With dawn giving way to a glorious February morning, some coolness still to the air, and the Thornybush savannah bathed in a beautiful golden light, suddenly an incredulous, explosive tour-de-force of impala leaping in gravity-defying masterstrokes of ballerina-esque motions. “Splonking” (a strange word for something so captivatingly graceful), our guide Greg informed us is what we were witnessing: “It’s their celebration of life; of having survived the night”.
How pertinent it was, then, that this was our welcome to Thornybush! - for the unbridled joy of those impala seemed a manifestation of our own delight to be in the South African bush, with travel now a realistic prospect again. No less, it reflected our excitement that this trip was to kick off SWM appointment as the representation company for Thornybush, the collection of luxury lodges in the Thornybush Game Reserve and Sabi Sands Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park – Thornybush Game Lodge, Saseka and Simbambili.
A cold drizzly Heathrow is a mere night’s sleep away from arriving at Thornybush Game Lodge, which was the first stop on our itinerary. We were joined on this trip by Justin and Cathy of Cartology Travel and hosted by the ebullient Thornybush Sales Director, JB, and Marketing Manager, Maseka.
Set along a dry river-bed on the Monwana river, with pools of rainwater welcoming passing game, the initial impression of Thornybush Game Lodge is stylish and impressive. It would be tempting to ease oneself into the elegant but comfortable sofas on the main terrace, rock-shandy in hand, and simply observe. But as ever on safari, there is far too much to explore for indolence.
The game inThornybush is excellent, and testament to the wisdom of the decision to lower the fences that enclosed the historic reserve from the rest of the Kruger until 2017. The result is a safari experience which is dense in game but devoid of the traffic and busy-ness of some other areas of the Kruger. The sightings were plentiful and so rewarding, with the proximity to the game, who were not vehicle-shy at all, creating some of the most memorable experiences I have ever had on safari. Indeed, I came away feeling that my previous preconception, that neatly categorised South Africa as ‘great for families and first timers’, was utterly simplistic. Our time at Thornybush, and neighbouring Sabi Sands, showed what a deeply rich, remote game experience and immersive bush education one can have in the Greater Kruger National Park.
Aside from the incredible splonking, highlights in Thornybush included a fascinating, if somewhat voyeuristic, viewing of an amorous tortoise suffering from unrequited and, ultimately, unconsummated passion; and we were all incredibly gratified after multiple paw print sightings, to finally acquaint ourselves with Malawane, the dominant male leopard of the area, who is as a fine a specimen as one can hope to see. There was also a wonderful morning sighting of a large pack of wild dog out on a hunt, with the inevitable hyena skulking closely behind.
ThornybushGame Lodge was the first in the reserve and as such is one of the original SA safari lodges. It boasts twenty stylishly appointed rooms, in chic, classic style. The rooms have generous proportions and comfortable decks, with outdoor showers, from which to capitalise on the incredible views of the dry riverbed.
Sadly time did not permit, but guests can do morning bush walks as well as game drives, and the downtime in between can be spent enjoying an excellent spa treatment, cooling off in the pool or just watching the passing game from the terrace or one’s private deck.
Lunches on the terrace comprise mouth-watering Ottolenghi-inspired dishes and heavenly salads, and we had dinner in the boma area, illuminated by lanterns, which was a more traditional brai-style cuisine. Guests can also have bush dinners or private dining on their decks.
The newest -and arguably the most dazzling - jewel in Thornybush’s crown is the heavenly Saseka. Opened just prior to Covid, Saseka is essentially a new product for the international market. Designed by Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, Saseka is a gorgeous contemporary tented camp, which will beckon all those who like their safari served with a generous helping of panache.
On passing through the enormous doors, one immediately anticipates this is a camp which will deliver a jaw-droppingly sparkly ‘wow!’ factor. Stepping over the threshold, one’s senses immediately soak up the gorgeous textures and subtleties of the different building materials; the hues of sublime pinks and greens; the calming sound of a gentle fountain accompanying the natural bush noises; the dappled sunlight which plays and falls through the canopy-like roof; and the sweeping aspect - from the sophistication of the deck, to the more rustic aesthetic of the boma on the dry river bed, to the wild and untamed banks beyond.
Saseka offers nine tented suites, and The Leadwood Villa, which is perfect for families or smaller groups requiring more privacy. All rooms boast stylish interiors, with fabrics inspired from botanical drawings in the national archives in Johannesburg of native plants and seeds. They have private pools and uninterrupted views of the seasonal Monwana riverbed.
We dined on the riverbed, enjoying an exceptional braai and as you’d expect in a place of such sophistication, all the details – wine list, accompanying glass and table ware etc – were tip top.
Saseka is theTsongo word for ‘beautiful’… Enough said.
A short flight away is Simbambili in Sabi Sands, the birthplace of sustainable wildlife tourism in Southern Africa, and an area world-renowned for offering exclusive and exceptional South African safari.
Legend has it that 2 lions attacked an adventurer from Germany many moons ago, on the spot Simbambili now stands, and as they spared the man’s life the lodge was named in memory of this event. (Simba – lion; Mbili – two, in Swahili).
It could just have viably been named after the Swahili for ‘up, close and personal’! I have never got so close to wild game in a way that felt so thrilling and exhilarating, yet also completely safe.
To observe at close quarters a mother elephant with her baby, debarking a marula tree was one such mesmerising close encounter. The crunch and tear as her tusk pierced and pulled at the soft wood; the amazing dexterity of her trunk in separating the bark from the more tasty cambium layer; her methodical determination; and the sheer destructive force of this gentle creature almost ring-barking the tree in a matter of half an hour. It felt like a very intimate encounter, and also illustrated the complexities of conservation – how species have the capacity to transform a landscape when they are present in high numbers.
We were also lucky enough to have yet more incredible leopard sightings – which was perhaps not surprising has the Sabi Sands is home to the highest concentration of leopard anywhere in the world (though none the less thrilling for that) - and my first proper sighting of rhino! – a young family - again, at amazingly close quarters, and again, in total privacy from other vehicles.
Simbambili is spacious, luxurious and comfortable. Each of the nine rooms have private plunge pools and views of the river and banks opposite, where the game ambles past.
Our Sundowner was arranged in a magical setting in a little elevated copse, where the delicious local gins seemed to slip down extremely easily, before returning tot he lodge for a scrumptious final farewell dinner with our lovely new client.
The properties were all diligent about Covid protocols, reassuring for any more cautious traveller, though being in such fresh air with so few people is surely the most effective mitigation of all.
Unfortunately, it was a flying visit so we did not have time to visit the community projects supported by the Thornybush Community Foundation, in neighbouring Uthla, Dixie and Acornhoek, such as the Thousand Herbs & Vegetable Garden, the Nourish Eco Village and the Hananani Primary School, not to mention the conservation projectsThornybush supports. This is a possibility for guests seeking a broader context to their safari experience and if the transfer is made by road this also gives insight into the surrounding communities, and how tourism helps both to enable the critical preservation of the wilderness and wildlife of the area and to drive the local economy.
With such options as the Thornybush properties welcoming guests, and with Covid finally no longer prohibiting travel and adventure, the invitation to prospective safari-goes must surely be – Get Splonking!