, she is every bit as competent as her male counterparts, sometimes even more so. With her effervescent personality, we are immediately immersed in her joyful temperament. Driving through Kapama Private Game Reserve to Jabulani, out of nowhere, a leopard appears! We go in search of him, but he is playing a shrewd game of hide-and-seek, popping up behind a termite mound, eventually scurrying off into the bush.
Our arrival at Jabulani is met with a very warm welcome by safari manager Schalk Human with butlers Isaac and Shadrack ready to show us to lunch. We forego the starter choice of chilled tomato & apple soup or smoked springbok carpaccio served with orange segments, red onion salsa, sushi mayonnaise & soya dressing and order the main course straight away. Explaining the menu choices is Head Chef Alex van As, who ensures that our choice of beef fillet served with confit capsicum peppers, Danish feta, sweet chili yogurt dressing & parmesan shavings is perfectly grilled to medium-rare. For dessert, I opt for the very sweet Jabulani Eaton mess, while my daughter orders two scoops of homemade vanilla ice cream.
We are shown to our expansive suite, named after the famous elephant in the Amarula advertisement, Sebakwe. Using only natural resources and acquiring leadwood logs over a period of time from the adjacent area, the lodge was designed and constructed with the majority of trees still intact. The dark wooden interior is perfectly complemented by all the white comforts in our room, from the bed draped in white linen with mosquito net cover to the alluring freestanding stone bath and double vanities. I love the ample shower with the complimentary L’Occitane range of luxurious products. Outside, our suite is a large wooden deck with a plunge pool for those hot summer days.
Liesa meets us out front for our very first game drive. The sky is overcast, with the threat of rain looming. Etched against the gloomy background, we spot them – seven members of the Guernsey lion pride. One sub-adult is having a playfully ambitious time chasing after a few giraffes. Being the tallest land mammal, we can almost see the somewhat humorous and perplexing stare the giraffe is giving this bold lion.
Dinner is served in the main dining room, and the food is delicious. We can pick our favorite fare; my daughter and I both skip starters and order the roasted rack of lamb served with new crushed potatoes, butternut puree, baby beetroot, asparagus spears, baby carrots & red wine jus. Dessert is the delectable rooibos tea souffle served with homemade ice cream.
A suspension bridge joins the main area to the suites, making it an eye-catching feature. I feel the trepidation in myself when it moves slightly; my daughter runs back and forth with no fear whatsoever. We aim for an early night – tomorrow is an exciting day as we are visiting the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC). After a cleansing shower and a good night’s sleep in our opulent suite, we are eager to get going.
But first, breakfast, consisting of any early-morning choice you can imagine, and a beverage to wash it down with. Liesa joins us for coffee, after which we depart for Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre. The center is the fulfillment of a dream realized by founder Lente Roode, who initially started a cheetah breeding project with the hope of releasing these endangered animals back into the wild, which has been done successfully. Today, HESC is at the forefront of wildlife conservation, caring for orphaned rhinos, orphaned or injured elephants, and rehabilitating a wide variety of endangered animal species. I am completely speechless at the sight of a King cheetah; with his regal pose, he is a dream to photograph.
Back at Jabulani, we spend the day at leisure in our magnificent surroundings. Later this afternoon, we are doing the Elephant Interaction, where we get to meet three of the elephant ambassadors. The herd consists of fifteen elephants, and today, we get to meet Jabulani, Somopane, and Sebakwe. All three elephants are kind-natured, and being around them is a soulful experience. It’s difficult to put into words the effect it has to stand in close proximity to such an extraordinary animal.
Once the Elephant Interaction is over, we depart for sundowners by the dam. As the sun starts to set, the elephants walk on the opposite side of the dam, casting the most brilliant reflection in the water. One of the younger ones stops for a drink of water and has to be cajoled back by his handler to join the herd again. The story of how the herd came to be is fascinating, and as I can attest, the work that has gone into creating something so special is worth a visit.
Thank you to Amanda Brighton and Rita Aganostopoulus from a2b Destination Marketing for arranging our stay and to the Jabulani staff for their wonderful hospitality.
*** Views expressed are the author’s own.
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