Singita: The worst place I’ve ever stayed in all my travels

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A Singita lionness, basking in all her glory

This title is misleading. Singita is actually the best place. The reason it is also the worst place I’ve ever stayed is because I’ve officially peaked – nowhere else will ever compare.

When I hugged my guide farewell this morning and sloped into the car to leave, it was sort of like breaking up with someone you’ve been in a relationship with for ages.

You know, when you go to a restaurant in a neutral setting to have the Long Talk and you both cry a bit into your plate of untouched food and then you say goodbye and you leave and get into your car and plonk your head down on the steering wheel and start sobbing, and you feel like a glove which has just been turned inside out.

Ok, it wasn’t quite that traumatic, but for a holiday departure, it was pretty bad.

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Brian (left) – the best guide in South Africa – and Charles (right) – the best tracker in South Africa. Brian isn’t holding a gun because he is going to shoot anything. It’s just the rules when you are on foot

A (blurred) lion casually wandering between two Singita Land RoversA (blurred) lion casually wandering between two Singita Land Rovers

A water buck, with what looks like a target on its arse
A water buck, with what looks like a target on its arse. This marking helps other water bucks follow it through the thicket

I found out about Singita when I was in Cape Town and out to dinner at a great restaurant called The Black Sheep, with J’s friend-slash-boss Stuart, who does something to do with property.

He told me that Singita was the absolute best safari in South Africa by a country mile and that if I didn’t make it there during my stay, I was a fool, a FOOL. Stuart is friends with the owners, so of course you always take these recommendations with a pinch of salt, but as it transpired in this case, he was right.

Another few hops in a teeny tiny plane from Joburg, and I was there.

When you first arrive at Singita, your jaw goes klunk on the marble floor because it looks like some sort of space age fantasy – all huge structures of glass and mahogany jutting into the sky, trimmed with a snaking infinity pool and scattered with beautiful people smiling.

Singita Lebombo Lodge, Kruger, South Africa. Agency HKLM. Art Director: Paul Henriques. Stylist: Georgina Pennington. Photographer: Mark Williams. 18/11/11
My abode at Singita
The fairly incredible infinity pool
The fairly incredible infinity pool
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Where I slept at night, outside on the deck overlooking hippos, high enough up so that the lions and leopards couldn’t reach in and snag me
A monkey who appeared while we were having lunch by the pool, plotting to steal some food
A monkey who appeared while we were having lunch by the pool, plotting to steal some food

Much like at every other safari I’ve been on, most of the guests there come in pairs; and they are either on their honeymoon or retired.

This time, I was to share my twice daily game drives and all my meals with not a couple, but a fellow lone wolf in the shape of a New Yorker called Kristin.

Upon first inspection, Kristin, like a lion, is scary.

She has beautiful electric blue eyes, aggressively white teeth and a shock of peroxide hair, and she’s the sort of person who will analyse your entire personality in less than 30 seconds. You can literally watch her slip you quickly and deftly into her mental filing cabinet of people she wants to talk to and people she’d rather not.

Meeting Kristin is like being in a job interview. Who are you, where do you come from, why are you here, and what on earth are you wearing – all asked not with words, but with a single enquiring glance.

Unsurprisingly, Kristin is a Seriously Big Deal producer-type-person at AMC, who, as I later discovered, has met LEONARDO DI CAPRIO. More than once. (A seemingly irrelevant fact unless you know me).

Here is a beautiful lioness, panting into the morning sun
Here is a beautiful lioness, panting into the morning sun at Singita
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The 1,000th reason I admire lions so much is their ability to sleep, like I do, with utter abandon for the rules
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Two male lions, the one facing the camera having been blinded in the left eye as a result of a fight over territory, which humans also regularly fight about

Anyway, I passed Kristin’s interview and we quickly formed an alliance: the two LFT’s (Lone Female Travellers). As I’ve said already, I’m quite happy to roam the world alone, but having a sidekick with whom to amble around and get holiday-drunk with is always a good thing.

My room at Singita wasn’t a room, it was a sizeable house, and set just high enough up overlooking a river populated with hippos that you can sleep outside on the deck, in a bed shrouded with a fluttering mosquito net, and be out of reach from the big cats.

Everywhere else I’ve stayed, you’re strictly not allowed outside after dark because that’s when the lions and leopards are prowling, so might eat you. But here, you can sleep outside all night under the African stars – which is a rare treat.

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A vulture perched atop an elephant carcass. Grim, but that’s nature, innit
Early morning breakfast
Early morning breakfast
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This is a Bushbuck, a Bambi-like creature I bumped in to leaving my room one morning at nearly 6am

It goes without saying that the food, the decor, the staff and the ambience (what a wanky word) at Singita is sublime. What really, really set it apart though was our guide, a man called Brian Rode.

Don’t switch off here, this is actually really interesting.

Brian appears to have led many lives in the past. He used to be in the army, in the special forces, an expert survivalist. So he has undergone the most rigorous of ordeals. Kristin and I pestered him relentlessly for stories. 

For example, Brian was once dropped from a helicopter into the freezing Atlantic and left there in a raft, nudged nightly by sharks, for five days, with no food (he caught and ate raw fish).

He has also been interrogated by way of torture for 24 hours (no big deal). And lived out in the searing desert, surviving only on the meat of captured scorpions. Also, Brian is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Here is Brian, who looks harmless but is actually extremely hardcore, both in his army training and his deep love of flowers, birds, romance and wildlife
Here is Brian, who looks harmless but is actually extremely hardcore, both in his army training and in his deep love of flowers, birds, romance and wildlife
Here is Charles, an expert tracker who has superhuman eyesight, and a very good disposition
Here is Charles, an expert tracker who has superhuman eyesight, and a superhuman disposition
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Here is a little baboon, throwing himself around as the wildebeest drink (bottom left)

But Brian’s true passion lies in wildlife, in being a guide, and in his girlfriend Chantelle, a fellow Singita guide he has been hopelessly in love with for 26 years.

So here we are, Kristin and I, bouncing through the Kruger safari lands in a tank-like Land Rover, being led between groups of lions and elephants by Brian – a man who could kill a small army with his bare hands – and he’s getting all misty-eyed about birds and flowers, and gushing about Chantelle.

On a little chair stuck onto the front of the Land Rover sits Charles, an expert tracker, who scans the horizon for animals that cannot be picked out with normal human vision (Charles is superhuman).

Brian and Charles have a symbiotic working relationship (that’s a new term I’ve learnt – like with buffalo and oxpecker birds) and between them they form a formidable duo.

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This lioness, and her assembled crew, took down this male buffalo in a remarkable feat of violence
Here they are feeding on it, a meal that will leave them rolling around full for several days
Here they are feeding on it, a meal that will leave them rolling around in exhausted gluttony for several days
This cub can't move because of how much buffalo fills that belly
This cub can’t move because of how much buffalo fills that belly

Charles will fling a fist of soil into the air and point to the West and Brian will says things like, “Hold on ladies, we’re about to go into Ferrari Safari mode,” and then race through the thicket, up and down steep gorges, around trees and into clearings where amazing things are happening that no-one else in a 20-mile radius knows about.

For example, a gathering of extremely, extremely rare White Rhino, a baby elephant born so recently it hadn’t even mastered walking yet, a dominant male lion about to attack a younger male cub so he could shag the mother, and 18 female lions taking down a large male buffalo. We also saw a honey badger murder a python.

In the evenings, Kristin, Brian and I would enjoy drawn-out six-course dinners and talk in depth about Really Interesting topics and laugh about how people have been fighting for millennia over the same two things that lions do – sex and territory – but people get all silly and high-minded about it.

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Three vultures at sunset, perched atop one of the many trees in Africa which happen to look like Art in their own right
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A crash of White Rhinos – very rare to see this close, because they are so nervous of humans, because of all the poaching
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A Steenbok, captured mid-leap

In regards to this post, I could have written thousands more words about Brian – how he says ‘eh’ pronounced like a capital ‘A’ after everything he says, in a way that makes you feel personally invited to the conversation –  about Charles – how superhuman he is – and about Kristin – how ruthless and hilarious she is…. but I’ll stop raving now.

You know how when you meet someone, usually of the same sex, at a party, or on holiday, or at a boring work thing, and you LOVE each other and swap numbers and promise, promise, promise that you’ll keep in touch but never do?

Well I know with absolute certainty that I will see these people and this place again.

In the words of Stuart, I’d be a fool, A FOOL, not to.

The male lion we ran into at the end of our evening drive. He is intently watching a lioness, the object of his affection, and also seriously considering the murder of her male cub
The male lion we ran into at the end of our last evening drive. He is intently watching a lioness, the object of his affection, and also seriously considering the murder of her male cub

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