For many, a safari is a bucket list trip packing the promise of sunsets in the bush and close encounters with the Big 5. Until we began researching, we had no idea of the range of possible options for our safari. Kruger National Park and its surrounding private game reserves have thousands of lodging options ranging from basic to ultra luxury. The Greater Kruger area (encompassing Kruger National Park and surrounding private game reserves) is the oldest area of undisturbed bush in South Africa covering a massive amount of land which allows animals to roam freely within a variety of landscapes…from dense woodlands to wide open grassy plains. The area is superb for wildlife viewing and is known for frequent sitings of big cats (i.e. lions and leopards!). As we learned, Kruger National Park is a government run national park which means more vehicles and tourists whereas private game reserves only allow tourists who are staying onsite at one of their lodges thereby limiting the number of tourists. Moreover, private game reserves have game drives led by one of their expert trackers/guides (who are often exceptional at their craft) and are allowed to travel off road to follow animals as well as travel pre dawn and post dusk. In the national park, you are limited to driving only on road. While many do opt for the often less expensive national park; with specials and deals, you can certainly get a pretty glamorous accommodation on a private game reserve which is a great value. We did ponder a self drive in Kruger proper as we thought it would be amazing to be tracking and spotting animals on our schedule. However, in retrospect after seeing the skills of our tracker, we likely would have seen very little especially with the inability to leave the paved roads.
When to Visit
After the decision on national park vs reserve, you’ll need to decide when do travel on safari. The South African winter (May through September) is considered by many to be an ideal time as the conditions are dry, the bush is less dense with vegetation, and animals gather around watering holes making wildlife viewing much easier. We traveled in June and had exceptional wildlife viewing…though one guide confessed that September is his favorite time of the year. As a bonus, the dry colder winter means no mosquitoes and thus minimal malaria risk. Given that Kruger is a malaria zone, this is a potential issue in the wetter months of the summer. With this information, we used no malaria prophylaxis and encountered zero mosquitoes. Winter does mean some cooler temperatures though on chilly morning game drives and after the sun goes down on evening drives. For June, the temperature was in the low 50s F overnight and high 70s F during the day. I would definitely suggest a warmer jacket and hat for the mornings.
In truth, thought we did a lot of research, we somewhat stumbled upon our ultimate choice, Baobab Ridge, as they had a special rate for 2021 that we spied on Orbitz, our preferred booking platform. We adored every minute of our time here at this small boutique lodge. Baobab Ridge is located on the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park. No fence separates this reserve from Kruger National Park so animals can roam freely between the two. It is a whopping 62,000 hectacres (over 150,000 acres) and guarded by a gated entrance shared by the nearby Timbavati Reserve. There are several options to travel to the lodge. We traveled via domestic flight from Cape Town on Airlink and the lodge picked us up at the airport for a 20 minute ride to our accommodation. However, there were South Africans who drove to the lodge via their own private vehicles. They do list a shuttle option on their website for a 6 hour shuttle from Johannesburg but this was not operational in 2021 due to Covid.
The lodge was exceptional with availability for 16 guests in 6 one bedroom suites and a two bedroom family suite. There is an inviting main lodge with beautiful African inspired decor with indoor and outdoor dining areas, a boma (outdoor enclosure for gathering), and a pool overlooking a watering hole. We did factor into our choice a watering hole as we thought it would be neat to be able to relax by the pool and see and animals creep up for a drink….and we did see zebras, warthogs, and giraffe stroll by! Our individual suite was enormous with a kitchen area with sink, filtered water and small refrigerator, 2 reclining loungers overlooking the bush, giant king bed and bathroom suite with indoor/outdoor shower and large soaking tub.
5:30 AM coffee/biscuits
6:00 AM game drive with mid morning tea/snacks in the bush|
10:30 AM brunch
11:30 AM relaxation
2:30 PM lunch
3:30 PM game drive with sundowner cocktails/snacks in the bush
7:00 PM dinner at the boma
The cuisine was delicious and we were quite overfed! I think I got a little too accustomed to a morning cookie pre breakfast! as well as a delightful gin and tonic sundowner while watching the sunset over the bush. The nightly boma dinners were also very well done. The boma is a partially fenced enclosure with dining tables surrounding an outdoor fire pit which makes for a welcoming place to dine and discuss the day’s activities. We would be satiated with an appetizer, main and dessert. All alcohol here is just with an honesty bar where you check off whatever wine/spirits you consume and settle up on your last day. They don’t charge corkage fees and the South Africans on property told me that was a rarity in the area and a very nice addition for extra cost savings for families.
Game Drives and Wildlife
The main portion of the trip though….the BIG FIVE! Elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, cape buffalo, and leopards. We were exceedingly lucky and spotted these all within our first 2 game drives. Pretty incredible! The lodge has 2 guides/trackers as well as the owner, Jason, taking guests on drives. Our guide, David, was so skilled. We’d by flying along in our Land Rover and he’s come to an abrupt halt having spotted a leopard in a tree many meters away. We saw so many animals during our drives that we were spoiled for choice when selecting photographs. We almost completed what they term the Magnificent 7 (which is the big 5 plus a cheetah and wild dog). We did see wild dogs…but we’ll have to be back to spot a cheetah! The extra touches on the drives were very well done with each guest having a flannel blanket, a drink order placed before departure for a sundowner cocktail and a guide who went out of his way to accommodate requests. My husband wanted to see a hippopotamus so David scoured the dams in the area and called a few friends and lo and behold…hippos! I realize that it isn’t necessarily that easy and we couldn’t have been luckier this trip but surely David tried to accommodate every possible wish. He was fantastic!
A few special moments illustrated the perfection of our adventure. On our very first game drive, after arriving in Cape Town only a few hours prior, we stopped in front of a watering hole and were chatting with gin and tonics in hand watching our first sunset. (As an aside the sunrise and sunsets here are mesmerizing…bold bright oranges and yellows light up the entire horizon and bathe the entire grasslands in a golden yellow.) As we were talking, an adult and baby elephant casually strolled in front of us to the watering hole for a few slurps while we slowly and carefully got back in the Land Rover. A sundowner on our first night with a private elephant viewing was pretty darn magical. Second, we were celebrating our 3rd wedding anniversary in the bush and upon arriving home from our game drive one evening, the staff had lit our suite entire deck with tea lights and surprised us with a bottle of champagne to enjoy on our private deck. Completely unexpected and very lovely! And finally, one of the guests on our jeep spied a leopard in the bush and we put that Land Rover to work following him along for 30 minutes of exhilaration as we watched him come in and out of view through the yellow grasses. Our most adventurous drive of them all rewarded with some amazing leopard photographs.
Our safari adventure was incredible and we were extremely pleased by our choice of accommodation. There are truly so many from which to select but I thought Baobab struck balance between luxury and ease. High end touches didn’t feel overdone but there were enough that you felt spoiled in just a touch of luxe on your wilderness adventure. We’ll be back for that cheetah!