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.

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

 

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…

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!

Asilia Olakira Camp, Serengeti, Tanzania

Located at this time of year deep in the Southern Serengeti, Olakira aims to bring you as close as you can get to the wildebeest migration

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby.

“In 300 metres, you have reached your destination”, droned our voice-over GPS. After 6 weeks on the road, we’re getting tired of her voice. We sighed. All we could see was dust and acacia trees, the same as the last 100km. No sign of Olakira camp.

Fear not, you’ll most likely arrive with your own driver/guide from Arusha, who will know the labyrinth of tracks better than us, but we find the camp at last, feeling as parched as the land around us, grateful for the warm welcome from our host, Martin and a refreshing cold drink.

Olakira main camp

Olakira main camp

Asilia’s Olakira is a mobile camp that moves twice a year, tracking the wildebeest migration and at the time of our visit, it had just relocated here to Ndutu, in the southern plains of the Serengeti. In October and November the wildebeest head south, reaching the Ndutu area around December where they stay for several months in their millions. The rest of the year, Olakira relocates to the Northern Serengeti.

But there wasn’t a wildebeest to be seen! The rains are late this year and the land is bone dry – so dry, our car is covered with such a thick layer of dust, it piles up against the windows, and as the wind blows, surrounds as with a cloud so thick you sometimes can’t see where you’re driving. It feels like a desert.

“Very Dry!”, affirms Martin as he shows us to our tent. Being a mobile camp, don’t expect the luxuries of a five star lodge, although there’s everything here to make you confortable. There are bucket showers (with hot water if you order 10 minutes before), a dining tent and small dining lounge with comfortable furniture. What more do you need?

Cub on buffalo carcass, Olakira

Cub on buffalo carcass, Olakira

You might think the game viewing would be disappointing, given that the main act, the million wildebeest, were still a couple of hundred kilometres to the north. You’d be wrong. We take a guide and head out into the plains around Lake Ndutu and soon come across a large lion pride with an almost untouched buffalo carcass.

“This morning I saw a huge cloud of dust”, our guide Ali explained, “and I watched the male lion bring her down. He killed her but then just walked away.” Ali and his guests had watched in astonishment and horror as the lionesses ripped out the fetus from the pregnant buff, ate it, then left the rest. Cubs were frolicking on the carcass like it was a termite mound. Times of drought can be good times for lion. Just a few kilometres on we came across another large pride, ruling over no less than three buffalo carcasses.

Accomodation tents, Olakira

Accomodation tents, Olakira

We swap stories around the campfire with our fellow guests – two honeymoon couples. Olakira is a rustic camp with an informal atmosphere – dining is communal. This is the way we like it – a safari enjoyed is a safari shared.

Now just imagine the million wildebeest milling about the camp, packed densely together, lions lurking in the shadows, the sound of a million moos just metres from your tent at night. Ah, we’ll just have to come back for that…

Good for: Rustic, middle-of-the-wilderness feel, with the chance to see vast wildebeest herds up close.

Not so good for: Luxury. And while the camps are located with the best chance of mass encounters, there are never any guarantees.

Our verdict: Down-to-earth, friendly, rustic and informal, the Olakira mobile camp puts you right where you belong – in the middle of nature, with no excessively luxurious frills. We like it.

Lake Manze Tented Camp, Selous, Tanzania

Jonathan and Sophie check out one of Selous’ most popular lodges

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby.

You can often tell a good lodge by how long the managers have been there, and Phil and Trisha, Manze’s excellent hosts, have been here three years already. And their work shows.

Lake Manze is one of the more affordable lodges in an exclusive reserve, and the emphasis is on the informal and having fun. We arrive dripping in sweat as usual, as the season’s rains have yet to arrive and we’re shown to our rustic safari tents with a glimpse of Lake Manze through the palms. There’s no swimming pool here but in this heat it makes little difference – the only way to cool down is to shower then drip dry under the solar-powered fan. It works!

Lake Manze main area

Lake Manze main area

Lake Manze itself forms part of the Rufiji river system, which is the focal point of the northern Selous, and the Camp is one of several strung along this wetland, renowned for its game viewing.

We join guide Victor for an afternoon game drive around the shores, teeming with hippo, croc and some great aquatic bird life. As South African guides, we have lots of new species to tick off! We watch an impala give birth, a first for us, spell-bound as the tiny lamb stood up on shaky legs and started to run, tripping over its own legs, afterbirth still dangling from its mother.

Boat trip, Lake Manze

Boat trip, Lake Manze

Later, we find a pride of six male lions sheltering from the heat and plenty of ellies. In Selous you should have almost guaranteed sightings of lion, elephant and buffalo and a decent chance of seeing leopard and wild dog too. This has it right up with the northern parks including Serengeti, with the benefit of far fewer crowds.

Back at the lodge we enjoy a beer with fellow guests before we all sit down at one long table for dinner – the atmosphere works well. Maasai tribesmen escort us to our tents, armed with spears against any lurking leopards. Like it or hate it, this is a common feature of Tanzanian safaris.

View from Lake Manze

View from Lake Manze

Next morning we take a boat trip through the river system with Rasheed, an excellent guide, past sunning crocs, angry hippo and passing elephant – boat trips are an integral feature of safaris in Selous.

Lake Manze camp is one of the most popular in Selous and we can see why.

Our verdict – Good value, friendly camp in the exclusive Selous Game Reserve.

Good for – Sociable types who prefer an alternative to the crowds of the northern safari circuit

Not so good for – Sticklers for comfort (no power in tents except for fans) – Manze has very much of a bush camp feel.