SA Adventure – Garonga

Stunning African safari set in a private reserve

Location: South Africa. A 22,000 hectare area in the greater Makalali Conservancy – west of the Kruger National Park.

Good for: The traditional big 5, among other wildlife flora and Fauna. Luxury riverside tented accommodation or bungalow lodges with game drives and walking safaris.

When to go: This camp is open all year, but going in the dry season (UK Summer) is often more rewarding as the game congregates around the watering holes and can be easier to find and see. That said, I can’t imagine there is a bad time to visit here.

Cost: This is not a cheap camp, but you will be rewarding in spades when it comes to the experience you get. As ever there are optional extras to consider, such as a small aircraft transfer from Hoedspruit (pronounced Hoodspite) to the Garonga airstrip, versus the car transfer. Private safaris vs shared safari (no more than 6 people per jeep). There are also various activities available on the site itself that could add to the bill, such as spa facilities, and microlight trips over the reserve. A rough guide would be R7,000 – R9.500 (that’s Rand not £) per night. This excludes international flights and connection flights. Once at the camp, shared game drives are included (2 per day) as are the walking safaris. Of course if you are booking this camp as part of a pre-planned itinerary cost will fluctuate accordingly.

Flights and travel: You will fly into Johannesburg from London (approx 10.5hrs) and then catch a smaller flight, with SA Express to Hoedspruit (approx 1 hour). At Hoedspruit you will be met by a driver from Garonga and transferred by car to the camp (unless you have chosen to fly directly to the Garonga air strip, depending on the road conditions this will take from 1hr 20 to 1hr 45. You are even likely to see some small game on the way (in daylight)!

Time difference: 1 hours behind the UK.

Garonga Camp: The camp itself is set, in an arc, along a dry riverbed, opposite a small watering hole, which is visible from all tents. A larger watering hole lies beyond this, which is visible from the main gathering and eating area. We were able to watch elephants at the watering hole daily, as well as Giraffe and Zebra.
The camp itself, consists of 6 gorgeous and recently refurbished tented lodges, with an inside and outside shower, toilet and sink area, a large decked area to the front (complete with lazy hammock and seating) and a gloriously large, netted bed.

Each tent is very private and yet doesn’t feel scarily isolated and raised paths lead you to the communal eating and relaxing area, where you find a roaring open fire (on cold nights) with library, a self service bar area and a generous decked platform where you can sit, eat, read or relax. There are plenty of seating options and with such a small camp, you can always find privacy. there is even a small infinity pool which is a great spot to watch the resident birds.

Little Garonga Lodges: Set away from the main Garonga area, are three luxury lodges, with not a hint of canvas in sight. These lodges do vary, but the most luxurious is a large 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom lodge with a spectacular outside shower area and a good size sep lounge area inside. It also has an expansive deck, complete with tables and seating, sun loungers and a private infinity pool. The best feature of this lodge for me though is the humongous copper ball and claw bath, which was much appreciated on the first night that we stayed here (a wee bit chilly!) – bliss.

Little Garonga has its own sep. lounge, bar, eating area and deck – again with pool. This area automatically feels more intimate due to the lack of lodges, even if they are all full, you still only have 6 other people to share it with!

In my opinion, the raised tented lodges are by far the best of the two (1) for a feeling of being closer to the bush and more ‘involved’ in the overall experience and (2) for the overall design, situation and comfort of the tents themselves. That said, the night we had in Little Garonga was very lovely and it is beautifully done, so if canvas isn’t your bag, then the lodges are the way forward.

Wildlife: A spotting list is provided in your room, and you are likely to be crossing off a lot. They have it all here in abundance, Black and white Rhino, Elephant, big cats, small cats, Bufalo, Wilderbeast, Buck and Gazelle of all shapes and sizes and so on, there really is too much to list here, but rest assured that the big five and more are here (remember this is a private fenced reserve and some of the animals have been shipped here from other locations, either for their own protection or to enhance the gene pool – however many also come and go as they please, such as Wild Dogs and Leopard).

Birdlife is just as varied and interesting and they seem to have a high population of raptors – we saw Snake Eagles, Tawny Eagles, Fish Eagles, Bateleur Eagles, Goshawk, lizard buzzards and Owls and then of course there were the other birds, Bee Eaters, Rollers, Mousebirds, Woodpeckers, kingfishers, finches, phew – way to many to list!

There really is so much to see here, and there is a varied terrain, which is beautiful to drive and walk through.

What to take: Take earthy and neutral colours where possible

• A good torch, powerful but lightweight.
• Zip off trousers (mornings start quite cool in winter but it does get very hot).
• Binoculars.
• Camera and plenty of memory cards!
• A fleece/jacket (but take something that you don’t mind getting scuffed and well worn).
• Mossie repellent (Avon Skin So Soft is what I use).
• After bite cream (one with a numbing agent is quite good to stop bites itching).
• Hand sanitising lotion is handy for when you are out and about.
• If you are going in a wet season, a light waterproof and a dry sack for your equip is useful.
• Take a strip of antihistamine tablets, they are good if you get insect bites.
• Sun protection – essential
• Plenty of Rand currency for tipping
• A hat – the vehicles are open topped and a hat will be the only protection you get from the sun.
• Walking shoes/sandals, a good stable sole is paramount for walking and for climbing up into the jeeps.

What NOT to take:
• No need to take a plug adapter as a UK plug fitting is provided
• No need to take a sarong as it is provided, as are slippers and a robe

What to expect: Expect everything and you won’t be disappointed. If you keep your ears open as well as your eyes, you will learn much from the experienced team of guides and rangers who seem to get as much pleasure from showing you as you do seeing…

You will be accompanied on your drives and walks by a ranger and a tracker – both are experts in what they do and the tracker will often hop off the jeep to follow tracks – staying in radio contact with your ranger who will do his best to get you to a good wildlife viewpoint. This can involve going over some heavy terrain and through some particularly unforgiving foliage, so make sure the clothes you wear are durable and there are plenty of opportunities to snag and tear…

Expect rustlings in the night, the elephants are frequent night time visitors into the camp, which is why you are escorted after dark, as are many other things, even the occasional Leopard! Sometimes you will hear things right by your tent, so you are unlikely to sleep right through, but the thrill of being there in the thick of it makes it well worth it.

There are Vervet Monkeys here, who will do their very best to steal your breakfast, but are not aggressive and when not causing trouble, a pleasure to watch. There are also a number of animals that take advantage of the camp’s safe haven, such as Bush Buck, Warthog, Mongoose, Squirrel, Zebra and Kudu, so keep your eyes peeled even when you are chilling on your deck – you never know what you might see.

One of the most interesting things about the way this camp works, is the timings. In most places that we have been, you have a morning and afternoon drive, but they often don’t give you much downtime in-between. This camp is a little different: you have an early drive (6.30am) with breakfast when you get back (around 10.30am or so). Then, the rest of the day is yours until 3pm, when you gather for afternoon tea followed by a second game drive that goes on until well after dark. Then, by the time you get back your supper is usually pretty much ready. This timing system works really well as you actually get a large chunk of the day to enjoy the camp and the environment. Plus you have the added bonus of having a short night drive when you make your way back to camp, giving the opportunity to see those more elusive, nocturnal animals. Blankets are provided on the jeeps for potential chilly mornings and evenings.

If you decide to do the sleep-out (which is an overnight stay in the bush on a raised platform), don’t expect to sleep! Its a great experience, but being left out there can be quite nerve wracking and the noises you hear will keep you awake all night, but the view is fantastic (overlooking a watering hole) and the chance to really experience the bush without the safety net of your guide and tracker is an opportunity not to be missed. Everything you need, such as food and drink will be provided, all you need to do is pack a bit of courage in your pocket!

Tipping: Bernie, the owner (a British ex pat), will provide you with some guidance on tipping the team, which you can do either on an individual basis or as a group pot and of course the amount you tip is ultimately your decision, but it is helpful to have an idea.

All in all the experience we had here was amazing, and although the idea of a private and fenced reserve is not something we have ever experienced before, I understand the reason for it. Do I like the fences? No, but they are necessary and this reserve in particular are doing some great work to preserve the flora and fauna of the SA bush. I applaud the owner and the team who have created this magnificent camp and care for it and its wild inhabitants so well.

From what our experience, all of the team were wonderful: Rena the manager of Garonga and Robert the manager of Little Garonga, were amazing and couldn’t do enough for us, likewise for all the other members of the team who made our trip special (too many to list here). However, Phineas and Ceejay, our tracker and guide, really were the icing on the cake: extremely knowledgeable, great company and great fun – they went the extra mile for us on every drive – thank you so much.

The Garonga website can be found here, with all the information you could ever need: Garonga Safari

Any costs detailed here are based on information at the time of writing – and are purely for guidance only.