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…

Severin Safari Camp, Tsavo West National Park, Kenya

Set in the heart of the Tsavo wilderness, Severin came with high expectations for us. We weren’t disappointed…

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

Tsavo West and Tsavo East National Park together form one of the biggest, and wildest protected areas in Africa and should be very high on the list for any serious safari-goer. Tsavo is one of our favourite African Parks, and Severin Safari Camp one of our all-time favourite lodges so the two together make a pretty good combination.

Severin manages to combine two normally-contradictory attributes – the advantages that size brings, yet a family-like intimate atmosphere. There are more than twenty suites, yet they are spread over such a large area that privacy is never a problem. Our fantastic German host, Manja, is as gifted in hospitality as anyone you’ll ever meet and straightaway, guests are made to feel part of the Severin family. The waiters greet you by name, and the Masai tribesman who accompany you on the (often long) walk to and from your tent at night are engaging and delightful. Severin look after their staff well, and it shows.

Main Lodge, Severin

Main Lodge, Severin

On our day of arrival, lunch is served by the pool (the best place to be in the heat of the Tsavo day) and we watch lazily as a gemsbok trots past to a waterhole. There are no less than six waterholes within the grounds of the lodge itself; this in what is an arid region, so the wildlife tends to come to you. At sunset we withdraw to the elevated deck of our Kibo suite, less than 100m from what feels like our own private waterhole. Soon the ground below is teeming with game – several giraffe come to drink, together with zebra, gemsbok and impala. Sundowner in hand, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Many guests come to Severin with their own vehicle and driver as part of a longer safari, but it’s also possible to use the lodges’ vehicle and guides. We take a Masai guide out on a game drive early next morning and we’re entranced by the magical light and wildness of the park. The landscape is dotted with volcanic hills and lava flows and on a clear day, the vast hulk of Kilimanjaro is visible far away. Game in Tsavo can be harder to find than in some other parks, but you come here to get away from the crowds…and of course to relax.

Our own private watering hole!

Our own private watering hole!

And trust us, there is no better place to relax than Severin. Dinners are a four-course affair and superbly done, the chef making a personal appearance at each table to soak up well-earned praise. That night we listen to the sounds of the bush from our superb Kibo Suite – the lapping of water, zebras munching, the distinctive click-click of eland walking and occasional thunder of hooves as a herd of ungulates is spooked by some hidden menace.

We decide that at Severin, it’s best to let the wildlife come to you rather than the other way round and settle in to a day of relaxation. Game is numerous around the main lodge and we watch gemsbok and zebra from the comfort of the pool. The main lodge itself is not elevated and this is unusual. You are at the same level as the animals – it’s subtle, but it adds to the feeling that you’re really in amongst them, an equal.

Swimming Pool Severin

At sunset, Manja has a treat awaiting us – sundowners at Poacher’s Lookout, atop a nearby, rugged hill. When we arrive, a chair, table, bottle of sparkling and snacks are set up with a view far out across the plains to distant mountains. As the hazy sky lights up orange, our waiter Sammy turns on music from the soundtrack to Out of Africa – cheesy or romantic, depending on you, but the setting is unbeatable!

Severin is a place where you can relax without feeling guilty about missing a game drive. It also boasts good eco-credentials for its recycling and other use of resources, and is a winner of eco-tourism awards. We like it a lot.

Our Verdict: A little oasis in a vast wilderness, Severin is a gem of a lodge with dedicated, passionate staff that will make a safari here unforgettable.

Good for: Everything from large groups, families and honeymooners have their place here

Not so good for: If you like small size and communal dining, this is not Severin’s scene, though it can still feel intimate

Satao Elerai Camp, Amboselli, Kenya

With fantastic views of Kilimanjaro, Satao Elerai is a comfortable camp a stone’s throw away from world-famous Amboseli National Park

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

We didn’t see it at first – Africa’s highest peak is usually tantalizingly shrouded in cloud – but our tent faced due south and as the sun set, casting its amber rays over the bush, its snow-capped peak peeped over the clouds, impossibly high. From the comfort of the deck of our luxury tent, we watched it until the light died completely. There can be fewer more moving sights in the African landscape than this.

And Satao Elerai is a great place in which to experience it. It’s twenty minutes down a bumpy road to the camp, which is unfenced and within a Conservancy adjacent to Amboseli, so you really feel you’re in the wild. The tents are well-spaced and feel private, while the main lodge area is refreshingly unpretentious, cool and shady, with views over the plains (and of course, of that little mountain).

Pool at Elerai

Pool at Elerai

A highlight for us is the rim-flow pool, deliciously cool, again with wonderful views out over the bush.

We arrive in time for lunch before enjoying a relaxing afternoon at the lodge. There’s not a huge amount of game around the lodge itself (though anything is possible, and there’s a waterhole in sight of the main deck), but over dinner (served at private tables) we were serenaded by the most vocal frogs we’ve heard yet, some just metres away. You have to hear this sound to believe it.

Next morning we’re treated to a clear view of Kili and head into Amboseli for a game drive. It’s only a few minutes before we’re surrounded by a herd of more than two hundred elephant, with iconic Kilimanjaro framed in the background. It’s the stuff of wildlife documentaries, a truly memorable sight.

Views of Kili from the lodge iteself

Amboseli is not without its problems. Frequent droughts and conflict between wildlife and the Masai have had a serious effect on the Park over the last few years. Few trees remain and in the dry season it can be unbearably dusty. All the rhino and most of the lion have now vanished, while park fees continue to increase. Yet Amboseli continues to draw the crowds, and to see the hoards of other game framed by Kilimanjaro (if it’s not in cloud)…well…it’s one of those things you have to see.

Most people come to Satao Elerai  with a car and driver from Nairobi, which is 5 or 6 hours drive away, but it’s possible to fly in and/or arrange game drives in Amboseli with guides from the lodge.

Our verdict: Solid choice with great views of Kili, close to iconic Amboselli National Park

Good for: Groups of all sizes, good value

Not so good for: Less intimate atmosphere than some smaller lodges

Wild Frontiers – Ishasha Wilderness Camp and Buhoma Lodge, Uganda

Wild Frontiers is one of the few companies to offer world-class safari accommodation in Uganda. Jonathan and Sophie visit Ishasha and Buhoma to see for themselves.

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

Uganda is still an emerging safari tourist destination, but in our minds it’s currently in a sweet spot – developed enough to offer enough top class accommodation to put together a luxury safari itinerary, but without the mass market issues of Tanzania and Kenya. If you’re looking for something a bit different, Uganda is it.

A river runs past it

And Wild Frontiers makes this possible. Ishasha Wilderness Camp is the gem of Queen Elizabeth National Park’s southern Ishasha sector, a remote area renowned for its tree-climbing lions.

We arrive on a hot day before the season’s rain has started, and immediately feel the cool of the shady trees along the river where the lodge is set. This river location is what sets the camp apart – it’s big enough for elephant to bathe in (we watched a big herd doing just that right across from the lodge) but not big enough to invoke that restless feeling of the sound of gushing water. It’s the sort of sound you can fall asleep to peacefully.

Main lodge, Ishasha

Main lodge, Ishasha

We’re greeted by the manager Abu and his staff and are impressed by their professionalism, which can be a rarity in Uganda. The luxury tents are spread out along the river; being mostly made of mesh, you really feel like you’re part of the bush and at night the sounds of hyena, hippos chomping just outside and (if you’re lucky), lion, feel all the closer. Ishasha feels wild, and it is.

Being a wilderness camp, there are certain compromises on luxury – no hair dryers for example, and electronics charging at a point in the main lodge only, but it’s a small price to pay. The lodge has excellent eco-credentials too; it’s run on solar, has hot bucket showers and flushing eco-toilets.

Even better is to come, with the most scrumptious 4 course dinner we’ve ever had in Uganda, served with style. If you like your food, you won’t be disappointed at Ishasha where all meals are fresh and prepared mostly with local produce.

The river at Ishasha Wilderness Camp

The river at Ishasha Wilderness Camp

Most people will head out on a game drive to spot the (sometimes elusive) tree-climbing lions but even without these, the Ishasha section of QENP is spectacular, with huge herds of elephant and buffalo, as well as antelope to admire.

Alternatively you can opt to stay where you are and soak up the extremely relaxing camp atmosphere where you’ve got a fair chance of seeing all of the above from your tent’s verandah, or the sundowner deck virtually hanging over the river.

Mountain Gorillas

From Ishasha, it’s a scenic 3 hour drive out of the plains and into the forested hills of Bwindi, to what, for many people is the highlight of their Ugandan safari – the mountain gorillas.

Buhoma Lodge is situated two minutes walk from the starting point of the most popular gorilla treks in East Africa. Several habituated groups are within easy striking distance and we had a spectacular encounter with the Mubare Group, including a 5 day-old baby. Be sure to have your gorilla permit organised weeks or months in advance at popular times year.

View from Buhoma Lodge

View from Buhoma Lodge

Buhoma lodge is the ideal place to relax after the physical strains of tracking these beasts through thick, steeply forested slopes. You’ll enjoy a complimentary massage, and the staff will even clean your boots!

We loved the location, each suite set on a steep slope with views out across the forest. There’s fantastic birding around the lodge itself, and even better on the track that runs through the forest right past the lodge.

Most people who stay at Ishasha and Buhoma will be with a hired vehicle and driver, as part of a larger Ugandan trip. QENP and gorilla tracking are virtually compulsory parts of any serious visit to Uganda, and Wild Frontiers’ offerings here are hard to beat.

Ndali Lodge, Uganda

Mention Ndali to anyone in the safari-know or living in Uganda, and the accolades will follow immediately. Jonathan and Sophie visit what is often described as Uganda’s top lodge to see what all the fuss is about. What did they find? A gorgeous, tranquil, home-away-from-home!

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

Perched on the rim of an extinct volcano, Ndali Lodge overlooks the magnificent crater lake of Nyinambuga. With 8 luxury suites all facing west (for that killer sunset over the magnificent Rwenzori Mountains), this lodge delivers on high standards – from comfort to decor to food – to atmosphere.  Owner Aubrey, who manages the lodge with his wife Clare, is charismatic and warm and its this effusiveness that gives the lodge it’s homely feel.

Ndali Lodge

Ndali Lodge

Joining the guests for all meals (which are all communal), he does an outstanding job in making sure all guests are happy at all times. And most importantly his enthusiasm for the estate, the area and the community projects that Ndali is involved in shines through in every conversation. Communal meals are always a favorite of ours and at Ndali they highlight just how well that concept works for a small, intimate lodge – already at our first meal (a delicious lunch of quiche, salads and vanilla cake) the atmosphere is spot-on and we immediately make a few new friends from around the world, some of whom we’ll be staying in touch with. It’s not just about the beautiful surroundings, or the top-rate chimp trekking nearby – safaris are also about people.

Dining with a view, Ndali Lodge

Dining with a view, Ndali Lodge

That night we enter the lounge and dining room and find both bathed in candlelight – the perfect venue for a cosy, homely and delicious dinner prepared from locally sourced, fresh ingredients.

At Ndali you’re under no pressure to embark on activities all day long. Soak up the views, have a cocktail, go to the spa, the sauna or simply snooze. Most guests visiting the Crater Lakes will spend one day doing chimpanzee trekking in Kibale Forest (which, by the way, also boasts other primates such as L’Hoest’s Monkey, Black&White Colobus and Grey-cheeked Mangabey); otherwise there are endless hiking opportunities in and around the many crater lakes. Also, birding is phenomenal – on a short walk around the lodge we spotted 20 species in no time – including the stunning Green-headed Sunbird!

Relax with a view...Ndali Lodge

Relax with a view…Ndali Lodge

In the Crater Lakes / Kibale region of Western Uganda, Ndali Lodge is without a doubt our choice – and a great stopover as part of a larger Uganda tour, between Murchisson Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Park. Here you arrive as strangers and leave as family. And so, let the accolades continue!

Kyambura Game Lodge, Uganda

On the border of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), Kyambura Game Lodge offers a great level of service to match its awesome location.

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

You can see Kyambura Game Lodge from afar, a row of tasteful thatched suites strung out along a rift valley ridge and once you’re up close, it’s even more impressive.

Main lodge, Kyambura

Main lodge, Kyambura

The lodge was quiet when we arrived, all the better to experience the peace and beauty that this place offers. The suites are tastefully built, all in locally sourced materials, and most of them are brand new, following a devastating fire a couple of years ago. But what stands out is the view. Whether from your suite, the sundowner deck or the spotless swimming pool, you look out across the vast plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park. An elephant ambled through the thick bush just below the lodge and the birding in the lodge grounds alone is enough to keep any keen birder happy.

Pool Kyambura Lodge

Other than the lodge itself, the main draw here is chimp trekking in Kyambura Gorge, and the proximity to QENP’s Mweya sector with its game viewing and spectacular river cruises. Both are a reasonably short drive away, making this lodge an ideal base.

The staff are friendly and attentive and we greatly enjoyed our stay.

Most visitors arrive with a car and driver from Kampala, as part of a larger organised tour although the lodge also welcomes independent travellers.