Options for safari accommodation in South Africa are virtually limitless, ranging from ultra-sumptuous luxury right the way through to overnight on-foot wilderness expeditions, where you sleep on the ground under the stars. Here we select a few unforgettable luxury game lodges where you’ll be pampered and enjoy superlative levels of guiding.
A name synonymous with luxury, Singita is known for its groundbreaking levels of comfort. Creators of architecturally renowned lodges, Singita also excels at providing the sort of discreet, ultra-personalised service that makes you feel like royalty, with skilful guides intelligently putting you in contact with the bush. Singita has also earned great renown for its beautiful lodgings in Tanzania’s Serengeti, but it all began in South Africa’s oldest privately owned game reserve, Sabi Sands, which adjoins Kruger National Park and offers rich animal sightings.
Here, Luke Bailes established Singita Ebony Lodge in 1994, achieving instant recognition as one of the most lavish safari destinations on earth. With traditional stone and thatch buildings, Ebony’s plush colonial style was followed up by Singita Boulders, executed in an altogether more contemporary style, each of its suites the size of a small house. Available for exclusive rentals, Singita Castleton opened in 2013, comprising the original old Bailes family home plus six individual cottages. Pampered guests have access to a pool, wine cellar, spa, and a host of other services – standard Singita offerings.
Within Kruger, farther east, Singita Lebombo and neighbouring Singita Sweni occupy a 37,050-hectare private concession edging the Mozambican border. Afro-chic Lebombo has 15 light, bright and dramatically-proportioned units a short distance from Sweni; the two lodges share the spa and other resort-like facilities (including a gym-with-a-view). Sweni has just six designer-chic suites that feel marvellously tucked away, built on stilts so you’re eye-level with the trees above the Sweni River. Gigantic curtains work as room dividers and there’s an earthy, tactile feel to the furniture and décor. Glass walls and humungous sliding doors open onto large timber balconies where you can shower, floating above the bush.
In the malaria-free Eastern Cape province, Kwandwe is a private game reserve covering 22,000 hectares. It too offers a choice of luxury game lodges, all with access to the same superb terrain where, as one game ranger likes to joke, “the lions breed like rats.” While predator and elephant numbers keep things interesting by day, it’s the nocturnal sightings of unusual, rare creatures such as aardwolf and aardvark that keep things really interesting, even for experienced safari-goers.
There are two main lodges. Great Fish River Lodge is the largest, done out in typical Out of Africa style, with antiques, Persian rugs, and vintage-style hunting pictures. The lodge and suites overlook the eponymous river, which wends its way through the reserve for 30km. Suites are all very private, and each has its own plunge pool and viewing deck with an extraordinary view. Ecca Lodge reopens mid-July 2014 after an extensive refurbishment of its six freestanding guest suites, now done out in dazzling African hues and a fresh, contemporary design aiming for a less-formal atmosphere. In addition, there’s Uplands Homestead, a 1905 farmhouse accommodating six guests, and Melton Manor, a house for eight people, filled with quirky luxuries – these are both available as exclusive rentals, complete with dedicated staff and game rangers.
In the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, Phinda is a lush and varied Big Five private reserve benefitting from careful conservation management. It’s an intriguing alternative to better-known Sabi Sands, not only because of its seven distinct ecosystems, but also because of its proximity to the iSimangaliso Wetland Reserve (one of South Africa’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites). This means Phinda’s exceptional staff can arrange coral reef scuba diving trips at nearby Sodwana Bay and – when the season’s right (November through March) – beach outings to track turtles that lay their precious eggs at certain sites along the northern Maputaland coastline.
Back at the reserve, Phinda’s 23,000 hectares shelter some of the harder-to-spot animals, including cheetah and black rhino, and it’s one of the richest places in the country for birding – some 415 species have been identified. The only real dilemma is selecting which of Phinda’s six distinctive luxury game lodges to stay at – each one benefits from a unique setting (whether in a forest or up on a mountain), but all come with charming, conservation-obsessed personnel, impeccable game-viewing opportunities, fabulous accommodations, and top-notch food. Plus, there are scenic air safaris, Zulu village tours to expand your cultural insight, whale watching (also from Sodwana; June through October), horseback riding, and the chance to swim with Whale sharks.
Ngala Tented Camp
Within Timbavati Private Game Reserve at the western fringe of Kruger National Park, Ngala is one of Africa’s most lavish tented camps – you’ll have roaring lions resounding in your eardrums as though the king of the savannah were in bed beside you. Unfenced and marvellously secluded, Ngala’s six enormous en-suite tents are set on raised platforms on the banks of the seasonal Timbavati River. Deftly decorated in andBeyond’s signature safari chic style, and provisioned with air-conditioning, overhead fans, and electric blankets, there’s also an outdoor shower, and on-call masseuse. And when that early morning wake-up call comes, you know it’s to get you ready for some of the most eventful game viewing this side of Sabi Sands – although you also see animals in camp, too.
In the heart of the Karoo, a vast arid region stretching across much of South Africa, Samara is a private game reserve not far from Graaff-Reinet, the fourth oldest town in the country. The terrain is extraordinary; huge, mercurial skies shelter a surreal landscape of wide-open plains and soaring peaks, with the Camdeboo mountainscape forming a backdrop to abundant game-viewing opportunities. Samara’s initial fame rode on the back of the fact that you can track collared free-roaming cheetah on foot – getting within whispering distance of this big cat is certainly thrilling, but there are over 60 other mammal species on this 28,300-hectare wilderness, restored from former farmlands. Vehicles will also drive you high into the mountains for sweeping views across the plains. The choice of luxury game lodges includes the rustic generator-powered Mountain Retreat and free-standing Victorian-style suites that make up Karoo Lodge – each with its own outdoor shower and fantastic views. The Manor is more recently built, with modern, Afro-chic design, clean lines and an abundant use of white. During the day you’re treated to a choice of build-your-own adventures, exploring the reserve’s topographical diversity, and at night you’re plied with drinks and good food as you stare up at the inky Karoo sky, alive with stars. Or you can head off with your ranger for a night of camping in the bush…
In the far west of Sabi Sands, Sir Richard Branson’s private game reserve, Ulusaba, offers two distinct lodges, but all guests have access to a long list of amenities – pools, gymnasiums, tennis courts, spas-with-a-view, and a to-die-for wine cellar. Thanks to its location on top of a hill, Rock Lodge has a particularly fine panoramic view to the east. Safari Lodge, meanwhile, is sheltered by forest on the banks of a dry river with swing-bridge walkways on stilts between the treehouse-style suites creating a somewhat fantastical, fun environment. Fun, in fact, is the watchword here, and there’s much emphasis on letting your hair down and celebrating your once-in-a-lifetime encounter with the African bush. In addition to marvellous dinners set up in the bush on moon-drenched nights, there’s an observatory set aside for stargazers.
Tswalu Kalahari, Northern Cape
Originally developed by the hunter Steven Boler, this is now South Africa’s largest private game reserve, covering more than 100,000 hectares of remote semidesert. Now owned by the Oppenheimer family, the conservationist vision has been to “restore the Kalahari to itself,” with minimal human interference ensuring it’s among the country’s finest wilderness areas. Given your hosts’ credentials, the level of luxury for visitors is by no means unexpected, with dedicated guides and a pampering staff to take care of your every whim. But the real luxury is the immensity of space; the openness afforded by the arid terrain. And since there is no thick vegetation to conceal animals, sightings are excellent and it’s possible to see rarities such as sable and roan antelope, tsessebe, cheetah, and wild dog. Meerkats (aka suricates), too, are a favourite sighting. Besides game drives, it’s possible to set off on horseback, or take to the sky in a hot-air balloon, and night drives turn up rare sightings of elusive aardvark, aardwolf, pangolin, and porcupine. Motse, the main camp found below the Korannaberg Mountains, offers just eight individual stone, clay, and thatch lodges with private decks overlooking a waterhole – just beautiful, with plush interiors (designed by the same team responsible for Singita).
With 13,000 hectares of private land within Thornybush Game Reserve, just west of Kruger, Malewane is among the planet’s most sumptuous safari lodges – few places prioritise guest experience to quite the same degree. Said to be Elton John’s favourite hideaway, it manages to be both unstuffy and first-class, bestowing a sense of privilege that leaves you feeling both like a pampered guest and a wilderness adventurer. Sleeping quarters are oversized freestanding thatch-topped bedrooms decorated in owner Liz Biden’s inimitable, slightly theatrical style. Perching on stilts, each room is a fabulous, dreamy sanctuary with top-to-toe windows, humungous private terrace, open-air shower, private plunge pool, and chill-out gazebo. And in the big-boned bathroom you have only to lie back in your claw-footed bathtub to be reminded of where you are – the bush spills immediately beyond the window alongside. The real litmus, though, lies in the way luxury intersects with a never-to-be-forgotten wildlife experience. A first-class safari team will lead you into the middle ground between science and adventure, getting you hooked on the finer details as you discover titbits between more obvious sightings. Sated by scintillating food, endless top-ups of wine, and thrilling tales from this land that seems to pre-date time, each night ends with you floating amidst Ralph Lauren linens on your canopied four-poster, undoubtedly eager for the next day’s adventure.
Have you visited any of these luxury game lodges? Which one would be on your bucket list? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Keith Bain
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About the author: KeithBainKeith Bain
Cape Town-based writer Keith Bain has co-authored guidebooks to India, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Kenya & Tanzania, Ireland, and Italy. He also co-wrote A Hedonist's guide to Cape Town, and is the co-founder of Best Kept (www.bestkeptshhh.com), a bespoke trip-planning company that tailors holidays in India and Africa.