No doubt, my husband and I have been blessed to have had some truly incredible travel experiences, but none to date have quite rocked our world in the same way that going on our first safari did. There is truly nothing quite like it, and until you’ve been, you really can’t understand what that means. Even as I will do my best to describe this experience succinctly, because I could literally spend a full day talking about it, my advice to anyone interested in traveling, is to make it a point to get the firsthand experience. This is the trip that should be at the top of any adventure traveler’s bucket list.
First tip is to figure out what kind of safari you looking for, as there are many different levels of accommodation and experiences available. Most are boutique and limited in capacity, so do expect to pay more than your average vacation. You can get everything from an authentic tent experience where you camp moves with the migration of the animals on the Serengeti plane, to indulging in one of the most luxury experiences offered worldwide at a handful or exclusive lodges. We chose to glamp and stayed at Lion Sands in Sabi Sands Private Reserve. This lodge recently placed 3rd on Travel and Leisure’s 2020 Top Ten Safari Lodges and is home to one of the world’s most amazing outdoor hotel rooms (see pictures of Kingston Treehouse below).
I can’t say enough good things about staying at this lodge. They think of every detail, anticipate and accommodate every need, and also manage to completely take you by surprise with some of the most trip defining experiences, which I unfortunately have to leave out of this post, lest I spoil those extraordinary escapades for those yet to go.
The Safari Experience:
I titled this blog Sublime South African Safari for a reason… It’s the closest thing to pure bliss I could secularly imagine. There is a peace had like no other, being in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wild nature, without cell service, watching life happen around you and fully, completely, being in that moment.
Greg and I enthusiastically woke up at 5:00 am every morning to meet up with our guides for morning game drives. The mornings were cold, so they supplied blankets and hot water bottles for our laps, as we rode around open air watching the sunrise kiss the sky and animals wake from their slumber to start their feeding rituals. Not only is it magnificent to watch the colors of the sky bleed over the African plane as the sun comes up, there is purpose in these early morning drives. These early hours, along with twilight hours, are the times when animals are most active. Elephants are gathering in great mass to strip bark from favorite trees, while at the same time giraffes stretch to seek the sweetest leaves at the tops of them as birds sing their praise to the new day and leopards stalk the high grasses looking for the most advantageous spot to snatch the unaware antelope.
Each day we saw something completely new, unexpected and different, though the babies were my favorite, from the mother lion that introduced her cubs to us, to the baby pink elephant, to the adorable baby hyenas we watched play unabashedly outside their den. The Rover rides were a thrill in themselves, as within Sabi Sands (a consortium of privately held game reserves opened to Kruger National park), you could go anywhere off path, whether down dried up river beds or over and under thick brush and brambles, all to get closer and more personal with the wildlife. It was truly incredible!
Staying within a private game reserve is something I adamantly recommend, as you will not get the same experience within the national parks, which have very strict rules about staying on established roadways, as well as, staying at a prescribed distance away from wildlife, unless that is, it is approaching you. Because we were in Sabi Sands, we were able to get very near to just about everything that wasn’t a rhino.
In fact, there was a moment on our very first evening game drive that might have been a bit too much of that for Greg’s first encounter. We came up on a leopard stalking its dinner of Springbok. The leopard proceeded to use our Rover as a screen for its advance and quite literally came right up under the back right tire, closest to Greg. Keep in mind there is nothing between us and it, in the means of any type of protection. The vehicle was completely open air. Our guide, Lei, instructed Greg to stay absolutely still, which he took quite literally, and didn't dare to even breathe, for fear of catching leopard’s attention. It was thrilling! At the end of the below video, you'll see exactly how close it came to us.
Some drives end in wonderful surprises set up by the Lodge. Others return you to The Lodge for rest and relaxation until the evening drives, typically starting around 3-4:00 pm, depending on the time of the year. We spent afternoons lazily laying by the pool, sipping cocktails out on the deck, as we watched herds of elephants pass through the grounds, relaxing in our oversized tub, or getting pampered in the spa, all of which, were worthwhile pursuits.
Early evenings, we’d eagerly gather in the bar and lounge for tea and to meet up with our guide and tracker to discuss the plans and things we’d hope to see on that night’s drive. Then, we'd set out for another completely new adventure for the next few hours as the sun cast a golden glow over the plain and finally set making picturesque silhouettes with backdrops of deep red and orange. Every evening, dinner was a different, authentic experience, some at the lodge, some at the Boma and one night right in the middle of the bush, surrounded by bonfires.
The Must Do Unique Experience – Treehouse:
Lion Sands is one of the few and first to offer overnight stays in completely safe, yet fully immersed wilderness treehouses. You will spend the night exposed to the wildness of Africa, hearing the hyenas whoop, lion’s roar and elephant’s trumpet through the night, while soaking in what has to be one of the most dazzling dark night displays of stars and The Milky Way. This is the ultimate in romantic getaways.
Lion Sands offers a handful of different treehouses, the two most popular being Chalky and Kingston, the latter of which was our choice. It was outdoor grandeur, replete with a romantic canopy bed facing the Westward setting sun, a separate star viewing deck and table set up for a gourmet, four course, picnic dinner under the stars. The treehouse is lit up by gas
torchlights at night, and you have a full bathroom with a double vanity, toiletries and shower available that includes floor to ceiling windows, so you don’t miss any of the wildlife action.
We spent the evening losing ourselves to the sounds of the night, seeking formations in the stars, and toasting Pinotage (South Africa's signature grape varietal) to our incredible fortune in having this one of a kind evening together to remember forever.
About the Lodge & Service:
Firstly, the lodge is simple, yet elegant, and made to feel authentic to its cultural roots and surroundings. Our room was stunning and the perfect haven for relaxation and serenity. Being in the middle of the bush never fails to delight, as the wildness surrounds you. We woke up to hear lion’s roaring near camp late one night and would see elephant’s walking right up to our back veranda late afternoon to sample the tasty bits of a preferred tree. One night, we were actually kept from entering our room, due to an un-welcomed night visit from a local elephant and had to wait him out at the bar.
The local food and wines were simply delicious. You could see, taste and smell the freshness of the ingredients, and each dish was crafted masterfully, full of flavor, and presented beautifully. We especially loved the selection of local game meats and African staples that were offered, along with the indulgent cakes and snacks available at tea and on game drives during sunrise and sunset. I never knew ostrich tasted so good! In fact, were it readily available in the US, I would opt for Ostrich over a Ribeye any day… That is saying a lot for this Texas born and raised, beef loving lady.
The service was over the top, as you were greeted daily post game drive, with hot towels to freshen up, freshly squeezed fruit juices, a massive spread for breakfast (or dinner), and ear to ear smiles from the friendly staff, whom were genuine in their interest of wanting to know what we’d seen and experienced on our drive. Our personal butler, Wilfred, was readily available at beck and call to answer our every request, and always did so with such graciousness and kindness. He felt like our friend by the end of our 4 night stay. As much could be said for our absolutely magnificent duo of game guide and tracker, Lei and Surprise, both of which, were essential to making this one of the most memorable experiences of our lives! Their enthusiasm for the wildlife and ensuring the best customer experience was absolutely what made the trip. They didn’t let anything get in the way of us having the most up close and unique experiences, as were possible, during every game drive. Thanks to them, we were the first group in the reserve to see the brand new lion cubs, which is a moment in time that will live in my memory always.
One final note on the staff and lodge is that every employee we spoke to was emphatically happy to be working at the Lodge and said great things about the owners and management, whom support the local tribe with jobs and infrastructure in their local villages. It made us feel good that our dollars were well spent and supported the locals and sustainable tourism.
African safari is a must do for any traveler. It is a great trip for the experienced, for the honeymooner, and for the first timer. As this is one of my favorite trips ever to plan, and we are doing a repeat this year in Tanzania and Zanzibar, I would be thrilled to help you plan your very own experience! Please email your interest or inquiry to me at Jaime@DreamscapeTraveler.com