story and photography by Priscilla Pilon
With respect for the natural laws of the wild, Southern Africa offers front row seats for the adventurous traveler with the luxury safari
The world is getting smaller and smaller as remote villages, jungles and beaches are being introduced into the travel market. However, more than ever, upscale travelers are conscious of the footprint left behind and support resorts and tour operators that are committed to conservation and sustainability. Southern Africa boasts some amazing land and water luxury safari properties that deliver fantastic experiences without compromising amenities.
Most safari lovers agree the ingredients for a meaningful trip must include seeing “The Big Five” – the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and White/Black rhinoceros.
Not every safari destination has representation from all of the Big Five and even if they do, seeing one of each of the five is not guaranteed. However, the best luxury game reserves make every effort to deliver an up-close and personal experience with some of the world’s most amazing animals. We were privileged to check the boxes off on our Big Five goal, but more importantly, we came away with a better understanding of how man and nature can co-exist and be made better together, all the while thoroughly enjoying some of the world’s most spectacular safari accommodations and service.
Shamwari Game Reserve
Whether you are traveling with children, on a romantic getaway, or desire a more heart-pounding outdoors experience, Shamwari, part of the Shamwari Group, has something for every discerning traveler. The game reserve is 61,000+ acres of wildlife and botanical reserve and guests stay in one of the unique lodges, exclusive private villas, tented sites with all the frills, or rustic explorer camps.
During our stay at Eagles Crag Lodge, we adored the contemporary African decor and private plunge pool, and expansive deck at our thatched roof suite. Nighttime was particularly interesting listening to the animals communicating and using the telescope to navigate the stars. Caution, do not leave your panoramic glass doors open while gone from your unit or you might find yourself sharing your abode with some very cute but undesirable roommates of the baboon-kind.
Our room was spectacular, but what we really loved were the thrilling game drives. We had an extraordinary ranger named Jan who was the most enthusiastic animal lover since Steve Irwin, the Australian Crocodile Hunter. He wore shorts despite the, see your breath temperatures, and spoke in an excited tone that let us know he enjoyed being out on the hunt for game photographs as much as we did. When a call came over the radio that something very special had been spotted near our open game-viewing vehicle, he cautioned us to hold on tight because it was going to be a bumpy ride. We flew down the dirt trail and zipped around the corner and then came to an abrupt stop just in time to snap some photos of a female leopard bathed in sunlight sitting calmly by the edge of the brush area. She was paying no attention to us, but our guide was to her just in case. She hung out for a while and then quickly scooted away darting her way through the trees. It was a surreal moment for all of us in the Land Cruiser.
Our twice-a-day game drives went by quickly with Jan at the wheel and we very much adored hearing the stories of the personalities of the animals we encountered.
It was a daily adrenaline rush every time we encountered a lioness hunting or a male lion lying so close to our vehicle we could count his teeth when he yawned. There were tender moments too. I fell in love with an old-aged giraffe we passed each day to and from our game drives that we nicknamed Gloria and the folks at Shamwari keep me updated as to her circle of life. It was unique to have the opportunity for the group of us to dine with our guide each second night. It allowed us time to ask more in-depth questions about the animals and the conservation initiatives.
The owners of the resort, The Shamwari Group doesn’t just talk the talk on conservation and community involvement, they walk the walk. Any manicured areas of the resort are watered using gray water. They try to limit the trash and recycle everything. Excess food is given to the local orphanage at the end of the day. School children visit the Born Free and Educational Centers for free. Safari vehicles are lower in emissions. For its efforts, Shamwari has been given Green Leaf Environmental Status audited by the Wilderness Foundation of South Africa.
Thoughtful is how I would describe the customer service. Each room came with a burlap bag filled with safari game drive amenities: snacks, guidebooks, hand sanitizer, and “comfort stop” items in case nature calls out in the middle of nowhere. Because it was unseasonably cold during our visit, hot water bottles and thick wool blankets were distributed on the Land Cruisers and upon our return, a hot towel and hot beverages were waiting for us in the lobby.
Be prepared to be unplugged, there is no WiFi in your room, but complimentary usage is everywhere in the main buildings. The heavy doses of fresh air and exhilarating game drives meant I had no energy to surf the web anyway.
Gondwana Game Reserve
The Gondwana Foundation’s stated mission is, “…to use management, education, training and community involvement to create employment for the local community while actively protecting the endangered wildlife and vegetation within the region.”
Mossel Bay, George, and Cape Town International Airport are within driving distances of the Gondwana Game Reserve that rests proudly in the heart of South Africa’s famous Garden Route. Reminiscent of Khoi-San dwellings, luxury huts in Kwena Lodge, and spacious family-friendly Bush Villas line the edges of the wild African fynbos of Gondwana. Here, The Big Five animals are able to roam freely around the reserve and close to the accommodations as well. Fear not, helpful hotel staff lead guests safely to the rooms at night just in case one should happen to see a curious elephant or unusually brave warthog along the way.
The resort is set up like the most elaborate summer camp ever! We didn’t even have to move from our beds to enjoy the impressive property. Tall glass windows and sliding doors allowing for impressive 180-degree views day and night. The stunning lodge, only about five years old, included an infinity pool situated perfectly overlooking the animals’ watering hole for lazy game viewing. African Zen indoor and outdoor dining facilities were comfortable with banquets lined with African print pillows and fire pits in the middle of each dining section adding a cool vibe to the atmosphere.
It felt like we were in an old pub hanging out in the bar, sitting on stools with animal skin hides for comfort. The bar is the “it” spot for pre-safari afternoon tea or liquid courage as well as for post-safari cool cocktails and celebratory bubbles.
Our enthusiastic guide was dedicated to making our safari experience as exciting as possible and his love of the flora and fauna was apparent as soon as we set off down the narrow dirt path for the first time. He was happy to sit for as long as we wanted to watch a female cheetah devour on an unlucky impala, bones and all, and more than willing to keep driving through the terrain in high winds and torrential downpours. He was also knowledgeable about Gondwana’s commitment to conservation and community.
What set this lodge apart from the rest was its attentiveness to families, especially the children. Youngsters were welcomed on custom drives tailored to match their stamina and age appropriateness. The chef prepared special snacks and treats just for the little ones and they had their own miniature table setting at teatime. Homemade scones, clotted cream, and preserves accompanied by rich coffee and a choice of teas were served each afternoon before we embarked on safari while hot chocolate and sherry were poured upon our return. During drives, our guide gave us comfort breaks like no other. He actually set up a proper table with linens for our elaborate picnic spread, a real throwback to civility in the bush.
While many dining options were child-friendly, the menu was definitely epicurean in nature. Several interesting dishes caught our eye. We took the opportunity to try Ostrich (a red meat similar to beef tenderloin) and several enticing local fish entrees as well. Gondwana hosts an outdoor boma barbeque overlooking a wide ridge. As the sun dips below the mountainous line, it bathes the entire property with a heavenly glow.
The only downside to Gondwana Game Reserve? We couldn’t stay longer.
Bush Lodge at Amakhala Game Reserve
Situated in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Bush Lodge at the Amakhala Game Reserve, a Mantis Collection property, specializes in providing first-rate hospitality at their premiere location tucked away in a valley of the reserve.
Our tented and thatched roof suite overlooked the watering hole, which brought the game very close to our private deck and plunge pool. An electric fence separated us from the big game and I must admit it was an adrenaline rush each night to walk from the main lodge to the tent wondering if any predators breached the security. Of course, the fences are checked several times daily so no need to panic, but secretly I was hoping for some drama.
Amakhala is a reserve of 18,000 acres and is home to The Big Five. Game drives were thrilling thanks to our ranger Miena. My favorite encounter was when she took us down into a valley where the dense brush led to the riverbed. We saw movement in the trees and realized that large game was coming towards us. Next thing we knew a couple of young male elephants popped out of hiding and into the road headed right for our open air Land Rover. We quickly reversed and backed into a small break in the bush, no one speaking more than a whisper. Miena reminded us of the rules to stay seated, no flash photography, and to keep our voices low and calm. Within seconds the whole herd, babies, and all joined the two. It was difficult to control my emotion when these majestic creatures silently waltzed past our vehicle; one deliberately tapped the end of the Land Rover with his trunk seemingly to remind us we were on his territory. Duly noted!
While on the drive, Meina made sure we had plenty of heavy blankets and hot water bottles for our laps since it was freezing during our winter drives. Stopping for an evening sundowner was something very special. The back of the Land Rover was turned into a makeshift picnic station where tasty treats and libations were flowing like the Chobe River. Because Amakhala is made up of a group of families who have farmed the land for generations, they have a special bond with the landscape. Committed to repopulating the area with indigenous foliage, they also are involved heavily in rhino and cheetah conservation. The Eco-system is managed by a team that educates local school-aged children as well.
After each game drive, we returned to our comfortable tent where a lavish hot bath had been drawn, perfect for relaxing after bouncing around in a jeep all day. Nightly dinner up at the main lodge began with generously poured cocktails by the fire – my new favorites, Amarula or Caramel Vodka on the rocks were served with dispatch. The en Plein air tables were elegantly set and were aglow from the campfire that made them all the more beautiful.
Every amenity we needed was in our tents, from wonderful lotions and bath salts to electric warming blankets in the beds for the cold wintry nights. Although more rustic than the other safari accommodations we experienced on this trip, it had an authentic charm not repeated by any other property.
Zimbabwe – Stanley & Livingstone
Within our first few hours at Stanley and Livingstone, our Safari Lodge offered us something that we desperately needed, a home. Our first glimpse of the beautiful 6,000-acre property was fleeting as we had contracted a stomach bug earlier on the trip that left us without an ounce of energy to initially enjoy our surroundings. The hotel staff was exceptionally nurturing, checking up on us in our suite, supplying us with an endless amount of liquids and nourishment., Moline and the team went the extra mile and consulted a doctor who reassured us we would soon be well. The chef improvised and came up with the delicious homemade chicken soup that was vital to get our health back on track.
When we finally made it through a tough 24 hours, there was no place better to start our journey fresh than Stanley and Livingstone. In the light of day, we were able to appreciate the Victorian-style main lodge lounge area filled with antiques and historical art. It was a warm and sunny morning so we opted for dining on the terrace. We gobbled up fluffy pastries, fresh fruit, and savored our first cup of Joe in days while sitting silently in awe as a herd of elephants slowly made their way to the watering hole that was situated about 50 feet away from our breakfast table. Sharing our meal with these magnificent creatures set the tone for a wonderful retreat.
The game drive rangers were flexible and when we finally went on our first ever African safari, it was a sensory overload in a good way. Along with the African elephants, enormous kudu, hoards of zebra, and other noteworthy animals, our guide patiently brought us closer and closer until we were within five feet of a protective black rhino mother and her enchanting baby. We sat in the vehicle with our guide speechless. Knowing how endangered this species is, made this sighting a truly memorable experience. On our way back to the Lodge, we stopped off at the educational center where rangers give talks to tourists, locals, and children on the importance of conservation.
Feeling over the moon for having been on an exhilarating drive, but not quite 100% physically yet, we were grateful to return from safari to our comfortable and spacious thatched-roof villa with Wi-Fi, laundry service, and a relaxing porch with sunset views. Thank goodness we recovered enough to enjoy the gourmet cuisine, first-rate hospitality, and stimulating game drives. Victoria Falls is a short 10-minute drive from the property and the concierge arranged for us to have a driver take us to the Falls, show us the ropes of where to rent a rain poncho (essential), and picked a meeting spot for us to find him for our return. We could have spent all day there it was so captivating.
Zamezi Queen – A Water Safari
Not your average river cruise, floating on the Chobi River between Botswana and Namibia on the Zambezi Queen is heavenly. Spacious staterooms are efficient and luxurious with crisp but soft linens and modern bathrooms. Stepping on to the Zambezi Queen for the first time, the staff singing for us traditional African music, offering us warm towels and welcome drinks, we swooned under the open skies and grazing animals as far as the eye could see.
Part of the Mantis Collection, the Zambezi Queen offered us the perfect combination of five-star amenities and the true African safari experience.
Water safari guides offer excursions on small tender boats that took us to the water’s edge where animals graze and hunt on the islands in the middle of the river between Botswana and Namibia. We were invited to a local village and were welcomed by its residents to witness their traditional way of life. Men bring water to the skilled women who built the walls of huts and our hearts melted as we interacted with the little children running around us and clutching our hands. Their smiles were infectious! The community gathering space was filled with artisanal handmade crafts such as woven bowls, wooden spoons, and a multitude of African animal carvings. To make us feel even more welcome, the villagers sang and danced, pulling in a few of our fellow outgoing travelers into the celebration. Truly an international crowd aboard, our fellow guests quickly became our friends as we bonded over our exhilarating drives and immersion into local village life.
Our knowledgeable guide was able to bring us frighteningly close to sleepy crocodiles sunbathing on riverbanks, water buffalo, and, most memorably, a herd of elephants crossing the river. As the water deepened, only their elegant trunks were in sight.
Mothers pushed tiny babies completely submerged until all arrived safely on the opposite bank, their darkened backs glistening in the sun. The grace and beauty of the crossing brought me to tears. The Zambezi Queen was a catalyst for one of the most eye-opening and humbling nature experiences I have ever witnessed.
The boat was a wonder in and of itself. We found ourselves sleeping in a cozy room with wall-to-wall sliding doors that opened up to the Chobe River, revealing panoramic views with breathtaking sunsets. Surprisingly, there was plenty of storage space for our luggage, and a bunch of power outlets to power all our electronics. . The riverboat floated down the Chobe quietly and peacefully, allowing us to enjoy the stunning landscape.
It was incredible the level of cuisine that the talented staff was able to prepare in such a small kitchen. The velvety soups were unforgettable as well as the hearty main courses and excellent wines. The bar staff welcomed us with open arms, greeting every single one of the guests by name and eager to please. The crew pulled us into the last nights’ entertainment of traditional songs accompanied by African drums. Dancing ensued where guests donned grass skirts and laughed until lights out.
It was hard to leave the next morning with the crews’ glowing faces and wide smiles still engraved in our memories from the night before. Nevertheless, they did more than just wave goodbye as we sadly stepped off the starboard side for the last time, they sang a farewell song to see us off. We were provided with seamless transportation to the various customs stations we had to go through upon departure, just as they had upon our arrival. The Zambezi Queen left an indelible mark of authentic African hospitality.