Jock Safari Lodge…in the footsteps of a legend

By Stef Terblanche

 

In the 1880s, the young Percy Fitzpatrick, the eldest son of James Coleman Fitzpatrick, who was a judge of the Supreme Court of the Cape Colony, travelled like men from all over the world to the newly discovered gold fields near Pilgrim’s Rest in what was then the Eastern Transvaal. Here he sought to make his fortune, which he did.

He worked as a storeman, prospector’s assistant and journalist as well as an ox-wagon transport-rider from the former Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) to Lydenburg and Barberton along the old Voortrekker wagon route, and later as a newspaper editor in Barberton.

 

It was during his time as a transport driver that he became the owner of a somewhat unremarkable little puppy, a cross between a Staffordshire terrier and a bull terrier and the odd one out of a litter of five. But this pup would yet turn out to be a most remarkable and fearless dog and the subject of Fitzpatrick’s classic book, Jock of the Bushveld. It was along this wagon route that prospectors passed through some of Africa’s most scenic, untamed wilderness, today part of the world-famous Kruger National Park. And it is still just like that – wild and beautiful.

 

Jock became well liked, respected and lived out his life at Sir Fitzpatrick’s side with unwavering loyalty, the two of them enjoying many an adventure in the wilderness. The dog lost his hearing when a kudu cow kicked him and he was later tragically and accidentally shot, mistaken for a chicken thief. But Jock lives on in Fitzpatrick’s book, in a statue or two, and in another remarkable story… this time of a beautiful lodge not far from where Jock lies buried and which has a direct connection to Jock’s owner.

 

In 1947 Fitzpatrick´s daughter Cecily Niven, backtracked her father’s travels according to the description in Jock of the Bushveld and said she had found the area where Jock was buried, which she described in her own book. Although Tom Barnett’s store on the wagon trail – described in Fitzpatrick’s book – and wild fig tree under which Jock was buried, were long gone, fragments of building materials and broken china were uncovered at the very site. So, it’s quite likely that this is exactly where Jock is indeed resting.

 

It was here in this area that the Niven family later used the trust funds left by Sir Fitzpatrick to build a lodge, close to where the story of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and his dog Jock had played out, at the confluence of the Mitomeni and Biyamiti rivers in the southern section of the park. The lodge became the Jock Safari Lodge and thus the legend of an intrepid explorer and his trusted dog lives on.

A visit just before the pandemic

 

I was fortunate to be invited to the lodge for a stay of a few days just before the Covid-19 virus hit South Africa and the entire country went into total lockdown. It was a remarkable experience as the area boasts both exquisite natural scenery and an abundance of wildlife – naturally including all of the Big Five – while the lodge is a model of service excellence and hospitality.

 

The lodge is conveniently located not far from Skukuza Airport, probably the snazziest, cutest airport I have ever seen. As we landed a guide sent by the lodge was waiting to take our party to the little bit of paradise that would be home for the next few days. Already just on the drive to the lodge we saw plenty of wild animals and some stunning scenery.

 

Soon we arrived at the lodge that sits elevated above a riverbed, covered by a shade-providing canopy of trees. The trees are thanks to the conservation-conscious Niven family who fenced the lodge area in 1982 to prevent elephants from destroying the trees and they planted many more indigenous trees. As a result, today the lodge is a true little oasis in the harsh and sun-baked bushveld.

 

The 12 thatched lodge suites of the main Jock lodge have been designed to offer guests total privacy and closeness to nature, nestled under large trees and overlooking the riverbed and the bush. Guests are warned to securely lock their doors as the monkeys sitting watching one’s every move up in the trees know how to open doors and will ransack your belongings.

 

Each suite leads on to a private deck with plunge pool and a Sala, an outdoor day bed, all with spectacular views. The outdoor day bed is enclosed under fine netting, so one can sleep there at night if you really want to experience the sounds, smells and visitors of the wild at night… which I did. What an experience!

Our first game drive

 

After being shown to our suites we were off on our first game drive and were rewarded with sightings of elephants – many of them – plus rhinos, hyenas, giraffes, zebras, impalas, and other antelope. Our first encounter with a rhino was very instructive, thanks to our very knowledgeable guide.

 

As the rhino made his way around our vehicle to a dung heap a few feet away, our guide explained that they use these heaps as their toilet. Our rhino noisily did just that, and when finished he trampled what he had just deposited there and then sauntered off into the bush. Our guide explained that the dung sticking to his feet was used to mark his territory. Don’t tell that to your 4-year old or your house might become marked with a rather unpleasant smell.

 

On the way back to the lodge we stopped on a rise to watch the sun sink in a sea of red behind the horizon. While doing this we were treated to some ice-cold beers or champagne. Back at the lodge there was time for a quick shower and then we all gathered on the main deck and around an open pit with a friendly fire for more refreshments. This was followed by some amazing dinner offerings from the chef and, with bellies full and feeling the activities of the day catching up, most of us drifted off to our quarters one by one. An early night is recommended, as just after 4am your wake-up coffee arrives… that is, if you are joining the very early morning game drive.

Early morning game drive

 

Leaving that early in the morning came with reward – ours was the one and only game-viewing vehicle out and about in the area. And boy, did we get to see a variety of wildlife! First encounter was with a cheetah looking for breakfast, crouching, moving, weaving, and dodging us as he hunted around but, alas, was not very successful while we were around.

 

Next, we came upon a herd of elephants having their breakfast, none more eagerly so than the cheeky little baby elephant in their midst who was never allowed to wander away from the close protection of the older animals. After this we came upon a family of hyenas, followed by some wildebeest, a huge herd of impalas and then first prize: a male lion and his three female companions lazily stretched out on the warm tarred road, still busy waking up. For a while, the male kept a wary eye on the human intruders and then turned his back on us as he decided we were no threat or wouldn’t win the interest of his ladies.

 

A short while later a herd of impala moved into the nearby area. The three lionesses, having noticed them, set off to lay an ambush. One lioness hid in the grass beside the road, while the other two circled around on opposite sides towards the impalas, hoping to startle and chase them straight towards the lion waiting by the roadside. The male got up at one point to have a closer look, then turned around, having decided to leave the job of getting breakfast to the ladies. The impalas were indeed startled and bewildered and fled in a panic, but in the wrong direction and got away. The three lionesses returned to the warmth of the road and lay down – breakfast could wait till later.

 

We saw plenty more game on that early drive, including a leopard slung along the extended branch of a tree, legs dangling down the sides. Life for an animal in the Kruger is a laid-back, lazy affair… most of the time. But hunting for food can become time and effort consuming, as can the little matter of not becoming some larger predator’s meal.

 

Back at the lodge we had a huge breakfast, and then some time off to be by ourselves. This is when the splash pool became very handy in cooling off from the harsh African sun. More very rewarding game viewing, scenic drives, picnics, sumptuous lunches and dinners, ice-cold drinks, informative ad hoc lectures by our guide, and fireside chatter was the order of the day for the rest of our stay.

More about this eco-friendly lodge…

 

Apart from the main lodge with its 12 suites, there is also what is called Fitzpatrick’s at Jock, a separate little lodge secluded in the bush some distance away from the main lodge. This is the perfect haven for small groups and families, but also for individuals and couples who want to get away from it all and unwind in the wild.

 

The lodge contains three perfectly appointed rooms that cater for children, the main room being completely private with its own deck and plunge pool, while the other two rooms have been enclosed to create a  family unit with two luxury suites with bathrooms, sharing a private foyer, deck and plunge pool.

 

Jock Safari Lodge is located within 6,000ha of pristine bushveld, in an exclusive private concession, perfectly positioned in the southern part of the Kruger National Park, which is South Africa’s largest national park. The wildlife within this region have survived undisturbed without negative impact from mankind, encouraged to thrive.

 

The natural unbroken landscape one finds here, offers guests one of the best Big Five game viewing experiences in South Africa with its exclusive riverbed traversing rights. Steeped in history, Jock Safari Lodge was the first private concession granted within the Kruger National Park.

 

Apart from the daily game drives and excellent Big Five viewing, other activities include wilderness walks, bird watching and nearby golf at the Leopard Creek Golf Course. Or you can just lounge around all day on your private deck or the main communal deck, refreshments in hand, and watch the elephants saunter by.

 

The lodge has been built to the most stringent eco-management criteria in South Africa, audited by the Kruger National Park and Department of Environment and Tourism on a bi-annual basis. Off-road driving on the concession is permitted for predator sightings. This is however done in an environmentally sensible manner as the damage a vehicle does to the veld takes up to 2 years to repair.

 

Jock Safari Lodge has a 100% commitment in maintaining a low impact upon the footprint that is Jock in order to remain true to the overall conservation ethic of the Caleo Foundation, current owner of the lodge, and in order to preserve this unique heritage for future generations.

The Caleo Foundation

 

With the words, “I can’t take anything with me when I die, can I?”, Dr Carmen Elvira Ellinger-Mühleder bestowed a substantial part of her fortune on the Caleo Foundation for the purchase first of Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in the Western Cape’s Klein Karoo, and later Jock Safari Lodge.

 

Her beloved late husband, Dr Leopold Philipp Ellinger, was the sole heir to an old Spanish sugar fortune. Five years after Leopold’s death, adamant that their wealth should go to a good cause and after her first mesmerising visit to South Africa, she founded the Caleo Foundation with the express purpose of the protection of nature and wildlife and the promotion of art.

 

She became involved in the protection of the endangered rhino and, wanting to reintroduce the desert black rhino to the Klein Karoo, the foundation purchased Sanbona for that purpose. Not long afterwards, the foundation purchased Jock Safari Lodge and it now assists South African National Parks (SANParks) with its Jock Environmental Monitoring Unit deterring poachers and saving endangered species.