Thanda Private Game Reserve, KZN

Thanda Private Game Reserve

Situated in the heart of Zululand, Jonathan and Sophie visit 14,000-hectare Thanda for a relaxing night away

Thanda means ‘Love’ in isiZulu – fitting enough for this heart-warming little corner of KwaZulu Natal. Its proximity to the N2 national highway is both an advantage (for easy access) and a disadvantage (sound of traffic sometimes when on game drives) but the reserve is large enough for it not to be a big problem, and the spectacular view over hazy wooded hills from the lodge itself is enough to convince anyone that this is a wild place.

We were greeted by the excellent hospitality staff, including Magdel and Eric. Thanda punches its full weight with the quality of staff who are helpful and friendly without being over-bearing.

Looking out from the safari lodge deck

Looking out from the safari lodge deck

Lunch (a delicious a-la-carte three course meal) was served on the lodge’s main deck, overlooking the rugged Zululand hills. We love lodges with elevated positions – those views at sunset beat everything and the sound of the bushveld birds seems to rise up from the valleys. You’ll feel like you’re on top of the world. And from here to our luxury bush suite, complete with lounge area, indoor and outdoor shower, private plunge pool and day bed, playing heavily on the Zulu theme with its décor, as does the rest of the lodge. And of course that magnificent view…

Luxury Suite

Luxury Suite

But no matter how beautiful the lodge and surroundings, it’s always the game drives we look forward to – today with guide Nick and tracker known as Mr X. Not 3km down the road we came across a lion pride devouring the remnants of a particularly fine male kudu. An impressive herd of buffalo followed, together with ever-present nyala and zebra. Other guests saw leopard, rhino and cheetah, and Thanda is excellent for the extremely rare black rhino. We were left in little doubt over Thanda’s wildlife credentials.

Lions on a kudu kill

Lions on a kudu kill

We enjoyed G & Ts as the sun’s orange disc disappeared behind the hazy hills and a full moon rose, the bats came out and the nightjars began to call. Later at the boma dinner, Zulu dancers provided entertainment – not a sing-song by the staff that passes for ‘traditional African dance’ at some lodges – but a proper war dance with beating drums and a frenzy of acrobatic moves worthy of any athlete, let alone dancer. We were seriously impressed!

Luxury suites each have a plunge pool

Luxury suites each have a plunge pool

The path back to our bush suite was blocked by an elephant – the perfect excuse to pour a post-dinner whisky and browse the lodge’s book collection. Eventually he began drinking from a water feature just metres away, his great grey bulk reflecting in the full moon, his deep rumblings the only sound of the night.

As well as the safari lodge with its 9 suites, Thanda boasts a 15-tent tented camp and exclusive-use villa which between them offer good options for families, couples and groups alike. We were especially impressed with the tented camp which offers excellent value – low key and private, ideal for those that want to be closer to nature but can do without some of the frills (don’t expect hair dryers for example – power is solar).

Tented Camp

Tented Camp

For photographers (budding or experienced), resident wildlife photographer Christian Sperka is on hand to give free 90-minute tutorials or chat informally and his services are also available for photographic safaris. So many first-time safari-goers miss out on memories due to lack of photographic knowledge, so it’s refreshing to see this emphasis. Sometimes a quick (free) tutorial is all it takes to start taking great photos.

And other activities are also offered – from bush walks, community excursions to learn more about Zulu culture and trips to nearby iSimangaliso Wetland Park – a World Heritage site, making Thanda a good base from which to see much of what KwaZulu Natal is famous for.

We’ll miss Thanda’s serene location and friendly staff…until next time!

Marataba Safari Lodge, Waterberg

Up in Limpopo province with the majestic Waterberg mountains as its backdrop is one of South Africa’s best-kept safari secrets. Now under the management of the MORE group, Marataba Safari Lodge and its new sister, Trails Lodge offer stunning value for money in a superb Big 5 setting. And it’s malaria free…

The moment you first enter the 20,000-hectare Marataba Concession, part of Marakele, you know you’re in a special place. The ancient, eroded, deep red Waterberg mountains provide a constant backdrop, it’s remote plateaus and ravines lure you closer. Once a tobacco and cattle farming area, the Concession now has a fenceless border with Marakele National Park and healthy bird and mammal populations. Best of all, you have the whole place to yourself.

Classic Waterberg view from the main safari lodge

Classic Waterberg view from the main safari lodge

 

“We are the only commercial lodges here”, manager Natashja explains as we sip our welcome drink. “Only 5 vehicles on the whole concession. It’s not uncommon to not see another vehicle on your game drive. Our guests love that.”

Such a low vehicle density is rare in South Africa – including in premier reserves such as Sabi Sand. Nor does it have the same road densities as Sabi Sand, nor such habituated game, which makes it an altogether far wilder experience. But how does this translate into actual sightings?

Boat safaris are possible along dammed-up sections of river

Boat safaris are possible along dammed-up sections of river

“We have great sightings”, our guide Adriaan explains, “Regular elephant, rhino and lion while leopard is becoming more frequent as they become habituated to vehicles”. We had fantastic lion sightings on all of our drives, and on the last evening they roared all night just metres from our luxury tent. Game numbers support remarkably high predator densities and the quality of sightings will only get better with time. And as often as not, you’ll have the sightings to yourself.

Outside one of Marataba's luxury tents

Outside one of Marataba’s luxury tents

 

The quality of hospitality at Safari Lodge is just as impressive as the reserve itself. Staff are exceptionally friendly, efficient and professional without being over-familiar and the three course plated lunches and dinners were of a very high standard. Small little details, from a welcome note to a freshly-run bubble bath after a chilly evening game drive, were always there: the standard is what we normally see in a much higher price bracket. The guiding too, is world class – dedicated and passionate, Adriaan is part of a highly professional guiding team, one of the best we’ve seen in Southern Africa.

Marataba gets all the small things right

Marataba gets all the small things right

 

Marataba is so wild and beautiful it would be a waste to see it only from a vehicle. We opted for a post-breakfast walk with Adriaan in addition to our twice-daily game drive. There’s a good chance of encountering any of the Big 5 on foot and we enjoyed a close-up white rhino sighting in addition to all the small things that make walking in bush such a pleasure. And if walking is your thing, there’s yet more.

“Some of the ravines are so inaccessible, we’re not even sure exactly what’s up there”, our Adrian explains. “But we know there are plenty of black rhino. And lion and leopard that may never have seen humans before”.

The new Trails Lodge

The new Trails Lodge

Enter the brand new Trails Lodge, with exactly this in mind – to properly explore this wilderness on foot. The setting for the Trails Lodge is superb – in a remote corner of the concession, nestled among the lower slopes of the mountains with sensational views out over the plains. The design is modern, luxurious but with nature at its centre: here you feel as though you’re part of the mountains. The concept is simple – the trails themselves may be tough, but when you return to the lodge you can expect comfort in style. Rough it during the day and live it up afterwards – this is a place of contrasts and extremes.

Just how tough the hiking is depends on the group and your preferences and the days can be tailored to your requirements. Although you can and might encounter almost anything on foot, the game is still relatively unhabituated and this combined with the experienced trails guides means you can enjoy the experience in safety.

Main lodge, Marataba

Main lodge, Marataba

 

There are few places in Africa where you can do serious walking in Big 5 territory with expert guides, and Marataba is one. Combined with a couple of days at Safari Lodge for a traditional, vehicle-based safari, this is an experience with a twist, one you’re not likely to forget.

 

Marataba can also be combined with other stunning MORE group properties in Madikwe, Kruger, Sabi Sand and Cape Town for a fantastically diverse safari circuit.

 

Lion sighting with classic Waterberg backdrop

Lion sighting with classic Waterberg backdrop

You’ll most likely fall in love with Marataba as we did, the blood-red mountains leaving a lasting impression. This is a world-class reserve with a top-notch family friendly lodge to match anything in South Africa.

Machaba Camp, Botswana

Sandwiched between Moremi and Chobe National Parks in northern Botswana, the Khwai concession boasts some of the most dense concentrations of wildlife anywhere. Among the smattering of lodges and camps here, Machaba stands out as a luxurious but understated tented camp. Jonathan and Sophie investigate.

Mention the word Khwai to any wildlife enthusiast and their eyes will light up and in all likelihood a story will ensue involving a close encounter with a lion, leopard, wild dog or all three. Khwai is infamous, and for good reason, and we were especially excited about our visit here.

Outside one of Machaba's luxury tents

Outside one of Machaba’s luxury tents

We weren’t disappointed. Machaba is located on the river Khwai, looking directly into Moremi, and its ten tented suites are strung along with generous gaps in between, with a modest swimming pool at the far end. The tents have all the comforts you need but don’t expect hair dryers: the camp is proud of its eco-credentials and hair dryers and solar power don’t mix.

Pool at Machaba

Pool at Machaba

Our game viewing during our stay was fantastic, expertly conducted by guide Moreri, who recognised us from a stay in the Delta some years ago. We saw two wild dog packs, including one on a red lechwe kill. The next day we stumbled across another pack hunting. The adrenlin was pumping as we sped alongside the frenzied dogs before watching with awe as half the pack of 16 tore into a kudu. Minutes later we heard the rest of the pack calling nearby, followed by the unmistakable groan of yet another victim.

Khwai is one of the best places in Africa to see Wild Dog

Khwai is one of the best places in Africa to see Wild Dog

“They’ve made another kill!” shouted Moreri as he threw the car in gear and we shot off through the bushes towards the sound of the frenzied dogs. Sure enough, the rest of the pack had brought down a second kudu. The dogs could hardly contain their excitement, some leaving the first kill to feed on the second, which was devoured in minutes. It was a stark illustration of the reality of predator-prey interactions. One minute a perfectly formed kudu is grazing peacefully on the lush grass; not ten minutes later the only trace of its existence is a small patch of sticky-red flattened grass.

Main tent, Machaba

Main tent, Machaba

 

While the potential game viewing at Khwai is second to none, there are a number of lodges and campsites on the concession, with subsequent lack of control of vehicle numbers at sightings. Depending on the time of year it can therefore get quite crowded, although we had no problems with this during our stay. Meanwhile, Machaba vehicles can drive off road, and you can request a night drive with your guide in addition to the usual morning and afternoon drives. Short walks can sometimes also be arranged.

Guide Moreri in action

Guide Moreri in action

 

With a capacity of 24, Machaba is not a particularly small camp but the relaxed atmosphere and easy-going staff make it feel more intimate, and communal dining at dinner allows guests to interact and share stories. Breakfast and brunch are taken at individual tables, allowing guests some privacy and we found this model worked very well. (Slow) wi-fi by satellite is available under a tree within the camp and this ensures that phones and tablets don’t intrude on the beauty of the bush.

Machaba luxury tent

Machaba luxury tent

Machaba is also one of the few lodges that allow children under six (although it’s rare that there will be any) and two of the ten tents are family tents that can sleep up to 6 people each.

 

Overall, Machaba is a very efficiently run camp and camp managers Elcke and Shaun do a fantastic job in making guests feel at ease. We certainly recommend this camp.

 

 

Jack’s Camp, Botswana

Sophie and Jonathan visit this historic luxury camp, perched on the fringes of Botswana’s vast Makgadikgadi Pans

Bigger than Denmark, the remnant of vast lakes thousands of years of ago, the Makgadikgadi Pans are one of Botswana’s most striking, and fascinating natural features. High salt concentrations on the pans themselves limit vegetation to grass cover, which turns a lush green after rains, attracting thousands of antelope and other game. The fringes support a diversity of woodland; together they combine into a mesmerising landscape unlike anything you’re likely to have seen before.

Jack's luxury tents blend into the landscape

Jack’s luxury tents blend into the landscape

The scale is vast – distant palm trees shimmer in the heat haze and the sky swallows you up. And right here is Jack’s camp, a collection of dark green tents so unobtrusive they’re almost invisible.

Most guests fly the short distance from Maun to Jack’s but as always we drove in – usually a simple affair but as luck would have it, when we visited, half a year’s worth of rainfall had fallen in just three days, so much of the route was under water. March/April is a fantastic time to visit the pans, which are often filled with a thin layer of water, attracting yet more wildlife.

The  main tent doubles up as a museum

The main tent doubles up as a museum

Jack’s Camp is unusual in a lot of ways. One of Botswana’s (and Africa’s) most expensive safari lodges, it combines elements that range from quaint (wooden toilet thrones) to bizarre (a vast, macabre collection of animal skulls displayed in the dining/lounge tent).

Jack’s attempts to fuse rustic, 1920s Campaign-era décor with a sense of family history that ultimately defines the camp. The philosophy is unashamedly old-school. There’s no electricity (except for a charging station) and no wi-fi. All meals are communal, and while the food is not the main highlight here, a lively dinner in this remote place, in a museum tent of skulls lit with hurricane lamps to the sound of jackals howling is not something you’ll ever experience again!

Walks with Bushmen are a popular activity

Walks with Bushmen are a popular activity

The Makgadikgadi is not about the Big 5. The camp itself is not inside a national park and with a number of cattle posts nearby, don’t be surprised to see the odd cow or dog interspersed with the antelope on your game drive. Makgadikgadi National Park is nearby however and depending on the time of year you may see large antelope herds, lion, jackal and many of the small things that make the Makgadikgadi, and the Kalahari such a special place. This is a good place to see bat-eared fox and aardwolf, and we had a fantastic African Wild Cat sighting under the spotlight one night.

Close-up meerkat encounters are one of the highlights

Close-up meerkat encounters are one of the highlights

Jack’s offers a number of unusual activities. Several colonies of meerkats have been painstakingly habituated, allowing guests spectacular close-up encounters with these fascinating animals. We followed them as they foraged, scouted for danger and fed their young, just centimetres away. It’s not uncommon to even have them climb on you. Needless to say, the photographic opportunities here are incredible.

Walks with a resident group of Bushmen, clad in traditional gear, are another popular activity where you can tap into their vast knowledge of the bush and see demonstrations of making traps and fire. Although these events can at first appear patronizing, with the Bushmen as exhibits, once you get over this it’s a genuinely rare opportunity to learn from them and understand the challenges facing their communities. It’s also a mechanism for skills to be passed on to a new generation – skills that may otherwise be lost forever.

Old-school dining tent

Old-school dining tent

In the dry season, quad biking on the Pans is also offered.

Two nearby, less expensive camps – San Camp and Camp Kalahari complete the Uncharted Africa collection here and enjoy the same activities and share guides with Jack’s. All three camps are best combined with more ‘traditional’ game viewing destinations in Botswana – the Okavango for example. For a different face of Botswana, and to better understand it – this is a good place to come.

Experiencing the vastness of the Pans is what Jack's is all about

Experiencing the vastness of the Pans is what Jack’s is all about

Jack’s gave us a fantastic welcome – hospitality staff Sheila and O’Girl as well as the rest of the team really make you feel at home. If you’re looking for something truly different and unique, Jack’s is it.

Note: Jack’s Camp is due for major refurbishment in 2016

 

MalaMala – Rattray’s

Jonathan and Sophie visit this iconic reserve bordering Kruger National Park and come away enthralled by its magic.

MalaMala needs no introduction. Which superlative should we start with? The oldest, largest Big 5 private game reserve in South Africa? The highest density of habituated leopards in Africa? The unprecedented 20km of pristine Sand River frontage offering possibly the most sought-after game viewing in Southern Africa?

This and more was forefront in our minds as we drove up to Rattray’s on a hot summer afternoon, to be greeted by managers Leon and Hilda, and our guide, Mike.

Suite, Rattray's

Suite, Rattray’s

MalaMala has an aura about it – the name alone has a romantic magnetism, synonymous with the wildest of wild Africa. When you arrive in person at the place, this sense is stronger than ever. As you step into the colonial lounge, adorned with leather armchairs and hunting logs from the 1920s, you step into the past.

Mike accompanies us to our Khaya (in other words, our stand-alone private suite), decked out in lavish luxury. The photos here speak for themselves but suffice to say this is the first 2-person safari suite we’ve ever seen with two, not one, bathrooms, and the best outdoor shower we’ve ever seen to rinse off in after a dip in the private pool. All, of course, right on the banks of the infamous Sand River, in total privacy. A herd of ellies meander by before we head to the lodge for a fantastic buffet lunch.

Main pool, Rattray's

Main pool, Rattray’s

A family affair

To understand the ethos of MalaMala, you first need to understand the intricate connection to the Rattray family, the owners of the Reserve since 1964. Even when he’s not around (and he frequently is), you can almost sense the presence of Mr Rattray himself, now 84, and staff speak of him in hushed tones, with great respect.

His very particular style – everything from the guiding culture to etiquette – is stamped all over MalaMala. “We do things differently here,” was one of Mike’s first words to us – MalaMala prides itself on sticking to the old-fashioned family traditions, and this further heightens the sense of timelessness about the place.

Outside our khaya, on the Sand River

Outside our khaya, on the Sand River

One difference is evident already at lunchtime as we tuck into our lamb curry, salad and lemon meringue. Throughout your stay at MalaMala, your guide is also your host – accompanying you at meals and taking your drinks orders as well as your Big Five orders. It’s all about immersion – immersion in this vast, pristine wilderness. When not out in the bush with your guide, he’s regaling you with stories from the bush at breakfast, lunch and dinner. For some, this constant interaction with the guide (and, therefore, the other people on your vehicle) can get a bit much. The Rattrays are unapologetic about this policy and rightly so. Indeed, they are unapologetic about everything they do differently and the message is simple – this is how we do things and we take pride in being different.

Colonial-style architecture, Rattray's

Colonial-style architecture, Rattray’s

Of course you can request a private meal, away from your guide and fellow guests at any time and some guests choose this option, depending on the group dynamics. But to get the most from MalaMala you need to embrace its unique culture and in particular its motto: ‘It’s all about the wildlife’. Your guide is also your teacher.

It’s all about the wildlife

With this in mind we head out in great anticipation on our first game drive. Although all game viewing here is phenomenal, it’s specifically leopard that many people come here to see and the sighting statistics, which are meticulously recorded, speak for themselves. In 2013 for example, leopard were sighted on no less than 345 days and ten individual leopards were sighted on one single day… and by the way, 2013 was considered a relatively poor year.

Sure enough, barely 15 minutes into the drive we spot Dudley Female, a tiny, 16-year old veteran lazing on a termite mound in the afternoon sun. With so few vehicles on such a huge estate, we were guaranteed a long, peaceful sighting. After a fruitless search for some cheetah we were rewarded by some fantastic elephant and rhino encounters, and a side-striped jackal snapping moths on the airstrip.

One of MalaMala's famous leopards

One of MalaMala’s famous leopards

Spot the difference

Dinner is a boma affair, the whole camp seated under a big table under a vast Jackelberry tree and I chat to Mike about the land claim. MalaMala was the subject of a controversial, compulsory repurchase by the government recently for an astounding R1.3billion ($118m), the ownership of the land being transferred to a local community. The details have always been murky with rumours rife about the future of the lodges but Mike is keen to put the record straight. “Under a 20-year lease-back agreement, nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future” he says. “We are continuing to manage the lodges in exactly the same way and the MalaMala philosophy will not change”.

Lunch buffet, Rattrays

Lunch buffet, Rattrays

The morning game drive is even better than the last, starting with the Styx lion pride passed out in the riverbed before another well-known leopard, Newington Male, rears his head above an acacia bush. Not 200m away we encounter another leopard, a magnificent specimen named Tree House Male, showing interest in some impala. Would there be a confrontation?

MalaMala’s leopards are habituated to the extent that you can drive right up to them and they scarcely even acknowledge the vehicle. For most of us used to a distant glimpse at best of these magnificent beasts this seems almost unreal. As he starts to stalk the impala, metres away, it almost feels like he’s showing off for us until you realize you’re merely treated as an invisible observer. This is how leopards behave when humans are not around, and that is what gives it it’s magic. He disappears into thick bush where we can’t follow, hunting his impala away from our prying eyes.

MalaMala’s main camp and Sable camp are close to Rattrays, without the same level of luxury but with the same unbeatable location, top guides and philosophy.

MalaMala feels like its own little universe and for the brief days of your visit you feel encapsulated into it, absorbed, intrigued, and awed. It’s the kind of place you look back on, blink, and wonder if it was really real.

Londolozi – Varty Camp

Seeped in family history and enviably located on the Sand River in Sabi Sand Reserve, Jonathan and Sophie share their experiences at another of South Africa’s award-winning safari lodges – famous Londolozi.

It’s rare that we arrive at a lodge and immediately have a hunch that the place is going to tick all the boxes on our secret checklist. But at Varty Camp, this is exactly what happens. After a highly professional and very friendly welcome by Jason, we’re shown to our suite on the banks of the Sand River. Our view is as exquisite as the suite itself, with all the amenities you could reasonably require, along with a stunning plunge pool on the deck below.

Everything here is meticulously managed – immaculately dressed staff glide from lounge to dining deck whispering into their radios. Pause for a moment and a manager will introduce himself, or a barman offer you a drink (all inclusive).

Enjoying lunch, Varty Camp

Enjoying lunch, Varty Camp

You’ll never have a dull moment at Varty – there’s the daily yoga session at 12, a gym, a spa, a large communal pool, an inviting library, a TV-room where you can watch the famous Londolozi leopard documentaries, even a so-called Creative Centre where you can spend your spare time taking photographic lessons and print your leopard kill photos straight onto canvas. Londolozi take their photographic safaris seriously. But wait, don’t forget why you’re actually here – to go on game-drives!

At Londolozi you’ll meet some of the top guides in the country, as well as some of the most passionate ones. Our guide James manages to capture our attention from the moment we get into the car to the time we leave. He introduces us to our tracker, Mike, explains his role, and explains his own strategy for our afternoon game drive. Whether we stop for an impala or an elephant, each sighting warrants an introduction, some interesting facts and interpretation. And the vehicle is always positioned perfectly, taking lighting into consideration for photographs, and making sure we’re in the shade from the blazing sun. It’s a treat to have a guide who takes pride in his work and doesn’t just consider himself a driver.

Big elephant herd on the Sand River, Londolozi

Big elephant herd on the Sand River, Londolozi

We watch a lone lioness optimistically stalk three large buffalo as the sun sets. The buff successfully turn the tables and the lioness dashes off sheepishly. But it’s another great interaction, all too common at Londolozi.

Family values

“That’s my daughter, she’s one of the chefs here at Varty!” Margaret, our butler, proudly exclaims as she takes our soup orders for dinner after her daughter, Liveness, has just introduced tonight’s boma dinner menu. And this brief moment says it all about the staff and the overall ethos at Londolozi: everyone takes pride in their work and it’s all about family. You get the feeling that the staff here are empowered and there’s a great sense of unity. The Varty family themselves have been an integral part of Londolozi since 1926 and even the vineyards on the wine list are purely family-run South African estates. We are impressed.

Bar area, Varty Camp

Bar area, Varty Camp

For our morning game drive, we head out into the bush and immediately come across fresh leopard tracks. Mike jumps off the tracker seat and disappears into a block of quite thick vegetation to look for it, while we continue driving around, eventually meeting Mike on the other side. This leopard remains elusive, but shortly afterwards we come across a beautiful male briefly stalking a herd of impala ahead before lying down in the shade of an acacia tree. It’s 9 o’clock and very hot already, and it becomes obvious that the leopard is not going to make a move any time soon, so we carry on down to the river, where we come across a breeding herd of 30 elephants coming down to drink and play. We watch them for a long time, their excitement as they smell the water, their playfulness and their bonding. You can never tire of observing these majestic animals. To top it all, on our way back to the lodge we have a very special sighting of two young male giraffes sparring, tossing their necks against each other.

Suite, Varty Camp

Suite, Varty Camp

There are five lodges to choose from at Londolozi – they share a similar view, but each lodge has a unique feel. Pioneer and Granite Suites are both very well suited to honeymoon couples having only three suites each. At Founders and Tree Camp emphasis is on slightly smaller camps than Varty, the family-orientated lodge, where children are welcome. Between them, they cater for all tastes.

Elephant up close, Londolozi

Elephant up close, Londolozi

After a decadent breakfast (with the most tasty croissants we’ve ever had in the bush!), it’s time to say goodbye to this magnificent place. Londolozi prides itself on its innovative, forward-thinking philosophy and is leading the way in introducing eco-technology to the top-end safari market. All in all it’s a slick operation and you’re unlikely to be disappointed with your stay here.

Lion Sands – Tinga & River Lodge

Sandwiched between the Sand and Sabie rivers in Kruger National Park, Tinga Lodge offers peace and tranquility conveniently close to the Park headquarters, while River Lodge close by in Sabi Sand offers slightly cheaper accommodation in a similar setting. Jonathan and Sophie check them out.

The first rains of the summer have fallen, the land is turning green at last and the bush is sprinkled with gangly, new-born impala lambs. So often stiflingly hot and humid now in late November, today when we arrive at Tinga Lodge it is refreshingly cool, but the warm greeting by manager Glenda and the delicious home-made lemonade quickly have us forgetting the overcast, gloomy skies.

We call this time of the year the ‘secret season’ for safaris – the dry winter is over, the crowds have gone, the lodges are quiet (often with good deals to be had). But the summer rains are not out in force yet, the bush is green and lush but the grass is still not too high to hinder game viewing too much. And the predators are after those impala lambs…

Tinga Lodge is set on the banks of the Sabie river in the shade of an ancient Jackelberry tree under which Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk famously met in the 1990s. But for us, the business of the day was a game drive with ranger Alan, to explore this little gem of a concession.

Tinga Lodge

Alan is one of the most experienced guides in South Africa and together with tracker Omega, his passion for leopards is evident from the moment you meet him. And with 14 years of experience at Lion Sands, he knows the area better than anyone. “We work a little harder for our sightings here”, he says, “But it’s worth it”.

Until just a few years ago, this little corner of the Kruger was largely unexplored and the resident animals, leopards in particular, were unused to vehicles and people. This is changing now, but the concession still retains its wild feel, and with a maximum of just six game vehicles (together with adjacent Narina Lodge), quiet sightings are guaranteed.

The famous leopards elude us but we get a great sighting of the highly-endangered black rhino and the next morning, white rhino too as well as some fantastic, up-close elephant. We fire questions at Alan, soaking up his extensive knowledge of animal anatomy and behavior making for some fascinating drives.

With just 9 suites, Tinga retains a personal feel but it’s never claustrophobic – the beautiful suites are strung out spaciously along the Sabie river with no privacy issues at all. The communal areas, especially the magnificent deck are spacious enough that even when the lodge is full, which it was on our visit, it never feels that way.

We enjoyed a dip in our private plunge pool before a lunch of smoked salmon and pan-fried quail; dinner was a communal boma-affair where guests are joined by their guides, but usually meals at Tinga are taken at private tables.

Our favourite finishing touch was the elaborate, personalized bed-decorations crafted with flowers and grass, an example of the attention to detail that Tinga prides itself on.

Suite, River Lodge

Suite, River Lodge

It’s a short drive from Tinga to River Lodge where we arrive in time for lunch, served by our exquisite butler, Advice, followed by a game drive with guide Nyathi. River Lodge is located inside the famous Sabi Sand game reserve where expectations are high for the game viewing. On our overcast afternoon, the game is playing hide & seek; even the antelopes hide away in the thickets. We come across a couple of elephants and a white rhino and in the dark we spot a beautiful Civet dashing away – our first-ever Civet sighting in the wild, what a treat! If only it had posed for a photo…

Relaxing in the pool, River Lodge

Relaxing in the pool, River Lodge

At the lodge we enjoy a drink in the bar before joining our fellow guests and guide for a traditional boma dinner with a delicious, traditionally South African menu, including springbok shanks. During the course of the dinner the staff choir perform beautiful traditional Shangaan shongs and dance; it’s evident that the spirit of Africa blows gently through the leaves here at River Lodge.

River Lodge is the biggest of the Lion Sands properties with 20 suites, but it doesn’t feel generic or corporate. Thanks to staff, like our butler Advice, service is top-notch and personal. For more exclusive and luxurious accommodation look no further than the impressive Ivory Lodge located right next to River Lodge. Ivory Lodge has larger suites and private plunge pools, and is ideal for honeymoon couples.

Dining out, River Lodge

Dining out, River Lodge

Not ideal for young children, Tinga is perfect for couples and small groups, or larger groups looking to book out the whole lodge. Likewise for Narina Lodge, the sister lodge to Tinga, where the only notable difference is that the suites have outdoor showers. Literally a few minutes drive from Skukuza Airport both lodges are also ideal for those with less time, and with direct scheduled flights now between Cape Town and Skukuza, you can literally be on top of Table Mountain in the morning, and be sipping a pre-lunch cocktail under Tinga’s Jackelberry tree a few hours later.

We’ll do that next time, and next time that leopard won’t elude us…