As everyone was beginning to think about Christmas, I happily put my winter woollies away; packed my sunglasses, camera and binos and headed off to South Africa. Whilst there are many different ways to safari in South Africa, the focus of this particular trip was the on the private reserves which lie beside the Kruger National Park and to find out which lodges really are the best of the best.
What initially struck me was just how accessible this area is, and how easy it is to go on a safari where you really can get a top notch experience – both game-wise and in terms of the level of accommodation available to you. A comfortable 45 minute flight from Johannesburg took me into Skukuza Airport which is located within the Kruger Park itself. And the flight wasn’t on a small bush plane as many of us may well be accustomed to, but rather a decent sized jet that was therefore able to carry the usual luggage allowance of 20kgs – quite a pleasant surprise! I understand that for some part of the fun of a safari is arriving by light aircraft, but having the option to carry a little extra luggage in a larger plane may also be appealing. Either way, the speed at which you can be out in a game viewer and breathing in the much needed safari-air is quite something.
The majority of my trip was spent in an area renowned for luxury lodges, Sabi Sand Game Reserve which lies on the south-western border of the Kruger National Park. Much like the conservancies of Kenya’s Masai Mara, the overwhelming benefit of the Sabi Sand (and Timbavati and Thornybush – which I also visited) is that you have access to the fantastic game viewing of the Kruger Park without having to battle the crowds.
The Sabi Sand is made up of separate private reserves, each sitting on their own designated plot of land but often with traversing agreements with neighbouring properties. This means that your game viewing area is increased and whilst you are likely to encounter other vehicles, you also have the potential to see more game and can travel beyond the border of your lodge onto a neighbouring plot to enjoy a special sighting.
There are two rivers in the Sabi Sand, the main one being the Sand River which runs from the north west to the south east of the reserve, and the second being the Sabi River to the very south. These waterways have given rise to the large numbers of game that can be found on the reserve, with the most attention being placed on the ‘big five’. It is a destination very well known for its leopard sightings in particular, and I saw 10 leopard during my 12 night safari both here and in the Timbavati so it certainly lived up to the hype! I also saw many, many lion including several prides consisting of over 18 individuals which was a real highlight. Wild dog sightings have become more common in recent years and I was very fortunate to see five different packs, as well as cheetah on two separate occasions. I really did have some fantastic game viewing.
In terms of terrain, although close together, you could see subtle changes between properties. Some have more access to the rivers, such as Singita and Londolozi, whilst others are located in areas of more dense bush and woodland. The biggest contrast was on the MalaMala Game Reserve which borders the Kruger Park. This really is the most spectacular reserve with such a variety of terrain and the added bonus of 20kms of the Sand River.
I covered nearly all of the Sabi Sand Reserve, staying at Lion Sands Tinga Lodge and Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge in the south, Ulusaba Safari Lodge and Dulini Leadwood Lodge to the west, Singita Ebony and Londolozi’s Tree Camp in the centre, Rattray’s on MalaMala to the east and then Cheetah Plains towards the north of the reserve. After Cheetah Plains I drove out of the Sabi Sand and onto Thornybush where I stayed at The Farmstead by Royal Malewane. The Farmstead is the newest Royal Portfolio property and where big sister Royal Malewane is more traditional in style, The Farmstead is young, light and vibrant – much like their renowned Cape Town property, The Silo! With just three rooms and a private four bedroomed house, it is a wonderful addition to the Portfolio and one that is certainly aimed more towards the younger generation. From here I moved onto the Timbavati for nights at King’s Camp and Makanyi Lodge before finishing out at Garonga Safari Camp.
Having experienced all these properties, I realised that luxury accommodation really does fall within both the old school safari style and the very modern. What it comes down to is personal preference from the colonial style of Rattray’s on MalaMala and the traditional African decor of Singita Ebony to the more contemporary sophistication of the sublime Cheetah Plains, plus everything in between. There really is something to suit every taste.
When it comes to luxury though Cheetah Plains is in a league of its own. Consisting of three 4 bedroomed private houses which are far more like individual safari lodges than what we would think of as a safari house. Large, airy and open plan, the central area of each house consist of everything you would expect at a lodge; indoor and outdoor dining, two lounge areas, wine cellar (with dining), a large pool with extensive deck and daybeds, a boma area/fire pit and kitchen. Each house comes with its own team including a host, butler and kitchen staff – as you would expect, everything is done on your time. The individual bedroom suites are located either side of your main area, all identical but with two inter-leading with a small enclosed hallway between them. Each room has a separate toilet room and bathroom, extensive dressing room and a large bedroom with a lounge to one side and bed to the other. They are glass fronted with a private outside furnished decking area. And they have all the mod cons including a Dyson hair dryer, hair straighteners, touch screen mirror in the shower which can be heated to de-mist, iPhone to contact your host, a switch for ambient lighting. I could go on, it really is at the top of its game in terms of modern safari luxury. And the welcome, food and service matched the accommodation!
Londolozi was another stand out property during my stay. More classic in style, I stayed at Tree Camp and as a Relais & Châteaux member (out of their five camps three belong to the collection) my high expectations were certainly met. Not over flashy, with extremely comfortable and relatively understated accommodation, impeccable service, delicious food and a very warm welcome.
Annabel visited The Residence, Dulini Leadwood Lodge, Dulini River Lodge, Dulini Lodge, Savanna Lodge, Sabi Sabi Little Bush, Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge, Lion Sands River Lodge, Lion Sands Ivory Lodge, &Beyond Tengile River Lodge, Singita Ebony Lodge, Rattrays on MalaMala, MalaMala Sable Camp, Leopard Hills, Ulusaba Safari Lodge, Ulusaba Rock Lodge, Londolozi Tree Camp, Londolozi Varty Camp, Londolozi Private Granite Suites, Londolozi Founders Camp, Londolozi Pioneers Camp, Silvan Safari, Cheetah Plains, The Farmstead at Royal Malewane, Royal Malewane, Saseka Tented Camp, Rockfig Safari Lodge, Kings Camp, Tanda Tula Safari Camp, Makanyi Private Game Lodge, Garonga Safari Camp and Little Garonga.