Our directive to Albee Yeend of Red Savannah was simple: Recommend your favorite lodges in South Africa for someone who has never been on safari, or to Africa for that matter. We were thinking five-star accommodations with four walls (instead of canvas tents), warm baths and excellent cuisine. A wildlife, rather than a wilderness, experience, without the dust and danger. Yeend came back with a list of four very different properties, each with a standout specialization and located on private game reserves, two fenced-in and all in very different areas of the country. With only two nights at each lodge and charter flights in between, this trip was not to be considered an off-the-shelf itinerary, but rather four distinct recommendations tailored to a first-time visitor interested in experiencing safari—and a whole lot more.
Spa in the Wild: Royal Malewane
Sting, Elton John, Bono, and Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni are just a few of the celebrities who have signed owner Liz Biden’s oversized guest book in the elegant, thatched-roof reception lounge of Royal Malewane. Located in the Thornybush Private Game Reserve in Kruger National Park, an hour’s flight from Johannesburg plus a 35-minute drive from the town of Hoedspruit, the lodge offers one of the most exclusive safaris in South Africa. Guests staying in the Royal Suite, which accommodates four people, or in Africa House, a six-bedroom villa, get their own ranger and tracker, chef, butler, waiter, housekeeper and spa therapist. “It’s complete privacy,” says deputy general manager Andrew Rosettenstein, “and it’s so popular, we’re building another villa 45 minutes north of here called Safari.”
But the suite and villa—even the grand colonial interiors of the lodge’s six large rooms perfectly appointed with silk summer robes, heavier terry-cloth-lined robes, iPod docks, private pools, gazebos and room service—are just part of what makes this place so spectacularly special. “Royal Malewane certainly has the best and biggest spa,” says Yeend. And that’s not only because of the health bar, personal steam room, day beds surrounding a 25-meter lap pool, sunken baths, 24-hour Technogym-equipped fitness center and three open-air treatment rooms with koi fish ponds. Chilean spa director Paola McFarlane oversees four full-time therapists and has created a menu of innovative services, like the Bellabaci Massage, which is meant to correct digestive disorders, remove cellulite, relieve muscular pain and more. After one 60-minute session, we became obsessed with this modified version of ancient cupping therapy, developed and patented by a Capetonian woman who is half South African, half Italian (hence the name, which means “beautiful kisses”). “We want to become a destination spa,” says head therapist Renee Rosettenstein, “and though the rangers won’t like it, we want game drives to be the secondary reason you would come and stay here.”
Considering that Royal Malewane has one of the few master trackers in South Africa, it’s doubtful game drives will lose their status. Then again, when the spa opens its new hair salon next year, who knows? “It’s what every single person who leaves here asks for,” says Rosettenstein. “Safari is usually the last stop on their itinerary before heading home to, say, New York, and they want to look good getting off the plane. We will definitely be the only lodge giving blowouts.” Rooms start at $1,230 a person per night; Thornybush Private Game Reserve; 27-15/793-3977; royalmalewane.com.
The Sofa Safari: Jamala Madikwe
In Swahili, jamala means “natural elegance,” which pretty much sums up the experience at this boutique lodge located in the malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve, 25 miles from the Botswana border. With only five Cape Dutch-style, one-bedroom villas outfitted with a British West Indies-cum-African decor and a main lodge with large, cushiony sofas overlooking a hyperactive watering hole, the entire property feels like your own private animal farm. “The best thing about the watering hole,” says owner Rodney Steyn, “is that guests will come for four or five nights and realize a lot of activity is happening there, so if they’ve got a bad back, had a hip replacement, are too tired to go on a game drive, too nervous or maybe too drunk, they enjoy sitting on the sofa and watching the show from. ” In fact, anywhere you are on the property, you can see the animals, from the outdoor shower and plunge pool on your private deck to the one-room spa and gym on the opposite side of the lodge. “We made sure everything has a view,” says Steyn. “When we installed new glass in the showers last year, we said we wanted it half clear, and it arrived completely sandblasted. I told the guys, ‘We have a problem: You can’t see out.’ They said, ‘We’ll give you a really good price, can you not use them?’ I said,‘No, even the toilet has a view.’”
Jamala is the newest and last lodge to be built in Madikwe, which has 31 in total, making game drives here feel a bit Disney-esque. But its remote location in a corner of the reserve helps keep away all the traffic and noise. “Our previous lodge was on the western side of the park, where you have the main route to Gaborone, Botswana,” says Steyn. “So trucks were gunning it to get across before the border patrol closed for the night. We also had neighbors we could hear on either side of us, and light pollution. Now, because we’re so far south in the park, we get a lot of animals coming to escape all that human activity. The record for Big Five sightings has been all—rhino, leopard, elephant, lion, buffalo—in three hours.” Rooms start at $640 a person per night; Madikwe Game Reserve; 27-82/927-3129; jamalamadikwe.com.
Of Landscape and Locals: Samara Karoo
The stunningly varied landscape of the Karoo Mountains in the Camdeboo region of the Eastern Cape makes visiting Samara Private Game Reserve worth the three-hour drive from Port Elizabeth. (A 45-minute chartered flight can be booked, but the unreliable weather patterns make it risky.) Owners Mark and Sarah Tompkins bought up 11 farms in 1997, pulled down the fences, got rid of the goats and sheep damaging the fragile ecosystem, slowly reintroduced indigenous animals (focusing on endangered species like the cheetah) and restored 70,000 acres of land over 14 years. In 2006 they opened a homestead that comprises seven suites and three Karoo-style cottages. Two years later, they introduced The Manor at Samara, which features four en-suite rooms; an infinity pool leading to a watering hole; a personal chef, guide and housekeeper; and a mix of contemporary furnishings with African artifacts, like a magnificent Kenyan wedding dress hanging on a wall.
The historical property—a beautiful bell tower that frames the walkway to the cottages was originally built to call laborers to work when the homestead was a farm—has a homey feeling that permeates your time here. No strict schedule is set; game drives are done in the morning and the evening but leave when the guest is ready. Massages can be had in your suite, and a yoga mat and small weights are tucked in the corner of the closet.
Though big game is not the draw here, five black rhinos had arrived the week before us. As they were still acclimating to their new home, we didn’t see them, but the red hartebeest and gemsbok (local to the area) kept our interest just the same—along with Sibella, a rescued cheetah who wanders freely with her cubs in tow. Rooms start at $195 a person per night; Samara Private Game Reserve; 27-23/626-6113; samara.co.za.
Guiding Outside the Box: Londolozi
As one of the original pioneers of ecotourism, Londolozi bills itself as a blueprint for conservation. Its five camps lie within six million acres of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Peace Park, which incorporates parts of Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and are part of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, adjacent to the Kruger National Park. While the superluxurious Pioneer Camp and Private Granite Suites are Relais & Chateaux members, all accommodations offer a level of service and comfort beyond the typical. “When guests arrive, we understand the excitement of seeing the Big Five,” says Bronwyn Varty, whose father and uncle established Londolozi’s restoration and preservation model back in the 1970s, “but we make it a point to determine their personalities and pair them with a guide and a tracker who will make their experience even better.”
Londolozi means “protector of all living things” in Zulu, and a big differentiating factor from other camps, according to Varty, is the ancient art of tracking. “We spend a large amount of time on training,” she explains. “Authenticity is hugely important, and we believe that you can’t showcase something until you truly feel it yourself. So every person who works here has to have really felt what it is to be Africa, to track a lion on foot, to sleep out in the bush.” Our tracker was the legendary Elmon, who worked with Dave and John Varty in the early days. On one game drive, as we headed back to camp in the dark, he signaled for our guide to stop. We got out of the Land Rover and followed him to a tree about 15 yards away. There he pointed out a green chameleon sitting on a small branch. We swore he placed it there earlier in the day; it was impossible for human eyes to see that far in the night.
“Everyone focuses on the size of the bedroom and how big the bath is,” says Varty. “Yes, yes, yes, but really what is that guide bringing to the experience? You’ve just flown all this way, what is he showing you? How is he showcasing the wilderness? How is he reconnecting your spirit back to it? It’s those little intangibles of safari that set apart the great places from those that are middle of the road.” Rooms start at $925 a person per night; Sabi Sands Game Reserve; 27-11/280-6655; londolozi.com.