Private safari lodges: A love-hate relationship 4

I recently returned from an excellent stay at a tented safari camp in the Manyeleti Game Reserve, a private concession on the border with the more famous Kruger National Park. Honeyguide’s Mantobeni Camp was a great bush getaway, and perfect escape from winter’s chill. Although we saw some wonderful predators, general game was a bit more scarce, leaving me with plenty of time on the game drives for wandering thoughts. Having grown up visiting neighbouring Kruger frequently, I found myself pondering over my love-hate relationship with private game lodges.

Cheetah mother & cub at Manyeleti Game Reserve

Cheetah mother & cub at Manyeleti Game Reserve

The surprise factor

One of the excitement factors of a bush holiday is not knowing what you are going to see. Although there is the natural rhythm of the bush, there still is a lot of unpredictability. You can’t know if you are going to see a monitor lizard gripped in the talons of a brown snake eagle in flight*. Or a Thompsons gazelle mom chasing a jackal away from her baby**. Or the lioness eyeing the Zebra at a waterhole***. These things just happen when you least expect it. At private game lodges on the other hand, almost guaranteed sightings are generally the norm. Rangers are in constant radio contact with each other, sharing the big ticks. Once you’ve learnt their lingo, you’ll know what to expect, which can spoil the surprise factor, but is a big draw card for foreigners with limited time to “see Africa”.

* – Seen outside Letaba in the Kruger National Park
** – Seen in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania
*** – Seen at a waterhole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park

Giraffe looking at lioness at Etosha Nationak Park

Giraffe looking at lioness at Etosha Nationak Park

Setting the pace

Being in the bush should be a relaxing experience. Self-drive holidays allow you to go at your own pace. And the Kruger National Park is geared for this. At private game lodges, I’ve experienced rangers rushing past “smaller” sightings to get to the Big Five. This can be especially annoying if you’re trying to get that perfect shot of an ox pecker feeding on ticks on a muddy buffalo. That said, we’ve sometimes had luck being the only group on a game drive vehicle.

Buffalo bull at Manyeleti Game Reserve

Buffalo bull at Manyeleti Game Reserve

Making roads

A great advantage of going on a game drive is the chance to go on restricted roads, satisfying the desire of exploring uncharted territory. Going on drives in Kruger as a child, I wondered if animals chose those “no-entry” roads to hide from the public. The drawback of private lodges is that they are often on a concession, and may themselves be restricted to certain areas. Depending on the reserve, some do go off-road to get a closer look at a special sighting. I looked on in horror as a ranger drove over bushes (although was surprised as spiky acacias sprang back upright). Even though we got close enough to hear a leopard crushing the bones of an impala, I wonder if it was worth the trampled bush.

Leopard with kill at Manyeleti Game Reserve

Leopard with kill at Manyeleti Game Reserve

The sounds of the bush

The bush sounds best when that’s the only sound; no diesel vehicle engines nor generators. Game drive vehicles can be noisy, so I’m hoping that electric-powered, silent 4x4s will become more mainstream. It’s also about time that rangers found an alternative way to share sightings (if they really must in the first place). Scratchy radio noise and static can be rather annoying. Headphones may be an option.

Private is not always so private

Many safari lodges afford the opportunity to connect with other guests. Dinners are generally communal, kick started by gathering around a crackling fire in the boma. Stories and travel experiences are shared and it’s a great way to learn about other countries and cultures. But small talk is not for everyone, so most lodges will give a private table if requested.

But a happy tummy wins

A visit to the bush is almost incomplete without a braai. Kruger’s camps come alive at dusk with most locals opting to make a braai. It’s a tradition I love, but having a three course dinner served to me, under the stars is just as great, without the effort. The general schedule at private lodges revolves around food and game drives. It’s just the perfect combination.

Honeyguide Mantobeni Camp

Honeyguide Mantobeni Camp

Hearty breakfast on the deck at Kosi Forest Lodge

Hearty breakfast on the deck at Kosi Forest Lodge

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4 thoughts on “Private safari lodges: A love-hate relationship

  • Sebastian

    Hi, very interesting debate.

    I also enjoy the surprise of the bush, but when you are with a guide, I like to see the skills of the guide in action. And by skills, I don’t mean radio skills. If they see the tracks of a lion on the sand road, are they able to track the animal down? Or if the hear the alarm sounds of certain birds, this may lead them to a predator.

    But then when the radio calls do lead you to an amazing animal sighting, and great photographs, I wonder whether sometimes it is worth it.

    I think a balance is good. Use the radio to find some sightings, but then turn the radio off and explore the bush. I wonder how many guests ever ask their guides to turn the radios off. I’m sure the bird-watchers do!

    • travelblogger Post author

      Thanks Sebastian. A good, responsive guide and an expert tracker can make a huge difference. We once tracked lions in Kruger for over two hours. We never got to see the lions (except for a brief flash), but the way in which the ranger was able to track them, even with no paw prints, was impressive and kept us engaged.

  • Roxanne Reid

    I know exactly what you mean! I think a good combo is maybe 80% self-drive and 20% private lodge, if only just because you ALWAYS pick up new threads of knowledge from the guides.