The Ultimate South Africa Travel Guide

some photos courtesy of Makanyi Private Lodge

It’s been quite some time that I’ve wanted to pop my safari cherry. So when my mother and I decided to spend our (now) nearly-annual “Mommy-moon” in South Africa over the last Christmas and New Year holidays, a trek to the African bush became the last pit stop of a marathon 16-day expedition that covered Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Stellenbosch Wine Country.

I unfortunately do not have much space to talk about the first two weeks of our trip, and even a series of articles will not do the country and experience enough justice. From the kaleidoscope of colors and the explosion of flavors, to the magnificent vistas and the warmth of the people, it was truly spectacular.

It was also exhausting, so it was perfect that we ended our cross-country “race” at a luxury lodge in the northeastern section of the country in the 55,000-hectare Timbavati Private Game reserve. Meaning “the place where something sacred came down to earth from the heavens” in the local Tsonga dialect, Timbavati borders Kruger National Park—the largest and best-known in South Africa, which, at 20,000-square meters, is roughly the size of Israel. Fortunately, this privilege was not extended to tourists. Kruger is known for its large crowds (and traffic), while Timbavati remains very serene and private.

Upon arrival in Hoedpsruit, which is the closest “airport” in Timbavati, we were immediately driven to the Lowveld—the sweeping rural countryside that is composed of valleys above sea level but below 1,000 meters. Considered by many to be the “real Africa,” this low-lying subtropical ecosystem is where broad-leafed and thorn-trees coexist in fairly open woodland interspersed with long grass lots of termite mounds and of course, wild game.

We didn’t quite expect for the Lowveld to be so lush and green, but were told that this area had just recovered from a severe drought that had plagued the country for a couple of years. So after an hour-long drive through the dirt roads and having already spotted the odd giraffe here, the few elephants there and oodles of impala everywhere, we finally arrived at Makanyi Lodge—a boutique property that won Best New Safari Lodge in 2016, and was featured in numerous publications such as CN Traveler, London Tatler and Architectural Digest.

Being a fairly seasoned (and critical) nomad, I have learned to temper my expectations whenever I go to a new place, no matter how many accolades it’s received or how much coverage it’s gotten in the international press. However, any lingering doubts were immediately quelled as we entered the thoughtfully manicured grounds and first glimpsed the indigenous rondavels (conical thatched huts) that made up the resort.

Upon arrival, we were instantly welcomed by the staff, most of whom I felt I already knew since I kept on harassing them with queries and requests for about four months prior. You see, most people plan their safaris about a year in advance, and the season we went was especially busy since the Yuletide break coincides with high summer in southern hemisphere. Luckily, due to a cancellation, we were able to secure a booking, but logistics were a bit of a challenge. Lilian from the front office and Claudia the co-GM were great at helping with everything though, so in the end everything worked out perfectly.

After the pre-requisite briefing by Rico (Claudia’s hubby and the other co-GM) that outlined all the do’s and don’ts and getting the general lay of the land, we were led to our rondavel—which, while looking quite simple from the outside, turned out to be amazingly luxurious and well-thought out inside. Like the rest of the resort, each nook and cranny was so Instagram-worthy that I had to refrain myself from annoying all my friends with nonstop uploads. The suite was also extremely spacious, furnished with gorgeous furniture and fixtures, and stocked with what seemed like the entire range of Africology toiletries. It also had a lovely living area with a fireplace, and a huge outdoor deck looking out onto a dam (aka watering hole) with its resident bloat of hippos that we eventually realized wouldn’t stop squealing all night.

Since we checked in around noon when there are usually no game drives, we decided to take a leisurely lunch and decompress from our flight from Cape Town. As with all the other top-tier lodges, our rate at Makanyi included all the meals, drinks and activities—which definitely rationalized the high prices. Since there are only seven rondavels with a maximum of 15 guests at any given time in the property, massive buffets were nowhere to be found. There was, however, no shortage of great food made with the freshest of ingredients, service of the highest caliber, and a very wide variety of wines and spirits.

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Obviously, the game drives are the highlights of this trip and most lodges have two such excursions—one in the early morning at 5:30 AM and one in the late afternoon at 4:30 PM. Makanyi has a fleet of beautifully converted Land Rovers that are custom-fitted for comfort and adapted for the rolling terrains. An expert guide and an experienced tracker accompany a maximum of four guests per vehicle on these three-hour jaunts to observe and photograph the wildlife, as well as take in the surreal surroundings. It took a while to acclimate ourselves to spotting the animals as most of them are perfectly camouflaged, but it definitely got easier once we got used to it. It also helped that I brought a decent DSLR with a long lens because smartphones are only adequate for selfies and general landscape shots.

So it was on our first daybreak drive, on a damp and rainy morning (while dealing with a rather nasty hangover), that we were privileged enough to see one of the fabled white lions of Timbavati. Not to be confused with albino lions or the ersatz white lions that are bred for tourism purposes, the Timbavati white lions are the result of leucism—a glitch in the genetic coding for color that causes a reduction in or complete lack of pigmentation cells, thanks to a recessive gene. Originally documented by Chris McBride in the mid 70s, these lions are considered a sub-species that are sadly going to be extinct very soon. Our guide Alfred was telling us that less than 1% of guests to the area actually get to see them as there are only two left in the wild. We could hardly contain our excited at having had this privilege, especially since we were just about to veer off that path five minutes before seeing her!

Having checked off the most important item on our list, we set off on a few more drives at a more leisurely pace and went on to spot four of the Big Five—originally coined by big game hunters and refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. We weren’t able to find any leopards, but did see quite a few lions, elephants and rhinoceros, and saw a massive herd of cape buffalos that ended up parading in front of our rondavel one morning. Aside from the Big Five, we saw lots of antelopes, impalas, kudus, warthogs, wildebeests and giraffes. Timbavati is also a birder’s paradise, with more than 350 species recorded from eagles to vultures to kingfishers, which provided a nice complement to the larger mammals and made us appreciate the beautiful baobab trees everywhere because most of the birds were perched on them. Apart from the magnificent flora and fauna, my fave aspect of these outings had to be the sun-downers, where we would park at a clearing, and have drinks and snacks while watching the glorious African sunset before driving back to the lodge.

The few hours that we had in between drives were spent mostly in the lodge and enjoying the facilities, from the gym to the spa and the pool. Because of Makanyi’s size and layout, we also got to know the other lovely guests quite well, as meals were always taken around the same time and became the perfect venue to compare notes and tips. We also opted to leave the lodge one day to go on an express 700-kilometer marathon via the legendary Panorama Route, where we visited Blyde River Canyon, Burke’s Luck Potholes and Lisbon Falls.

It goes without saying that it was very difficult to say goodbye to Makanyi. It really was the epitome of a safari paradise, but I cannot wait to plan another one now that the proverbial cherry has been popped. Safari, after all, means travel in Swahili—and we all know how much we love to do that.   

SAFARI 101

  •  It is essential to start planning safaris as early as a year in advance.  Not only are you able to get better deals on airfare, you will have a much wider variety of lodges (and price points) to choose from.  For those who do not want to deal with their own logistics then it may be easier to contact a proper operator that specialize in safaris.
  • As to the question of when to go, different countries have disparate seasons and highlights so it is important to do extensive research online.  Remember Africa is a massive continent.
  • Another consideration is whether the country you want to visit has an Embassy in Manila.  If they do not, then it may be very inconvenient to get a visa.
  • Most lodges will require a 3 night minimum stay which is quite adequate especially if you plan on visiting more than one lodge.
  • If planning to travel with kids, verify with your lodge or safari operator as camps have varying rules.
  • Be sure to check on vaccination requirements as they vary from country to country.
  • Ascertain what the baggage limitations are for your flights as smaller bush planes do not allow anything with a frame.
  • Pack clothes that blend in with the landscape as you do not want to attract unwanted attention hence safari style is mostly sandy beige and white.  
  • There are normally 2 3-hour drives per day so make sure to pack your gear with that in mind and be prepared for swings in the weather especially during the 5am excursions.
  • Make sure to invest in a decent camera with a good size zoom as your mobiles will only work for selfies and landscape shots.

 

Originally published in Zee Lifestyle, March 2017

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