Enticing, beautiful game lodges in magnificent landscapes are plentiful, but some are more special than others. Here are ‘six of the best’ destination lodges you’ll ever visit – and they are all within our borders. So no passport is needed to visit them all. Story by Keri Harvey.
Tintswalo – Lapalala and Family Camp, Waterberg
These two magnificent properties in the malaria-free Waterberg are just a couple of hours’ drive – or under an hour’s flight – from Johannesburg. So without any ado, you can be deep in the bush in no time at all. Tintswalo Lapalala gives guests access to one of Africa’s most diverse offerings of wildlife and bird species. Situated in the Lapalala Wilderness Reserve within the UNESCO Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, Tintswalo Lapalala’s spacious tented suites are magical. Décor is magnificent, pared-down opulence that reflects different iconic African cultures from the stoic Masaai and Turkana to the nomadic Himbas and Tuaregs, and even includes the local Zulu and Xhosa cultures.
With access to over 44 000 hectares of woodland and savannah in the reserve, both grazing and browsing wildlife are plentiful. Zebra and antelope, giraffe and black rhino all live here along with all the predators and many other species too. Plus, the reserve is renowned for its research and breeding programmes for rare and endangered species such are Roan antelope and buffalo. While Tintswalo Lapalala certainly welcomes families, Tintswalo Family Camp is thoroughly family-focused and equipped. In the Waterberg’s 40 000-hectare Welgevonden Game Reserve, Tintswalo Family Camp is a single-use space for family groups or executive getaways. It has one-, two- and three-bedroomed suites that are beautifully spacious and named after iconic birds – from the Eagle and Owl suites to the Kingfisher and Crested Barbet suites. The camp is also in the heart of Big Five territory, plus there are another 50 mammal species and over 300 different bird species to see here. It’s a wildlife wonderland and a magical escape to the beautiful bushveld.
Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, Little Karoo
The Karoo is magical, a place to exhale and appreciate distant horizons. It’s also where antiquity lives, along with magnificent rock art and wildlife in Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. At 58 000 hectares, Sanbona at the foot of the Warmwaterberg is the size of Singapore so wildlife has ample space to roam freely. Plus, the reserve protects endangered riverine rabbits and has conservation and research projects happening all the time. This is also one of the only places in South Africa to see white lions in the wild – and we were lucky enough to find them as they took an afternoon saunter.
Sanbona has diverse accommodation options too. From historic and secluded Tilney Manor set in gorgeous gardens and with sweeping views over the Little Karoo, to eco-friendly Dwyka Tented camp set amongst dramatic rock formations, and Gondwana Family Lodge overlooking a dam and resembling a traditional Karoo homestead, Sanbona caters for all tastes. The lodge also offers a special ‘kids on safari’ programme to engage young ones in environmental matters. Sanbona Explorer Camp offers guests the chance to savour the Karoo on foot, and sleep in absolute comfort and style and enjoy evenings around a campfire. All the accommodation options are evocative and beautifully created with guests’ comfort and interests top of mind.
Tau, Madikwe Game Reserve, North West Province
Madikwe is a special place. The 75 000 hectare game reserve is malaria-free and is a meeting point of diverse habitats. So species seldom found living together occur naturally in Madikwe – like springbok and impala, gemsbok and sable. And at the heart of Madikwe Game Reserve is the ‘place of the lion’, Tau Game Lodge. Built-in an arc and overlooking a languid natural waterhole, the lodge is designed to showcase the enchanting surroundings. Tau exudes classic bush lodge elegance and is appointed in warm earth tones and textures. Guest suites each have a private deck where you can enjoy sundowners with an unobstructed view of the waterhole. There’s even a waterhole view from the outdoor shower, so you can watch the bush dwellers having mud baths too.
The main lodge is comfortable and welcoming and, since it also overlooks the waterhole, you may see elephant, zebra, giraffe and many more animals coming to slake their thirsts right in front of the lodge. Of course there are morning and evening game drives, but you can also have superb sightings from your private deck or the main lodge – and go for a dip in the pool to cool off. In authentic African style, dinner is usually served under the stars – either around a roaring fire in the boma, or out in the reserve encircled by candles.
Hamilton’s Tented Camp, Kruger National Park
There’s an enchanting and luxurious ‘out of Africa’ experience without going all the way to Kenya. Just head for the Kruger National Park and Hamilton’s Tented Camp, about two hours inside Orpen Gate – but there are various fly-in options too. If you love olde world Africa, you’ll be swept off your feet at the nostalgic charm of this unique camp. It’s so beautifully appointed, you almost expect Karen Blixen to be seated in a corner casually reading a book.
The six exceptionally private suites are tented on elevated decks with river views. The N’waswitsontso River flows seasonally, and when it’s dry, wildlife frequents the riverbed right in front of your suite. Interiors are simply exquisite, with vast beds festooned in mosquito nets, beautiful teak floors and furniture and sepia pictures on the walls. There are a slipper bath and an outdoor shower, depending on your preference, and private decks to read and game watch and sip afternoon tea if you choose. Of course there are twice-daily game drives too to enjoy all the diversity that Kruger has to offer. Meals are sumptuous and service is impeccable by traditionally dressed butlers who anticipate your needs flawlessly. You will feel thoroughly indulged and completely refreshed if you visit Hamiltons – named in honour of Colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden of the iconic Kruger National Park.
!Xaus, Kglalgadi Transfrontier Park
Nobody arrives at !Xaus by accident. The trip to get there traverses 91 red sand dunes and takes you deep into the magnificent Kalahari Desert. It’s like driving a soft sand rollercoaster and when you arrive at !Xaus the landing is also soft, welcoming and warmly hospitable. !Xaus is much more than a gorgeous space to escape the world, it’s owned by the Khomani San and Mier communities and symbolises their spirit of reconciliation and dedication to conservation. !Xaus means ‘heart’ in the Nama language, and this is exactly where their hearts lie. Right in front of the lodge is !Xaus pan, and of course it is also heart-shaped and red, which lends a little extra love to the !Xaus story. The earthy suites, built along a ridge are off the grid and off the radar. Here it’s all about following the sun, with early morning and late afternoon game drives to avoid the heat of the day. Naps are normal, as is stargazing at night into diamond-studded skies.
!Xaus is not about the wildlife, though you will see oryx and other game in the area, it’s about silence, serenity and an authentic Kalahari experience with the traditional people of this land. To the Bushmen, the desert is a vast pantry and pharmacy and listening to the stories of their lives will leave you changed and humbled. There are certain twigs used for stirring, the Shepherd bush is used to make a coffee equivalent, other bushes produce ‘toothbrushes’, and then there are all the wild fruits too. And then you return to the lodge to enjoy delectable meals, sleep in comfort and reminisce about the authenticity of this way of life. !Xaus is unforgettable for so many good reasons.
Imbali Safari Lodge, Kruger National Park
The epitome of outside-inside living in luxury is Imbali. There are just 12 spacious suites, decorated in calm neutrals with splashes of colour, and each with French doors spanning the length of the room and leading out onto a private deck. When you open the doors, you are communing with the African bush – but in absolute comfort.
Suites are completely private, sublimely spacious and each has not only a private deck but also its own plunge pool. Just image, going for a dip in the pool and watching a heard of elephant silently pass by. Marvel at a myriad birdlife going about their business or antelope sparring for territory – all watched from your private deck. Or kick back on your lounger, read a book, nap, or listen to the sounds of bush dwellers around you. Spa treatments are also available in the comfort of your suite, and there are gym bags if you want to work up a sweat. Delectable buffet breakfasts and lunches are served at the main lodge – but there’s always the option to enjoy these in suite too. High tea before heading out on the afternoon game drive is a magnificently decadent affair, and dinner is served under the stars – either at the lodge or in the rustic outdoor boma. All this is a three-hour drive from Kruger Gate, just six hours’ drive from Jo’burg or a short flight from just about anywhere.