The low belly rumble of an elephant communicating to another of its herd; the scent of sage and lavender as the jeep’s wheels crush the foliage underneath; a row of lionesses and their cubs lined up nosily slurping water; the dazzling sight of the Milky Way in the clear night sky – these are a just a tiny selection of wonderful moments that delighted my senses on a recent South African safari.
With your once-in-a-lifetime trips like these it’s often the parts you don’t expect that truly make the experience a memorable one. Everyone goes on safari to see majestic creatures in their natural habitats; a glimpse of their favoured wildlife or the potential sighting of an elusive big cat, and they’ll most likely realise their dreams of coming up and close with a herd of elephants, or even spy a leopard lounging in a tree, but it’s also a whole host of other captivating experiences, like witnessing some spectacular sunsets with a drink in hand and hearing the hippos grunting at midnight in the watering hole just a stone’s throw from the lodge, that makes the trip what it is.
Unforgettable encounters were in great supply as I enjoyed a four-night stay at the incredible Earth Lodge in March, one of four lodges (hotels) at the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, part of the Sabie Game Reserve in the Great Kruger National Park.
A hotel like no other
This is a hotel unlike anywhere else I’ve stayed, and I make quite the habit of checking into a lot of them! There aren’t many resorts across the world where you are escorted to your (outdoor) suite at the end of an evening by your armed safari ranger, just in case a wild animal has decided to have a wander around the property. It’s actually quite likely as the camp isn’t fenced off, meaning the local wildlife are allowed to wander freely – just Google ‘Sabi Sabi elephant on roof’ and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Earth Lodge has been designed with very few doors in the public areas, and so tales of hyenas sitting in the bar, the sight of a family of warthogs trotting up to graze the lawn where guests also eat and relax, and impala, snakes and other reptiles spotted roaming freely outside the suites are not unlikely. As I said, this isn’t your typical hotel stay, it’s actually quite extraordinary.
A family-owned private reserve, established for more than 40 years, Sabi Sabi has created a selection of four lodges – designer retreats that each offer the wow factor to arriving guests. Style, comfort and opulence are order of the day while you dine, lounge and enjoy your spare time in this wondrous part of the world. Selati Camp, a favourite for honeymooners, represents an age gone by, with a traditional, laid-back and cosy vibe; cool, warm woods and rich tones incorporated in the décor and sweeping views of the surrounding area giving you the perfect opportunity to spot wildlife by a nearby watering hole.
Bush Lodge is a bigger luxe retreat with two pools, similar décor to Selati Camp, 25 suites including some pretty magnificent options, an Elefun Centre for visiting children and expansive views of a watering hole and open plain. At Little Bush Camp, expect a more intimate stay with only six suites all decorated with African designs and those luxe furnishings that are ever present throughout all of these five-star lodges.
Symbolising a new era in luxury South Africa safari, Earth Lodge was my home for the duration and the design was quite unique to its sister lodges, or anywhere else I’ve stayed for that matter. 13 suites sit in individual buildings, as does a gym and spa, while a central building houses lounges, dining areas, a bar, library, wine cellar, and a gift shop selling clothes, books and souvenir items.
From afar you would barely even know the place exists as is the clever design of the stone structures, which have been sculpted into the earth. Natural materials are in abundance to remind you of your setting in the South African bushveld.
First impressions are difficult to make, as when you pull up in the safari truck, exit onto a raised platform and wander down some stone steps, it’s all very unassuming until the double doors are opened, you’re welcomed with a smile and handed a damp, scented towel. And that’s when you get a glimpse of the entrance area – a curved, open marvel centred around a glorious water feature; an impressive sight which offers discerning guests that wow factor moment.
As you spend time at Earth Lodge you’ll discover that the whole place feels like it has been designed to offer guests the very best experiences for the duration of their stay. High quality furnishings are prevalent throughout, good food and drink is offered up all day and guests are made to feel like long-time friends such is the exceptional service.
It’s also important to note Sabi Sabi’s commitment to the people of the local area, as is stated on their website: “in order for conservation to be successful in Africa, there needs to be an integral and participatory relationship between tourism operations and the neighbouring communities which border the reserve.” Head here to learn more of Sabi Sabi’s dedication to community empowerment.
The image of me walking around my suite for the first time must have been quite the sight. Mouth agape, I wandered my spacious and utterly luxurious surrounds wholly impressed at every turn and hardly believing that this was all mine for the next four days.
The design, layout and thoughtful touches; the minibar that had nothing mini about it; the art set just in case you are inspired by your surroundings and have time to channel your inner Van Gogh; the bathroom with its huge bathtub, stone twin sink set on a wood countertop; the shower with its window out to my (thankfully) private deck and open space beyond, and then the outdoor living space itself. If a suite could embody the wow factor, I think this would have to be it.
Luxury here abounds, from the artful elements within the decor to the private plunge pool outside to the amenities in the room that blend so well with the natural elements that gives Earth Lodge its identity. And I don’t think for a moment that any expense was spared when it came to choosing the fine fabrics and materials that make up the interior decoration.
Imagined by Dakota Designs, the sumptuous suite boasted bare stone walls and floors, which were adorned with a plush rug or two to aid a rustic, yet chic look. Double doors and full-length windows looked out onto the surroundings and the welcoming outdoor space was decked out with two loungers, a sofa, chairs and table – all of which were crafted with the finest materials. A plunge pool provided the perfect spot to luxuriate in between game drives and the view out to the bushveld was a mesmerising sight to behold.
Inside, there was everything I could want from a comfortable stay – space to work, relax, recline; a bar so full that would need hospitalisation if I attempted to plunder it, a huge bed with a canopy with soft brown leather headboard to provide utter comfort when the time to sleep came, and all of those helpful additions to make any visit a fulfilled one – coffee machine, air con, a safe and the like.
If you didn’t have the promise of great experiences on safari drives and long, experience-led meals in the public spaces then you could easily be tempted stay in your suite for the duration of your trip, in fact, I was told that this is what some guests do.
Fine food and delectable drinks
It isn’t solely the food and drink you devour here that makes mealtimes memorable at Earth Lodge, but the whole experience, and that encompasses the setting in which you dine. Over the course of four days, I barely ate a meal in the same place, and each felt like a special occasion. From dinner in the seductive wine cellar to breakfast in the treetops after one of the morning game drives, to a beautiful set up on the lawn and next to the lodge’s water feature, each time, the elegantly laid tables provided the perfect spot to devour the day’s specials.
Breakfasts are taken after the morning game drive (which sees you exploring from 6am to 9am) and feature a delectable selection of cooked dishes such as eggs benedict with house cured venison, spinach, chakalaka, poached egg and hollandaise or biltong, feta, mushroom, spinach, bacon and onion marmalade omelette as well as a mouth-watering buffet with delectable breads, cheeses, fruits, pastries and meats, which I couldn’t help but return to for more.
The lunch menu offers up some utter delights, including the safari rice roll with chicken, mushroom, carrot, pepper, bush slaw, coriander, cucumber, pumpkin seeds and Asian infused drizzle, which was so good I had it again the next day. Other items on the lunch menu included an ostrich or Mozambiquan prawn wrap, biltong Caesar salad, halloumi salad, ostrich burger, and venison sosatie (kebab).
If you still have room for more food, just a few hours later you can pop by before meeting for the afternoon game drive and tuck into the treats on the afternoon tea table to keep you going until the next meal. You will certainly never go hungry at Sabi Sabi!
The dinner menu changes every evening and takes places after the second game drive of the day, which sees you out from 4.30 to 7.30pm. Chef Ronald presented his menu for the evening which consisted of two starter options, three mains – one fish, one meat and one vegetarian, and his dessert for the night.
From melt-in-the-mouth duck to creamy risotto, gorgeous cuts of beef and lamb to big juicy prawns, seafood ramen, ostrich, kudu and more, expect a really great quality offering each evening with ingredients all sourced within two hours from the lodge, including delightful seafood from the Mozambique coast. And any visitor to South Africa is absolutely spoiled for choices when it comes to wine with some of the most delicious offerings being served up at lunch and dinner each evening – you’re in for a treat!
What to do – Safari time!
There’s little that comes close to the joy that bursts from your chest when you encounter an animal in the wild that you’ve waited so long to see, especially if you never thought that a safari trip might have ever been possible in your lifetime. It was almost breath-taking, the delight that I felt when I was faced with an elephant just moments into our first game drive, and the feeling didn’t disappear each and every time the truck came to a stop at the sight of an interesting find.
Our tracker for the trip was Patrick and our ranger was Jamiel, in fact Jamiel was the first person we met from Sabi Sabi after being greeted by him at the airstrip and driven to the lodge for the very first time. I honestly don’t think the experiences on the game drives with them could have been bettered, the pair truly made each and every trip out a memorable experience. We found leopard tortoises, hyenas, leopards, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, warthogs, elephants, wild dogs, zebras, lions, vultures and more and learnt so many fascinating details that only makes me want to delve even deeper into discovering the behaviour of these amazing creatures.
Every time we spotted an animal or an interesting sight worthy of a stop we would pull up and hear many interesting facts about our find while asking as many questions as we could of Jamiel and Patrick, and their patience and also enthusiasm was clear to see. Their knowledge, humour and friendliness made the experience the incredible one that it was, so much so that there was a definitely a tear or two when the time came to say our goodbyes.
There were so many highlights for me out on our game drives, and the best bit is it’s unscripted, so you really don’t know what you’re going to drive past, unless perhaps there’s been a key sighting from another ranger and, in that case, they’ll share their location.
Highlights for me include seeing lionesses and their cubs all lined up and slurping at the watering hole, as well as a herd of elephants at the watering hole with the sunset creating the most beautiful backdrop behind and reflections in the water, and seeing how the young ones drink face in, using their trunks as a snorkel. Watching the jolly trot of a warthog with its tail in the air as it scutters in the opposite direction and hearing how they move into abandoned termite mounds was fascinating. Being utterly wowed at hearing of the level of an elephant’s emotional intelligence and seeing their grumpiness and sassiness in action as well as hearing how they communicate with one another via belly rumble.
Seeing graceful giraffes, carefree and lazy lions, majestic rhinos, beautiful zebras, unbothered buffalo; stopping off to sip on a beverage while taking in the array of colours streaming across the sky as the sun departed for the day. Looking up to witness the wonder of the Milky Way in all its glory, stars scattered in a flash throughout the night sky, feeling the warm South African breeze coursing over me as we made our way back to the lodge to ready ourselves for another mouth-watering meal. A whole host of incredible moments that will never leave me, and ones that I will never tire of talking about to anyone who will listen!
Wellness in the South African bushveld
If you didn’t think it was possible to be any more relaxed and pampered during your stay at Earth Lodge, then you’re wrong as the resident spa is a real treat to visit in the hours between game drives and mealtimes. On top of that, if you’re looking to stay fit, then the gym, with incredible floor to ceiling windows looking out across the bushveld, and plenty of equipment to keep you busy (with air con, of course), is the place to go.
I had a few hours to spare one day, so headed to the Amani Spa and enjoyed a gloriously therapeutic massage. The spa emanates a zen feel from the outside in with a Japanese garden out the front and is the perfect place to wind down while staying at Earth Lodge.
The Iketla back and shoulder massage was a 30-minute treatment designed to ease tension and my spa therapist did an expert job of this! She listened to me during our consultation and also gave me some great product recommendations at the end too – I ended up buying what was recommended and could have easily gone back for a second or third treatment, it was that good.
From the second you arrive at the reserve to the moment you leave, the level of care and attention each guest receives is unwavering. Friendly faces greet you upon your return from games drives and you instantly feel as though you’ve arrived home for the evening. Working here has to be such a unique experience and the hard work that everyone puts in to ensuring their guests are enjoying themselves is clear to see.
I love the small touches, the important personal touches like my name being remembered and a cool citronella scented flannel handed to me upon arrival each time I set foot back into the lodge, which was so very welcome! Our group always got a friendly greeting at the top of the steps after coming back from a drive and Jamiel and Patrick were excellent in their roles and are fantastic ambassadors for Sabi Sabi.
16 hours in the air coupled with hours spent waiting at the airport before you even take off is often met with sighs of despair but know that the experience is an entirely indifferent one when you choose a good airline to fly with and bag yourself one of the finer seats. Welcoming airports lounges that range from those with complimentary food and drink and comfy seating to those with swimming pools, showers, and top-quality food (Doha you spoil us) – flying in Qatar Airways’ Qsuite is up there with one of the finest travel experiences I’ve had.
And when you get to Johannesburg, the fun doesn’t end there as you’ll need to make your way to Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, which is a five-hour drive or one-hour and 20-minute flight (give or take). Federal Airlines offers daily shuttles and charter flights to South Africa’s most popular safari game reserves, and I was lucky enough to travel in style on one of their small private planes. There really is no better way to travel, the plane was comfortable, and the journey was great – the scenery, not the turbulence!
In a nutshell
Many people would consider being able to go on a safari a luxury in itself, but Sabi Sabi takes it to a whole new level, and I cannot recommend Earth Lodge and the whole Sabi Sabi experience highly enough.
When I left, I certainly felt heavy, and this wasn’t simply due to the amount of fantastic food I’d devoured over the previous four days. It’s not often I leave a holiday destination with tears in my eyes, but the whole experience at Sabi Sabi made me want to turn right back around and stay for good (no offence family and friends). From the personalised service at the lodge from Alta and her team to the wonderful Jamiel and Patrick who made our safari drives even better than I could have imagined, to the incredibly resplendent lodges themselves and more, everything about a stay here is so welcoming and designed to make your visit the ultimate safari experience. What are you waiting for?
Lead in rates for Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve start from R16,000 per person sharing per night. Includes accommodation, all meals, morning and evening safaris, environmental walking safari, selection of beverages, and tax. Excludes the conservation levy of R220 per person per night.
Qatar Airways offers daily flights from London (Heathrow and Gatwick) to South Africa (Johannesburg and Cape Town). From Heathrow to Johannesburg, flights can be booked from £790 economy and £3,895 business. Lead in rates for transfers from Johannesburg to Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve landing strip start at R5930 per person one way (until 30 June) and R6045 per person one way (from 1 July).
Address: Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, Sabie Game Reserve Greater, Mpumalanga, 1350, South Africa
Tel: +27 13 735 5261
See snippets of my travels on Instagram @tashheard_food_travel
Imagery supplied by Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve unless otherwise stated.