In October I travelled to South Africa to explore the private game reserves bordering the famous Kruger National Park: Sabi Sands, Thornybush and Timbavati. I then flew to the North-West Province for a few nights safari in the Madikwe Game Reserve.
I flew out on the overnight British Airways service from Heathrow to Johannesburg, and arrived early the next morning. Aware of the recent reports on the processing delays through immigration at O.R Tambo Airport, I was hoping the two and half hours I had to clear immigration, collect my luggage and check-in for my onward flight to Kruger would be more than adequate. Unfortunately the delays at immigration were exactly as reported and with roughly 500+ people in front of me it took two hours to ‘enter’ South Africa. Once I collected my luggage I then had to make a quick dash to the domestic terminal where I checked-in, with about 3 minutes to spare (!), for my onward flight to Kruger.
On arrival into Kruger Mpumalanga the first thing that struck me was the heat. Travelling during the last two weeks of October was hot. Extremely hot. Thankfully it was a dry heat but with the daily temperatures ranging from 36-45 deg C with no breeze, you need to be prepared. I would recommend packing extra packets of rehydration salts and extra t-shirts if travelling at this time of year!
En route to Sabi Sands I visited a couple of properties in White River and Hazyview and enjoyed a ‘lunch with a view’ with Chris, owner of Rissington Inn in Hazyview. This comfortable lodge is the perfect overnight stop on the way to game reserves or the Great Escarpment and Panorama Route. From here it is only a short drive to Kruger National Park.
My first stop in the greater Kruger area was Sabi Sands. The ongoing drought was definitely taking its toll on the vegetation and subsequently the plains game, however the predators were thriving. At one watering-hole a hyaena with an enormous belly casually strolled around eyeing up his next ‘easy’ meal – a young buffalo that only had hours to live and would clearly not put up a fight. Although harsh, the extreme conditions do create opportunities for some animals.
Sabi Sands is well known for great leopard sightings and I was not disappointed. Over three nights (at three different lodges: Umkumbe, Savanna and Leopard Hills) I saw a different leopard on each game-drive. In spite of the lack of rain, there were quite a few antelope (nyala, impala, and kudu) in this area too. On another game-drive we enjoyed the playful antics of a pack of wild dogs – 19 in total – which included two sets of pups, just three months apart. Our ranger David from Savanna said this was unusual; the drought made hunting conditions so good the adults could easily support more pups. This pack were in great condition and very relaxed, so we enjoyed watching them practising their hunting skills, stalking one another, playing and feeding on regurgitated meat provided by the adult dogs. A truly lovely sighting and I felt lucky to have spent about an hour in their company.
From Sabi Sands I then drove north towards Thornybush Game Reserve passing through some dense, green woodland which was a surprise after the dry open plains of Sabi Sands. Although a smaller reserve the game-viewing was excellent and a highlight was tracking two male bull elephants on our morning walking safari. I stayed at Thornybush Game Lodge and the found their very spacious guest areas a wonderful place to relax and enjoy a glass of wine.
I then travelled into the nearby Timbavati Game Reserve through woodland dotted with the striking mottled bark of the marula trees. Again, I was amazed at how ‘guaranteed’ the game-viewing seems to be in this region and I saw large herd of buffalo, elephants, giraffe, lion, leopard, rhino, as well as white black vultures, hooded vultures and tawny eagles (about 30!) The suites at Makanyi Lodge were quite simply beautiful and elegant, and it was lovely to enjoy lunch on the deck overlooking the dam where elephant, buffalo and impala were enjoying a drink. Overall, all of the camps and lodges in Timbavati are well run, very comfortable, sophisticated, most have a either a main pool or a plunge pool off your private deck, and some are well-equipped with library, gym and a wine cellar.
In the malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve, the combination of red soil and the surrounding hills provides a stunning landscape for game-drives and the perfect back drop for sundowners. The game-viewing was excellent and I saw the big five in 15 minutes whilst ‘transferring’ between camps! A few of the camps here have hides, which was a new experience for me and one which I loved. Sitting quietly in a cool hide is such a great way to observe animals without disturbing them. At Jaci’s Tree Lodge their ‘Terrapin Hide’ takes you out in the middle of their waterhole and I saw elephant bathing, giraffe drinking and an array of birds fishing – all totally oblivious to my presence.
The greater Kruger area is certainly a wonderful place to go on safari; the accommodation is well run, the service, guiding and hospitality all very good, the game is abundant and you really do get very close sightings with the animals. Compared to the neighbouring Kruger National Park there are significantly fewer vehicles which means animal sightings are usually on your own or only shared with one or two other vehicles.
Madikwe Game Reserve also provides a fantastic safari experience and on my trip I saw first hand how popular it is with families, honeymooners, first-time safari goers and experienced Africa-hands. The majority of camps in the reserve are fenced, providing reassurance for families in particularly. I must admit, I was surprised at how many repeat safari-goers I met returning to Madikwe. One couple was on their 7th trip to the same lodge, in as many years, but with such great guiding, game-viewing, and hospitality (combined with being malaria free) it is easy to see why.
During Julia’s visit she stayed at Umkumbe Safari Lodge, Leopard Hills, Savanna Lodge, Thornybush Game Lodge, Makanyi Private Game Lodge, Tanda Tula Safari Camp, Simbavati Hilltop Lodge, Jaci’s Tree Lodge, Tuningi Safari Lodge and Madikwe Safari Lodge. She site inspected Rissington Inn, Nottens Bush Camp, Kirkman’s Kamp, Dulini Lodge, Dulini Leadwood Lodge, Dulini River Lodge, Londolozi Lodges, Jackalberry Lodge, Chapungu Tented Camp, Royal Malewane, Kambaku Rivers Sands, Kambaku Safari Lodge, nThambo Tree Camp, Kings Camp, Simbavati River Lodge, Jaci’s Safari Lodge, Jamala Madikwe, Impodimo Game Lodge, The Bush House, Madikwe Hills, Etali Safari Lodge, Fairlawns, The Peech Boutique Hotel, City Lodge Hotel O.R. Tambo and Intercontinental Airport Sun, O.R. Tambo.