Timbavati, Klaserie, nThambo, Chacma, Maseke, Ezulwini, Sabi Sands, Umkumbe - the unforgettable wild places of Kruger that our safari expert Ingrid van Wyk visited in December.
Ingrid has extensive experience in African travel after spending four years as an overland guide travelling through Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Zanzibar and Kenya. Having done her fair share of camping in those years, she's seen fantastic African sunsets, incredible wildlife and breathtaking scenery.
Find out all about these top wilderness areas of South Africa's massive Greater Kruger Park in this firsthand account of Ingrid's fabulous wildlife safari.
Article quick links:
- Getting There
- Four Seasons in One Day
- Avoca Bush Camp, Timbavati
- Klaserie River Lodge
- Klaserie Reserve
- nThambo Tree Camp
- Africa on Foot
- Chacma Bush Camp
- Wilderness Walking Safari, Maseke
- Ezulwini Billy's Camp
- Sabi Sands Reserve
- Umkumbe Safari Lodge
- Home again, home again
I haven’t been to the Kruger area in a long time so was quite excited to visit again. I got a flight from Cape Town directly to the tiny ‘bush airport’ – Hoedspruit (Eastgate) Airport. Within two-and-a-half hours you’re in the bush! What a luxury and I’d certainly recommend it in order to skip the 5- to 6-hour drive from Johannesburg.
It consists of one small building with both arrivals and departures in one room! If you’re lucky, you get to see warthog grazing next to the runway on landing. Luggage is transported by an old tractor and trailer. Outside, there are more transfer vehicles than people, waiting for all the tourists, clad in safari gear, going on their first African safari. Soon the new North Face and Columbia ‘neutral’-coloured clothes will be tested for their safari worthiness!
Our flight partner is Travelstart, who negotiate the best possible rates across the industry. You will find our low-cost airfares quite difficult to beat, but do be sure to book your flights as far in advance as possible to avoid seasonal pricing increases.
Despite it being December, which is usually very hot, it was cold when we arrived. Dark thunder clouds were gathering above our heads, promising rain. Luckily, I’d packed for all seasons, because that is exactly what we got. In the space of four days, we experienced extremely cold to extremely hot. On game drives, you are exposed to the elements and feel the full force of whatever the weather is throwing at you. We sat in the pouring rain with rain ponchos, freezing cold and the next day it was so hot that you could hardly breathe!
Heading south, we travelled on the tar road, but soon turned off onto gravel and arrived at Avoca Bush Camp in Timbavati Private Nature Reserve within an hour. We were welcomed by Jonno and Shazelle, who showed us to the lounge area overlooking a lovely pool. Shazelle prepared a very tasty lunch, which set the stage for her fabulous cooking during our stay. She has a catering business in Hoedspruit and helps with cook training at safari camps.
The camp was originally the Beretta family getaway for holidays. Jonno’s grandfather bought the land in the 1940’s. It’s a real family affair, with various family members still living on the property. Jonno kept us entertained throughout, with plenty of tales of his adventures in the bush. His knowledge of the bush and specifically Timbavati area is phenomenal.
The camp is small and exclusively for groups. There are four rooms, sleeping a total of eight people, ensuring an intimate experience. The rooms are basic but comfortable. The whole camp has an informal, relaxed atmosphere and you quickly feel at home. This is a no-frills camp – it is all about nature, wildlife and the incredible Timbavati bush.
An added bonus of Avoca is that you are free to decide how you would like to spend your time because they only take private groups (families, friends travelling together etc.). See our page on private group tours and safaris and custom build your own African adventure. This means that you have the luxury to determine your own schedule. If you want to go on game drives the entire time, or a long morning drive and short afternoon drive, the group decides. Having this flexibility is especially nice when travelling with children. Meals times are also flexible.
Our group went on the usual morning and afternoon game drives. Our first-afternoon drive set off at around 4 PM and as soon as we got into the open-sided 4x4 land cruiser it poured down with rain. We were quite eager to get out into the bush so were quite happy to endure the water running down our faces. It was not long until our tenacity was rewarded with two white rhinos. They were skittish and did not stand still long enough to take photos, but it was a treat to see them.
Just as the sun set we heard on the communication radio that a female leopard had been spotted. We quickly made our way there and found her sitting on a termite mound. She soon hurried off into a nearby tree as two male lions were approaching. Leopards and lions are notorious enemies of the bush and the male lions will easily overpower a lone leopard. Best she hides, where they cannot get to her!
The next morning we had a wake-up knock on the door at 5 AM. A quick coffee and rusk and we headed off for a morning drive. The Timbavati Reserve is beautiful and after the good rains the previous night, the morning was crisp and clear. Soon we came across a pride of lion sleeping under a tree. Six females and young males lying on their backs with bellies in the air. We did not see if they had a kill, but the size of the bellies suggested they’d dined well.
After breakfast at Avoca, the transfer vehicle picked us up and off we set to Klaserie River Lodge, arriving in time for lunch, a hearty pasta dish and salad. Most dietary requirements are catered for – vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free is no problem for these cooks. It was a lovely surprise to see a big swimming pool too, as the summer heat was back!
The lodge has eleven spacious air-conditioned rooms set along the bank of the Klaserie River, with lovely wooden decks overlooking the river. One room is inter-leading – perfect for families. The property that the lodge is situated on is not a ‘Big 5’ area, so it’s ideal to go on bush walks with your guide. Game drives are in the neighbouring Thornybush Reserve and just a short drive away is the Kruger National Park.
African Budget Safari Trips that include Klaserie
After lunch, we headed off to the Klaserie Reserve itself. I was very excited to see this reserve because of all the amazing images I’ve seen of the wildlife there. It is also where my two favourite camps are located – nThambo Tree Camp and Africa on Foot: sister camps about 5 km apart on Ross Farm, within the Klaserie Private Reserve. There are no fences between here and the Kruger National Park. Like all the private reserves in the Greater Kruger area, there is a sense of exclusivity when staying at one of the camps or lodges. Probably the biggest advantage of staying in the private reserves is that it feels remote and you see very few other vehicles while out on a drive.
nThambo Tree Camp only has five tents (maximum 10 people), raised from the ground on stilts. They have an incredible view over the bushveld. With an en-suite shower and toilet and ample space for your luggage in the tent, they have it all.
At ground level, the communal lounge and dining area are open-plan with a pool. During the drier months, elephants come around to the pool to drink water. This is certainly an amazing treat and I wish we’d been so lucky. But we were soon to be treated!
On our game drive, we had the best leopard sighting I have ever had the privilege to see. I was in awe of this incredibly beautiful cat, only a few metres away from us. I must admit, I felt like a child and could not help smiling for the rest of the day.
We also spotted hyenas, elephants, giraffes and two lions taking a snooze under a bush. The tracker and guide were amazing in at tracking the wildlife and their passion and knowledge of the bush and wildlife is incredible.
African Budget Safari Trips that include nThambo
Accommodation at Africa on Foot is in huts. It is a rustic camp with a relaxed feel and a great communal area with lounge, dining room and a pool. We had a very tasty dinner of braai and salads. This camp is famous for its walking safaris. Guests go on morning walks and afternoon game drives, so you get the best of both worlds.
It’s an early wake up (4:30 AM!) to grab a quick bite to eat before heading off on foot into the bush. The guide and tracker lead the walk and it lasts about three hours. This is ‘Big 5’ territory, which does put you at high alert … not knowing who you’ll bump into around the next tree can be bit daunting. Knowing that you are with highly experienced guides, though, does help and you soon get an appreciation of your surroundings as they show you the hidden gems and secrets of the bush that is not possible from a vehicle. You need not go far too spot wildlife though – there was a hyena right in front of the door of my hut!
African Budget Safari Trips that include Africa on Foot
The next day we headed in the direction of Phalaborwa. About 20 km before hitting town, we reached the Maseke Reserve (a section of Balule Reserve) and our next camp, Chacma Bush Camp. With a recent makeover, the camp has a fresh look. It’s small and private, with only three rooms accommodating groups of a maximum of ten people.
This area gets extremely hot and thank goodness there is a big pool. The rooms are also nice and cool due to the thick walls. The camp is in a beautiful setting beneath a koppie that one can climb and watch the sunset. On the other side, the pool and outdoor dining area overlooks a waterhole that has elephants visiting quite frequently.
While we had lunch, a herd of about twenty elephants came over for a drink. It was a spectacular sight.
African Budget Safari Trips that include Chacma
A wilderness walking safari has just been launched in the Maseke Reserve. It is an extension of the ‘Africa on Foot’ walking safari, but now guests have the opportunity to overnight in tents in the bush. Aimed at the adventurous, who want a true wilderness experience, it covers 10-15 km/day, so a certain level of fitness is required. It is usually four days, three nights and the camp setup is basic, with dome tents, bucket showers and tasty African bush meals prepared on the fire.
African Budget Safari Trip that includes the wilderness walking safari at Maseke
We spent the evening at Ezulwini Billy’s Lodge in Balule Private Reserve. On arrival, we went on a game drive in the reserve. Although very dry we saw lions, giraffes and various antelopes, before the guide stopped at a lookout point for sundowners. Africa treated us to a spectacular sunset that took our breath away. Back at the lodge, we were treated to a wine tasting in the underground cellar, a unique experience considering this is not wine country. The lodge owner is a wine collector and had the cellar specially built to house his collection.
Billy’s Lodge is beautiful, with spacious air-conditioned rooms and nice big showers. The luxury suites have a plunge pool on the deck with gorgeous views. There’s are a big communal stoep and dining area to relax. It’s a good choice for those who want a luxury stay while on safari.
The next morning was another early wake up before sunrise so we could get out into the bush while it was still cool. The animals move around during the cooler morning and late afternoon, so it is the best time to spot them.
Back at the lodge, we had a delicious breakfast, before setting off again toward the Sabi Sands Reserve, a good two-and-a-half hour drive on a tar round with lots of potholes away. No catching up on sleep for us! The last few kilometres are gravel as you get closer to Shaw’s Gate. The Sabi Sands area is quite different to where we’d come from. The southern part of Greater Kruger received rain in the last couple of weeks, so the vegetation is lush green. During our stay it was overcast and rain poured down every few hours. Personally, I loved it and you should always be happy about when it rains in Africa.
The Sabi Sands Reserve is absolutely amazing. I think it has a lot to do that it is greener and almost forest-like in some areas. On the game drives, we saw big herds of elephant – with small babies, four white rhinos and loads of giraffes. We spotted a cheetah from the lodge deck and the staff say they often have a leopard around the lodge.
African Budget Safari Trips that include Sabi Sands
We stayed at Umkumbe Safari lodge inside Sabi Sands. It is a lovely owner-run lodge next to the seasonal Sand River. The eight luxury en-suite rooms are huge and each has an outside shower. There are also two standard rooms, which are a little smaller and don’t have an outside shower, but still very comfortable.
Umkumbe Lodge is one of the budget lodges in the Sabi Sands and although the accommodation is fairly basic and meals are typical African cuisine, like braai meats, stew and vegetables for dinner, the wildlife experience is amazing. As we arrived there were elephants in the river bed in front of the lodge. What a treat to watch them from the deck while sipping a drink. The guides have excellent knowledge of the bush and wildlife and I really enjoyed the extra information they shared about the animals.
The next morning we were on the road again, but sadly to the airport, as it was the end of our time in the Greater Kruger. The drive to Kruger Mpumalanga Airport in Nelspruit took about an hour and a half and we had plenty of time to look around and have coffee before boarding the plane back to Cape Town.