How South Africa transformed my teens

Before visiting Singita Ebony Lodge in Sabi Sand Game Reserve, the biggest challenge facing my twin 16-year-old boys is how best to get around my gaming curfews.

Now they have a different challenge. They must track a five-tonne bull rhino through thick South African bushland in low evening light. On foot.

“Can you see?” whispers Golden Shabangu.

“The rhino’s been grazing here,” whispers Harry, indicating patches of cropped grass.

“It’s gone that way …” adds Jack, examining great clover-shaped footprints in the black earth.

Tracking is as tense as it is exhilarating. Golden’s colleague, guide Marc Bowes-Taylor, carries a .458 rifle and brass cartridges packing enough powder to stop a charging elephant. As accessories go, it’s pushing all the right buttons with the boys. He’s also warned them to expect the unexpected: “And if we surprise an animal, whatever you do, don’t run.”

Creatures that are wilful, grumpy and filled with testosterone must be treated with care. But hey, that’s teenage boys for you. And Ebony lodge seems well-versed in the natural order of things.

“We’re a family-friendly lodge,” says host Tiffany Franks on our arrival. “And safari is a great place for families to reconnect, especially in the age of mobile phones. There’s Wi-Fi in the suites and lodge. But out in the bush …” she grins, “nothing.”

Ebony is a private lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve comprising just 12 suites. It’s Singita’s oldest property, and though opened in 1993, still regarded as one of the world’s best.

The stately, almost imperious looking lodge of stone and thatch is lofted high among huge hardwood trees, open at the rear to the Sand River. With its great black decks and roaring firepits, the style is classic 1920s safari – all brass hasps and aged leather, animal print fabrics and colonial antiques. It’s the swagger of Denys Finch Hatton with the panache of Ralph Lauren.

Stately it may be but stuffy it is not, mostly thanks to Ebony’s young staff who bring a fantastic energy to the lodge. They connect effortlessly with guests of all ages and sometimes in surprising ways.

For instance, a seven-course paired degustation with wines should spell “dullsville” for a teen. But in the dining room with soaring earthen walls and painted tribal motifs, senior sous chef Dave Schubach and sommelier Ngoni Mtizwa ensure Jack and Harry’s opinions are sought on dishes and even the odd wine.

I’m stuffed to bursting with food, but also with satisfaction when, late that night, I find my young blokes in animated conversation with acting manager Ryan Dewes – the latter gleefully recounting how he had to suppress his inner fan-boy when Slash of Guns ‘n’ Roses rocked up at the lodge with his guitar.

Between safaris, my young thumb-jockeys could easily slip off back to their suite to disappear into the private plunge pool – and then the Wi-Fi. But the Ebony team is way ahead of them.

At noon, Marc appears with his safari Land Rover and several fishing rods, and on the banks of the wide Sand River we’re soon baiting hooks with bits of steak from the kitchen. Beneath hot splashes of noonday sun we cast long lines –only to be interrupted by a female hippo and her calf emerging just 50 metres upstream, grunting and blowing.

Harry laughs at the absurdity of it. “Are we really fishing alongside hippos?”

“Yeah,” says Marc. “She’s pretty chilled. But we’ll keep an eye.”

She certainly doesn’t seem to affect the fishing. For an hour, we pull in grey-green catfish, including a metre-long monster rightly described as a “bus”.

All the fish are released because Singita is effectively a conservation company with programs funded by lodges. It’s keen for guests to learn about its multi-faceted program, and while I’m all ears, I can’t help wondering how receptive my young sirs will be outside of some polite listening. After all, you can lead a teenage boy to information, but you can’t always make him think.

Yet again, the Ebony crew are all over it.

During afternoon tea, the boys are introduced to Rory Guthrie and his huge Belgian Shepherd dog, Makulu. Rory is the head of the Canine Anti-poaching unit, charged with safeguarding the  18,210 hectare Singita concession from rhino poachers. “Horn is worth about $US150,000 ($226,897) a kilo,” he says. “A bull rhino’s horn is about six kilograms. So that’s a million dollars.”

“How do poachers take the horn off?” asks Jack.

“With a knife. Silently. Fifteen minutes and it’s off.” Rory doesn’t spare the details of the bloody trade that sees a rhino killed in South Africa every day. Animals in the Singita concession are kept safe thanks to 24-hour team patrols with sniffer dogs like Makulu. The huge, Belgian Shepherd has been retired for two years. While Rory speaks, the dog seeks caresses from the boys, looking at them with big baleful eyes. Hard to think that at a single command from his handler, he will take a man down.

The boys gobble it up quicker than the afternoon tea of freshly baked pastries and fruit mocktails, and later profess shock at what they’ve learned about poaching. This is a good thing.

They’re back on their phones during game drives – to shoot photos. A leopard two metres away in long grass. A bull elephant warding off our vehicle while we make a prudent retreat. A millipede bigger than a cigar crawling up their arms.

But the rhino tracking at dusk cranks it up another notch, and the excitement is at fever pitch – not least when Marc suddenly holds up his hand for silence.

A crested Franklin squawks in alarm, a baboon barks. The ranger and tracker eye the wooded valley before us and consult with each other. The risk ahead is now manifold: there’s rhino in there certainly, as well as the possibility of a leopard. “Back to the vehicle,” says Golden.

On the return walk to the Land Rover, the guides apologise for having to put safety first, but the boys are effusive in just how thrilling the experience has been. Suddenly Golden leaps a metre backwards, pointing at a patch of grass yelling, “Look out!”

Thirty centimetres from Marc’s boot is the head of a Southern African python – and behind, that, concealed by grass, is its three-metre body, all fat loops and coils. The endangered snake is an incredibly rare sighting and after Marc recovers himself, he’s ecstatic.

“D’you know how lucky we are to see this?!” he exclaims.

The answer is written all over my boys’ faces. Even if both of them are thinking ‘Instagram!’

THE DETAILS

FLY

Qantas and South African Airlines have regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne, flying via Perth.

STAY

Singita’s double/twin suites with private plunge pool, indoor/outdoor showers and complimentary minibar from $3000 a night; children (10-16) $1500 a night. Includes game drives and walking safaris, seven meals a day, laundry and all beverages (except French champagne).

MORE

traveller.com.au/south-africa

singita.com/lodge/singita-ebony-lodge/

SOUTHERN AFRICA FOR TEENS

Action and distraction equals teenage satisfaction…

DUNE-SURFING SAFARIS IN NAMIBIA

Alter-Action (alter-action.info/web/) has been taking surfers out to a giant dune near Swakopmund since 1996. Towering some 100 metres and with six different faces, the dune is ripe for thrill-seekers aged 10 and up, using both lie-down boards and snowboards. The sand is soft as snow and dune-riders can reach speeds up to 80km/h.

QUAD BIKE SAFARIS IN BOTSWANA

Famous lodge Jack’s Camp offers a “radical sabbatical” during the dry season – a two-night safari across the salt pans of the Makgadikgadi on quad bikes. Botswana allows over-12s to thrill with a throttle; they’ll tear out to Kubu Island, check out fossilised remains and sleep under the stars. Nothing not to love. Try Siyabona or Andbeyond.

SNORKELLING IN MALAWI

The southern end of Lake Malawi National Park is home to the world’s first freshwater national park – a body of warm, super-clear water that’s home to a dazzling array of tropical fish. Island camps and lodges like Pumulani (robinpopesafaris.net/camps/pumulani.php) and Blue Zebra Island Lodge (bluezebra.mw/) offer water activities including snorkelling, diving and kayaking – all teen catnip.

DARE-DEVILLING IN ZIMBABWE

Victoria Falls (the town) and Victoria Falls (the kilometre-wide falls) are spilling with thrills for over-14s. Think flight-seeing by microlight, bungee jumping into a chasm off a 1903 bridge, zip-lining across the lower Zambezi, plus some of the world’s most fearsome white water rafting (15 and up). For the ultimate dare, try the Devil’s Pool experience, which will have them peering over the lip of the falls. Mix it up with a package from Wild Horizons. See wildhorizons.co.za

WALKING SAFARIS

The hands-on and distinctly edgy nature of a walking safari adds a cool dimension to a teen’s safari experience. However, be aware different countries have different age limits on walking through the bush: in South Africa and Botswana it’s strictly 16 and above; Namibia varies by lodge; and in Zimbabwe and Zambia, over-12s and can accompany rangers on foot.

Max Anderson was a guest of Singita.

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