In the warm heart of Zululand, just off the N2 highway between Hluhluwe and Mkuze in northern KwaZulu-Natal, you’ll find the 14 000ha private game reserve that is Thanda Safari. Put yourself in the hands of a skilled tracker and guide here at one of the top Big 5 game reserves in KZN and enjoy a five-star experience.
‘There!’ our safari mate whispered loudly, her pointed finger trembling with excitement. A leopard was slinking across the road in front of our safari vehicle, disappearing into the roadside thicket as a gorgeous bush-shrike called from a shrub nearby. It was just a flash but it was our first major sighting at Thanda Safari. Thanda means love and we were loving this South African safari already.
It was fascinating to watch how tracker Dumisani Madide and guide Sabelo Kwesaba worked together, using all their senses. They’d heard a kudu alarm calling so we drove towards the sound. Then Sabelo smelled the popcorn aroma where a leopard had scent-marked a bush next to the road. And there were the cat’s paw tracks in the sand. That’s when the leopard appeared and disappeared again. ‘It’s going to be a cat afternoon,’ Sabelo predicted with a grin.
We drove to a waterhole nearby in the hope it might be on its way there, but didn’t see it again. ‘That’s how it goes here with leopards in the day time,’ he said. ‘We get longer sightings at night.’
The tracks led to a waterhole where we found two lion brothers lazing in the afternoon sun. The flies were bugging them but they barely moved except to flick a tail or kick a leg. We watched them for a long time before one suddenly sat up straight and looked off into the distance; the other stood up. A few minutes later two lionesses – the ‘queen’ of the pride and her daughter – entered the frame and moved in to drink at the waterhole, long and loudly.
This was a sustained sighting and we were thrilled; two of the Big 5 already in the bag. But perhaps the most exciting thing was how generous the tracker and guide were in sharing how their minds worked, what they looked for and how they interpreted the signs. Learning about this bushcraft was just as stimulating as seeing the animals themselves.
One of the males was vocalising a lot, chirping and churring, desperate to get near mom, clearly wanting her amorous attention. But she wasn’t interested, just standing firm between him and her cubs, protecting them.
Early morning drive
Temperatures were biting when we set off as a radiant crimson sun peeped over the horizon at dawn. The first indicators of the Big 5 we saw were rhino tracks and buffalo dung. After watching a yellow-throated longclaw and some green-winged ptylias flit and flash into a bush, we found an old buffalo bull right next to the road. He let us get very close without flinching, so we could watch as he chewed and dripped saliva, see his huge thick boss and horns that had been blunted by time. ‘These dagga boys retire and leave the herd when they get old, to live the slow moving life,’ said Sabelo.
At a dam with acacias, weeping boerbean and tamboti trees reflected in the still water, a white patch hung low over the water – the foam nest of a tree frog. The eggs are fertilised by three or four frogs rubbing their legs on them, then the outside of the nest starts to harden to keep the eggs inside cool. Once the eggs develop and get heavier, they drop into the water and the tadpole/frog life cycle begins.
On the second afternoon drive, the guides found rhino tracks and set off to follow them. Here’s where the rhinos had a dust bath, there they disappeared into the thicket. And then there they were – the final notch in our Big 5 belts.
Our final morning drive was a blur of white-backed vultures in a tree, aardvark holes near termite a mound, golden orb spiders, funnel spiders’ webs with the early morning dew still on them, a water monitor sunning itself on a rock next to a dam, giraffes, wildebeest and zebra in a savanna area.
And their Amarula hot chocolate on the chilly early morning drives was grand too.
Thanda Safari Lodge
Thanda Safari Lodge lies on a hill looking out over the tree tops and towards distant hills. A spreading marula tree dominates the main deck, where you can have lunch or sit around the warmth of the fire circle in the evening. There’s an elegant lounge and bar, a library and a wine cellar. African touches include the architecture, intricate beaded chairs in the entrance lobby and chandeliers made of beads in the dining area.
The lodge isn’t fenced so when you walk along the boardwalks between your suite and the main area after dark you need one of the staff to escort you. It also means you may get a day-time visit along the way, as we did, from a small group of nyalas.
For families or friends travelling together and wanting their own private space, there’s also the 10-sleeper Villa iZulu. Contact Thanda Safari reservations to find out about special SADC rates for both this and Thanda Safari Lodge.
- Apart from the fabulous Big 5 game drives, other activities usually include bush walks. When we were there in May, the grass was too long to do bush walks safely; blame the heavy rains of early 2021. It was a pity because you can learn so much when you get close to the earth and move at a walking pace. It’s also a chance to spot birds and learn from your guides about plants and the secrets of tracks and signs.
- If you’re a keen photographer, ask about the photography courses with resident wildlife photographer Christian Sperka.
- Indulge yourself after a morning game drive with a treatment or massage in the tranquil spa with its panoramic views of the reserve, or in your private suite.
- If you’re travelling with kids, enquire about the junior rangers course when a guide will teach them about game spotting and tracking, as well as plant and bird life.
- There’s also a tented camp at Thanda Safari, currently used for special weekends. There have been bird ringing weekends and one where Kingsley Holgate told stories around the campfire. You can keep up to date with info about these special glamping activity weekends.
- Community cultural interactions have been taking a backseat since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, but will resume in a post-pandemic world.
I care about conservation, the environment and local communities so it’s good to hear that Thanda Safari does too. On the conservation front, for instance, there’s landscape rehabilitation, alien vegetation clearing and a rhino project. The Thanda Foundation Trust also tries to meet the socio-economic, educational and developmental needs of three neighbouring communities. It supports community-based projects like a creche, solar lights for communities, soccer coaching, and other upliftment programmes.
Note: We were guests at Thanda Safari Lodge for two nights but I was given free rein to write what I chose. We paid for all travel costs and conservation fees.
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