Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Working Hard or Hardly Working - A Report From the Bush

Sonya, Tad & Lynn - on location at Singita Sabi Sands
“You are sooo lucky!” If you are in the travel industry, you too hear this from friends and family every time you depart for a trip. And they are right! Despite the long days and nights, layovers and delays, dinners for one, and the fact that you are actually working …. we’re all pretty darn fortunate. This past May, Tad and Sonya from Kusini Collection, joined by Lynn Philps from New Frontiers, had to pinch ourselves over and over as we came to this realization, once again. Our itinerary was an ambitious one, self driving along the sandy and poorly marked tracks running through Sabi Sands, Thornybush, and Timbavati game reserves with 14 site inspections in five days. Somehow, we pulled it off and had our expectations blown out of the water time and again. Here are some of our highlights:

A Warmest Welcome: 
Thornybush River Lodge, Thornybush Private Game Reserve

From the moment of our arrival, we were welcomed and enveloped into the River Lodge family. We so enjoyed our stay. The camp manager Liza was a wealth of knowledge as our hostess, very attentive to all of our needs. Our guides Roux and Nic had an uncanny ability of getting us through the thick bush and in the right place at the right time - doing a great job of managing the actual guests in the vehicle with us agents. A pride of seven lions, three leopards and a black rhino in two condensed game drives - WOW! The icing on the cake was when a very curious young leopard came round to the back of the vehicle where Lynn and Sonya were. We sure didn't need a bazooka lens to admire every detail of her. Lynn and Sonya also had a visit from a family of adorable bush babies – welcoming us to our room.

Our butler, Surprise, was fantastic, warm, funny, and attentive, and mixed up the perfect secret (and boozy) recipe to soothe Sonya’s cold. The four suites have all been remodeled and provided complete comfort and very pretty to the eye with fine linens and furniture with clean lines for a non-cluttered look. Two of the suites may be used privately or as a family/small group unit as they connect with their own private living and kitchen space. Let us not forget to mention the wonderful food - the dining experience was lovely and tasty, al fresco overlooking the infinity pool and waterhole beyond (where we saw a leopard drink at dinner!) It was wonderful to experience the beauty and vibe of the lodge in person. If only we could have stayed longer!

A Big Surprise: 
Makanyi Private Game Lodge, Timbavati Private Nature Reserve

Situated in the southern Timbavati, Makanyi was less than a year old when we visited – none of us being familiar with it. We received the warmest welcome from arrival to departure – even noticing and fixing a flat tire on our vehicle. The lodge is absolutely beautiful and so worthy of their recent awards (including the 2016 Conde Nast Traveler Hot List and the winner of the Safari Awards 2016 Best New Safari Property!). They've thought of everything! It was only such a pity we didn't have more time to explore and enjoy the many activities offered there! The seven massive suites are a dream with every detail considered (extra large bed, a relaxing sitting area with its own fireplace, a beautiful bathroom with a spacious shower and separate bathtub, a private deck with loungers and an outdoor shower. Premium Africology amenities, complimentary Wi-Fi, telephone, hair dryer, mini bar, and a Nespresso coffee machine and tea making facilities are found in every room) – this is a place you must spend multiple nights and perfect for a honeymooning couple. Our guides, Alfred and Solly are a super team and topped off our game drives with 13 lions on a buffalo kill on our last morning – superb! They are real stars and we were privileged to spend two drives in the bush with them.

A King and His Queens: 
Kings Camp, Waterbuck Private Camp, Timbavati Private Game Reserve

On the banks of the dry Nhlaralumi River in the game rich Timbavati lies Kings Camp and its exclusive use private villa, Waterbuck. We had a brief visit and site inspection at Kings with its eight suites and two honeymoon suites, full spa, manicured lawn and gardens and enjoyed breakfast at the main lodge alongside many happy guests chatting excitedly about their morning sightings. However, Tad, Lynn, and Sonya were in for the royal treatment with our stay at nearby Waterbuck.
This private villa/house with four suites is dripping with colonial luxury with all modern conveniences and detail considered. Manicured grounds boast a swimming pool and chaise lounges for ultimate mid-day relaxation. Private game vehicle, ranger, tracker, personal butler and chef, this is a place for those looking for an extravagant safari. The highlight of our stay were the very professional and down to earth team of Vickie our guide (don't let her long blond hair and makeup fool you, she's a serious bush baby!) and Albert our tracker with serious skills and personality to boot!
They were so in tune with us and our interests – immediately picking up on the fact that we were exhausted at this point in our road race and we were content to have a quiet game drive. So they slowed the pace and pointed out many of the little things that have such a large impact on the environment around us like a civet latrine, the "Imodium" bush and how to identify the sex of a zebra ("guys wear G strings and ladies granny panties for wider hips)! Our meander through the bush culminated with a stop amongst an elephant herd - vehicle turned off and night settling in – at last so relaxed it was almost like yoga on a 4X4.

Exceeding Expectations: 
Singita Sabi Sands, Ebony Lodge, Sabi Sands Game Reserve

If you are booking a Singita property, your expectations will undoubtedly be high, and rightly so. Ours certainly were from the moment of arrival, exceeded time and again. With a delightful welcome and orientation tour from Chantelle the manager, we then met Josh our ranger and Peter our tracker and settled right in. The lodge boasts that it takes safari design and style to a new level and we agree without hesitation. They’ve struck the perfect balance of high-end luxury with actually allowing you to feel like you are still in the bush! They’ve removed walls and replaced them with glass panels and doors allowing guests to let in as much of the outdoors as possible.
With 12 suites perched above the Sand River (each has its own plunge pool), the lodge is large enough to afford space to accommodate larger groups , but small enough to feel exclusive with plenty of private spots to enjoy. From each "they-thought-of-everything" amenity to the fine bed linens, and variety of building and decorating materials – old brass, wood, iron, canvas, clay, stone, and woven baskets – the entire property melds together exceptionally well and enveloped us in its beauty and comfort. Although you can easily spend days game viewing from any number of decks along the Sand River running through the property, you’d be amiss not to jump on board the most comfortable state-of-the-art game viewing vehicles and explore.
Our ranger/tracker team of Josh and Peter were fantastic and the highlight of our experience was their keen ability and good nature. Leopards, rhino, buffalo, elephant, hippos, and so on, couldn’t top the sighting of a den of hyena with an adorable and curious 3 week old black pup! – a special sighting indeed – and still puzzled as to how they spotted it in the dimming light of day! This was on top of another first for the three of us…. witnessing a lone ostrich performing a mating dance while following our tracker, Peter, who was out on foot tracking cheetah – a hearty laugh was had by all. The meals were also top-notch with special mention to the surprise bush breakfast and champagne for sundowners!

Comfort and Style: 
Lion Sands River Lodge, Sabi Sands Game Reserve

With four lodges between the Kruger and on the Lion Sands Game Reserve within the Sabi Sands, the love of the land that has been passed down for generations among the More family is evident. We stayed at Lion Sands River Lodge, the largest of the four, with twenty beautiful thatched rooms in the Lion Sands Game Reserve. This lodge is ideal for small groups and families as the layout offers a feeling of exclusivity yet the property is large enough to host them. The suites are beautiful with large bathrooms, small lounge and private decks and perfect for guests not ready for or looking to combine with a tented or "wild" safari experience.
With so many activities to choose from including game drives, bush walks, hippo tour, wildlife lectures, village visit, children’s activities, swimming pool, astronomy, and meals in the bush…there is truly something for everyone. The lodge also boasts one of the finest “safari boutiques” with an incredible assortment of hand-selected goods. Our time here was short but we did get to enjoy an incredible eggs benedict al fresco, whipped up by the talented chef before departure.
Once again, our highlight of the experience came down to our guide and tracker team, Andrew and Andrias - our bushwhacking for leopard, perfect placement for the passing large elephant herd being chased by a massive bull in musk, and time spent with the male rhino were major highpoints of our trip! These guys were upbeat, friendly, and knowledgeable in the bush.

Site Inspections (sadly no overnights at these properties)

Tanda Tula, Timbavati Private Game Reserve

We had all wanted to visit the camp and see it for ourselves for some time now and it didn't disappoint. We all just loved this lovely, traditional tented camp! Lunch prepared by Ryan was delicious, conversation with our host (and camp manager Dale (part of a management couple w family!), was interesting and fun, and the fact that they summoned a lovely old and large tusker (must have had 9ft tusks!) to join us at the waterhole in front of us topped it all off. Best dining view of our Greater Kruger tour! We were so lucky to share a lunch there.
The 12 tented rooms (with zips and proudly so!) were great with massive private decks and lots of comforts, though they are in the midst of updating them with new linens and bathroom layouts. The whole experience offers the ultimate in safari authenticity. Next on our list is a return to try out their exclusive field camp experience. As they say, “Unquestionably, Tanda Tula Field Camp is the most authentic "glamorous camping" experience in South Africa.” Who could say no to that!  We can’t wait! The Tanda Tula experience is perfect for anyone looking for a traditional and authentic tented camp in big cat country – we highly recommend it and only regret we didn’t have time to spend the night.

Dulini River Lodge (formerly &Beyond Exeter River Lodge), Sabi Sands Game Reserve 

We were fortunate enough to arrive for a site inspection to Dulini River Lodge (formerly &Beyond Exeter River Lodge) just in time for lunch. And what a feast it was! The lodge now forms part of the Dulini Collection and has one of the best locations in the Western Sector. We explored the common areas of this lovely little lodge with eight rooms – ideal for couples though families are accepted too it is important to note that rooms are not suitable for triple configuration. The layers of color palettes and layout of common areas are fantastic, encouraging a variety of private nooks for relaxation and mingling with other guests. Though our visit was brief, we can’t say enough about the great and hospitable staff and the incredible food (amazing presentation too) that was prepared for us.

Simbavati Safari Lodges, Timbavati Private Game Reserve

 Fresh scones and coffee, and great conversation awaited us as we arrived to Simbavati River Lodge. We all immediately agreed it was a fantastic property for families with children – complete with a playground, ice cream stops in the bush, and even the couches were made up of big bean bag style pillows – no need to helicopter over your kids here. The small-ish rooms were of varied  design and layout though consistent with a palette of greys. They could use some soft color accents to brighten it up a bit. Our biggest surprise of the trip was a visit to the sister property, Simbavati Hilltop Lodge. Perhaps one of the most pleasing lodges to the eye due to its simple, Zen style of light wood structures and walkways and open-air nature, perched upon a hill with views off to the Drakensberg beyond. It felt faintly Namibian, Wolwedans-esque.
While families are welcomed below at River Lodge, the Hilltop is for the romantic couple looking to get away. The eight premium tents are connected by wooden walkways and staircases (note: there are a lot of stairs so not recommended for the mobility challenged) with one infinity pool with a stunning view, shared by all. This property would also be wonderful to take over for an intimate wedding – bougainvillea climbs along the breezeways making for an elegant and colorful backdrop. We left whishing we had had much more time, at the very least for a drink to soak in the feeling of peace and that view!
This may as well have been the three of us at the end of this bush adventure! Phew!

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