Spotting the Big Five in the wilderness of South Africa is on most people’s bucket lists. Unfortunately it’s an experience that often comes with the slightly less majestic feeling of sharing that moment with eight other carloads of people. One way to avoid the crush and get a unique perspective on the South African bush is to travel to a boutique safari lodge in a smaller game reserve. One of the absolute finest is Garonga, in the Greater Makalali Private Nature Reserve, conveniently situated near Kruger and its associated amenities, but a world all to itself.
Garonga comprises a safari camp of luxury tents and a newer, boutique camp of suites, called Little Garonga. The two are just minutes away from each other in the middle of the Makalali reserve, completely surrounded by the bush.
Garonga is a magical place. Elephants might wander up to eat their favourite berries from the amarula trees by the pool at Little Garonga, while mongooses dart in among the rocks and baboons call from afar. The soil of the area is rich in mica, which sparkles from the ground wherever you look, along with flashes of the incredible electric blue tail of the rainbow skinks baking in the sun on rocks and paths.
Game drives are the biggest draw of staying at Garonga and take place early each morning and late each afternoon in open-top Jeeps, and walking safaris are also available on some mornings. Makalali is home to all of the Big Five and is particularly renowned for its large populations of black and white rhinos. The trackers and game guides are absolute experts in finding and following animals and although you can never rely on spotting anything, each drive usually results in a breathtaking encounter. Coming across a herd of elephants stripping trees while the youngest play or a pride of lions relaxing in the late afternoon sun is an otherworldly experience really like no other.
Driving through the reserve after sunset, guides will often come to an abrupt halt to show guests a camouflaged chameleon in a nearby shrub or point out two eyes shining from deep in the bush. And even if just a few impala are spotted, driving around and taking in the beauty of the surrounding landscape is a wonderful experience in itself, as is stopping in the middle of the bush for tea and coffee in the morning or sundowners in the evening. The 22,000-hectare game reserve is home to two prides of lions, several herds of elephant, leopard, cheetah, buffalo, hippo, zebra, giraffe, kudu, impala, crocodile and hundreds of species of bird and insect. It’s also home to much of the Ugly Five too: hyenas, wildebeest, vultures, warthogs and marabou storks.
As a private reserve Makalali has the advantage of not only being home to very few lodges, making it unlikely you’ll come across crowds of people on a drive, but also that the Jeeps are allowed to drive off-road when appropriate to get closer to, or follow, animals. The lodges within Makalali work together to protect the reserve and try to expand its borders and drop fences, and encourage the flourishing of flora and fauna. Garonga also employs strict environmental procedures including using solar panels, grey water treatment, a heater pump and bio-gas systems, to make sure the lodge’s impact on its pristine surroundings is at an absolute minimum.
Each season brings its own advantages and disadvantages – winter may be cold, but the lack of vegetation makes for excellent game spotting opportunities; spring and autumn offer the best weather, but the thick bush might mean missing out on seeing everything you dream of spying.
After each game drive or walk, returning to camp feels like coming home. And for many of the guests, Garonga has become a bit of a home-from-home as they visit each year, some for weeks or months on end. The staff at Garonga also create this feeling – many have worked at the lodge since it was opened by British owner Bernie Smith in 1997 and all are passionate about their work, the guests and the surrounding reserve. Although Garonga has been open since 1997, the suites of Little Garonga are a relatively recent addition, having been added in 2016 just a few minutes’ walk from the original tented camp.
The suites are sensitively and luxuriously built into the landscape with thatched rooves and wooden decks, complete with hammocks, overlooking the veld. Each suite is enormous and beautifully furnished and comes with a bath, indoor and outdoor shower and a minibar that you’re welcome to top up with drinks from the main bar. Each of the six luxurious en-suite tents of the safari camp is constructed with sturdy plaster walls and a canvas tent, and really puts guests at the heart of nature. Each also has a wooden deck with hammock and striking views over the surrounding game reserve. Both camps have their own swimming pools, and kitchens serving incredible food in front of open fires or candlelight. Some evenings the two camps are brought together to enjoy a convivial group dinner, with plenty of wine and conversations about who spotted what during that day’s game drives, and some days the individual groups and couples dine privately for a more intimate experience.
To go even further into nature, Garonga also has an open sleeping deck complete with a four-poster bed in the middle of the bush. Guests can be dropped off with dinner and a walkie-talkie straight from the evening game drive to climb on to a platform overlooking one of the reserve’s watering holes and spend the night with nothing separating them from nature except for a mosquito net. It’s included in the price of any stay to anyone brave and hardy enough to want to do it.
The Makalali reserve and Garonga are a really special destination. It’s an experience that would have been once-in-a-lifetime but thanks to nearby airports, good roads and Garonga’s own landing strip, could be a yearly pilgrimage for those who can’t resist the draw of ultimate luxury, sensitively done, in the middle of pristine wilderness and the chance to spot some of the planet’s most majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
A night at Little Garonga starts at R8250 (£456) per person. A night at Garonga’s tented Safari Camp starts at R6760 (£362) per person. All rates include all food, drink (excluding champagne and premium wines), twice-daily game drives or walking safaris, plus sleep outs and bush baths. garonga.com