The best luxury safari lodges in Kruger.

It would be impossible to start this newsletter without mentioning South Africa’s joyous victory at the Rugby World Cup in Japan this month. It meant so much more for the country than just the trophy

Last month, I visited some of the best luxury lodges in Kruger National Park and Greater Kruger. It was a wonderful time to reconnect with the lodge staff, view any improvements and visit new lodges. I savoured the short time in the bush, away from news, email and the other distractions of daily life. 

This newsletter is longer than usual and contains a full review of all the lodges I saw. Feel free to skip straight to the videos of the lodges!

If you’re planning a trip to Kruger National Park, the first thing to understand is that Kruger is enormous, almost the size of Belgium. It borders Mozambique to the east and Zimbabwe to the north. A number of private game reserves, where the land is independently owned, share an open border with Kruger, allowing animals to roam freely across the land. The lodges I visited were located in Kruger, and three private game reserves: Sabi Sands, Timbavati and Klaserie. These private game reserves are all part of the Greater Kruger and are situated on the western border of Kruger. The closest airports are Nelspruit in the south and Hoedspruit and Palaborwa in the west. Most of the lodges also have private airstrips within easy access if you are short of time or don’t like long drives. 

Many people ask about the difference between staying at a luxury safari lodge or doing a self drive safari. Both are fantastic, and it depends on what kind of experience you want. You have a good and equal chance of seeing wildlife whether camping or staying at a lodge. I love camping just as much as staying in luxury lodges – it just depends on the kind of holiday you want. Game viewing at a luxury lodges is often a more exclusive experience, with fewer people at each sighting and also the ability to drive off road to view the animals close up. At luxury lodges, you have experienced rangers and trackers take you out on a game drive every morning and evening, which is helpful for first time safaris. If you self drive, you will need to look carefully to spot the animals, and will have to stick to the roads at all times. The other differences are more obvious – luxury game lodges are beautifully decorated and very comfortable and most will include all food and drinks in the rate, whereas on a self drive safari you would self cater. The staff and service at a lodge are what distinguishes one luxury lodge from another.

Going on safari is a truly enthralling experience. I love it because each safari is unique. You wake up at 5 AM, not knowing what you will see. After a cup of tea or coffee, still groggy eyed, you set off into the bush, already alive with bird sound and activity. You may see a herd of elephant, walking past you as if you do not exist. You may see a pack of painted wolves starting out on a hunt, or a leopard in a tree protecting her kill from a hyena lurking below. I cannot think of a more thrilling experience to be had than these encounters with wildlife. 

“In an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention.”

Pico Iyer

Lodges in Sabi Sands
Sabi Sands is a 65,000 hectare private game reserve sharing an open fence with Kruger. Sabi Sands is especially good for big cat sightings. There are a number of established lions prides and leopards in the area. It is one of the oldest of the private reserves and has had great success in stopping rhino poaching on their land. I saw Savanna Lodge, Dulini, River Lodge and Leadwood Lodge in the Sabi Sands. 

Go inside some of the best luxury lodges in Sabi Sands

Note: I could not take videos and photographs of every lodge I visited because some were either closed for renovations, or full, so I could not video the rooms. 

Savanna is a well known and much loved lodge with long time general managers. Everything runs like clockwork here and every small detail has been considered. I got the feeling that the interior designers had actually stayed in the rooms, unlike at other places I’ve stayed where the light switches were hidden in unlikely places and impossible to figure out. My room had a splash pool which was perfect to cool down in the hot afternoons. The food and lodge staff at Savanna were impeccable. On the night I stayed, they had a local choir who sang magnificently and gave me goosebumps. While I was staying at the lodge I met a big Swiss family group, two honeymoon couples and a retired couple from the UK. I think this lodge is a perfect choice for anyone wanting a comfortable, and luxurious stay in the African bush.

Dulini has the feel of a classic, old style safari lodge, from the days when going on safari meant hunting and not eco-tourism, as it thankfully means today. Dulini is set under the shade of enormous trees, giving the lodge a very peaceful and tranquil feel. The gardens are a welcome respite from the hot sun out on game drives. There are only 6 thatched suites at Dulini so it is relatively small, my preference for a good safari experience. The deck and swimming pool overlook the river. The lodge manager and assistant manager at Dulini are a great team and the staff are all first rate.

River Lodge is set on the Sand River. It makes the most of its beautiful setting with a number of strategically placed decks at different levels. It is very light and airy, with a clear Scandinavian aesthetic. The lodge uses a lot of blonde wood and feels very modern. It has 6 suites spread over the river front. River Lodge had one of the nicest lodge gyms I’ve seen and I could imagine doing yoga with a sunrise view.

Leadwood was the smallest lodge I saw with only 4 suites. The small number of rooms gives the lodge a very private and intimate feel. Leadwood would be really good for honeymooners or a large family group who could use the lodge exclusively. The lodge is tastefully decorated and really photogenic. What I liked about Leadwood was that there are many unique areas available to guests, each with a different and stunning view. They have a magnificent viewing deck, set high up in a tree. While I was there, a troop of elephants came running under the deck, a wonderful experience. You can see it in the video above.

Lodges in Timbavati
Timbavati is north of Sabi Sands. It is 53,000 hectares and shares an open fence with Kruger. The Timbavati is known as the home of the extremely rare and beautiful white lions. Here, as in Sabi Sands, you will have the possibility of incredible wildlife sightings surrounded by pristine wilderness. In Timbavati I visited Simbavati Hilltop Lodge, Simbavati River Lodge, Machaton Camp, Bateleur Safari Camp, Ngala (situated in Kruger, but accessed from Timbavati), and Makanyi

Go inside some of the best luxury lodges in Timbavati

Note: I could not take videos and photographs of every lodge I visited because some were either closed for renovations, or full, so I could not video the rooms. 

Simbavati Hilltop Lodge is my favourite of all the lodges, although it will not be right for everyone. I love it because of it’s position, high up on a hill, looking down over a river. I also love the romance of sleeping in a canvas tent. The tents are luxurious and consist of a bedroom tent and a separate bathroom tent with an outdoor shower in between. I also love the outdoor day bed where you can get massages or spend the evening watching the stars and listening to the distant sounds of lion roaring. The common area is inviting and decorated in a fun, modern way. Again, the staff made a real difference and I loved the concept of a personal butler who became almost a friend during my stay. I had some great leopard sightings at Simbavati, as well as a lion pride just outside the camp, thanks to CJ and Doctor, an excellent ranger and tracker team. 

Simbavati River Lodge is a family oriented lodge, whereas Hilltop is adults only. There are 3 two bedroom chalets, ideal for families travelling with younger children. There is an excellent kids activity centre and babysitters available at the lodge. Simbavati River Lodge is beautifully set on the Nlaralumi River which keeps the surroundings lush and green. A wedding had been recently held at the lodge and it looked like an incredibly beautiful and romantic setting. 

Machaton Camp had just been renovated but was full at the time of my visit so I was unable to get a video of the camp. The camp feels like a home away from home and comes with a private chef who can prepare anything you like. This camp would be ideal for family groups who can occupy the whole lodge. Bush dinners are possible here, a great option if you are celebrating a special occasion or honeymooning. 

Bateleur Safari Camp is another tented camp (canvas walls but thatched roof) which I liked very much. While all lodges are making an effort to become more environmentally friendly, replacing plastic bottled water with refillable water bottles, and the like, Bateleur has made this a real focus at their lodge. Bateleur is well known for their walking safaris, so this is a great option for those who like to walk out in nature. I would rate this camp as one of the best value for money, especially with their pay for 2 nights and stay 3 nights special offer (limited validity periods). As a result they are fully booked through to March 2020, so it is important to book in advance if you would like to stay here. 

Ngala Private Game Reserve is the largest of the lodges I visited. It has 20 suites and with a lodge this size comes more staff and a generally larger footprint. While less private than the others, it is the quintessential safari lodge, decorated in the way of an old safari lodge way, similar to Dulini. I really like the conservation ethic which comes through at all the &Beyond Lodges. The staff are all very friendly and the management is slick. Ngala has all the ingredients for a sublime 5 star safari experience. It is also family friendly with family chalets and an amazing fun and educational kids programme. 

Makanyi felt the most secluded of all the lodges I visited. It is at the end of a long road with few other lodges close by. With my terrible sense of direction I did get a bit lost, and would recommend a transfer and not self drive to get here! The modern lodge is designed to overlook a waterhole, with a large open deck where meals are served. Further along the deck is a fire pit and swimming pool. We went out for our morning game drive on an electric game drive vehicle, a unique feature of this lodge. I loved how quiet it was. This, combined with the radios that the rangers use to communicate with each other, being ear pieces makes it perfect for anyone wanting to take wildlife videos. There is nothing more annoying than the crackling, static sound of a radio as you are videoing the wildlife in front of you! The ranger and tracker I had at Makanyi were both outstanding and I learned many new things, a nice surprise after the countless times I’ve been in the African bush and growing up with two biologists parents.

Lodges in Klaserie
In the Klaserie I visited Africa on Foot and nThambo Tree Camp. Klaserie is north west of Timbavati. The Klaserie, a 60 000 hectare wilderness area, is less well known than the other reserves but has the sightings to match any of them. 

Africa on Foot was closed for minor renovations when I was there but I still managed to see much of the camp. The accommodation is basic and clean. The camp is a real bush camp with no electricity and water heated by a donkey boiler. The focus here is walking safaris and guests can go out on a walk every morning in summer and morning and evening in winter. 

nThambo Tree Camp, Africa on Foot’s sister camp, is situated around a waterhole. The chalets are built on wooden stilts which give great views and hopefully a refreshing cool breeze. The chalets have canvas walls and thatched roofs, similar to Bateleur camp. The lodge is small and intimate with only 5 chalets. The main area and swimming pool also overlook the waterhole. 

The A-list 
Best for families&Beyond Ngala and Simbavati River Lodge
Best for honeymoons or couples: Simbavati Hilltop Lodge, Savanna, Leadwood
Best eco-friendly lodge: Bateleur Camp
Best classic lodge: Dulini
Best for walkingsafaris: Africa on Foot
Most secluded: Makanyi
Best views: Dulini River Lodge, Simbavati Hilltop Lodge
Best value for money: Bateleur Camp and uThambo Tree Camp
Best for large groups/families: Machaton and Leadwood

We are standing by to book your perfect tailor-made safari to Africa!

Happy travelling!

P.S. In case you missed it, last month Leopard became a SATSA member. This means that SATSA has checked that Leopard is legitimate and properly registered, financially stable, legally compliant, fully insured and bonded (guaranteeing your pre-tour deposits).

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