The Whistletrip: Itinerary
- Day 1 & 2: Kirkman’s Kamp in Sabi Sand
- Day 3 & 4: Ngala Tented Lodge in Kruger National Park
Picturesque landscape. Mind-blowing proximity to elephant, rhino, leopards, lions, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, impala and stunning bird life. Exceptional luxury.
- Solo Travel: Safari is an almost inescapably social experience: guests are grouped into vehicles holding up to 6 passengers who spend whole days together, happy hours are the norm, and, at the luxury lodges, rangers dine with solos (who are paying large single supplements).
- Family Trip: For older kids, such close proximity to exotic wildlife is a life-changing experience. Safari is never boring – and for parents, its fixed full-day schedule, all-inclusive meals, laundry services and patient rangers fielding questions mean that the work required for a smooth family vacation rests in other people’s hands.
To Travel Agent or Not To Travel Agent.
See Cape Town, Winelands & Safari: 7 Days in South Africa for details on my hybrid approach to reservations.
- Mobilize: I flew direct to Skukuza from Cape Town on South African Airways, booked online, and left Kruger on a chartered flight to Johannesburg arranged by &Beyond.
- Schedule: For the 4-night itinerary, travel agent &Beyond‘s advice to stay at two different camps was absolutely right. As safari involves 12 hours of sitting each day, a change of scene is refreshing for someone used to exploring independently.
- Pack: There are strict limits on the size and type of luggage you can use for chartered flights – there was one at the end of my itinerary, many safaris have more. The good news is that laundry is included and so you can pack very light – see the Travel Tips section of The Whistletrip for a suggested list.
Days 1 & 2: Kirkman’s Kamp
Landing at Skukuza Airport to find a quiet runway and a pretty thatched terminal boded well for the stress free experience to come in Sabi Sand.
Brett – my ranger for the next two days – picked me up in his safari vehicle and we made the short drive to Kirkman’s Kamp. This beautiful &Beyond lodge is the restored 1920s homestead of pioneering Scottish farmer, Harry Kirkman, and is decked out in vintage furniture, beautiful local fabrics, wood paneling, and wonderful collections of authentic sepia images that reflect the long history of the property.
For maximum 36 guests there are 18 cabins, each with an old world white tiled bathroom, gallery walls covered with photographs of local wildlife, and plush bedspreads and pillows. A lovely touch upon arrival is finding – carefully presented on the suite’s banquette – an exquisitely illustrated guide to the area’s bird life printed on handmade paper. Each cabin has its own Butler, ready to welcome you with warm towels after your drives and to help at meal times, no request too small.
Three course lunch and afternoon tea are served on the main lodge patio, looking out across the Sand River and the lodge pool at which wildlife is known to take a drink. In fact, Kirkman’s Kamp has wildlife gems on site, including warthogs grazing on the front lawn and impala occasionally meandering across the grounds. Breakfast can be served out during the morning drive, and a highlight of the stay at Kirkman’s was a bonanza of fresh scrambled eggs, bacon and hot coffee served on white dining cloths on tables under a mighty 600-year old sycamore tree. Dinner was also an eventful affair. The second night’s supper was a splendid South African barbecue, complete with biltong, cooked in the circular BOMA and followed by the camp staff’s choir-quality singing.
The safari vehicles are also equipped to attend to guests’ every needs, with blankets, waterproof ponchos and even camera pads available for keen photographers. In addition to having a ranger behind the wheel, all guests at Kirkman’s Kamp benefit from a tracker perched on the vehicle’s front. Trackers tend to be from local tribes and ours, Kholen, had followed his grandfather on hunts as a young boy.
The difference that a particularly eagle-eyed tracker can make cannot be underestimated. The brilliant Kholen could spot a tiny rare frog peeping its head out of a tree hole, even in the dark night, and identified a barely-there fatal black mamba snake whipping across the road at lightning speed. Kholen’s expert anticipation of a leopard’s appetite meant that we saw a rare full hunt, from its first sighting of an impala to its crouched tracking to its final pounce and meal – seldom seen even by the most seasoned rangers.
Established by local landowners in the 1950s, the Sabi Sand Game Reserve’s 65,000 hectares have the highest density of big game in South Africa. Majestic animals would appear suddenly as we turned corners, either ignoring us as they wallowed happily in the mud in the case of the rhino, or daringly staring at us in the case of the buffalo and waterbuck.
You watch the slope lope of a lioness and forget to breathe. You marvel at the tripod of a giraffe bent to water. In Africa, there are iridescent blues on the wings of birds that you do not see anywhere else in nature. In Africa, in the midday heart, you can see blisters in the atmosphere. When you are in Africa, you feel primordial, rocked in the cradle of the world.”
On the second afternoon, we spotted a lone giraffe peacefully grazing in the trees. Our ranger and tracker confident that he would be unfazed by human nearness, we clambered out of the vehicle and slowly walked up to watch this graceful creature up close. He barely even looked back as we gazed after his balletic, ambling departure.
Days 3 & 4: Ngala Tented Camp
Ngala Tented Camp in the Timbivati Reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park provides a luxury experience which you imagine would be impossible in a remote spot. The 9 gorgeous guest tents have king beds, stone outdoor showers with refreshing hot water at all times, decadent textiles, eye-catching sculptures, his and her sink units with hidden storage, full air conditioning and heating, and private terraces looking out over the wild, perfect for reading a book in the sunshine. For a maximum of 18 guests, the intimate camp is perfect for honeymooners, very small groups and also solo whistletrippers.
The main common areas are similarly beautifully designed, from books cleverly wrapped for a chic contemporary impact, to deep sofas, crocheted decor and a handsome bar area. The pool is surrounded by comfortable beanbags, a wonderful place to enjoy a cocktail. As at Kirkman’s Kamp, the food is absolutely spectacular.
Getting here from Kirkman’s after a morning game drive took about one hour in an air conditioned car, whizzing through villages that line the road from Sabi Sand to Kruger National Park. The transfer was easy and we arrived in time for a late lunch. The afternoon drive at Ngala had us alone in the vehicle, and for continuity of experience with the same tracker (Herald) and ranger (Roan), we were allowed to remain with them on a private safari for the next two days.
This arrangement allowed us to spend as in the bush as we wanted, giving us more time to capture special experiences earlier or later in the day than a group drive would accommodate. We made our way to one particularly wonderful watering hole at dusk to see gathered a crocodile, two small herds of elephant, hippo and their babies basking in the water, and beautiful rare blackbirds.
Timbivati Reserve is famed for its lion prides, and we were not disappointed by our moments with big cats. On the very first day, we happened across 10 lions feasting on a fallen buffalo and during the full two days we had multiple sightings of these incredible animals. When the lions had been hunting, vulture and hyena where often close by – with the hyena in fact so near that occasionally they were right up beside our vehicle, smelling terrible. A night safari had us encounter a male leopard laid out on a branch, jealously guarding meat it had stolen from two females patiently waiting at the bottom of the tree for their chance to take it back.
One afternoon, our ranger guided us on a walk from the camp through the wild. Independent roaming is not permitted at all, and at night, your butler has to escort you from dinner to your cabin with his flashlight. Being outside the safari vehicle, exposed and watchful, felt liberating and adventurous at the same time. As we walked, we took in species of trees and insects, including the jewel-like dung beetles that can hover at head height and lead the way to fresh elephant droppings. We also discussed the work &Beyond does with the local community – efforts which are not actively marketed by the firm. This involves providing subsidized health insurance, contributions to local schools and development programs, and perhaps most importantly, rigorous training of trackers and other camp staff from local communities for prestigious and well compensated careers.
On the final morning at Ngala, I was adamant that I wanted to see one final elephant, my favorite of all the spectacular animals we had seen. Just the previous morning, we had heard and seen elephant crashing through trees in a scene reminiscent of The Jungle Book. But today, they were hard to spot. The ranger, in his commitment to the task, refused to stop roaming the beautiful domain until we finally passed some zebra and came across elegant elephant exploring the border between the reserve and the public Kruger National Park. A wonderful end to an amazing adventure in the wild.
Check out Travel Tips: Packing for Safari.
© Ann Berry