I’d just lit the fire and was rueing the restrictions that forbade me having a glass of wine in my hand when I heard a leonine grunt not too far away. I looked up and spotted two young lions, a male and female, ambling across the veld in my direction.
They weren’t stalking me – one of the first things I noticed was their bulging bellies – so the assumption was they were curious and checking out a strange structure that had popped up on their landscape.
The sub-adult siblings checked out the premises thoroughly, the male particularly interested in the wood-fired hot tub before plonking himself down beside the fire pit.
It didn’t take much imagination to translate his rumbling roar into noooouuuu gaan ons braai! I was glad I’d piled a lot of wood onto the fire before their arrival … no matter how placid and friendly he looked, there was no way I was leaving my cabin to bank it again. Also, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t have enough meat for us all, or even a Lion Lager to share. (As Bosman’s Oom Schalk Lourens might say; bushveld hospitality is one thing, claws and fangs are entirely another.)
Much later, when the lions were gone and my adrenaline levels began to return to normal, I realized I’d had a wildlife encounter that perhaps one person in 50 million might experience.
Sometime before dawn the next morning, a rhino wandered into my “encampment” and gave his (her?) nose a good scratch on a tree stump next to the cabin, leaving a deep horn gouge in the wood. That put the cherry on the cake.
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My adventure began last year when I was invited to Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve by Cape Town-based hospitality company Newmark Hotels and established a cordial relationship with reserve owner Iain Buchanan.
Newmark manages Mount Camdeboo, which lies on the R63 between Graaff-Reinet and Pearson in the Eastern Cape Karoo. Buchanan revealed, over a bottomless glass of Leopards Leap cabernet sauvignon, one of his dreams for Mount Camdeboo.
Accommodation on the reserve, he said, comprised three elegant manor houses, an intimate cottage for two and a pair of luxury safari tents. Two of the manor houses featured lavish Out of Africa-style decor and the third, with more modern furnishings, was ideal for families.
Wonderful as these were, Buchanan insisted, they did not allow guests to experience the intensity of wild Africa. The trick, he said, was to devise a means whereby they could do this in comfort … if not luxury. “I’m going to build prefabricated structures that will be positioned in isolated areas of the reserve that happen to include the Big Five. You will be connected to nature and nature will be connected to you. “It will be off-grid ‘glamping’ taken to the next level and not for the faint-hearted.”
I immediately volunteered to be one of his guinea-pig guests. Little did I know there would be a few moments when I felt more like a tethered goat. “I was inspired by what I saw coming out of Scandinavia where tiny homes and pods have become a trend,” Buchanan told me after my latest visit. “Lightweight structures are popular for tree-house experiences but nowhere could I find anything prefabricated that was suitable for use on a Big Five game reserve.”
With his vision of “a luxurious micro-space” taking shape in his head, Buchanan consulted architects and engineers in Cape Town to take the concept further. “We’d been working on constructing an eco-friendly structure based on the Buckminster Fuller-designed geodesic dome long before we even considered the shape that South Africans would recognize instantly as an old barn, which is synonymous with the Karoo.”
APEX Glamping was formed to build “off-grid, self-sustainable units finished to the highest Scandinavian quality standards and finishes. Pods are customisable and can be installed anywhere from the top of a mountain to your back garden”.
The Mount Camdeboo-specific setup comprises a 24m² living space that includes a shower toilet and kitchenette with gas cooker, an outside dining nook, fire pit, lounging deck, hammock and wood-fired hot tub fed from a subterranean spring 1.5km away.
Waste water drains directly into the ground. “The point of the structure is to connect you with nature but also to protect you from what nature might throw at you. “Units are so insulated that the living space is cool in summer but toasty in winter even though they feature lots of glass in order to maximise the views both from the bed and bathroom.”
With the nearest human neighbours several kilometres away, privacy is never an issue. The structure is suitable for single people and couples which, says Buchanan, encourages introspection or romance.
There are currently two cabins, both positioned right on the edge of grassland plateaus to commandspectacular views, and Buchanan intends to add a couple of 19m² domes when international tourists return. Pods will be moved periodically around the 14 000ha reserve to limit their environmental impact.
An overnight bush sojourn is offered as an optional extra activity to Mount Camdeboo guests on multi-night stays. They retain their rooms at the manor into which they are booked (if, for whatever reason the experience is not to their liking), taking just what they need in terms of clothing and toiletries.
They are transported mid-afternoon onto the plains by a qualified guide who stays with them (and will even do their braai-ing, should they wish!) till they are comfortable being on their own. They’ll be picked up the next morning and returned to “civilisation” in time for breakfast (the pods are stocked with coffee, tea and rusks as well as a few pre-chosen drinks).
The pods are in radio communication – and they have WiFi! – with reserve reception and rangers canbe on scene within 15 minutes of a call, says Buchanan. Funny, I never considered radio-ing news of the arrival of my unexpected guests. All I could think about while backing slowly from the fire pit to the cabin was getting to my cameras.
Perhaps Mount Camdeboo head guide Letishia Kleinschmidt saw something of this in me when she approached after game drive on my first full day in the reserve. I’d spent the early morning ogling cheetah, elephant, sable antelope and a variety of other animals and birds with a group of aspirant photographers and was still agog with the experience.
“Do you want to spend one night or two in the cabin?” she asked. “Two.” “I thought so. I’ll take you up after breakfast and leave you to it.” “Tish” gave me a comprehensive briefing on the way up the escarpment – the primary injunction being not to go further than 50m from the pod because there was as yet no wire around the structure to keep animals at a distance* – and an orientation tour around the place.
For the next 36 hours I basked in the solitude and so-called silence of the wild. Actually, the bush is a pretty noisy place. The entire breakout period was remarkable, with one of the highlights being a secretary bird coming right up to the pod while I was “on the throne”. Luckily, the large window was open and my camera was at hand.
The lions popped round on the second evening. By that time I was so chilled, you could have wiped my bum with a puff adder.