The Silent Safari

Electric game drive vehicles enhance the sense of wildness in Sabi Sand lodge, and are friendlier to the environment too


Situated in the remote north-eastern corner of Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, Cheetah Plains rolls out the proverbial red carpet at each and every turn. With three Plains houses, each containing four ultra-luxurious, self-contained suites, the only shared area is the main house, where 14 staff are at your beck and call.

Karula House host Lorraine has mastered the fine art of complete hospitality coupled with unobtrusive service, as has head butler Moses. Delicious fine dining crafted by a team of chefs is enjoyed at the main house, either in the dining room or next to the sparkling pool. The four suites all have varying views of the bushveld and incorporate modern amenities that can be switched on or off with the touch of a button. Closing the blinds manually? Not at Cheetah Plains. Just flick the switch. And for those not wanting to leave the confines of your incredibly comfortable bed because you forgot the bathroom light on, there is a master switch on either side of the bed built into the bedside table!

Waiting for the engine of the safari vehicle to start in characteristic bush style, we all sit in anticipatory silence, listening for the loud roar of the Land Cruiser bursting to life. When field guide Sipps turns the key in the ignition, however, only a gentle hum is heard as we depart on our first game drive. Will the absence of sound see us stuck in the midst of a herd of elephants, or among a pride of lions? Not a chance. “Prior to rolling out the electric vehicles on safari, we rigorously tested speed, agility and torque,” Sipps assures us. Introducing the silent safari.

A tall tail 

We stop for morning coffee next to the airstrip. Tracker Ntsako is on high alert as three different sets of fresh leopard tracks have been found on the sandy game drive paths around the lodge. The larger spoor is assumed to be that of a male, the smaller one a female and the smallest belonging to a cub. Sipps has been left in the bush to see what he can spot (pun intended). Ntsako sets the table, lays out the snacks and serves choco-rula (hot chocolate and Amarula) and black coffee. The wind is bustling about when he receives the radio call from Sipps to acknowledge that a leopard has been found. Back in the driver’s seat, Sipps manoeuvres the vehicle into the area where the sighting has been reported. “Why are the birds all screaming?” he wonders out loud. And then we see her outline. A beautiful female leopard strolling through the bush, walking in the opposite direction. Every so often, she picks up her tail, revealing the white tip, which she flicks back and forth. Without having to ask, Sipps humorously explains: “She is showing the birds that she’s no threat to them; she is a vegetarian for the day, needing them to cooperate and not blow her cover. Just watch her.” The leopard continues her stroll, walking right past our vehicle, and Sipps tries to get ahead of her so that we can see her face. She pauses next to a termite mound, and with cameras at the ready, she walks around to our side, where we sit breathlessly, taking in the beauty of this magnificent creature. She is so close I can count her whiskers. Her yellow canines are exposed, and she is panting ever so gently. The sun behind her makes it easier for her to open her eyes fully, and when her green peepers make contact with mine, my heart skips a beat. Appreciating the wonders of nature is what life is really all about.

Welcome to Electric Avenue

With their sustainability ethos and being completely off the grid, Cheetah Plains is a leader in the field of renewable energy. The expansion of the already huge solar plant is underway, generating enough power to run all three houses concurrently. Solar panels have a twofold purpose – they serve as additional shade for parked vehicles, as well as solar energy harvesting units. No noisy generators or loadshedding here – with a 1MWh lithium-ion energy storage system to run the full load of the lodge during low light conditions or at night, guests can be guaranteed that the lights will not go out, unless the staff or guests want them to (cue romantic candlelit dinner or bathing in the moonlight).

One of the greatest assets at Cheetah Plains in terms of sustainability are the electric game drive vehicles. Almost no noise pollution and zero carbon emissions mark them as the future of what game drive vehicles should look and sound like. Set in three rows of two bucket seats and separated by useful consoles that can house cameras, books or binoculars, the vehicles have heated seats for crispy winter mornings and USB ports to charge mobile devices or cameras. A comfortablerecline in the seats makes for a superb game viewing experience. How long will it hum along before it needstopping up? They can last through two entire gamedrives (80km), after which it takes between four and six hours to fully charge the vehicles, which are fitted with Tesla batteries. This is a game changer in the safari industry – no more grating gear changes, just a smooth drive from start to finish. The electric vehicles have the same off-road ability, complete with 4×4, low range and diff lock functions, but they create less of an uproar, keeping guests immersed in the sanctity of the wild.

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