South Africa is blessed with a wonderful variety of game reserves, wildlife, spectacular scenery and lodge options from five-star luxury to rustic simplicity. This list of the best safari lodges in South Africa features a selection of my favourite lodges in diverse locations and with a variety of styles.
Tanda Tula Safari Camp, Timbavati Private Game Reserve
Every visitor to South Africa should go on safari in one of the private game reserves in the Greater Kruger Area where close encounters with the Big 5 are almost guaranteed. So how do you choose from the dozens and dozens of lodges – particularly when they all offer roughly the same activities and wildlife viewing experiences? Tanda Tula, in the Timbavati, is a very special place indeed. First of all it is tented – albeit it has the most stylish, luxurious tents. Sleeping in a tent allows you to hear the noises of the African night, giving you a more intimate experience than spending the night sealed inside a brick chalet. There are very few tented options in the Greater Kruger area, so Tanda Tula stands out. Tanda Tula is owned and run by a dynamic couple who care passionately about their staff. Most of the staff have worked there for many years – you can feel the positive, happy atmosphere as soon as you arrive. It sounds corny, but you really do leave feeling you have made new friends and have become part of the family.
Nkorho Bush Lodge, Sabi Sands Game Reserve
When compiling a list of the best safari lodges in South Africa, it is important to include a lodge at the more affordable end of the scale, or rather less eye-wateringly expensive. This is especially so in Sabi Sands, perhaps the best leopard spotting location in all of Africa. Most of the luxury lodges in Sabi Sands offering spas, vintage wine lists and pillow menus come at a hefty price. Nkorho is a small, simple lodge that offers fantastic game viewing experiences but without some of the lavish frills. It accommodates a maximum of 12 people in delightful, thatched chalets and dinners are enjoyed together around the fire in the boma. They have exceptional guides and almost guaranteed leopard sightings.
Jaci’s Tree Lodge, Madikwe Private Game Reserve
Madikwe Private Game Reserve is only a 3½ hour drive from Johannesburg and it is malaria-free, making it perfect for families. It is a Big 5 reserve, and it also has a good reputation for wild dog sightings. There are two Jaci’s Lodges: Jaci’s Safari Lodge features two exclusive star-bed suites, six luxury tented suites and two private family suites and Jaci’s Tree Lodge has eight unique treehouse suites, custom-built on wooden stilts and connected by raised walkways high above the ground. Both lodges are owner-run by the eponymous Jaci, and are renowned for their bright, vibrant and colourful interiors. Photographers will love the underground Terrapin Hide for eye-level wildlife viewing at the waterhole. Jaci’s Lodges also offer the opportunity for ‘conservation safaris’, enabling guests to contribute to on-the-ground wildlife conservation efforts taking place in the greater Madikwe Game Reserve.
Tswalu, Northern Cape
This would have to be top of my list of the best safari lodges in South Africa – for its stunning location, special wildlife and luxury guest experience. Tswalu is South Africa’s largest private game reserve, situated in the southern Kalahari – a vast, pristine wilderness. It is famed for its rare and extraordinary wildlife. Here you can see the magnificent black-maned lions, African wild dogs and critically endangered desert black rhino. Another highlight is spending time with habituated meerkats. Tswalu is probably one of the best places in Africa to stand a chance of seeing the elusive pangolin or aardvark. This is very much an exclusive, five star safari experience. You are allocated your own game drive vehicle, guide and tracker so that you can enjoy a completely flexible itinerary. Between game drives, there are boma feasts, bush dinners, sundowners, wine tastings, champagne breakfasts and dune picnics. Activities include horse riding and walking safaris. Off course luxury spa treatments are on offer as well.
Finally for something completely different, I’ve included Grootbos in this list of the best safari lodges in South Africa. Grootbos is a luxury eco-lodge located in a pristine, private reserve close to the southern tip of Africa, tucked between mountains, forest and sea. It is just 2 hours from Cape Town. Although you won’t see big game here, you can take a trip to see the Marine Big 5 (great white shark, penguin, whale, seal and dolphin). The reserve is located in the Cape Floral Kingdom with 800 plant species and 1000-year-old milkwood forests. Grootbos has won every travel award going (Fodor’s Top 100 Hotels and Tatler’s Best Family Hotel in the World to name just two). It has two stylish, super-luxury lodges located in either the fynbos or milkwood forest. You can go on botanical tours, marine safaris, ride horses, relax in the spa, visit Grootbos’ award-winning social upliftment projects or just enjoy the stupendous coastal views.