During my ten years living in South Africa and working in the tourism industry, I have had the great privilege to visit many amazing safari lodges. I love the African bush, and go as often as I possibly can. I just can’t get enough of the feeling of being in the middle of one of the world’s last remaining wilderness areas!
The more you go to the bush, the more you realise that it is about so much more than the Big Five. I wrote a blog about this a while back. But you also start realising that not all bush experiences are the same. Some of these things may not matter to a first-time visitor, but here are a few things that I look out for when selecting a safari lodge:
Off-roading: in many private reserves, the vehicles go off-road for good sightings. I prefer those that off-road for all big sightings (terrain allowing obviously). Some reserves only do it for the big cats, and in National Parks off-roading is prohibited.
TVs and gadgets: no TVs or music, please! I am there to see, smell and listen to the bush. In my opinion, wifi should also be restricted to certain areas. You don’t want to sit at dinner in the bush and see people Facebooking. I am also guilty as charged if there is wifi, which is why I think it should be available only in the reception or a similar place. We should all just Put The Gadgets Down and Be There!
Collared animals: this is a big no-no for me. It feels like being in a zoo. I’d rather know that the lions are there, without finding them, than finding it using radio equipment. As for photography, who wants a big collar in a wildlife pic???
Fences: yes, there are fences around all wilderness areas but I’d rather not see them. It’s that zoo factor again. In reserves that are big enough, you should be able to go on drives without seeing fences. In some places, long parts of the drive are along the fence-line, as it seems especially cheetahs like this environment. I personally can’t think of anything that disrupts my bush experience more than this.
Anyway. Keeping these things in mind, I have picked my 3 absolute favourite safari experiences. I’m calling them experiences, as it is about so much more than just the lodge. It’s about experiencing Africa’s bush. But, at least to me, it is also about what the lodges do in terms of conservation of the wilderness areas where they operate, and how they ensure that the rural (and often desperately poor) communities in the area benefit from tourism. Here goes, in no particular order:
Umlani Bush Camp: Immerse yourself in the bush
Umlani is such a little gem! An unfenced camp (apart from a high, single electric wire that keeps the ellies out; they used to rip the waterpipes out repeatedly) in the Timbavati area. Timbavati is a private reserve that forms part of the greater Kruger National Park, meaning that you are in a wilderness area that spans over 20,000 square km, but can still enjoy all the perks of a private reserve (especially off-roading). The rooms are simple rondavels, with walls of bamboo that let in the sounds and smells of the bush. I love laying in my comfy bed, listening to the roar of lions and whooping of hyenas in the distance at night. I’ve had more once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experiences here than I can list, but one stands out: the white lions of Timbavati. This is the only place in the world where you can see these amazing creatures in the wild.
Umlani work hard to conserve this pristine wilderness through the Timbavati Foundation. They operate on solar energy, use only biodegradeable cleaning products, compost and recycle. The lodge is also certified by Fair Trade Tourism. Here’s a blog I recently wrote about Umlani for The Good Holiday.
Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge: the ultimate luxury and sophistication
Sabi Sands is another private reserve inside the Greater Kruger National Park. Sabi Sabi operates a few different lodges within the reserve, but my favourite is without a doubt Earth Lodge. This is like no other safari lodge; a modern building that blends into the surrounding nature and is filled with contemporary art and every luxury you can possibly imagine. The freestanding suites all have their own dip-pool, with views of the surrounding bush. And you really are in the wild! I’ve seen pics of a variety of wild animals coming all the way up to the doors of the suite! Dinner is a sophisticated 3-course affair with a number of choices each night, often served under the stars and lit by paraffin lamps. There’s an on-site spa operated by Amani Spas (one of my favourite African spa brand). As for the wildlife, this is one of the best places in the world to see the elusive leopard. My Most Memorable Moment was definitely seeing a leopard stalk and kill an impala.
Sabi Sabi actively work to conserve and protect the environment, but it is their investment in people that really blows me away. They do amazing work with the local communities, and so many of their middle and senior managers once started as gardeners or housekeepers. They are also certified by Fair Trade Tourism. Here’s a blog I wrote about Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge on The Good Holiday.
Jaci’s Tree Lodge: community owned and malaria free
Jaci’s is situated in Madikwe Game Reserve, the 5th largest reserve in South Africa (750 square km). This reserve was created in the early 1990s, with the intention of bringing economic development to this otherwise poor and rural area of the North-West Province. Its location means that it is malaria free, something that appeals to many people. The suites (tree houses) at Jaci’s are among the biggest I’ve ever seen, and they are decorated in a fun yet stylish way. They have a wrap-around porch where you feel totally immersed in nature, up in the trees. There’s an onsite massage therapist that can do treatments in your room, something I can’t recommend enough. Madikwe is particularly known for its Wild Dog experiences, and we were not disappointed when we visited.
Jaci’s is the only lodge I know that has a staff ownership structure in place. After five years, staff are offered part-ownership in the lodge. In 2013, the profit-sharing system paid out around R400,000 to the co-owners! This is not only a huge financial benefit for the staff, it also means that they are co-owners and not “just” employees. The difference is enormous for them, and for their guests who are welcomed by proud co-owners! Here’s a blog about Jaci’s.