There are so many ways to safari in South Africa and plenty of options to suit every budget. If it's a bucket list, once-in-a-lifetime safari experience you seek, you'll definitely want to splurge on a luxury safari within the private Thornybush Game Lodge Collection.
The thrills began as soon as I landed at tiny Hoedspruit Airport. The Thornybush Game Lodge (the Collection's main lodge) sent a van to fetch me and we were lucky enough to spot wildebeest and Southern ground hornbill on our way to the reserve. It was like a mini safari - a small preview of what was to come in the days ahead.
As van pulled up to the open, airy main lodge, there were cool towels and fresh juice awaiting our arrival. I noticed during my stay how the whole thatch-roofed lodge had plenty of plush nooks to sit in and cozy up with a good book (or a pair of binoculars) and watch the day (and wildlife) go by.
The staff at the Thornybush Game Lodge made sure our experience was - in a word - flawless. Upon arrival, you will meet your assigned tracker and guide who will stick with you for the entire duration of your stay. You get to know them pretty well, as these two will take you out on your daily game drives - dawn and dusk. They'll answer any questions (no matter how stupid) about African wildlife, their life as safari guides, conservation and community issues, and more. Wayne was our guide and John was our tracker. Not only did they work well together, but the whole team of tracker and guides appeared to work well together to deliver a superior guest experience to all guests at the lodge at that time. There was just the right amount of healthy competition to drive to the best wildlife sightings for their own guests first, of course!
I really felt at home inside my cozy chalet in the bush. The balcony, as well as the deep soaking tub, overlooked the seasonally-flooded Monwana River below. Housekeeping set my mosquito netting down each night at turndown and drew it back in the morning. The outdoor shower was a great way to cool off after a hot and dusty walking safari.
The camp is unfenced, so, watch out for wildlife which regularly wander into the main lodge area (mainly antelope species) . This is a "Big 5" park which means there are definitely predators lurking. A member of staff will accompany you back to your room each evening for your safety.
In addition to the 18 suites like the one I stayed in, there are two honeymoon (or family) suites. As an added bonus, there is a small private pool attached to this room.
You'd never know you were smack dab in the middle of the bush while eating at Thornybush. As an all-inclusive, there was just so much good food to choose from. Before your group departs for your morning and evening safari, you'll have an opportunity for a quick coffee, juice and snack.
Safari drives start just before dawn and just before dusk and can last from 3-4 hours. The time flies so quickly, you'll hardly realize how long you've been gone. Along the way, you'll pause to stretch your legs and can take a bush bathroom break - tissue and paper baggie included. Don't be shy about it! If you have to go you have to go. You'll again have a chance to snack on morning coffee and rusks (think biscotti, but heartier) and evening sundowners and biltong (ask for gin and tonic, a classic safari drink).
Full breakfast is served after the morning safari returns to the lodge. Dinner is served once you return after dark. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style on the main lodge's deck.
At dinner, be sure and try the tender beef fillet with mashed potatoes.
In addition, there are two special meals each guest will get experience during their stay: a bush breakfast and boma dinner. I'll never forget the smell of fresh bacon wafting through the bush as we approached that breakfast site in our vehicle - what a great surprise! Dining on picnic tables in the wilderness and then by bonfire in the dry riverbed is something I will never forget.
Again, the one thing that really stood out here was how attentive the staff were. They went out of their way to make sure you were always well fed and had a drink in hand. I also liked how, at the end of our stay, we were able to tip each team (waitstaff, housekeeping, etc.) in a shared tip jar that would later be split among the team members after we departed.
The obvious highlight during your stay will be the morning and evening game drive. During my stay, John and Wayne took us to see the Big 5 in 3 short days. I can't stress how impressive this is. It requires a skilled, hardworking driver/tracker duo to deliver such an experience and it far exceeded my expectations.
I really loved that the lodge has a policy about the number of vehicles that can be near a sighting at any given time. Only two vehicles can be present at a time, so as to not irritate the wildlife and to give you the best, unobstructed picture opportunities. We never felt rushed; in fact, we spent a good 45 minutes with this little lion family. Every encounter we had on this reserve was memorable, but specifically, the times we were incredibly close to herds of elephants will forever stand out in my mind.
In-between safari drives, spend your time swimming in the main pool overlooking the riverbed.
Visit the Amani Spa for a relaxing massage on an afternoon when you're ready to try something different than a safari.
You might also like to go for an afternoon walk with your guide. They'll be armed, but don't worry, it's just for your safety in case of emergency. It's hot but worth it once you experience the feeling of being at eye level with the animals and massive termite mounds rather than from the high perch of the 4x4 vehicle.
Couples (honeymoon or romantic getaway) and families looking for an all-inclusive luxury safari experience.
The Thornybush Reserve is a private reserve sharing borders with other private reserves and with Kruger National Park. It's about a half hour drive from Hoedspruit airport. South African Airways flies direct to Hoedspruit from Johannesburg and Cape Town.
I was welcomed to Thornybush Game Lodge as a guest of South African Tourism. My opinions are my own.