Magazine article The Spectator

Wild Times

Magazine article The Spectator

Wild Times

Article excerpt

Singular life

The tiny propeller plane that seemed to be made from beaten tin dipped and shuddered in the air. One of the girls opposite me turned the colour of vegetable bouillon. The pilot briskly apologised for the turbulence which he attributed to heavy clouds and the unsettled weather, unusual for this time of year in South Africa. His confident manner was belied by the small tremor in his voice.

We were, if God permitted, on our way to a game reserve called Ulusaba. It is one and a half hours (by tin plane) north of Johannesburg and owned by Richard Branson. I had never been to a game reserve before. But I had seen Mogambo with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner and imagined it must be highly romantic if rather spartan. I only hoped that, if I survived the flight, there would be inside showers and no lions creeping into my canvas tent at night.

After the plane finally managed to land on a sandy strip in the middle of the bush, however, I was led to a thatched construction with comfy sofas and handed a glass of champagne. I would have taken neat whisky from a flask, which I do recall from Mogambo. We then set off on a steep drive up a hill - small, squat trees pushing up through the ochre soil - to Rock Lodge, where we would be spending the first two nights.

Rock Lodge was nothing like the small wooden building Ms Gardner ate her meals in. It was more like an African version of Eagle's Nest. A pool with a waterfall bubbled away in a courtyard. The main building was gargantuan, containing a bar, a cinema room and a long dining-table overlooking a panoramic view of about 100 miles. I was informed that there was a beauty salon, tennis courts and proper bedrooms. Thankfully there were no V-signs for Virgin.

My accommodation comprised a sittingroom and two double bedrooms. As I was alone I asked what I was to do with two bedrooms'? `Oh, sleep in a different one each night,' said a member of staff. I replied that I was too lazy. The bed I finally chose was rather gothically carved and draped with mosquito nets. The bathroom seemed to be constructed entirely from bronze. I sat in the bath and felt as if I were an omelette cooking in one of those old-fashioned French copper saucepans.

By this time it was evening and the sun was shooting away like a red carbuncle thrown from a window. I toddled off to the bar. The barman told me that a leopard had had her cubs in this very room and often came to drink at the swimming-pool. `Oh,' I said, nervously, gulping down a copious amount of alcohol. …

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