Royal Malewane – in a class of its own

– Safari Review by Klein Companions, Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby, Klein Collection Safaris

Royal Malewane… Mention these two words to anyone in the know, and people begin to visibly cringe with envy. A reputation as perhaps the most exclusive lodge in Southern Africa is a lot to live up to – and what better occasion than our honeymoon to see if the name really lives up to the reality? We find out.

“Wow, there’s a welcome committee waiting for us!” I exclaim as we drive up to Royal Malawane’s inconspicuous entrance, where six angles, almost all dressed in white, are waving us in. Magdel, our sweet hostess, introduces everyone – one member from every department of the lodge is represented, be it the spa staff, a butler, Nathan the executive chef, or the lodge’s legendary head guide, Juan Pinto.

We walk along the wooden boardwalks to the main lounge area, adorned with large sofa arrangements, giant stone vases with floating flowers, majestic cheetah statues and Persian carpets. Magdel and Juan ask us what we specifically are hoping to experience during our stay – what special interests? The phenomenal experience of the guiding team can cater for anything. “Once we had a guy who only wanted to learn about beetles,” remembers Juan. “So that’s what we did”.

Extravagance beyond your wildest dreams

As Magdel shows us to our suite I have a moment of “pinch me, is this for real?” Everything about Royal Malewane oozes grand old colonial class, especially the suites. We had to walk around in circles a few times to soak up all the small details – antique furniture, king-sized four poster bed (with a heated carpet and wooden step to reach it), fireplace with intricately wrapped firelighters, private plunge pool overlooking the riverbed, a thatched sala for that essential afternoon outdoor nap, Molton Brown toiletries, a free standing window-side Victorian bath, outdoor and indoor shower, a fully loaded mini-bar with crystal glasses…. the list could go on and one. The interiors are designed by co-owner Liz Biden and the pieces are her personal collection.

And if you would rather have your gin and tonic brought to your suite instead of mixing it yourself the solution is at your fingertips. “9 is the magic number”, Magdel reminds us. Dial it day or night; your wish is their command. And with a staff/guest ratio of up to six to one, almost anything can be achieved.

Before we head out on our afternoon game drive, Nathan, the executive chef, arrives to give us a rundown of today’s lunch menu. Shortly after, Lloyd, the sommelier at Royal Malewane, arrives to give us wine recommendations then Chris, our charming butler, arrives to take our orders, all executed with friendly, but not over-familiar unobtrusiveness. The balance is perfect and the interaction with staff an enjoyable pleasure. There’s no over-zealous pampering (such as placing the napkin on your lap – one of my pet hates) yet not once during our stay do I remember having to ask for anything. It’s already been anticipated. Hospitality becomes art.

With the head chef being so visible (at every meal), there’s never any doubt that genuine passion goes into every dish. We enjoy a Mediterranean-African three-course lunch menu – a salad composée of smoked salmon trout and grilled Mozambican prawns, grilled beef fillet with a port sauce, kingklip served with fresh tomato & onion sauce, and as a dessert a duet of pears poached in red and white wine served with berry coulis and vanilla ice cream. And that’s just lunch. Bon appétit!

It’s time for our afternoon game drive and Juan leads us to the vehicle. Juan and Wilson are one of the most infamous guide-tracker teams in Africa. Wilson is one of just two Master Trackers, and the two have worked together for 15 years, guiding celebrities and assessing guides at the highest level – the pair are, quite simply, the benchmark by which the standards of tracking in Africa and the world are set, and as keen as anyone to share their knowledge. For us, this is an even greater privilege than the stellar luxury that Royal Malewane offers. And even if you don’t end up with this pair as your guides, the other guiding teams are also among the best qualified anywhere, all with “SKS’ (Special Skills) qualifications. Overall, Royal Malewane has easily the best guiding team of any safari lodge.

We stop for everything big and small on our drive (including a huge black mamba, the most venomous snake in Africa) and engage Juan’s encyclopedic bird knowledge to tick off some mean LBJs from our twitcher list. Stopping for a superb spread of snacks and drinks for sundowners, Juan pulls out a telescope for some new-dimensional stargazing. Don’t forget a good star app for your smart phone when on safari – SkyView is a good one.

Lloyd welcomes us back with a cosmopolitan and we sneak in a cheeky dip in the pool before being escorted to dinner, which tonight is taking place in front of the blazing fireplace. Nathan has prepared a fantastic six-course tasting menu and Lloyd has done the wine pairing; we have zucchini and parmesan soup, grilled Scottish salmon with gorgonzola green beans, grilled rack of Karoo lamb, steamed chocolate pudding and finally a fine selection of cheeses. Never would we have expected such delicacies on a safari, and nothing has ever matched Royal Malewane’s food before or since.

On foot with rhino

Jonathan wakes me up the next morning before the 5 am wake up call – he’s so thrilled at the prospect of going tracking with Juan and Wilson that he wants to make sure we don’t oversleep. We’re in good time to indulge in the lavish early morning buffet with a vast selection of food – yogurt, fruit salad, rusks, muffins and scones.

Soon Wilson spots some fresh rhino tracks from the vehicle and we head into the bush on foot. “Think the way the animal thinks,” says Juan, when the trail goes temporarily cold. “Rhino like the grass that grows underneath Marula trees, so let’s try over there”. Sure enough, there are the tracks. We find them after an hour, dozing lazily, and with the wind in our favour we creep close. It’s fascinating, electrifying – then we silently withdraw without them having even seen us – the way trailing should be done.

Tracking is the origin of science, yet it’s a skill that hardly any of us now possess. It challenges you to a completely new way of thinking, to analyse your own thought processes and embark on a journey of discovery. In this sense, tracking is a metaphor for life. It’s a privilege to have Master and Senior Trackers Wilson and Juan introduce you to this new world.

After lunch we pursue the celebrity guest book (photos and tributes from the likes of Richard Gere and Elton John, who seems to have made Royal Malewane his second home). I head to the award-winning spa, where a 25-meter (heated) lap pool is the dominant feature. Want to do game watching while running on a treadmill? No problem – the fully equipped, air-conditioned gym has floor-to-ceiling glass looking out on the bush. Jonathan opts for the privacy of our private plunge pool and a moment’s relaxation. The problem with Royal Malewane is there’s so much to take advantage of, that you sometimes forget to relax! Two nights is an absolute minimum here – three or four better. Elton John books it out two weeks at a time…

Instead of driving back to the lodge after sundowners on our evening game drive, we’re driven to a secret location for an out-of-this-world bush dinner. With a Moroccan theme, tonight we’re treated to an authentic Bedouin dinner. Even in this remote setting, miles away from the lodge, the attention to detail is astonishing. The dining tables are decorated with fresh flowers, there’s a separate lounge area with antique couches set up next to the dining table, there are place cards and menus on every plate and I quickly lose count of the dozens of lanterns illuminating the venue.

The staff has been working for four hours setting up everything and the chefs have been cooking since the early morning hours. We enjoy a magnificent four-course dinner – spiced beef keftas, vegetable and chick pea soup with flat bread, lamb, chicken tagine, curried vegetable tagine and couscous alongside a selection of Moroccan condiments. For dessert: malva pudding with cinnamon and vanilla crème Anglaise. A magical evening that will not be forgotten, and unsurpassed by any other bush dinner we’ve had.

Royal treatment?

If someone tells you they were treated like royalty, they usually weren’t. Royals don’t talk about the way they are treated. It becomes true when you don’t even realise that’s what’s happening. At Royal Malewane, nobody will bow to you, pamper you, or even lay your napkin on your lap for you. Not once will you feel that anyone is in your personal space, yet you’ll want for nothing and feel totally at ease. It all comes down to one word: Effortlessness. And every guest, royal or not, is treated the same.

Of course, this kind of experience doesn’t come cheap, even by five star standards, but hospitality like this defies any star rating – which is why fully 30% of Royal Malewane’s guests are return guests. If you’re one of the 70%, you’ll be one of the 30% next time, because there will be a next time.

Unless you want it to be a once-off – a honeymoon or other special occasion, which would be fitting because you’re not going to top this in any safari lodge in Southern Africa.

It’s an experience you’ll cherish forever. We certainly will.

Good for: honeymooners, small groups and families (if children are under 12, one of the suites sleeping four – the Malewane or Royal suite – needs to be booked). For large families and corporate entertaining, Africa House is a six-bedroom villa set nearby with a beautifully colorful African interior, and comes with a private chef.

What we liked best: Impeccable service, world-class guides and understated elegance

What we didn’t like: Hmmm, that’s a tough one…

Our verdict: Royal Malewane is truly in a class of it’s own

We would love to help you plan your own African safari. Contact us today.

Email: info[at]kleincollection.com | South Africa Tel. +27 (0) 21 813 6961

Xigera Camp, Okavango Delta

– Safari Review by Klein Companions, Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby, Klein Collection Safaris

Sitting smack-bang in the middle of the Okavango Delta, Xigera is a water-based camp of outstanding beauty. We took two days of our honeymoon here to relax and cruise the waterways by mokoro, and fell in love with the place.

It’s a thirty minute flight from Maun, a ten minute drive in a Landy, and finally a five minute boat ride to get to magical Xigera – and as we finally arrive, there’s no doubt that we’ve landed in the very heart of the delta. Stepping onto the jetty we’re greeted by our lovely hosts Aaron, Beatrice, Alex and Cath, while four other staff members make up a delightful musical welcome, singing Dumelang, Dumelang – a traditional Setswana greeting.

Xigera CampXigera is a charming camp with an almost mystical feel – built entirely on raised wooden walkways, we feel part of the trees as we walk around the camp checking out the pool, the library, the star-gazing deck and the boma. The main mess area is full of comfy couches, a bar and one long dining table where all 18 guests can dine together. The walk continues to our home for the next two nights – a spacious, comfy canvas tent with simple, colonial décor. There’s an indoor and outdoor shower, bird and mammal reference books on our bedside tables, and hot water in the flask for tea or coffee.

Xigera runs completely on solar power providing sustainable energy and ensuring that modern day comforts such as hot showers and electricity are available in this remote location. From our deck we have wonderful views of the delta and straightaway we spot a few red lechwe antelope across the water.

We freshen up quickly before heading to afternoon tea, where we tuck into sweet and savory snacks before our guide Morimi collects us for the afternoon’s activity – a mokoro trip; Morimi leading in a separate mokoro to fend off any irate crocs or hippos. The dug-out canoes at all the Wilderness camps are no longer made of wood – in an attempt to conserve the Jackelberry trees, the company now uses only fiberglass boats.

Xigera Camp Moreni Game Reserve

In some ways, a mokoro trip is the purest form of safari you can have. In the capable hands of Rider, our poler, we glide silently through the waterways with no engine noise to take away half your senses – each sound is as crystal clear as the water. Rider is a superb guide. As guides ourselves, we ask a lot of difficult questions and Rider has no problem with any of them, and he’s spot on with all his bird calls.

Owl at Xigera Camp, BotswanaXigera is famous for its frequent sightings of any twitcher’s dream: the Pel’s Fishing Owl. We go for a walk on one of the islands looking for this elusive (and endangered) bird – we don’t find it, but instead we’re joined by a very relaxed elephant, happily chewing on marula branches as we quietly (and quickly!) walk back to the mokoro. After a few minutes, however, we’re in luck – a young Pel’s is spotted in a big Mangosteen tree on another nearby island; and it’s a beauty!

Back at camp, we’re thrilled to see a bottle of sparkling and two glasses waiting for us on our deck – a special honeymoon touch, and we sip the wine slowly, enjoying the last bits of light on the sky, listening to the hippos grunting and watching an agile bushbaby perform acrobatics for us in the trees – pure bliss!

For pre-dinner drinks we gather at the bar with the other guests and exchange stories from the day’s sightings. Dinner is served at one long main table with plated starters, buffet-style main course, and a plated dessert to follow. This concept of dining is identical in all the ‘classic camps’ in the Wilderness Collection. Tonight we indulge in a camembert & apple bake, venison stew with couscous and veggies and finish up with a mocha mouse for dessert.

Being a water-based camp this is not your typical ‘big game’ area. Game drives are available, but being keen on the birds we opt for only water activities during our stay, doing mokoro trips and motorboat rides. Still, we see plenty of elephants, giraffes, red lechwe and hippos as well as such avian offerings as lesser jacana, brown fire finch, Dickinson’s kestrel, and a total of no less than three Pel’s fishing owls.

Xigera Camp, Okavango Delta

It’s our last night at Xigera and dinner is served in the traditional boma with the beautiful Milky Way as the ceiling. The BBQ buffet is a lavish selection of meats, salads and veggies and amarula pudding for dessert. On our last morning we embark on a final boat cruise through the narrow water channels lined with tall papyrus reeds; we stop on a small island for tea and coffee and admire an old elephant skull; it’s interesting to see that all six sets of molars are completely worn down – this guy died of old age, his teeth so blunt that he could no longer eat.

Returning to the camp, we have another delicious brunch with stuffed mushrooms, pork stir-fry, salads, fruits, eggs to order and I could continue! We pack our bags, bid our farewells and make our way to the airstrip where the tiny Cessna 206 has its propeller whirling, ready to take us yet further into the delta, to Tubu Tree [link].

Safari flight at Xigera Camp, Botswana

Good for: Couples and families, especially now with a new family suite being built. Xigera is a nice contrast to the land-based lodges; we would recommend spending two nights here and two or three nights at a land-based camp.

Not so good for: Some of the tents are a little close together.

What we liked best: Great guides and lots of birds!

Our verdict: Know what you’re getting here (beauty, tranquility, birds, but not much of the Big 5) and you’ll love it. One of our favourite camps.

We would love to help you plan your own African safari. Contact us today.

Email: info[at]kleincollection.com | South African Tel. +27 (0)21 813 6961.

Tubu Tree Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Klein Collection Safari Review by Jonathan and Sophie

The most popular lodge in the concession NG25 deep in the Okavango Delta, Tubu Tree Camp is an all-rounder with a bit of everything. We visit for two nights to discover why, and we’re not disappointed.

For once, I’m glad I missed the evening game drive. Sitting alone reading on our private deck overlooking the flood plain under the shade of a sausage tree, I hear the first cracks of branches. Elephant are moving into the camp. Soon I’m surrounded by a breeding herd of twenty, including two tiny babies, moving just metres away. I sit spellbound, unable to decide whether to take photos, video or just enjoy the moment. I decide to just enjoy it.

Tubu Tree Deck

Elephants in camp are a regular occurrence at Tubu Tree Camp, but it’s leopard that’s the main draw card here and just last week, the guests at our tent (number 5) arrived back after dinner to find two leopard cubs sitting on their deck. This is not normal. But the leopards at Tubu Tree are not normal.

We arrive in a Cessna 206 from Xigera [link] in a flight time of 10 mins, and what a spectacular 10 mins! Cruising just 250m above the delta, we look out at the vast expanse of waterways and islands and even manage some aerial game viewing, watching a herd of elephant bathing in the channel below. Our guide, Gibson, meets us off the plane together with an American couple for the short drive to the camp, where we’re welcomed by the camp managers, Eloise and Hein, both experienced guides from South Africa.

Tubu Tree Private PoolThe camp’s setting is superb with a cosy enclosed lounge and plunge pool and loungers situated just above the flood plain. Our favourite feature is the bar, integrated into a Marula tree, the bar itself a huge, polished branch.

The safari tents are one of our favourites in the delta – neat and spacious and with the best outdoor shower yet. If you want to know what it feels like being surrounded by elephants while in the shower, this is the place to come! “If it sounds like an elephant stampeding on the roof of your tent, don’t worry”, says Eloise, “It’s just the monkeys. They like to use it as a trampoline.”

Next morning we’re out on the game drive, looking for one of the seven leopards often seen on the reserve. Before long we come across fresh tracks, then hear red-billed spurfowls alarm calling nearby. Then Sophie spots her, slinking through the acacia close to the road. “It’s the young female with cubs” says Gilbert. “If we’re lucky we’ll see her cubs as well.”

Leopard at Tubu Tree Safari Camp, BotswanaIt doesn’t matter how long you’ve spent in the bush or what you’ve seen before – a leopard sighting is always special, even if it’s an almost daily occurrence as it is here at Tubu Tree. To watch how gracefully it walks, how affectionately it rubs and scent marks against the tree, how harmless it seems, yet to know how instantly it can switch into a killing machine, and the almost unimaginable power of being able to drag a fully-grown kudu up a tall tree.

We follow her through the thick bush and Gibson curses as we plough over sickle bushes, well known for puncturing tyres with their vicious thorns. She pauses, softly calling her cubs but they stay hidden, for another day. Instead we head for the mokoros for a leisurely pole through the reeds of the flood plain for some bird and frog spotting and coffee on a tiny island.

The following morning we have more luck with a young female leopard who gives us a marvellous display, posing on top of a termite mound before scaling two dead trees, legs dangling in the glow of the early morning light. No matter what camera you’ve got, you can’t be disappointed with photos like these!

Honeymoon Safari at Tubu Tree in BotswanaTubu Tree Camp is the most westerly of the 4 lodges in the concession, right in the heart of the delta, all of them run by Wilderness Safaris. It’s also the most popular, situated on the main island with an unusually large area available for game drives, hence the excellent leopard sightings. The mokoro trips allow for a good combination of land and water-based safaris, although we prefer Xigera for mokoro trips.

Nearby Jao camp (one of Wilderness’ Premier lodges) is also popular, but suffers from being a 45-minute boat trip from the main island. Game drives tend to be all-day affairs, leaving you less time to enjoy the luxuries of the Premier camp. Recently revamped Jacana camp is best known for its boat and mokoro trips rather than large game and also has a family unit, while Kwetsani arguably has the best of both worlds – a mere 15 mins by boat from the main island, and with excellent water safaris of it own.

But with its location, charming set-up and virtually guaranteed leopard sightings, Tubu Tree Camp is our pick, and ideally combined with a lion country lodge such as King’s Pool, and a pure water based option such as Xigera.

As they heralded our arrival, so the elephants were the last to bid us farewell – the huge breeding herd trumpeting as they bathed in front of the camp as we waited for our lift to the airstrip.

A sigh of satisfaction.

Good for: Leopard, elephant, an all-round camp with a good mix of land and water activities. The camp has (sporadic) cell phone reception, very unusual in the delta, for those that just have to share their leopard sightings on Facebook…

Not so good for: Lion, and those looking for a bit more luxury.

Our verdict: A solid choice in one of the best areas of the delta, works well when combined with a Premier camp and/or purely water-based camp.

We would love to help you get the most out of your safari experience. Contact Jonathan and Sophie today.

Email: safari[at]kleincollection.com | South Africa Tel. +27 (0) 21 813 6961