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Rob explores new properties in the private reserves bordering Kruger National Park

The Sabi Sand, Thornybush and Timbavati Game Reserves in north-eastern South Africa, bordering the famous Kruger National Park, are well known ‘ big five’ safari regions and especially popular with travellers looking for an exclusive big game experience in combination with sight-seeing and exploring within South Africa and the wider region. Many of the lodges are extremely established, but others are less well known, or completely new, and it was interesting to travel back through these areas and realise just how much variety there is on offer.

The reserves are essentially made up of many parcels of private land (we call them ‘properties’) which have come together to form a significant area of protected and closely managed game reserve. Sabi Sand and Timbavati are the main two reserves and border directly with the Kruger, and with no fences along the boundary wildlife moves freely between them and the park. However, tourists cannot do this, which is what makes the private reserves so much more exclusive than the park itself! Each property within these reserves agrees to operate a limited number of safari vehicles, but they do often share traversing rights to access game sightings.

On this trip I was pleasantly surprised by how natural the bush was and how remote some of the game drives felt. It is easy to think that South Africa safaris are all about the big five – such is the emphasis placed on seeing lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo – and having visited many times over the years I had probably become a little pre-conditioned in my expectations. It was a pleasant re-awakening therefore to find myself admiring the spectacular views and feeling of ‘wilderness’ as I was driving through the bush early one morning as mist hung in the valleys and sunlight burst over the horizon. On a different morning I was driving between lodges when I had to let a family of white rhino cross the track in front of me. From the first tentative ‘poke’ of the lead animal’s horn through the undergrowth, to watching four of them graze away on the far side of the track, it was a beautiful and totally exclusive encounter. The game viewing is fantastic in these private reserves, but there is also a richness to the countryside and the development of the safari industry in recent years does not appear to have impacted negatively on the natural environment.

Amongst old favourites and established properties, new properties are still emerging. In Sabi Sand I visited the extremely luxurious &Beyond Tengile River Lodge, whilst in Timbavati I loved the new Bateleur Safari Camp and the more luxurious Rockfig Safari Lodge. I also appreciated the individuality of these three new properties – it is uninspiring when all safari lodges offer the same product. Bateleur is worth special mention for its eco status and emphasis on providing an in depth wildlife experience. During my stay we drove for 3 hours without seeing another vehicle, through beautiful territory, and our guide was superb. The in depth focus at Bateleur can also include walking safaris for anyone who is a little more active and adventurous.

Although no longer a ‘new’ property, I really enjoyed visiting Makanyi Private Game Lodge for the first time. Located in a quiet and remote corner of Timbavati, a stay here is guaranteed to be exclusive and sophisticated. I was given a warm welcome on my way to Makanyi when I came across a beautiful lazy male leopard lounging in the fork of a marula tree. Piercing yellow eyes watched me carefully for a few minutes, before the magnificent cat decided I wasn’t a threat and relaxed back into semi-slumber. Moments like this are special.

In Thornybush Game Reserve I had a very pleasant overnight stay at a revamped Shumbalala Game Lodge, whilst in Klaserie I very much enjoyed the personal service and guiding at Senalala Luxury Safari Camp. Just inside the gate to Timbavati and Klaserie is Walkers Bush Villa, a great option for exclusive groups looking for a relaxed private house safari experience.

I also spent a morning driving through the Kruger National Park, from the Skukuza area in the south of the park to Satara and Orpen more towards the central section of the park. It was a good reminder of just how vast and relatively wild the Kruger actually is. On the one hand it is a public park, with a tar road running up the centre – arguably not a true wilderness safari. However, on the other hand there are actually very few roads within the park, when you consider its size, and this is partly due to the mantra of the park management which is ‘nature and environment first’. Some of the riverine woodland I passed was incredibly beautiful and in general there was a real feeling of space and scale.

Whether you self-drive in the Kruger or choose the more exclusive guided experiences available in the private reserves, this part of Africa offers incredible game viewing and some stunning scenery.

Rob visited – Dulini Leadwood Lodge, Dulini River Lodge, Sabi Sabi Little Bush Camp, &Beyond Tengile River Lodge, Plains Camp, Thornybush River Lodge, Thornybush Main Lodge, Thornybush Chapungu Tented Bush Camp, Thornybush Waterside Lodge, Thornybush Jackalberry Lodge, Thornybush N’Kaya Lodge, Thornybush Serondella Lodge, Thornybush Monwana Game Lodge, Walkers Bush Villa, Kambaku River Sands, Kambaku Safari Lodge, Makanyi Private Game Lodge, Shindzela Tented Camp, &Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge, Umlani Bushcamp, Tanda Tula Safari Camp, Kings Camp, Simbavati Lodges, Machaton, Klaserie Sands River Camp, nThambo Tree Camp, Gomo Gomo Game Lodge, Baobab Ridge

Rob stayed at – Idube Lodge, Rhino Post Safari Lodge, Thornybush Shumbalala Game Lodge, Rockfig Safari Lodge, Bateleur Safari Camp and Senalala Luxury Safari Camp.