Mary explores the famous Sabi Sand Game Reserve

In late November Kelly and I flew down to South Africa for a trip which saw us self-driving through the core game viewing areas of the Timbavati and Sabi Sand Game Reserves, after which Kelly continued on the Madikwe Game Reserve. Kelly will write about Timbavati and Madikwe, and I will concentrate on our brief stay in Johannesburg plus our trip through the famous Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

We flew to Johannesburg on Virgin Atlantic, and as they arrive later than BA, we needed to spend a night in Jo’burg before heading off on safari. If time allows it is something I would definitely recommend. Landing later in the morning than a lot of the other carriers meant that the queues at immigration were a lot shorter and completing entrance formalities was much more efficient, plus having a night’s sleep before heading off on our safari was hugely beneficial. It also allowed us the opportunity to visit two of our regularly suggested properties. The Peech is a friendly owner run boutique hotel close the many eateries and bars in Rosebank; and the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa is an elegant oasis of calm in the middle of the city.

We began with four nights in the Timbavati, after which we drove south to the famous Sabi Sand Game Reserve. For the most part the roads in that area were in pretty good condition and when we stopped in the town of Akornhoek to fill up the car, we got a delightful reminder of the joyous, and raucous, nature of the South Africans. It was the end of the school year and a minibus taking a group of young children rocked up, quite literally, to the petrol pump. Music was blasting out, the bus was shaking and there were arms, heads and upper bodies of small children poking out of windows, all singing and dancing with the most infectious grins. It was impossible not to grin back!

The Sabi Sand is a private reserve covering 65,0000 hectares and is best described as a vast wildlife management area comprising privately owned blocks of land and commercial properties where our guests will stay. Many of the camps have traversing rights with their neighbours which allows an extended game viewing area. The downside of this is that there is a higher density of vehicles than in Timbavati, but sightings are strictly policed to three vehicles at a time. The upside is, as the camps all remain in contact with one another, there are more ‘eyes’ out there and sightings can be easier to come by. In addition, the animals are mostly well accustomed and relaxed in the presence of game viewing vehicles.

As soon as we entered the western sector of the Sabi Sand, we were aware of the differing landscape from the Timbavati. The colours were softer, with sandy roads ranging from pale yellow to deep red. In place of the wide bands of mopane woodlands which are common in the north of Timbavati, there are beautiful riverine forests with jackalberry and leadwood trees; and open vleis invite plains game to gather. All of this combines with the perennial Sand River to create a beautiful environment which is teeming with game. Large herds of elephants, impressive prides of lions, shy kudu, wary hyenas and majestic leopards are just a handful of reasons why the Sabi Sand is often referred to as being one of the best game viewing areas in South Africa.

The west and southern sectors of the Sabi Sand are not dissimilar in their landscapes but once we reached the northern sector (and it took quite some time due to the awful state of the roads and unexpected road closures with no diversion signs – we would strongly suggest that you fly in!) we both immediately noticed how much thicker the bush was here. It didn’t impact the overall quality of the game viewing as rhino, leopard and lion sightings were excellent, but it did make us think about what we sometimes take for granted whilst out on safari. On a game drive the guide came to an abrupt stop to admire a zebra. To be fair, it was a particularly striking stallion, but a zebra nonetheless and we had seen a lot. His excitement stemmed from the fact that the bush is so thick in that area with a real lack of the open plains that zebra prefer. Thus, he explained, on the rare occasions they do see a zebra they must be admired!

November is a time of plenty in the bush – the rains had not yet fully arrived this year, but some scattered showers had transformed the vegetation into a lush paradise for the migrating birds arriving from Europe, the higher temperatures make sightings of reptiles and chameleons more frequent, but most of all, it is the time for babies! Wobbly-legged wildebeest calves, tiny warthog piglets just emerging from the den and seemingly thousands of bouncy impala babies made for very cute viewing and also provided a fabulous source of food to the reserve’s impressive predator population.

The Sabi Sand Game Reserve is usually referred to as one of the more expensive safari destinations in South Africa, and indeed it does have a greater proportion of high-end lodges than Timbavati.

The five Londolozi Camps, MalaMala Rattray’s Camp and &Beyond’s Tengile River Lodge were all reassuringly luxurious, but each offers a completely different style of accommodation – from the classic elegance of Rattray’s to the urban safari chic at Tengile (it doesn’t sound like it should work but it does!). Aside from the luxury, a further advantage of these high end lodges is that they are often situated on a much larger private concession with fewer traversing rights, resulting in lower vehicle numbers and a more exclusive game viewing experience.

The reserve is not, however, the sole domain of the luxury lodges, and it was great to visit old favourites Savanna Private Game Reserve and Notten’s Bush Camp, both of which have been hosting our guests for many years and continue to provide superb experiences. Notten’s was a particular standout offering an authentic family run bush experience. It is always exciting to visit camps for the first time and my stay at Inyati Game Lodge was a really happy one.

The sheer size of South Africa and the variety within it often means that a safari will be a small part of a longer trip. To ensure that you make the most of your time on safari with assured (as much as nature allows) and rewarding sightings with a beautiful backdrop, a stay in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve is never going to be a bad idea.

Mary stayed at Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa, Dulini Leadwood, Inyati Game Lodge, Londolozi Varty Camp and Simbambili.

Mary visited The Peech Hotel, Savanna Lodge, Leopard hills, Dulini River Lodge, Dulini Moya, Idube, Notten’s Bush Camp , Umkumbe Safari Lodge, MalaMala Camp, MalaMala Rattray’s Camp, andBeyond Kirkman’s Camp, andBeyond Tengile River Lodge, Londolozi Pioneer Camp, Londolozi Founders Camp, Londolozi Tree Camp, Londolozi Private Granite Suites, Elephant Plains Game Lodge, Jaci’s Sabi House and Chitwa Chitwa.

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