Chitwa Chitwa, Sabi Sand Reserve

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby.

If safari lodges are about location, location, location, then Chitwa Chitwa is our favourite yet. After a long dusty drive, we step onto the expansive boardwalks and immediately the peace and tranquility starts to ooze into our bones.

Speaking of bones, around Chitwa Chitwa there are lots of them. Elephant skulls form sculptured statues, a chandelier of bones adorns the lodge area, our suite has what looks like a giraffe tibia decorating the coffee table. The outdoor showers of some of the suites have towel rails comprising skeletal remains of some large mammal. Original, and impressive.

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The main pool overlooks the magnificent dam with several resident hippos, Chitwa Chitwa

Art meets the bush

And continuing with the décor theme, the lodge and suites are adorned with abstract art that is the work of the owner. Each piece is unique, and ties in with the theme of each room. Every suite is themed in a completely different way, showing off the owners’ interior design talent covering a wide, wide spectrum. This is where art meets the bush.

But back to location, and what the main lodge and the suites do all share in common is their incredible position on the edge of a small dam, an oasis in the surrounding bush. While most lodges may boast a modest waterhole, or partially dry river, this dam beats them all hands down. As we unwind with a cold drink, two pods of hippo honk 50 metres away, while the cries of a fish eagle echo over the still water. It’s a fantastic magnet for birds and game, and you don’t need to stray from the deck of your suite to see it all close-up.

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Each suite has a private pool overlooking the dam, Chitwa Chitwa

Leopards, leopards, leopards

But located deep in the Sabi Sand reserve, our favourite game viewing area anywhere, there’s no way we’re missing a game drive, and soon we’re cruising the area with our guide, Surprise, and tracker, Ralph. It’s not long before Ralph spots a leopard in a Marula tree, with a recent impala kill draped over a branch. We have the sighting to ourselves and watch spellbound as the leopard tucks in, at one point accidentally dropping the entrails to the ground. In a single fluid movement, it slides down the tree to recover it, before slinking off into the sunset. Not bad for the first drive.

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Leopard on impala kill, Chitwa Chitwa

The food at Chitwa matches all the other superlatives, with superb plated meals and friendly staff. Our waiter (improbably named Coconut) was genuine and endearing. Meals are refreshingly unpretentious, and you don’t feel as if you’re being plied with food constantly. Sophie tried out the small gym anyway, watching a herd of waterbuck come down to the dam to drink while hammering the treadmill. And hosts Claudia, Leon and Gaby do a brilliant job in making guests feel not just relaxed, but also at home. The owners’ great emphasis on attention to detail comes through in every aspect of the lodge, and leaves a lasting impression.

Surprise

We can’t wait for the morning drive with Surprise. Surprise is an old-hand Shangaan guide, who worked his way up the ranks from bush clearing, tracking and finally guiding. Mostly self-taught, he’s one of the best guides we’ve had in years of safaris. This morning he lives up to his name with a stunning sighting of a male leopard stalking a steenbok, just metres from our open-top vehicle. We watched with our hearts in our mouths as he crept closer and closer…but the steenbok was too quick and darted away in the nick of time.

If resting in your suite after breakfast sounds too lazy, you can take a game walk. I’ll take any opportunity to learn from a good Shangaan guide and as we stroll in the heat of the morning following tracks and identifying trees, Surprise tells me stories of his most radical sightings – lions eating lions, leopards eating leopards. You can see anything in Sabi Sand; you just need time and luck.

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Main deck area, Chitwa Chitwa

Our incredible luck continues next day with more leopard sightings on every drive – hunting impala at night, and two leopards mating. Oh, and lions on two buffalo kills, elephant, rhino and lots more. We’re stunned. Our only disappointment? When the time came to leave.

In a climate where more and more safari lodges are becoming corporate owned and correspondingly bland and much less personal, Chitwa still retains the air of a private lodge. Touches of magic are everywhere. And did we mention that location?

Good for: Art and bush lovers alike, honeymoon couples, leopards (no guarantees!).

Not so good for: Still trying to work this one out.

Our verdict: Eclectic décor style and astonishing attention to detail, combined with a superb setting in the best game viewing area in South Africa, make Chitwa Chitwa one of our favourite choices.

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