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!

Kichaka Private Game Lodge

It would take more than rain and hail to dampen our enthusiasm for this gem of a lodge, situated on a private reserve close to Grahamstown in Eastern Cape.

“I have to admit”, says our guide Jason, “that I’ve never been in a situation like this before”.  Just fifteen minutes ago we were admiring a beautiful white rhino and her calf, right out in the open, just a few metres away. OK so she was a bit skittish, charging up and down a bit. “Odd behavior”, remarked Jason, “But she’s probably sensing the storm”. The thunder, at this point, seemed far away.

Main pool at Kichaka, right next to Harry the Hippo's pool

Main pool at Kichaka, right next to Harry the Hippo’s pool

And only five minutes ago we were watching magnificent Duma, undisputed king of the reserve’s lion pride while his associate female showed more than a passing interest in a nearby Blesbok, stalking low against the ground as the sky darkened. Fast.

Just two minutes ago we were still debating whether to stop soon for sundowner drinks, or head back to the lodge. Then it came. The wind whipped up, lightening flashed overhead, squalls of hail stones scattered the bush and thunder crashed across the green hills. Jason put his foot down. “An open top vehicle is the last place you want to be in a storm”, he says as we dash for the nearest shelter. We arrive just as the full force of the storm hits, huddling in our ponchos with other guests and guides, everyone caught out by the fast-changing weather. Tonight our G&Ts will be chilled by hailstones. Now that’s something to remember!

Only four hours ago we arrived in the blazing hot sun, greeted by Molutu and Koleka with a cocktail, sipping chilled wine over a delicious smoked salmon lunch, and relaxing in our private plunge pool. Which brings us onto Kichaka itself. What makes this place so special?

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One of Kichaka’s great lounging areas

It’s hard to know where to begin, but when in doubt, start with the people. Charming Koleka is our ‘butler’ – the one who shows us our room, takes our orders and remembers what we like to drink. Matt, the chef, makes an appearance at the end of each meal to check everything is well with his guests, and receives unanimous applause each time. The food at Chitaka is very impressive – from the choice of six hot breakfasts (as well as the buffet) to three-course gourmet dinners each night and delicious lunches, just small enough to leave room for afternoon tea and freshly-baked cakes.

Our thatched chalet, one of ten, is huge, beautifully decorated and opens onto a large private wooden deck and private heated plunge pool. Best of all, our chalet (and the main lodge) look out onto a small dam inhabited by a hippo called Harry, who you’ll hear honking if you’re lucky.

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Not bad! (and it wasn’t even our honeymoon…)

The attention to detail is superb, from a personalised welcome note and free wi-fi to an IPod docking station attached to speakers, so you can listen to your own music if Harry is away from home. The main lodge is no less luxurious, with a main lounge, including a grand piano that guests are encouraged to play, and a diverse library. Huge log fires provide warmth and intimacy on cold winter days and the main swimming pool is stunningly situated right next to the dam, so you can pretend you’re swimming with Harry.

As well as regular game drives, guests are free to request night drives, with decent chances of spotting caracal and aardwolf (and, recently, even the ultra-elusive aardvark). Bush walks can also be arranged, there’s a great spa, and for something different, ‘cosmic safaris’ can acquaint you with the southern night skies. Even fishing can be arranged.

It’s still drizzling for our game drive next morning but it doesn’t matter – we find the lions again and more interestingly (for us) see two crows mobbing a long-crested eagle. Jason adapts well to his guests’ interests, is as passionate talking about termites as he is about the Big Five, and the quality of guiding is well above many similar lodges. As guides ourselves, this is important and makes a big difference to our enjoyment.

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Great rhino sighting with guide Jason, as the storm approaches

It’s our last night (sadly), we’re walking back to our suite after another sumptuous dinner from Matt and spot an animal flash across the board walk. It’s gone to fast to be sure, but could it have been the elusive caracal, that cat we’re so desperate to see? There’s one that’s often spotted close by. We soon forget our disappointment – we open the door and the light from 80 candles spelling ‘We Love U’ cast flickering shadows across the room, enticing us to a bath filled with hot water and bubbles, a complimentary bottle of chilled sparkling wine within easy reach. It’s been a year since our honeymoon but it feels like that all over again.

To us, a lodge ‘has it’ when enough of the small things come together to create a great experience, and it’s amazing how clear it is, and how quickly it becomes obvious. (When, that is, you’ve had the good fortune to visit as many safari lodges as we have). Whether you get sunshine or storms (or both), take it from us – Kichaka has it and if you’re looking for an Eastern Cape safari, you won’t go wrong here.

Good for: Honeymooners and families alike looking to combine a convenient safari with great hospitality

Not so good for: ‘True’ wilderness, although it’s up there with the best Eastern Cape has to offer

Our verdict: Elegant luxury and attention to detail make this one of our top picks of Eastern Cape lodges

Gorah Elephant Camp, Addo Elephant National Park

– African Safari Review by Jonathan & Sophie Ellaby

Set on its own exclusive concession in the heart of Addo Elephant National Park, we find a unique blend of nature and history at Gorah that makes for a delightful stay.

It’s easy to spot Gorah from afar, perched in rolling hills, each luxury safari tent with a commanding view of the bush and no fences to interfere with it. But it’s only when you get there that you appreciate how intense it can be and how different it is to anywhere else in Addo, or for that matter, South Africa. As seasoned bush hands, we were simply blown away.

First, a step back. The modern-day lodge is on the site of a farmhouse dating back to 1856, since lovingly restored, and the house oozes a sense of family history from the moment you step through its doors. Open verandas, lots of wood and old furniture and giant fireplaces are designed to conjure up images of hunting parties and colonial splendor.

The farming history is apparent in the large swathes of grassland previously used for cattle grazing, now the domain of larger herbivores such as zebra, kudu, hartebeest and eland. And elephant of course. Ironically, these open grasslands (which ought naturally to be thickets) make you feel more than ever like you’re in Africa, evoking the great savannah plains of East Africa.

Up close and personal - Gorah Elephant Camp

Up close and personal – Gorah Elephant Camp

We sit out on the colonial-style veranda for a ‘light lunch’ gazing out onto the plain, with herds of elephant just metres away and no fence in between – this comes close to many people’s vision of what a safari ought to be like. And we have to say, having spent many months in the bush, that this is pretty damn good. With a waterhole a stone’s throw away, you have a good chance of observing most of the plains game as well as elephant, at close range, while enjoying every gourmet meal Gorah’s superb staff lay on for you.

There’s little to fault the service either – from the meet and greet, waiting staff, guides and tent escorts – there’s everything you’d expect for a five-star lodge. The camp runs on solar power so there are a few compromises on things some take for granted – no air-con for example, and to get a battery charged you have to give it to your guide to take away overnight. But these are small things in what is otherwise a very luxurious set-up.

Relaxing by the tent at Gorah Elephant Camp

Relaxing by the tent at Gorah Elephant Camp

It’s the lack of electricity that gives the historic lodge its charm in the evenings – the whole place lit only with candles and heated by blazing wooden fires in each room, and after a post-game drive drink in the paneled lounge, we sit down to a superb 3-course dinner (by candle light of course: there’s no other way).

After dinner, we step onto our private tent veranda for one of our most memorable bush experiences ever. There’s nothing but wild bush everywhere in front of us, all lit up by an almost-full moon and the air is dead still, punctured only by nightjars and the shrieks of a barn owl. Then comes the first rumbling, then another, and a big bull elephant is standing right in front of us, tearing grass from the very edge of the veranda. We sit motionless, spellbound, close enough for him to touch us with his trunk if he tried. Next morning, recalling this encounter in the silvery swathe of moonlight seems like it was a dream.

Elelphants up close, Gorah Elephant CampOur evening game drive yielded more special elephant moments. Gorah is unique in Addo in being allowed to use entirely open-top vehicles, with not even a canopy to shield you from the grey beasts. Make no mistake – this results in far more intimate encounters (and also ensures you’ll get a soaking if it unexpectedly rains, as it did for us next morning). With 5,000-odd hectares of private concession to themselves, as well as access to the rest of Addo Main Game Area should the need arise, the game viewing is exclusive, as you’d expect. We miss the lion, but glimpse a black rhino across the hills (there are regular sightings of this extremely rare animal).

Sipping complimentary sparkling wine on comfy chairs in the luxury of your tent, while gazing out at vast herds of kudu (we counted 52), elephant and other game, you’ll most likely have a ‘pinch-me-is-this-real’ moment. We did. And if one of Addo’s 12 lions took down one of those kudu at that moment it would be, well, unreal. But it could just happen. At Gorah, you hardly need to go on game drives. The game comes to you.

Good for: Classic luxury tent safari in a spectacular setting (ask for tent 10 for the most spectacular experience of all)

Not so good for: Those who demand the highest level of creature comforts (the lodge runs off solar). Ticking off all the Big Five

Our Verdict: The combination of old family history and an exquisite camp almost guarantee an unforgettable experience

For enquiries, please contact us on +27 21 813 6961 or info@kleincollection.com. Alternatively, please complete the short enquiry form below.

Kuzuko Lodge – Addo Elephant National Park

– African Safari Review by Jonathan & Sophie Ellaby

We step apart from the Addo crowds and into the wilderness to discover a little-explored, yet hugely under-rated section of the Park, to see what Kuzuko has to offer.

Standing on the dining deck, or from your chalet and surveying the vast expanse of wilderness from this hilltop lookout, we feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere. Ridge after ridge of rocky Karoo scrubland merges into haze and then sky as far as the eye can see, and I can scarcely see a sign of human habitation in any direction. But look carefully and you’ll see the telltale movement far away on a rocky hillside – a troop of baboons perhaps, a kudu, or one of the reserves many elephant.

Kuzuko is a 5-star hotel transported into the middle of the bush, in its own private reserve, and part of Addo Elephant National Park. Getting here is not the easiest – more than 2 hours drive from Port Elizabeth, the last hour or so on gravel roads, but at least the drive is scenic and unlike some parts of Addo, this feels wild. Really wild.

Kuzuku Lodge, AddoOur chalet is hotel standard and feels like a hotel, not a safari lodge and this is part of its appeal to those who know what to expect from the Legacy Hotels. So expect OMG! And Dish magazine in your room, rather than Birding or Africa Geo.

Make no mistake though, you’ll still get a ‘real’ safari experience here, with a variety of optional activities available, from walks with Cheetah to star gazing. If you love birds, you won’t need to stray far beyond the beautifully kept indigenous gardens interspersing the chalets, and if you come in winter, as we did, the chances are you’ll have most of the place to yourself.

After ‘high tea’ at 2pm, we pile into an open-top land cruiser with head guide Freddie for the three-hour afternoon game drive. With the whole 15,000-hectare reserve for the exclusive use of Kuzuko guests, there’s no sharing sightings with other vehicles – it’s just you, the other guests and the wilderness.

Kukuko Lodge, AddoA track winds down a ravine from the hotel – baboons shelter in craggy cliffs, Cape Mountain Zebra cling to the slopes and extraordinary numbers of kudu mingle among the Jacket Plums, Shepherd Trees and iconic Spekbooms. The constant bird chatter, especially the whistling cries of the bokmakierie, reverberates around the gorge. Down in the plain we soon spot a large herd of elephant and go to pay our respects. As we drink sundowners overlooking the expanse, the sky turns mauve, and thunder starts to crackle as a storm begins to move in. It’s a magical moment.

Kuzuko Lodge, AddoWe enjoy the passing storm to the full on our chalet deck, as flashes of lightning illuminate the hills and the sounds of the nightjar carry on the warm wind.

Dinner is a four-course a la carte affair; I have tomato soup, beef Carpaccio, lamb stew and malva pudding. Don’t expect levels of cuisine or service to match five star lodges in Sabi Sand, but as value for money goes, Kuzuko delivers.

There’s no crack-of-dawn wake-up call here – the morning game drive kicks off at the sociable time of 8am, leaving plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast as the sun rises spectacularly in front of the hotel. Remember to leave space for the post-drive brunch. You won’t go hungry at Kuzuko.

We spot the reserve’s two male lion on our three-hour morning drive but we’re unlucky with the rhino. No matter – for us this place is not about the Big Five, but a slice of solitude and beauty – though you’ll still be able to tick a few of those boxes. There’s a good chance of seeing amongst other things – lion, elephant, rhino, kudu, zebra, black wildebeest, red hartebeest and eland.

Kuzuko may not be the easiest place to get to, but those that make the effort are blown away by the beauty, the friendly staff and the feeling that you’ve done something – well – different.

Good for: Wild solitude, value-for-money safaris in a spectacular setting. Families, team-building groups. There are good conference facilities.

Not so good for: Accessibility, Big Five.

Our Verdict: Solid good-value choice if you’re up for a safari in the Addo area.

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

Meno A Kwena Tented Camp in Botswana

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

Privately owned and managed, and a short drive from Maun, Meno A Kwena is a tented camp with a difference. We visited to chat with the owner David about his visions for ecotourism in Botswana, and to see what his place is all about.

It’s a hot two hour drive through the sparse Kalahari scrub from Maun, first on empty tar then unmarked sandy tracks, before it feels like you’ve been catapulted into new world.

Perched high on the banks of the Boteti River we gaze down at the water below, and the bush beyond. It’s late afternoon when we arrive and 200 zebra are drinking – they’re skittish and stampede at the slightest perceived threat, hooves thundering in a vast cloud of dust. It’s the start of the greatest migration in southern Africa, and Meno A Kwena is at the heart of it.

No ordinary safari lodge

The brainchild of David Dugmore, it began years ago when the Boteti River was dry, and there was no fence on the boundary of Makgadikgadi National Park. The result was a near-catastrophe as tens of thousands of zebra and wildebeest arrived each year at the end of the rainy season, to their only possible water source, to find it empty. For years, David and his dedicated team pumped water day and night to create a waterhole and keep alive what they could, fending off desperate cattle and watching the weak die. Meno A Kwena was literally an oasis in the desert.

Thankfully that came to an end in 2008 when the Boteti once again began to flow, easing the overwhelming pressure on both wildlife and cattle, but it taught David that for tourism to succeed in Botswana, it must embrace the local communities, local culture and conservationism – and this is what Meno A Kwena is all about.

Forget your traditional, regulated safari lodge and scheduled two daily activities – Meno A kwena feels more like a club, with none of the formality of corporate-style lodges. We’re greeted by the manager Jeff, a knowledgeable guide and old Maun hand who’s been involved with the lodge since its desperate beginnings, and straightaway we see what makes this place special. The people are passionate about it, and excited for its future.

We stroll down to the floating hide right on the river and enjoy a G & T as the zebra drink just metres away, before making way for a herd of elephant. As usual, we also enjoy the smaller things – the babblers alarm calling for two giant eagle owls in a tree nearby, the green-backed heron skimming the water below. Meno A Kwena is one of the only spots that thousands of zebra and wildebeest are able to drink after the pans dry up, giving it unprecedented game viewing during the dry season (April – Nov).

We relax at our comfortable but relatively basic safari tent before a delicious buffet dinner is served at a huge long table – here guests are encouraged to mingle and before long we’re all friends. Each tent has a private bathroom and bucket shower (you order hot water from the delightful staff) – this takes a bit of getting used to but the end result is just the same.

A walk (and run…) with the Bushmen

The next morning we accompany a family of resident bushmen (and women) for a walk in, naturally, the bush. It’s a leisurely meander accompanied by a lot of clicking (and thankfully, a translation) and although it’s a bit theatrical and ‘touristy’, we overcome our initial scepticism and quickly realise that these bushmen really know what they’re clicking about. Kgao, the leader, shows us how to dig for scorpions, make fire from firesticks and make arrow-poison from the grub of a root-feeding beetle. Meno A Kwena is as much about local culture as it is about game.

But traditional game drives are on offer as well in nearby Makgadikgadi Pans National Park and that afternoon we head there with our guide, Sel. It’s a good hour’s drive on good roads to the park entrance which is a bit of a pain, but David plans to slash this by using a boat for part of the journey. We see vast herds of zebra and wildebeest, some good birds and spook a pride of lions right next to the road – not a bad tally, and we enjoy the chance to see one of the less-visited parks in Botswana. Longer, day trips deep into the pans can also be arranged with prior notice.

But Meno A Kwena is also about relaxing in an idyllic location and this is what we do on day 2. Tired of those crack-of-dawn game drives? Just have a lie-in and let the game come to you, viewed from the plunge pool overlooking the river. And if you’re desperate for some exercise after days of gouging and slothfulness on safari, challenge the bushmen for a run. Back in the days, the bushmen would hunt kudu by running them down to exhaustion over many hours under the scorching Kalahari sun. They might not be that fit any more but they’ll give you a run you’ll remember (in bare feet), and it’s not everyone that can say they ran with the Bushmen!

Into the future

Perhaps what’s most exciting are the plans for the future. As well as improvements to the tents and bathrooms, expect short boat trips on the Boteti River and more ambitious walks with the Bushmen deeper into the National Park. Most exciting of all are David’s plans to start two or three night mobile safaris to the edge of the Pans in the midst of the zebra migration; expect to be surrounded at night by thousands of thundering hooves.

Swapping email addresses with our fellow guests at the end of our stay, we feel firmly part of the Meno A Kwena family. If you’re looking for something outside the corporate safari lodge mould, informal, with great activities, this is your place. Or if you just want to kick back for a couple of days and relax in the middle of a hectic safari itinerary, it doesn’t get better.

Good for: families, independent travellers, those looking for something different.

Not so good for: those just wanting to see the big five, or expect 5 star luxury.

Our verdict: While it’s not cheap, Meno A Kwena prices compare favourably with most safari lodges in Botswana. It’s important to understand what you’re getting (e.g. bucket showers – although this is part of its charm) and a highly informal approach. If you’re happy with that, it’s a great option and fits nicely into many safari schedules. We greatly enjoyed it, and so did everyone there we spoke to. And within easy driving access of Maun, there are no expensive flights to worry about. A breath of fresh air.

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

Shumbalala Game Lodge, Thornybush Game Reserve

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

Shumbalala means ‘Where lions sleep’ and you could well find one here, curled up underneath your deck or by the nearby waterhole. We were met by Isabel, Shumbalala’s charming hostess for a tour of the lodge’s 5 suites and one family room, all superbly furnished with exquisite furniture and an open fire. We were especially impressed by the view of the waterhole from the dining area, and the small touches, such as a bird guidebook in each room.

Our favourite though is the Presidential Suite which sleeps 4 in one of the most beautiful collection of rooms we’ve seen anywhere. At the push of a button, part of the private deck slides back, James Bond style, to reveal the personal plunge pool. We were standing on the deck as it slid back when a large herd of elephants wandered down to the waterhole to drink. There was a fine mist in the warm air and a faint rainbow was forming against the family of elephants drinking below. Watching that from your private pool – how can you beat that?

What makes it different: Shumbalala Game Lodge has its own quaint little wine cellar, stocked with top South African wines.

What we liked best: The Presidential Suite!

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

Sweni Lodge, Singita

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

Delightful, intimate Sweni Lodge sits next door to Lebombo and despite sharing the concession, guides and vehicles with its big sister, has a unique charm of its own. We popped down from Lebombo for lunch to check it out. See our review of Lebombo [link] for more about this Singita concession.

It’s a short stroll down the hill to this delightful little lodge right on the Sweni river. While Lebombo is set up high in the rocks like an eagle’s nest, Sweni Lodge has a more intimate feel with only six suites strung along the river either side of the lounge deck, dining area and a generously proportioned pool.

We’re greeted by the lodge manager, Kevin (who this week is also doubling as our sommelier up at Lebombo) and we’re immediately struck by the cosy feel of the camp. We settle down for a bite of lunch in the dining area which, like Lebombo up the hill, is surrounded by glass so you feel like you’re part of the bush even on cold winter nights when it’s too cold to eat out on the deck.

Singita Sweni LodgeThe style is contemporary but comes across as less of an architectural statement than Lebombo and it feels more homely. The suites are very similar to Lebombo with the interior design revolving around glass, wood and steel finishes. I have zucchini and parmesan soup as a starter, a parma ham and brie sandwich followed by fresh summer berries soaked in malibu with fruit sorbet. And since it’s a hot afternoon, I have the suggested rosé wine although as always, any wine from Singita’s vast cellar is available, all complimentary of course.

Good for: Small groups and families.

Not so good for: Lebombo better if you’re looking for something more striking.

Our verdict: Not quite as polished as Boulders Lodge and Ebony Lodge but more intimate – the friendly staff bring guests back here again and again.

Singita Sweni Lodge

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