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Frances heads to the private reserves of South Africa’s Kruger Area

After a very busy summer, it was time to get back to Africa. This time, to two private reserves around the Kruger in South Africa: the Sabi Sands and the Timbavati. It would be my fourth visit to the area over my career at Safari Consultants, but there were still lodges I had never visited and plenty to get updates from.

My partner Jon joined me, and we picked up a car at Kruger Mpumalanga Airport and set off on our way. We were both a little apprehensive about the self-driving aspect of the trip, but our worries were completely unfounded and we hugely enjoyed driving between locations, even spotting wild dog between site inspections!

The first four nights were spent in the Sabi Sands, famous for being one of the most game-rich areas in Africa – and in particular for its very relaxed leopards. The majority of the lodges offer an excellent level of luxury, but there are a few lower-cost gems as well.

We started at Londolozi, one of the original reserves on the Sabi Sands, known for excellent game viewing and guiding and a high-end experience. We had a great game drive with a pride of lions. Particularly notable were two males who most definitely were not in their prime. One had a twisted paw, and the other a gash (probably from being gored by a buffalo) with a bit of intestine bulging out! If you were looking for majestic powerful males, these two were not it! We watched as the far more powerful females got into formation to stalk and hunt (unsuccessfully!) a young zebra. Londolozi combined a sophisticated experience with personal and affable service.

As we were travelling in late November, the rains had already started, and the bush was green, lush and full of vegetation. This made for a beautiful landscape, but slightly more challenging game viewing. However, we really did enjoy some incredible sightings over the next week.

Following Londolozi, we travelled further south to have a very different experience at the good value Umkumbe Bush Lodge. We have used its neighbouring property (Umkumbe Safari Lodge Riverside) for a long time and know that this corner of the reserve is home to some astounding game viewing, so it was interesting to try out this new property. The accommodation was tented, but certainly had all the comforts you needed, including air conditioning (which was very welcome in the summer heat). We had a quiet drive (probably due to the aforementioned heat), but we did see some beautiful female ostrich. The camp is a simple but friendly affair, offering excellent value for money for one of the best game-viewing locations in the Sabi Sands.

We then went back up north in the Sabi Sands to stay at Dulini River. Dulini has expanded from one lodge (Dulini Moya) to add a further two lodges to their portfolio in 2017. The suites at Dulini River were vast and overlooked the beautiful Sand River. We ate a delicious lunch while we watched a solitary male giraffe cautiously bend down for a drink, with several pied kingfishers, like tiny black-and-white helicopters, hovering and swooping up and down the winding river. It was a beautiful spot, excellent service and very impressive accommodation.

On our evening drive, we were lucky enough to see a small female leopard encounter a hyaena, which resulted in a lot of hissing and quick movement – too quick to capture on camera! To top it off, we bumped into a beautiful male lion roaring across the reserve on our way back to camp – one of the most unforgettable sounds you can hear in the bush.

To end our time in the Sabi Sands, we drove back down to MalaMala, the biggest reserve in the area. The size of the reserve would suggest an abundance of wildlife, and it lived up to expectations, with beautiful elephant sightings, leopards mating and a white rhino family grazing. The reserve is also diverse, with varying landscapes to explore. MalaMala, as well as being one of the biggest reserves in the Sabi Sands, is also home to some of the oldest accommodation, and it has always had an old-school feel to it. However, they have done a recent refurb, and while the rooms look the same on the outside (brick rondavel type accommodation), inside they have a much fresher and more contemporary feel to them.

We then drove north up to the Timbavati. It’s not an insignificant drive (around four hours plus, depending how far south and how far north you’re travelling from/to), but it is also possible to do this journey by air transfer, with a few bush airstrips dotted around the reserves.

We began our stay at the new Thabamati Tented Camp, which opened in late 2020 (delayed from the original and unfortunate opening date of June 2020!). It really was a super little camp with only four tents, all built around a dam. During our stay, we saw about five different herds of elephants come down to drink and play in the dam, which was such an entertaining experience. The camp is currently expertly run by a couple made up of guide Charel and manager Mich, who welcome you in and really look after you. The food was also excellent, overseen by Lorna, an ex MalaMala chef. They do only have one vehicle for the four tents (meaning eight people on a vehicle), but the vehicle is designed so that there are four rows of two seats, so everyone is comfortable with a window seat on game drives.

Simbavati River Lodge was our next stop further north in the Timbavati, where the game viewing is a little more prolific than the south. We marvelled at a huge super tusker bull elephant who was being tracked by researchers, a leopard in a tree with a kill and two different prides of lion.

Our final night on safari was at the wonderful Bateleur Safari Camp. Bateleur definitely run the camp to the beat of their own drum. They encourage walking – a lot more than anywhere else in the Kruger (other than the specific walking camps!). We spent a morning tracking a bull rhino on foot, and eventually found him alongside a mother and calf, which was such a special experience. As we got back in the vehicle, the guide was listening on the radio and said it had been a quiet morning for everyone else. Bateleur purposefully stay away from other vehicles and avoid crowding around sightings; instead, you get unique and memorable experiences that you won’t find in busier spots.

The Kruger offers some of the best game viewing in Africa alongside some of the best hospitality, comfort and luxury. While the dollar exchange rate is currently unhelpful for visiting other African countries (which use the US$), the relatively weak Rand means a safari in South Africa represents good value for money at the moment. I wouldn’t come here for a purist wilderness experience, or for a raw authentic safari, but if you are after incredible big game and very comfortable accommodation, the Kruger really is a superb choice.

Fran stayed at: The Peech Hotel, Londolozi Tree Camp, Umkumbe Bush Lodge, Dulini River, MalaMala, Thabamati Tented Camp, Simbavati River Lodge, Bateleur Safari Camp.

Fran site inspected: The Saxon, Londolozi Varty, Founders, Pioneers and Granite Suites, Notten’s Bush Camp, Kirkmans Kamp, Tengile River Lodge, Umkumbe Safari Lodge Riverside, Savanna, Idube, Dulini Moya, Dulini Leadwood, Ulusaba Rock, Cliff and Safari Lodge, Rattrays, Makanyi, Kambaku Safari Lodge, Kambaku River Sands, Simbavati Hilltop, Kings Camp, Tanda Tula, Rockfig and Simbavati Waterside.