October 2, 2011

Help! Which Safari Lodge?

A reader asked me the other day how I managed to write such timely posts, such as where to buy your first appliances after moving here. It turned out she was just planning to go out on that very errand. I think my timing is inspired by all the questions I get from newly arrived expats, and there has been a spate of them lately with the beginning of the new (American) school year.

So once you’ve set up your internet, got a cellphone, hired domestic help, and bought your car, the next question inevitably becomes: How the hell do I pick a place to go on safari? Or if your family is anything like ours, you will still be working on the cellphone and car and sitting atop a mountain of stuff the movers just dumped in your house, wishing for an entire week of uninterrupted time, when your spouse tells you to book a safari for next weekend because he has a day off on Monday. What, leaving the house now when it looks like a tornado touched down? That was my first thought. In fact, I was harboring the wish that I could just send Noisette on safari with the kids so I’d have time for the house. I hate living in clutter, though sometimes I suspect that Noisette doesn't entirely believe that.

Beautiful landscapes in the Waterberg

But in hindsight I’m so glad we did go on our first safari way before I felt ready. Otherwise I’d still be sitting at home waiting for Eskom to call me back, and it set the pattern for a life of adventure and exploration here in South Africa that I’m sure we’ll look back to one day without the typical expat regrets of  not having done enough. It has taught me to live in the “now.”

If you get to see such a glorious rhino on your first safari, it will make your day

But how to pick from all the many lodges out there? That will be the question once you’ve gotten over the first shock of finding out how terribly expensive it is to go on a safari or pretty much anywhere else in Africa. I’ve found that R3000 per night per adult is pretty much the standard rate at an all-inclusive lodge (which all of them are). This is if you want to see the Big Five (lodges in reserves without the Big Five are cheaper and can also offer a lovely vacation). If you can get a rate of R1500, that is pretty good. Typically, kids under 12 are 50% off. Some lodges (especially in Big Five territory) don’t allow smaller children, so make sure you review their policy. Most lodges offer two game drives per day (early morning and evening), and we’ve found that two or three nights are enough.

A lot of rain on our first safari made our game drives adventures in themselves

My advice: Don’t fret too much over picking the “perfect” lodge. You will drive yourself insane. As I said, prices are pretty much the same unless you get lucky and find a great deal, and from our experience and what I’ve heard from friends, the quality is always outstanding. Most lodges will absolutely pamper you with too many delicious meals and loving service.

The sunsets in Madikwe Game Reserve are beautiful

The easiest way to narrow down your choices is by picking a specific game reserve first. Do you want to see the Big Five? Then Madikwe, Welgevonden, and the Kruger Park (or private reserves adjacent to it such as Timbavati, Klaserie, or Sabi Sand) are all good options within fairly easy reach from Johannesburg. Another consideration is malaria – Madikwe and Welgevonden are entirely malaria-free year-round, making them the better choices in my mind, whereas in and around the Kruger you will need to take malaria pills anytime except the winter months (June/July). Yet there is something special about Kruger Park having to do with its history and stunning landscapes that will make you want to go there sooner or later. The Big Five game park closest to Joburg is Pilanesberg, where you can also stay overnight.

Lions are actually some of the easiest animals to find, but impressive every time,
especially if they roar like this one did while trying to locate his cubs

Now for actually booking your trip: I find Bushbreaks the best website to use. We’ve consistently gotten good rates from them (most of the time better than if you booked through the lodge directly), and their website is very easy to navigate, letting you select lodges based on region or other criteria such as Big Five and malaria-free. You will see all the pertinent information at a glance and they often run specials for certain time periods. Some friends have recommended mtbeds  and roomsforafrica especially for last minute deals, but I don’t have any experience with either one of them.

I think it should be the Big Six  including giraffes!

Still overwhelmed? Then just book one of the lodges we’ve been to. Joburg Expat’s picks, if you will. You won’t go wrong with any of them.

Waterberg: Yellow Wood Game Lodge

This was our first safari, three weeks into living in South Africa. It’s nestled into the mountain in the Waterberg, with stunning views and landscapes. Even though it rained a lot during our stay (with our hosts insisting that it never rains that time of year – such is the pattern when our family travels) we had a wonderful time. Perhaps this was because it was our first safari ever – you will always cherish your first – or because our game ranger, William, was not just an excellent guide but a wonderful person, making us all feel special and loved our entire stay. This was not a Big Five area, but I almost think it was better to start out with “just” rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and wildebeest, because we would have felt overwhelmed with more. And, if you’re an expat and not just a one-time visitor, it’s nice to leave something new for the next time! 

Yellow Wood Game Lodge in the Waterberg

With all the rain we had that weekend we got stuck in the mud, giving us an additional
diversion; in fact, going up and down those steep inclines was pretty scary!

Madikwe: Mosetlha Bush Camp

I came here as part of a 3-day photo safari, and the focus was less on luxury and more on wildlife sightings. I absolutely loved it. Kids under 12 aren’t allowed there (it’s not fenced in and lions are known to roam through the camp at night), so it may not be for you if you have smaller kids. It’s also not your typical luxury lodge but rather an eco lodge, but that is precisely what gave it its special charm. For your morning shower you had to fill a bucket at the water tank, pour it into the "monkey boiler," put the bucket under the other end of it to catch the now hot water, carry it to your shower, lower the shower bucket from the ceiling, pour the hot water in, raise it back up, and then relish every drop of your hard-earned, 5-minute (precisely) bliss. I thought that was so cool and would have liked for my kids to have had the experience. In fact, I would like to install monkey boilers in our house - imagine then kind of water we could conserve! But even with all that "hardship," you were spoiled with wonderful food and attention to detail at Mosetlha, including an unbelievably experienced game ranger. Read more…

Mosetlha Bush Camp - very comfy for an Eco Lodge!

You get these kinds of shots when you go on a photo safari

Madikwe: Jaci's Tree Lodge

The next time around we did bring the kids to Madikwe, and Jaci’s Tree Lodge (there is also Jaci’s Safari Lodge, equally good) was the perfect place for that. Not only are kids of all ages welcome, they are also specifically catered to with their own meals and mealtimes (so that the adults can take pleasure in their own scrumptious three-course meals) and educational activities. Our kids also loved that we lived in a tree house of sorts, completely private and with all the amenities you could wish for. Jaci’s is the perfect combination of the serenity and luxury you expect from a good game lodge with being able to bring even smaller kids along. Read more…

Jaci's Safari/Tree Lodge: very kid-friendly

Jabulani all ready for Jaci's Masaai-themed New Year's Eve party

I’ve also got two more lodges coming up on our calendar. While I haven’t actually seen them yet, one comes highly recommended by a friend, and the other was too good a deal to turn down.

Welgevonden (Waterberg): Jamila Lodge

Welgevonden has always been a game reserve I’ve wanted to try out. It’s in the Waterberg, which is a beautiful area and also very close to Joburg, malaria-free, it’s a small and exclusive reserve, and it has the Big Five. In short, everything you could want. The only problem is that most lodges there are very expensive and often don’t allow children. However, I needed a place to book for upcoming visitors, and there is a new lodge there that recently opened up and therefore offered good rates. It’s called Jamila Lodge and looks as nice as everything else there; I’ll give you an update once we’ve tried it out.

Every time you go on safari, you see something new; the first time in Madikwe,
we couldn't find any elephants, even though there are over 700 of them there

Klaserie (adjacent to Kruger Park): Kitara Camp

Kitara Camp comes highly recommended by my friend Bing who spent a lovely weekend there some time back. Read the entire review and see pictures here. We decided to follow her recommendation and booked it for us and my brother’s family when they come for their annual Christmas visit. Can’t wait to be on a safari again, and maybe get our first glimpse of that elusive leopard!

I hope I've been able to take that feeling of being completely overwhelmed out of your safari-booking process. Your first safari will be great wherever you go, and every one of them is unique. I've heard of people who saw all of the Big Five (in case you are wondering: buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, rhino) on their very first game drive, but I can  honestly say that I'm perfectly happy not belonging to that group. There are so many other animals out there, some of them quite rare, and  it's always nice to keep something in reserve for the next time. 

For more safari inspiration, also check out these other safari posts.
Looking for adventure closer to home? Check out What To Do in Joburg for an extensive list.


1986 CR Swart Matrieks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cat said...

Or alternatively do as the Saffers do - go stay in the self catering chalets in the Pilansberg or Kruger or even better camp! We love the Pilansberg and my Hubby guides Big 5 hikes there (bit those are rather costly) - but camping is cheap and great fun for kids. There are also permanent equipped tents for hire which is a good option if you do not want to buy all the stuff. Go see this post for a typical Pilansberg weekend -http://juggelingactoflife.blogspot.com/2011/03/antoher-great-weekend-camping.html

Jeroen said...

Here's another vote for the national parks, which are great fun and (for low-budget expats like me) a million times cheaper than the private lodges. SANparks(.org) has a wildcard that costs about R500 for a couple for a YEAR and allows free admission to all SANparks reserves, plus those in KZN and Swaziland, and incredible deal. The forum on its website is full of friendly nature enthusiasts which make planning a trip fun and easy. Kruger National Park is simply majestic, and can be visited at very low cost, camping for 2 is just R160 per night without the park admission fee (free with WildCard). Self-driving is a great way to see the huge park, and on my last trip 2 weeks ago we saw the big five every day 3 days in a row, all of them up close. Kruger is huge and it's possible to move around the park every few days to enjoy the changing landscapes; just stick to one region to avoid long drives. My standard take-visitors-along tour includes two days each in Tamboti, Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge camps. There are organised morning and evening drives for R150-180/p and morning walks for R350 which are all amazing. Camps can be big with pools, restaurants and cinemas (Skukuza) or completely intmate and quiet (like Tamboti tented camp). The quality of lodgings and food is not equal to the deluxe private camps, but is still quite comfortable... and you'll be surrounded by friendly South African wildlife lovers all day, rather than other tourists. By all means try SANparks too.

ianandebe said...

I am a writer & moderator for BlogExpat and truly enjoy your blog. We have a series of expat interviews and I was hoping you would be interested.

If you are interested, just let me know and I will send the questionnaire. In any case, keep up the great work.

Erin Porter

ianandebe said...

One last thing - my e-mail: erin@easyexpat.com

Sine said...

Cat - thanks for the link, nice post. And my post definitely was lacking in the camping/lower-budget category, so thanks for supplying what was missing.

Jeroen - same goes for you, thank you so much for the detailed information. Makes me want to pack up the (idle for 20 years) camping gear and set off for Kruger Park! It's great to know where to go, as otherwise it can be a bit overwhelming.

Another reader, Jenna, has a post on her blog about her recent stay at one of those camps, check it out here: http://jennafinch.blogspot.com/2011/09/weekend-away-in-kruger-aka-safari-time_19.html

Alaska Luxury Fishing Lodge said...

What a nice trip, so exciting with your photos, would love to experience that same sun and environment!

- Suzie - said...

Hi Sine,

welcome back from Kili.

We are planning a safari in Africa. How exciting! So I wanted to contact you for some info. And checked your blog, of course! Great info here! Thanks!

I know now the criteria to select a game lodge:
- kids below 12 allowed?
- malaria-free?
- big five or not big five

Since I have been to SA, I thought the real 'wild' is not in Krueger, but in Kenia, Tanzania, Botswana, or Namibia. But this is really overwhelming... Once, I went to a tiny private game logde in Botswana once. We drove there from Pretoria. It was just behind the border. And it was fantastic. No big five, but as you say, the first safari, you never forget!

If you have Tanzania info, game lodges around Mt. Kili, let us know.

Sine said...

Hi Suzie - sorry, I don't know that much about Tanzania. We did look into the Serengeti once, one of the tented camps (they move with the animal migration) and Ngorogoro Crater, but it was inordinately expensive and we ditched the plan, at least with kids.

If you want to see animals, I can highly recommend Botswana. The Okavango Delta is awesome, and we loved our camp there, Xigera. You won't see that much big game there, but staying directly in the delta is an unforgettable experience. We also liked Savuti Camp (also by Wilderness Safaris - a great outfitter that is always a good address in Botswana and Namibia) and saw our first leopard there, unforgettable.

For sweeping landscapes, Namibia is unbeatable. We absolutely loved it there. Etosha also has great animal viewings.

Yes, South Africa perhaps is a bit "less wild" than the other countries, but if you only have one week, I still think it might be a good choice because everything is easy to get to. We loved Kitara Camp in Klaserie (adjacent Kruger, but this particular camp got swept away unfortunately during a flood, see my blog post somewhere about that; they do have other accommodations and the service was wonderful) and it was very remote, no feeling of being too close to civilization there. You could drive through the Blyde River Canyon on your way, which is stunning, or spend a few days in the Drakensberg, which I haven't seen yet.

Not sure if this helps. Madikwe Game Reserve here on the Botswana border is always a very good option, and you might be able to find some reasonable deals through Bushbreaks. Or you can just rent a truck and guide through something like Zulu Overland and they will put up the tents for you while you travel through the wild. We saw a lot of those in Namibia.

Not sure this helped, but there are so many choices. I'm not aware of any lodges around Kili but I'm sure they are there. Lots of people flying with us went on safari instead of the climb, or did one first and then the other. Another place we liked was the Stanley and Livingstone in Vic Falls, Zim - you get to see Victoria Falls and the lodge was outside of town in a beautiful game reserve, elephants coming right up to the pool...

- Suzie - said...

Sine, you are a real safari expert!

I spent the last couple of ours on safari online - so much input from you - THANKS!!! - and I found this great site www.safari.co.za with lots of maps, lodges, tips for all kind of safaris in different African countries. They also reply fast to inquieries.

Yes, it seems that Tanzania's lodges and mobile camps not only do have the highest prices, but worse, you also risk to miss out on animals due to large migration when you come the wrong time.

After all, I think Botswana will probably be my choice (again).

Mmmh, Stanley & Livingston and Victoria Falls could be a perfect start for a one week trip! Combined with a lodge in Chobe (lots of elefants) or Savute, or even Okavango Delta (a must, but no big 5).

What helps is also to check your choices with tripadvisor.

So much to learn! Exciting to plan!

Sine said...

Thanks Suzie! And thanks for the safari.co.za link, I don't think I had seen that yet. I hope you get to do Botswana, even if it's the second time for you. Can't go wrong with the S&L to start out at Vic Falls, you'll love it. And yes, Tripadvisor is always a good place, I've posted several reviews on there myself:-)

Sami said...

I'll have to look up all the links and info you have in this post Sine, as our whole family of about 20 people are planning on getting together for Christmas in South Africa, coming from different parts of the globe, and going on safari.

Sine said...

Sami - sorry for the late response, but how great! That will be such a wonderful event. Can't wait to have our own "reunion" sometime in SA, and I'm sure a safari lodge will play a role then too! You really can't go wrong with any of the places or any other places you might find. We've loved all of the ones we've been at.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Gigantic and very enjoyable post. I am not much into the whole safari thing but this post made these places look very inviting.

As to Tanzania, I cannot say that I know that much either but for all old movie buffs out there I do have one suggestion. There is a private lodge that is located where the John Wayne movie, Hatari!, was filmed. At one time the property belonged to a member of the supporting cast. Anyway they have turned it into a lodge with the same name as the film. I don't know the web address off the top of my head but a quick google of Hatari Lodge should get it to pop up.

Sine said...

I'm glad you brought it up, of course i was immediately curious and googled it. Is it this one? http://www.hatarilodge.de/. I think so. Interesting that it's a German domain, must be managed by Germans. It's also got a listing on Tripadvisor.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Yes, that is the one. It is a German family that operates it. Kind of neat as the property used to belong to Hardy Kruger who just happens to be German.

Sine said...

very cool, I'll have to read up on it. There is a history of Germans in Africa. Like Bernhard Grzimek of "Serengeti shall not die" fame. His son Michael died in a plane crash in Africa and is buried on top of the Ngorogoro Crater.