BUSH ON A BUDGET
TEXT: JUSTIN FOX IMAGES © SUPPLIED
These days, top-end private lodges in the Kruger Park region are charging in excess of R14,000 per person per night. It’s not easy to find a luxurious, private Big Five experience in the Lowveld that’s still affordable, but Justin Fox manages to sniff out four good options a stone’s throw from Hoedspruit.
My SA Express flight, direct from Cape Town, landed at Hoedspruit’s Eastgate Airport and I stepped off the plane into a duvet of early summer heat. The first rains had fallen and everywhere the bush showed green flushes. It was a time of thunderhead skies, cloud-wracked sunsets and leafy iridescence, a time of new life with the first foals, cubs and calves gambolling out in the open. In other words, the perfect time to hit the bush.
NTHAMBO TREE CAMP
This pretty lodge is located in Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, which shares unfenced borders with the Kruger National Park and Timbavati Game Reserve. The camp is small and intimate, sleeping a maximum of ten guests in five tented and thatched chalets raised on wooden stilts. There’s a lounge and dining area under thatch which offer great views of a plain with a waterhole in front of the camp, as well as the Drakensberg etched on the western horizon.
The game drives at nThambo were most rewarding. There were mud-splattered rhinos up close, two gorgeous lionesses with fluff-ball cubs, and an elephant herd protecting a newborn that insisted on charging our vehicle, but gave up when it received no support from the spoilsport big’uns. Best of all was a graceful serval on the hunt, slinking through the long grass and occasionally standing on its hind legs to peer at prospective prey. She was all sinuous, feline grace.
The birdlife was also good: a Saddle-billed stork fracking the mud for tasties amidst a bevy of cacophonic Egyptian geese (the worst named birds in the world, confided our field guide, as they’re apparently Indian ducks). There was a dead Leadwood tree thronged with Grey herons, Spoonbills and Yellow-billed storks, like feathered Christmas decorations. The first of the summer migrants, such as the Woodland kingfisher and European bee-eater, had just arrived and were showing off their gorgeous livery.
AFRICA ON FOOT
As the name suggests, this rustic bush camp in Klaserie specialises in walking trails. The lodge has five traditional rondavels, two of which are for families. There’s a small garden (frequented by hippos at night) and a splash pool. A favourite among guests is a tree house which offers the opportunity of spending a night under the stars on a platform high in the branches of a false Marula tree.
Our guide, Patrick Leyden, led us repeatedly to a pair of lionesses that were overdue for a hunt. One morning he skidded into camp and ordered everyone onto the vehicle: The girls had just taken down a warthog. We drew up beside the kill. The hog’s flesh looked unnaturally scarlet and the cats’ faces and paws were painted in blood. There was the rasping of tongue on hide, the sawing of heavy breathing, the crunch of cartilage and the snap of sinew. Despite the gore, it was mesmering.
The daily walks were first rate. More often than not, we were on our haunches looking at tracks: the clover leaf of hippos, square marks for warthogs, dog-like hyena prints, and the big hoof spoor of giraffe. Patrick pointed out interesting trees and plants, describing their many uses. The magic Gwarrie is a good fire beater and toothbrush. Just snap off a branch, peal away some bark and add paste to the bristles. The best bush toothpaste is the ash of a leadwood mixed with water, explained Patrick, running the Gwarrie over his teeth.
NDZUTI SAFARI CAMP
This lodge lies in central Klaserie and offers an intimate safari experience with a focus on one-on-one hospitality. Run by Bruce and Judy Meeser, this is a traditional, colonial-style setup in a large thatched house with only four en suite, air-conditioned guestrooms. For hot summer days there’s a lovely swimming pool and a well wooded garden of tall Baobab, Knob thorn and Fever trees.
It’s easy to while away the heat of the day on a poolside lounger listening to the insistent Morse code of woodpeckers, the squawking of go-away birds and the shrill squirrels that come to plunder Judy’s rusks. Meals on the deck beside the pool offer views of a well-trafficked waterhole and we were treated to large elephant herds bathing, slurping and jousting.
Up early, our open 4x4 traversed quartzite hills and the verdant banks of a great oxbow sweep of the Klaserie River, accompanied by the sounds of the glug-glug of Green-spotted doves, the rusty hinges of Spurfowl and the trill of laughing doves. Klipspringers and waterbuck guarded the high ground, an elephant polished off a tall salad in the riverbed and a gorgeous reed frog wearing striped pyjamas made an appearance at the breakfast picnic. Sometimes it’s not a member of the Big Five that makes your day.
Nokana Safari Camp
Nokana lies northwest of Hoedspruit in the Blyde-Olifants Conservancy in rolling country dotted with granite koppies. This lodge offers a different experience in that it takes guests on daily tours of the surrounding private game reserves and the Kruger Park itself. This means that safaris cover a large area of diverse habitats and wildlife. Apart from game drives, there are bush walks, close encounters with habituated animals, a visit to white lions, and even a boat cruise on the Olifants River.
The lodge itself comprises safari-style tents and thatched chalets in a reserve free of dangerous game. Thus mammals such as zebras, wildebeest and warthogs wander through camp at all hours of the day. Horses are kept on the property and pay daily visits, especially at meal times, which can make for some hilarious scuffles over the muesli.
A full, seven-day itinerary encompasses all that Nokana has to offer, but a shortened three to four day stay will still give you a pretty diverse taste. The owner and manager, Michel Laforet, is a colourful Frenchman who does everything from guiding to cooking, and even playing the piano.
<SIDEBAR> FAST FACTS
How to get there: SA Express flies direct to Hoedspruit daily from Johannesburg and every day except Saturday from Cape Town. Visit www.flyexpress.aero to book.
What it costs: nThambo Tree Camp has a full-board rate of R2,650 per person, per night sharing. At Africa on Foot it’s R2,195, while nDzuti costs R2,150 and Nokana R2,700. These rates include all game activities, but exclude alcoholic drinks and transfers.