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Trip Report from Southern Africa:
Safari Lodges with Personality (Part 1)
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Hi <<First Name>>,

While the New Year is now fully underway, I am still inspired by the posts and photo collages many people shared on social media of last year's favorite travels. It definitely gets my own wish list to grow when I see all of the amazing places you’ve been. I think the below will inspire you as well, as Southern Africa remains a top tourist destination for 2017. I wanted to take this opportunity to provide an overview of some of the places I know you and your clients are most interested in.

Last year Brooke and I made it a point to explore more areas of South Africa specifically, with two extension options: Zambia and Mozambique. As Brooke now independently represents Tswalu Kalahari and Thanda Safari / Thanda Island, she was interested in experiencing complementary places. We saw other malaria-free options – Marataba and Madikwe Safari Lodges; a sister member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World – Grootbos; and just generally checked out what’s new in Wine Country.

We hope you enjoy Brooke’s Trip Report, offering an overview of the places, activities, and small details that make a big difference … we always have an eye out for how properties are making a positive impact on the ground. Since the Trip Report covers nearly 10 properties in 3 countries, restaurants and wineries, culture and art, and more, we split it into two parts and highlighted the most important details in bold. Part 1, below, covers the safari properties; Part 2 will cover Cape Town and the extension options (Tongabezi and White Pearl Resorts). 

All the best for a successful 2017, and please feel free to let us know if you would like more information.


Johann & Brooke
 
Tswalu Kalahari – A Vast and Magical Land
This trip report was written on a hot summer day at Tswalu Kalahari, sitting in the shade of the dining area, with the luxury of time to sit for hours and watch a weaver masterfully build a new nest. While the days are mostly hot here this time of year (December), we had mornings crisp enough for a fleece, cool afternoon rains and intense lightning storms, and impressive spot-on sightings on every game drive. Time simply slows down in the dry heat. Right now is the first time on this trip we feel truly relaxed, like there is nothing to accomplish. Families are swimming in the pool, couples are having massages at the spa, a woman is reading in the shade sala as animals come to drink at the water hole. The real decadence of Tswalu is that every guest is guaranteed a private vehicle, guide, and tracker, and there is absolutely no set itinerary or agenda for anyone – sleep in late, spend an hour at a sighting (we never saw another vehicle while out), change your mind … every moment is about you and what you want. 
Our guide, Kyle, has a youthful enthusiasm about everything we encounter, many of which are beyond belief that our tracker, Jonas, spotted while we were driving: a rock monitor lizard nestled in the base of a bush; a chameleon in the dark on the way back from a Dune Dinner; a den of Bat Eared Foxes on a night drive. We also saw the many unique and endangered species that Tswalu is so famous for. One drive was spent tracking a desert black rhino with a four-month-old calf; another trailing the Northern Pride of lions, which consists of two handsome Kalahari black-mained lions, three females, and two three-month-old cubs. After a morning with the habituated meerkats, we found two cheetah brothers. The absolute endless numbers of rare antelope are so impressive. Myriad herds 10+ strong of oryx, rhone, sable, hartebeast … all of which came to the waterhole in front of Motse so we could enjoy them from our suite’s private deck (1 of 9 Suites total; 3 of which are 2-bedroom Family Suites). We also saw lots of springbok, steenbok, kudu, zebra, and giraffe. And the melodic chirping of birds was constant. We were surprised by the sheer number of birds, and pleased to see such beautiful species as the Golden-Tailed Woodpecker, Burchell’s Sandgrouse, and Double-banded Courser. Tswalu is located in the Green Kalahari (malaria-free), and when the rains do come, the grasses turn bright green and the loveliest, most delicate little yellow flowers blanket the ground.
Tswalu prides itself on its dedication to conservation and research; it was a founding member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. We were lucky enough to drive by Anthony, a PhD student who has been doing field work at Tswalu for three years. We caught him at the end of a species count of a nest, and spent 30 minutes talking with him about the research he’s doing on the extreme association between Sociable Weavers and Pygmy Flacons. It was all very interesting.
We also spent a night out with Wendy, the pangolin researcher. This was a lifetime highlight! By the time we got to Wendy, after dinner, it was about 11pm. Moonlight and headlamps guided our way as the four of us (Kyle accompanied us) walked through the bush, tracking one of the pangolins that she is monitoring. When we came upon the elusive and highly-endangered creature, it was making its way through the bush intently, feasting on ants at every shrub. We walked alongside the pangolin for nearly an hour, studying its movements, and asking lots of questions. As we made our way back to Motse around 1am, we agreed it was the best “night safari” we’ve ever been on!
We flew out of Jo-burg where the private Fireblade Aviation hanger is, which has a spectacular lounge and is quite the amenity for all Tswalu guests. If guests are connecting to/from the Sabi Sands, there is a 30-minute connection time, which still provides enough time for the VIP transfer. Among the amenities, there is also an impressive art display at Fireblade that is provided through the Everard Read gallery. Tswalu has a strong connection to the art world and has fostered an artist-in-residence program. The first-ever home built on the land was turned into an art gallery, named Boscia House, with the most spectacular bronze pieces, cast from Tswalu’s flora and fauna, by artist Nic Bladen.
Grootbos – The Garden Route Close to Cape Town 
Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is a mystical place for anyone thinking “Garden Route”; who wants to learn about South Africa’s fynbos (skip Kirstenbosch in lieu of Grootbos); or who wants to see the majestic marine life (whales - late July through November - sharks, dolphins, etc.). Easy to connect with Cape Town, the picture-perfect two-hour drive along the Whale Coast follows the coastline the entire time, and even passes by Betty’s Bay where Stony Point has a less touristed penguin colony. Also easy to connect with the winelands, the hour-and-a-half drive inland brings you over a pass with gorgeous views of Franschhoek; though recently we’ve been eagerly exploring the Hemel En Aarde wine region, which you can do as a day trip from Grootbos. Summers are dry with fog rolling in from time to time; winter bring the rains.
Grootbos just completed its second, spectacular villa, so now there is a six-bedroom and a four-bedroom villa, both private, but next to each other for an easy combination for big groups or large multi-generational families.
Forest Lodge suffered a fire last year, and they took the opportunity when closed to rebuild the dining area, to also renovate all of the suites as well. It is basically a brand new lodge, and it shows, with elegant wood flooring, plush soft goods, modern metal and glass doors leading from the expansive suites to private decks with plunge pools; every detail has been attended to. While the minimum age at Forest Lodge is 12, Garden Lodge has no minimum age and its 11 Garden Cottages and thoughtfully designed main lodge are perfect for families of all ages.
Also a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World alongside Tswalu, Grootbos is doing wonders for conservation and community. Home to the largest Milkwood Forest in the world, there are numerous hiking trails that lead you through the sacred trees, some of which are 800 years old. This forest is home to mammals, birds, and additional tree species. In total, Grootbos comprises more than 6,000 acres with 765 plant species, 100 of which are endangered and 6 of which are new to science! When we stopped discussing the water-independent antelope that live here (duiker, klipspringer, bushbuck, steenbok), it was so quiet we could hear the ocean. In addition to walks, there are 20+ horses on property to ride, and we went on a botanical safari and toured the impressive gardens, Green Futures Collage, and other community projects sponsored by the Grootbos Foundation. Driving around the property and up to Protea Peak, we learned about the immense diversity of the fynbos in the Cape and on Grootbos. We love the zero-waste, farm-to-fork, gourmet cuisine here, and Brooke is especially excited to see where both the fynbos and honey comes from that goes into our nightly servings of ice cream. In the end, one of the most exciting projects for us is the Green Futures Collage, which is on property, and sponsors around a dozen students each year so that people from the local communities can get a degree in agriculture and go on with great success rates to work in horticulture.
Marataba and Madikwe Safari Lodges – MORE Malaria-Free Options
Less than a three-hour drive north of Johannesburg (or a Safari Link/Unique Air flight from the Sabi Sands) lay the magical Waterberg Mountains. Marataba sits far enough back from the base of the Waterberg that everywhere we drive on safari the mountains frame our view. They are the oldest red oxidized sandstone mountains in the world, and some people come here just for the geology. Marataba means “middle of the mountains” or “place of the mountains”.

As this area is malaria-free, it is also perfect to combine with Tswalu or Thanda. The terrain is entirely different, and since there is more water in the area there are lots of elephants … the one Big Five not at Tswalu. They even have a little boat, the Miss Mara, where you can do a river cruise for sundowners. And Marataba is very family friendly, while also being exceptional for couples or groups of adults.

We are on land that forms part of the Marakele National Park, and there is no fence between Marataba’s land and the park. There are only two lodges on their 57,000 acres: the 15-tent Marataba with no age restrictions, and Trails Lodge, with a maximum guest count of 8 people and a minimum age requirement of 16 because the focus here is on walking safaris. You can even walk into Bushman’s Gorge and see 1,000-year-old Bushman drawings! Marataba has air-conditioners over the beds, as does Trails Lodge, as well as misters on the balconies – a fabulous little touch! 
The overall animal viewing was excellent. Our guide, Michelle, took us and another couple out for an afternoon drive. We were soon in the midst of a herd of 34 elephants. She tells us there are about 250 elephants on the whole property. Another big herd we saw was of buffalo, easily 70 strong. Marataba has both black and white rhino (and top-notch anti-poaching efforts), brown and spotted hyena, and during our two nights we also saw ample antelope - kudu, impala, rhone, gemsbok (oryx), eland, nyala, wildebeest – as well as lion, hippo, giraffe, zebra, jackal, bat eared fox, white tailed mongoose, birds, and more. As there are only five vehicles on the whole property the safari drive experience is very private when it comes to other lodge traffic.
From Marataba it is a 2.5-hour drive to Madikwe Game Reserve, which is owned by NorthWest Parks, and is not a national park. You can also fly here directly from Jo-burg, or use MORE for the transfer between their properties. Madikwe is the fifth largest game reserve in South Africa with 185,000 acres of land. There are about 30 different properties within the entire Madikwe reserve, however many, maybe half, are private or corporate and not open to public guest stays. Madikwe Safari Lodge is separated into three lodges all with a lived-in luxury feel: Dithaba (mountain) has four rooms; Kopano (intimate gathering) has four rooms; and Lelapa (family) has 12 rooms and is easily the most perfect choice for families as there is a large, heated swimming pool and numerous areas for families to play, relax, or explore. Madikwe is also a non-malaria area.

Madikwe was created in partnership with government when it was determined that eco-tourism was the best use of the land, and so the local people own the land and the private sector manages the properties and encourages tourism. When the reserve was created, 8,000 animals from 22 species were brought back into Madikwe and the reintroduction has been a great success; there are now more than 1,500 elephants in Madikwe (as well as all of the Big Five), a solid wild dog population, and more.

There is rich history in the area, spanning the Tswana people (Madikwe is on the border of Botswana) to the Anglo Boer War and hunters from 1800s, to what is known as Ambush Ally from WW1, to the Belgian Missionaries of the 1850s.
Tintswalo Safari – Affordable Luxury in the Greater Kruger Area
Tintswalo is located within the Manyeleti, which is a 50,000-acre National Reserve. A direct two-hour flight from Cape Town lands at Hoedspruit, and then it is a 45-minute drive in a nice van on tar road to Tintswalo. With seven spacious suites with private plunge pools, five star services, and Big Five game viewing, Tintswalo Safari is an outstanding FIT option. During sundowners on our last night we met the owners, who shared with us the plans (literally, we saw the blueprints) for four new luxurious tree houses that should be finished mid-year.

Together with our friends we rented the more toned-down and very affordable Manor House, a private five-bedroom farmhouse on property, for a totally exclusive experience. Since the house is booked for sole-use, we had a private vehicle, guide, and tracker, which was exactly what our first-time safari goers needed. The house is fully staffed with a manager, chef, and housekeeper, and we reserved in-home massages as well. It includes such amenities as a private pool with chaise chairs, separate shade sala and stocked bar, a separate living room and TV room, and an upstairs play area for children. It also sits in front of a water hole, which brought game close to the house throughout our stay.
While the Big Five are in the Manyeleti, the three-year drought across Southern Africa took its toll on the game everywhere, and here our buffalo viewing was considerably less than expected. However, ironically, it rained two out of four days we were there in late November. Our troop didn’t blink an eye. We dawned our ponchos and gave thanks that every time we stopped for an interesting site the rains stopped as well, at least long enough for photos. And, our elephant encounters were some of the closest, most jaw-dropping we’ve had, thanks to our guide Wikus, who is the truest thing to an Elephant Whisperer we’ve spent time with in the bush. We had daily leopard sightings, relaxed rhino viewing, leisurely lion time, and a mixture of all the other game you’d expect of the Greater Kruger Region.
Thanda Safari – Rejuvenation and Rebirth in Zululand
Thanda, which means “Love” in Zulu, is a conservation and community project born out of love. Privately owned by a family that fell in love with the Zulu people, they have been working in partnership with the Zulu King for 15 years to rehabilitate the land (35,000 acres), reintroduce species (they brought in close to 900 individual animals), and uplift the local communities. With the return of rain to South Africa, we were immersed in a lush landscape and saw countless cubs, calves, and other newly-born babes. Located in the heart of KwaZulu Natal, with a sub-tropical environment and diverse, colorful flowers, Thanda offers birders the ability to photograph more than 400 unique bird species. And with resident photographer, Christian Sperka, facilitating complimentary two-hour workshops to all interested guests, everyone from novice to expert, whether on an iPhone or a fancy DSLR, will be able to take professional-quality photos.
Thanda is home to the Big Five; has partnered with researchers to understand more about certain populations on property, such as hyena; and continues to do rehabilitation and release projects, such as with two cheetah cubs whose mother was killed by a lion. There are two lion prides, the Northern and Southern Prides. In the more open areas we saw generous plains game: zebra, giraffe, impala, kudu, waterbuck, wildebeest. And here we saw another large herd of buffalo, 50 strong! There are also areas perfect for both black and white rhinos. We saw a healthy population of adult rhino with impressively long horns, which is always a relief to see. Of the 180+ staff, 1/3 comprise the security force protecting the rhino. And of course Brooke, with her fear of snakes, was the one who spotted a python on one of our game drives; there were few other people to share in this sighting other than those with us on the vehicle as we hardly saw another vehicle anytime we were out.
We also did a mid-day community visit, which can be tailored to be as long or quick as guests would like. Mxolisi, whose name means “Peacemaker” has been leading these visits for six years, and when asked if the experience was authentic or more of a theatrical performance for guests, he said that it was completely authentic and that he has never seen guests other than Thanda’s at these communities. Thanda is close to three separate villages and so they go to different ones depending on how long guests want to be out. We went to the closest, at the base of the Lebombo Mountains, which has had Zulu people living there since the 1800s. There was a mix of traditional and modern homes, but each one had a Zulu rondoval for sacred ancestor homage. We met with women whose faces were colored by limestone; saw the brewing of sorghum beer for the upcoming holiday festivities, spoke with a builder completing a new rondoval for a family, and got fashion advice from a young man who is part of the community’s cultural troop that performs song and dance some evenings at Thanda.
Thanda offers three accommodation choices, each a few miles apart from one another within the reserve, and as it is a non-malaria area it is wonderful for guests of all ages:

Safari Lodge 9 large Zulu-style suites with expansive decks, each with a private plunge pool, shade sala, boma with fireplace, outdoor shower, indoor fireplace, wireless Internet, and more. Thanda Safari Lodge is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and offers five-star luxury with both service and amenities, and includes twice-daily drives and bush walks. There is a gorgeous spa, media and game room, wine cellar, and very active water hole in front of the staggered dining decks. There is no age limit on children here.
Tented Camp 15 spacious and comfortable tents are an outstanding option for anyone on a budget or wanting an under canvas experience. There is surprisingly good Internet and cell reception in the main area, which is also where the communal charging strips are, in addition to the bar and living room, reception and shop, dining area, and pool … the spa tent is a short walk away. A short walk in the other direction leads to a large living room-style viewing sala in front of the water hole. At Thanda Tented only, there is a nominal charge for laundry, the mini-bar, non-house wine and spirits, and activities outside of the twice-daily game drives. The minimum age for children here is 8.
Villa iZulu – A grand, 5-bedroom villa that can actually host up to 18 people when extra beds for children are set up in rooms, and the library can be converted for two twins. The villa is a totally exclusive experience with a full staff, private boma, resort-style pool, loft with office and TV area, and lots of outdoor decks. iZulu provides everything you would expect of a luxury villa.
Thanda has a good relationship with Phinda and uses its airstrip for guests. The FedAir flight from Jo-burg to Phinda is less than two hours (we were in a Cessna 208B Caravan 9-seater with 2 pilots), and from there we were in a spacious SUV for the easy transfer to Thanda. The drive was mostly through the Phinda Reserve, so we started seeing game right away in the flat, open terrain, and then immediately after crossing the N2 we entered the Thanda Private Game Reserve. This year Airlink is launching daily flights linking Phinda with most lodges in the Greater Kruger area, opening up more opportunities for combinations. Guests can also fly into Durban and Richards Bay and have transfers organized for Thanda. We were transferred to Kosi Bay and made our way into Mozambique, for a few nights at White Pearl Resorts, which will be covered in Part 2.
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