When planning my trip to Africa I decided to go all out and stay at a luxury safari lodge.
It can be daunting to research and to decide which lodge to go with as there are quite a few in Kruger Park alone that are absolutely stunning and offer a world class safari experience.
After spending a good deal of time looking into it, I decided for a few reasons to go with Ngala, & Beyond’s lodge in Timbavati, which lies roughly on the left side of the middle area of the park near the Orpen gate. (Go to: www.and beyond.com/lodges-camps for an overview of all & Beyond lodges. Click on Lodge and Camps and then South Africa to see Ngala.) Aside from looking and sounding absolutely stunning, I was also strongly attracted to & Beyond’s philosophy regarding conservation and care of reserve property and the animals on it, and also their philosophy regarding the local people and what they can bring to the community in the way of training and jobs and overall appreciation for the indigenous population.
Most people book their safari dream trip knowing that they will be met at the airport and taken care of from the very start. I did things a bit differently in that I had decided to drive solo through the northeast region of South Africa, cross over into Swaziland, and then cross back over the border into South Africa and head up to Ngala Lodge in Timbavati. After going on safari my driving plan included heading back south through Kruger Park and crossing into Mozambique, all of which I did do.. however that’s a different article (look for Solo Driving and Diving in Mozambique).
Back to Ngala Lodge. The trip up to the Orpen Gate entrance to Kruger Park was absolutely stunning as it entailed driving the steep and pin-tight winding roads of the mountain region of the Steenkampsberg Pass. I was set for a long drive but had no idea of what a treat it would be. Truly in my opinion one of the more scenic routes on the planet.
Finally I arrived at Orpen Gate and immediately I felt I was entering another world. As I drove down the road looking for my turn off to Ngala Lodge I was delighted by spotting a few giraffes nearby. After about thirty minutes or so I came to the second boom and entered Timbavati Game Reserve. The road from that point was no longer paved and became bumpy enough so that I had to speed up rather than slow down in order to drive on the “washboard” surface. I’d been told not to exit my vehicle for obvious reasons…awesome! Every so often I would come across another sign at a crossroads that pointed me in the direction of Ngala. The reserve itself is a spiderweb of small dirt roads providing capability for the safari vehicles so that they can traverse the reserve’s land and access good off-road locations to further penetrate the terrain. Lodges like Ngala have territory within the reserve that is used exclusively by them. This way they can be very careful about how the animals are approached, how often they are approached, and also keep tabs on the movement of the various species, successful mating (producing young) and so on.
After feeling like I’d been bouncing along for a good amount of time I passed by the last sign and realized that I was only minutes away. Pulling around the last corner, the front of the lodge materialized. Elegantly and gently meshing with the stark landscape of the dry season, Ngala seemed to be part of a dream in the middle of nowhere! And it kind of is. Delicious!
I glanced at my watch. 3 pm. Wow, feeling pretty dirty, kind of beat from my eight hour or so drive I came to a stop and peeked out my window. As I popped the door open to exit my trusty 4×4 rental a couple of men seemed to emerge like magic. One proceeded to take my backpack off my shoulder as the other introduced himself while handing me a cool, damp tightly rolled washcloth (on a silver platter) to wipe my hands and refresh my face. A freshly squeezed glass of juice on a tray in the main foyer awaited me, and as I sipped my drink I was mindfully led through the foyer, past the main sitting area and down to the terrace by the main lodge’s dining area where other folks were starting to congregate. Moses, who was to be my personal butler during my stay (each guest is assigned their own butler in order to assure a seamless experience at Ngala where no detail is overlooked) explained as he took me to my room that the afternoon’s game drive was commencing shortly and as soon as I was settled I was to follow the path back to the terrace where afternoon tea was being held prior to safari. Perfect timing!
As Moses showed me around my quarters my head started to spin. I have stayed in some of the best hotels in the world and I’m telling you, the understated opulence – yes, it sounds like a hard thing to achieve, yet Ngala does it – just oozed out of every corner. Semi monochromatic in color scheme with whites, creams, tawny browns and natural wood and stone elements, it fit in perfectly with the landscape outside of my full wall of glass and sliding doors which opened out onto a large deck. A small deer of some sort and her fawn were quietly munching on what little grass there is during this dry time of year. I was shown around the room with it’s huge cozy bed, side table with decanter of sherry and fridge with daily (or more than daily if needed) bar, and my bathroom which included an amazing outdoor shower area. Yes, I could get used to this set-up easily, I was quite sure!After throwing on a fresh shirt and grabbing my hat and camera I scurried up the path to the terrace. Immediately a tall young man in traditional bush garb introduced himself. His name was Allyn, and he was to be my guide on the game drives. Four enthusiastic bubbly people crowded around us, happily chattering and introducing themselves to me. I didn’t know what was going on yet so all this attention was delightfully overwhelming! Ahh! These warm, lively thirty-somethings were part of Allyn’s herd of humans – during your stay at Ngala you remain with the same guide and as long as time overlap allows, the same group of guests. This allows for a very special part of the Ngala experience as it allows one to form bonds and friendships with each other in a short period of time. That happens when you share the profound with others. It’s so, so cool.It’s not every day that you are part of a group of people that watch five lionesses take down a wildebeest, or see a leopard drag its fresh kill high into the branches of a tree in the moonlight. Friendships are forged that can last a lifetime.
After an amazing first game drive where lionesses (and two cubs) and deceased wildebeest were viewed, plus rhinos, zebras, hippos and giraffes, the vehicle came to a stop and all my new comrades decended from the vehicle with happy barks as to where the ladies’s and the men’s room was. Allyn and our tracker, Joseph, checked out a couple of trees a few yards away from each other to make sure there was nothing lurking about, and it was girls’ turn first. You’re in Africa in the bush! And in the meantime, to wet our whistles, the bar magically materialized and drinks were poured with panache along with freshly cured kudu jerky and other treats. You just can’t get more civilized in my humble opinion. On the right is our guide, Allyn and on the left is Joseph, our tracker.
After a leisurely cocktail (or two) in the bush we loaded back into the vehicle and headed back to the Lodge..or so I thought. By now it was dark, and wrapped in cozy merino blankets we all shared our thoughts and experiences. But what’s this? Allyn is asking us about all those little lights up ahead. Fireflies? Little fires? As we get closer we realize that they are dozens and dozens of kerosene lanterns, hanging from tree branches and gracing tables. Shining silverware and glittering goblets on crisp linens are floating in the clearing like a dream. We pull up and park. We are the last to arrive (which became a wonderful habit). Allyn looks at me apologetically and says to me “I know you’re really tired and were looking forward getting cleaned up, but I didn’t want to spoil the surprise.” Who is thinking about showers and downtime in one’s room now? Not me, that’s for sure!
What entailed was cocktails followed by a rollicking dinner under the stars with lamb, duck, and wild game sausage with all the trimmings and of course, some fabulous South African wines. I am now officially in heaven. As it turns out, I arrived on a Tuesday which was a lucky break indeed for me, as the dinners out in the bush take a bit of doing and only happen once a week on, yes, Tuesdays. Yay! However without going too far (wouldn’t want to spoil the many surprises that await you) each night dinner was a delightful surprise via the use of different venues and presentations. I stayed at Ngala for three nights and each evening the dining experience was unique and stupendous. I should also mention that although I was a solo traveler, I did not have dinner alone once. Meals were comprised of your safari companions and Allyn, and this gave ample opportunity to share the beauty, excitement and awe that I and the others felt and experienced out on the drives.
Lucky for me I had two more days of wild and amazing game drives, each lasting at least three and a half hours. Allen consistently kept our crew out longer because of course we all wanted to – who wouldn’t?! Our efforts were rewarded with nighttime leopard sightings and hyenas angling for a piece of the kill. Each day was seamless, beginning with the quiet knock on my door at 5:30 am that awakened me kindly and gently, letting me know that coffee, tea, hot chocolate (with a dash of Amarula if desired) and biscuits were getting ready to be served before the morning drive. Sumptuous breakfasts awaited upon one’s return, and luncheon might be accompanied by a rhino or a herd of elephants joining you by the pool.
All in all if you’re going to go on safari, whether it’s in South Africa or Kenya or Tanzania, if you can possibly swing it, go all in and book your experience at a private game lodge. It’s a once in a lifetime (or more if you’re really lucky) bucket list item, and I can guarantee that you will leave with a different view of your place in the world and the profound diversity and magic alive on this planet. Appreciation will abound as you have the time of your life.