While I've been fortunate enough to have visited a number of countries in Africa, I’d never had the opportunity to do so with a close friend, someone I already knew and whose company I've enjoyed on numerous previous occasions. Perfect, then, that on my most recent visit to South Africa I was accompanied by great pal Sophie Young.
Better still, Sophie had never been on safari, and seeing how absolutely wonder-struck she was by the whole trip served as constant reminder of how amazing it is that the efforts of conservationists, local communities and key policy makers continue to help preserve habitats that would otherwise have been eradicated by the onslaught of population growth and competing interests. South Africa is in many ways a superb introduction to what it is that makes wild habitats tick.
The trip itself was full of moments we will both treasure forever, and included the stunning Babylonstoren, sophisticated Ellerman House and the very romantic Tintswalo Atlantic, but top of the pile for me our visit to Tswalu, a privately owned reserve a two hour’s flight from Cape Town. Brainchild of the Oppenheimers, located in the north west of the country, at the foot of the Kalahari, Tswalu is a truly magical reserve: The landscape itself is beyond words – the way the desert changes colour at dawn and dusk, the stillness of the dunes and the saturated richness of the red soil blew me away. It is quite impossible to describe.
Just as fine, the welcome one gets upon arrival, either at the Oppenheimers' own home or Motse is extraordinary. Everything about the place is designed to put you at ease. The food’s delicious. The people a joy and an education – it’s rare that one comes across guides like those at Tswalu, guides who know the desert better than you or I know the insides of our houses.
However, while we did everything from sleep in some of the most comfortable beds I've ever experienced, swam, walked and enjoyed all that was on offer, it was being afforded the opportunity to sleep out in the wild that did it for me: There’s much to this that I’d love to share, but a lot of it occurred as if in a story in which Sophie and I were characters, wonderful twists and turns, surprises of all kinds, great beauty; it was a story full of the unknown, and worked perfectly because it remained so, right up to the climax. This said, I can say that sleeping out in the great unknown, and being involved in every aspect, the cooking, the making, the enjoying, was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life – and all the better for having experienced it with someone like Sophie.
If you get the chance, go. It’s wonderful. I promise.