You call it Africa – I call it home & home is always where the heart remains!
Written by Travel Beyond consultant Marguerite Smit about her trip to South Africa and Botswana
After a long flight from the US nothing could be more inviting than a relaxing oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle known as Sandton – the shopping mecca of Johannesburg. Fairlawns Boutique Hotel is conveniently situated in the suburb of Morningside manor with easy access to the luxurious Gautrain – a quick 10 min. ride from the airport.
The property boasts a total of 40 uniquely decorated luxury suites, a conference center, a fully equipped gym and a mesmerizing Balinese Spa! An a la carte restaurant is available to ensure a tantalizing full range 5* menu and the owners, John and Anna Thacker live on the beautiful estate originally bought from the Little Benthurst Trust of Oppenheimer fame, keeping that personal attention in tact while you visit. John and Anna invited me for a delightful breakfast every morning –indulging me with a traditional South African hot porridge known as “pap” after waking up to the wonderful sound of birds serenading the sunrise. I could not think of a more delightful property in a tranquil setting with easy access to anything your heart desires while staying in Johannesburg. The suites are spacious, private and set in what feels like a forest preserve with huge trees and prolific bird-life. I highly recommend Fairlawns boutique hotel!
After a quick 10 min. ride on the Gautrain, I checked in for my flight to Polokwane airport. Upon arrival I was met by Copper Sun Tours and Transfers for my scheduled 2-hour road transfer to Mashatu Main Camp in Botswana. Family owned, this transfer company stands out from the rest - Father and Son transferred me on separate occasions, both being so informative about South African history, regions, routings and generally delightful to travel with! Copper Sun assisted me with border formalities and I was on my way to Mashatu via cable car across the Limpopo river… Soon to loose my heart on the other side
Upon arrival at Mashatu Main Camp, my host Bobson warmly welcomed me. My guide Bashi and trekker Goms would take very good care of me during my stay at camp, impressing me with their knowledge, insightfulness and respect for wildlife daily! Bashi is by far the most respectful driver/guide I have ever met in all my years of safari travel – the vehicle really is an extension of Bashi, a true asset to the company! I had the pleasure of spending some time with the mountain biking expert on staff as well as enjoying a morning in the Elephant hide with Mike, the resident photographer. Mike will assist you with getting to know the ins and outs of your camera if you are a novice and engaging you in brilliant angles if you are a professional. Mashatu has so much to offer for the active traveler, Ballamy is a great walking guide if you are interested in walking options, mountain biking excursions and riding along with the research team are all on the menu at Mashatu. Botswana has always held a very special place in my heart – Mashatu has definitely contributed in solidifying that bond!
I had the pleasure of visiting Mashatu Tented Camp where the Children in the Wilderness program was hosting local children from Botswana. It’s a wonderful program we contribute to annually – staff teach local children from villages around Botswana the importance of wildlife conservation. On this particular day, Elephant education was the hit of the day, keeping children mesmerized with the creative way of getting the message across, a true blessing to experience.
Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris is located in the Tuli block and offer fantastic horseback safaris in the vast Mashatu Game Reserve. They offer various Big 5 safaris from 4 nights to 7 nights! Please note that this is not a safari for the inexperience rider – your skills will be tested! Guests must ride regularly (at least once or twice a week) and be very comfortable with a canter & gallop as well as being able to do small jumps. Their safety regulations are very strict testing riders skill level before allowing you on safari – Western riders, you will need to prove your skills in the saddle! Their horses are English schooled; Western riders are strongly advised to have at least one lesson in English style prior to arrival. They do have a max weight limit of 95kg or 210 lbs. I was very impressed with the rider tests they have in place and pleased to say that if you are not on par with their skill set, they will offer an alternative game drive option, walking or cycling – always making sure your safety is their nr.1 priority. They have a stable of 35 well cared for horses of various breeds. Two experienced professional guides conduct all rides; the lead guide is armed with a riffle and a bullwhip. All management staff and guides do regular first aid training with a specialized Doctor for remote areas. The lead guide has a local phone and a satellite phone & radio for use in emergencies. If you are an experienced rider – this option is fantastic!
My next stop, Rattrays on MalaMala. A true glimpse into elegant days gone by with it’s 8 luxury khaya’s and beautifully appointed library, this property reminds me of the colonial safari-style when day-dreaming about Africa. For photographers this option is ideal – only 4 guests per vehicle allowing for wonderful camera angles and unparalleled game viewing. MalaMala has the luxury of having the largest parcel of land adjacent to the Kruger National Park where 32 kilometers of open boundary provides unimpeded access to animals from this world famous sanctuary. Each of the 3 camps at MalaMala is specifically located on the banks of the Sand River with magnificent panoramic views of the surrounding bush. MalaMala has indeed established itself as one of the premier photographic safari destination in Southern Africa with daily sightings of the Big 5 and these camps are phenomenal for cats!
I had the privilege of making my way to Singita Boulders next for a repeat visit – a portfolio of camps that truly sets the standard for luxury travel. Let me add that Singita is one of the most expensive safari lodges in Southern Africa but you truly do get what you pay for – I cannot say enough good things about every experience I have ever had at any of the Singita properties, if you want to splurge on luxury – this would be the place to do so! Marc Alkema was my guide for the duration of my stay and George my Shangaan trekker, both men exude passion for wildlife and conservation making every game-drive delightful and exciting. Marc and George shared knowledge and insightfulness, relaying information in a very unique and welcoming fashion.
Vivian took care of my every need, presenting me with a specially personalized “Marguerite’s vegan dinner/lunch menu” daily. The food was magnificent at every stop – presented in unique settings, with dinner served by the light of oil lamps on the moonlit deck. Kobus and the rest of the management team made sure my every need was met with excitement and enthusiasm. The property is located 500meter from the Sand River allowing for wonderful sightings right from your suite. Boulders is set at the base of a dolerite rise and has nine double suites of glass and baluwood. Each suite has a lounge area, en-suite bathroom with shower, outdoor shower and private outdoor deck with flow pool. Activities include game drives and walks, archery and mountain biking – I LOVE this place!
Next stop, Savanna Game Lodge – Kelly did a great job of welcoming me and introducing me to the lodge. Paddy was my guide for the duration of my stay – he has just published a beautiful book on his many years of guiding experiences. Kosher clients, this lodge has a fully equipped Kosher Kitchen in their Savanna Suite, a wonderful 2 bedroomed suite with an inter-connected lounge. A great option for families – the lounge offers all your modern day amenities (TV & DVD center) while you have your own butler for dinner services as well as a vehicle with guide & trekker. Savannah Safari Lodge boasts a close-knit team that lends to the “home-away-from-home” feel of the property. The lodge has 9 suites, of which 7 have tented roofs blending elegance with the old-style colonial feel. 3 large executive suites and 4 large luxury suites comprise of the 7 tented roofs while the Savannah Suite is self-contained. The lodge is great with children; offering an array of children’s activities ranging from spoor identification, plant use education, bird watching, traditional hair braiding all the way through to face panting and arts and crafts! Savanna is located in the Western sector of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve within the Southern quarter of the greater Kruger National conservation area.
My last stop in the Sabi Sands – Lion Sands Game reserve. The lodge is set alongside the Sable riverbed with a deck that overlooks the dry riverbed lending for amazing sightings right at lunch! The portfolio of properties offer something unique for each traveller – River Lodge, Ivory Lodge, Tinga and 1933 Lodge, each uniquely decorated with a variety of 8 to 4 people per vehicle at various properties. My ranger Mike and trekker Joe would accompany me on all my game drives. My Butler Paul catered for my culinary and beverage needs while at the lodge.
From here I headed to the Eastern Cape, flying into Port Elizabeth airport and picking up a rental vehicle. A quick 2.5-hour drive through Ecca Pass to Kwandwe Game Reserve where on arrival I had the privilege of seeing my very first Aardwolf! I have to admit, Kwandwe took me by surprise – a Karoo like setting, the vast land size and super efficient staff with well-trained guides lends to a very unique safari experience with game you wouldn’t usually see in the Sabi Sands. Graeme the GM introduced me to the portfolio – I stayed at Great Fish River Lodge where Juan took very good care of my every need, but also visited Ecca Lodge, the Uplands Homestead and Melton Manor. This portfolio really is a hidden gem, catering to every aspect of travel; groups, families, sole use (Uplands Homestead) and single travelers alike – here they have the answer for every scenario! For the perfect family get-away – Ecca Lodge offers wonderful children’s activities including an interactive kitchen! They also have a wonderful play center for children – one of the best set-ups I’ve seen for all ages! Each lodge is uniquely different from the next offering not only malaria-free big five game but unique safari activities including Rhino darting, big game walks and water-based game viewing. They have their own airstrip so you can opt to fly in or self-drive – Kwandwe has it all! My guide Ben and trekker Ernie did a phenomenal job; I really enjoyed my stay at Kwandwe!
Kariega Game Reserve is located approximately 1 hour from Kwandwe with River lodge located right on the river. Kariega offers a portfolio of 4 properties; Main Lodge, Ukhozi Lodge, River Lodge and the homestead. Children are welcome at all lodges, River lodge does have an age limit of 12 years and older. The property is family owned and managed offering the most beautiful landscape and topography in the Eastern Cape! The property has 2 major rivers incorporated into the reserve; the Bushmans River and Kariega River – adding stunning cruises, canoeing and fishing to the experience. You can actually boat down to Kenton-on-see, the close proximity to the beach from River Lodge lends to a very unique addition for families and travellers looking for a mix of scenery. The reserve does not include much land that was previously spoilt by farming so you really have that unique Garden Route bushiness with vast open plains setting this region apart from the other Eastern Cape properties. The property is considered a Big 5 region, however seeing Leopard here is very rare. Much like Kwandwe you will see wonderful plains game that you wouldn’t usually see in the Sabi Sands; Cape Grysbok, Blesbuck, Blue Wildebeest (white tailed), Red Hartebeest, Eland, Lynx, Cape Clawless Otters & Blue Duiker just to name a few. Kariega is also home to Thandi, the only Rhino to survive an horrific poaching attack. Thandi is a legend in South Africa and I had the privilege of seeing this remarkable survivor in person – poachers hacked of her horn destroying her entire nose plate, sadly she will never grow a horn again but has recovered remarkably well. A moving experience to say the least!
Samara Game Reserve would be my last stop in the Eastern Cape, the reserve consists of 70 000 acres of indigenous vegetation, offering 3 lodges – Karoo Lodge, Manor House and Mountain Retreat. The Plains of Camdeboo once set the stage for one of the biggest migrations ever to occur on earth and this region remains one of the most breathtaking areas I have visited! The area still offers the Burchell’s plains Zebra and Cape Mountain Zebra (rare), Rhino, Springbuck, Klipspringer, Steenbuck, Kudu, Eland, Oryx, Mountain Reedbuck, Grey Rhebok, bushpig, Giraffee, Waterbuck, Red Hartebeest, Black Wildebeest, Blesbuck, Nyala and a variety of carnivores of which Cheetah would be the largest. Leopard is rarely seen here but the smaller things like Aardwolf, Caracal, Genet, Wild Cat, Brown Hyena, Giraffe and Mongoose are around if you are lucky enough to spot them! We had amazing Cheetah sightings on foot with Test, Samara’s Zimbabwean guide – one of the most informative, knowledgeable and entertaining guides I have ever had the privilege of game viewing with. Test is a true asset to the Reserve! Samara is a wonderful place to relax and enjoy what the region has to offer, keeping in mind that this is not a Big 5 destination but phenomenal for Cheetah sightings. The staff are friendly, well trained and the cuisine 5*+ they really have a winning recipe here. The various lodges offer something unique and different with emphasis on relaxation. A wonderful way to end a Cape Town, Garden Route itinerary – Samara is highly recommended for the reasons listed above.
Birkenhead House in Hermanus is a whale-watching paradise, this super luxurious boutique hotel is perfect for those seeking a uniquely different seaside experience with magnificent views. Shane Brummer, the GM is delightful and all the staff eager to assist with any aspect of your stay. Long walks on the beach, relaxing at the pool, sipping cocktails or partaking in the magnificent cuisine are the order of the day here. The portfolio also offers unique accommodations in Franschhoek at La Residence as well as a safari option at Royal Malewane, situated in the Thornybush Private Game Reserve, which forms part of the Greater Kruger Area. The Royal Portfolio forms a unique Southern African 5* circuit with an emphasis on luxury travel.
Grootbos Nature Reserve was my last stop on this trip and remains one of the most memorable of all my stays in Africa. Grootbos is an exquisite 5-star portfolio offering 2 lodges and a villa outside the idyllic Gansbaai approximately a 2-hour drive from Cape Town. The lodges are set within the rare fynbos and milkwood forests on a mountain slope overlooking the whale-watching mecca of Walker Bay and Hermanus.
If you are planning a trip to Africa to see the Big 5, you MUST incorporate the marine Big 5 and Groobos offers it all! Whale watching (from a boat or air), cage diving with Great White Sharks (or viewing them from the boat), seals, penguins and dolphins. Grootbos also has wine tours on offer as well as flower tours, Klilpgat caves, horse riding, birding tours and community projects. Grootbos welcomes children and families offering treasure hunts, a kids kitchen, the playground with the horse stables, fluffy bunnies, ducks and the infamous domestic pig Emma. Kids are entertained with treasure hunts, swimming, beach activities – the list goes on and on. The property offers a 5-course dinner menu to die for and for breakfast they have an amazing array of cold and hot treats, with the best honey (harvested from their own bee-hives) amongst the other delicious breakfast options on the menu. Grootbos offers a unique look into the local community and the empowerment project they have on the property is wonderful, speaking volumes about how they give back to the community! The staff are wonderful, knowledgeable and continuously studying to further their skill-set – something I find very refreshing. A true reflection of the magnitude of empowering your staff, is the testament and enthusiasm with which each staff member relays their love for the jobs they are involved in at Grootbos. I highly recommend this property as a MUST DO if you are traveling to Cape Town. I would suggest doing 2 nights in the city to get Table Mountain and Robben Island out of the way – Grootbos covers the rest with flying colors!