5 Star Luxury
By Wild editor Romi Boom
It was mid-afternoon and hot as a furnace. The elephant herd was slowly moving toward us, grazing amongst the reeds of the Sabie River. There were babies everywhere, unafraid of tumbling down the river bank. We couldn't hear them, way down below us, but we had a prime lookout. We could see perfectly how the little ones would get distracted, lag behind, then run on wobbly legs to catch up with their older siblings, moms and aunts.
A wildlife spectacle, from the cool bliss of our private plunge pool. The best tickets in the house! We were at Narina Lodge, sheltered by century-old trees, in one of only nine suites, which are connected by wooden walkways. We might as well have been in a treehouse and could have been as Narina, one of the private concessions in Kruger National Park, and its sister establishment, Tinga Lodge, do in fact offer guests the option of a luxurious treehouse stay, unique in the Kruger gamut of experiences.
As bush bedrooms go, it doesn't get any more romantic than Tinyeleti treehouse (meaning “many stars”). A happy camper, I have slept countless nights under the Milky Way and shooting stars, but the securely constructed platform, with all the creature comforts you could wish for, simply blew my mind. Completely disconnected from other people, any wildlife enthusiast will be impressed by this way of immersing yourself in the bush as you sit high above the ground and watch the animals quenching their thirst from the river.
The 50m2 deck can accommodate four people, and children are welcome. Guests arrive at sunset, to spend the dusk hours enjoying a picnic dinner by the glow of lanterns. When night falls, you blend with the wild animals, armed only with a torch and a radio for communication with your field guide. Absolute peace, except for your own excited heartbeat, until you are collected the next morning.
Safari luxury is synonymous with teak floorboards, dreamy mosquito nets, slipper baths, outdoor showers, raised timber walkways and ancient jackalberry trees. Kruger's private concessions, the "Golden Kudus", also offer the opportunity to venture off-road. This does not entail breaking the rules, but it allows rangers the leeway to improvise, for example to enjoy sightings from really close. If you have a particular tick on your wishlist, as I did, this is your best chance of success, as the rangers are in constant communication with each other and have intimate knowledge of animal movements on the concession.
So when I explained to our guide at Lukimbi Safari Lodge that I had been looking for wild dogs for more than a decade, Chris was all ears. He hadn't seen them for weeks, he confessed, but would keep his ear to the ground. On our afternoon game drive, we hit the jackpot: a group of at least 10 dogs, resting right alongside the road, playing and posing for photographs in the golden twilight. My cup of contentment spilled over.
Lukimbi is situated in the very accessible southern section of Kruger, and about 50 per cent of the guests are South African. For me it proved a very lucky destination indeed. Earlier that day, a few hundred metres before we arrived at the lodge, a sexy leopard was sprawled in a marula tree, affording us a private sighting at close range overhead. Krrrrr went my camera’s motor drive, and each image was worthy of a calendar. Thirty minutes later, at check in just before lunch, we shared our good luck with management and showed off the photos. "That's Nula," we heard, and immediately a safari vehicle was commandeered for some overseas guests, in the hope that the precious Nula would not have left her perch, despite having two cubs nearby.
Bounded by three major river systems, the extensive 15 000 hectare area offers a diverse array of habitats. On our morning game drive, there were rhino everywhere, both white and black, and three cheetah wannabe models. Imagine a scene in which two of the most endangered species on Earth stand cheek by jowl. Talk of good karma!
In this class of accommodation, private decks with riverside views are par for the course. An unusual setting is Camp Shawu, which overlooks Mpanamana Dam. A satellite of Shishangeni Private Lodge, Camp Shawu was named after the famous tusker. It accommodates only 10 guests in five outsize tented suites, constructed around buffalo-dung walls. Hippo pods have colonised the dam and, believe me, they make an incessant and eventually exasperating racket as they claim their territory. The payoff is that from your ringside seat you'll shoot that iconic photo of a yawning hippo, while waiting for predators and prey to come to you.
Shishangeni's second intimate retreat is Camp Shonga in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains, near the Mozambican border. The camp has minimal impact on the surrounding habitat and blends so well with the bushveld that you would not guess it was there until you stumbled upon it. This is how the wilderness must have seemed to the explorers of yesteryear.
If it's the spirit of ancient Africa that you're hoping to find, look no further than Imbali Safari Lodge, built on the site of a 400-year-old Tsonga settlement. The soil has yielded evidence of an ancient culture and artefacts such as clay pots, bone tools and grinding stones are on display. Imbali's 12 suites, with either a private spa or plunge pool in a riverine forest, cosy up to a canopy of jackalberry and tamboti trees overlooking the seasonal Nwaswitsontso River.
Imbali is situated on Mluwati Concession, one of Kruger's first private concessions, and has been dedicated to the sustainability of this pristine wilderness from the start. Together with Hoyo Hoyo Safari Lodge, with its ethnic theme, and Hamiltons Tented Camp, which recreates the Out of Africa style, Imbali is all about indulgence amidst the sounds and smells of the bush. The lodges are located on an ancient elephant route, so imagine our double delight at breakfast when first we watched a relaxed rhino drinking at the waterhole on the far side of the river, followed by a breeding herd of ellies. Does a safari get any better?
Kruger's luxury concessions have been hugely effective in generating revenue and support for conservation. In line with the objectives of sustainable ecotourism, the lodges touch the earth lightly and minimise their footprint through a philosophy of “fewer beds in larger areas”.
The drive from Johannesburg to Kruger's concessions takes about five hours.
Tinga and Narina Lodges are accessed from Paul Kruger gate. Narina is 8km from the gate.
Lukimbi Safari Lodge is 26km from Malelane Gate, on the Crocodile River road. It accommodates 32 people, making it a popular wedding and function destination.
Shishangeni Private Lodge is about 15km from Crocodile Bridge gate. Guests are transferred from the lodge to Camp Shonga and Camp Shawu.
Source: Wild magazine