Monday, May 27, 2019

A Focus on Thanda – by Keith Marallich

Last week I visited Thanda Game Reserve in the province of KwaZulu/Natal for a few nights – a wise move! I wanted to visit at this time of the year as I find that the summer months can be too hot on some of the days, especially out on an open safari vehicle. (On that note, and in my opinion, the two best months, weather-wise anywhere in South Africa are April and May). Thanda is a private game reserve that is situated some 260-odd kilometres north of Durban. Thanda has three lodge options: Villa iZulu, the Thanda Tented Camp and then the venue that I stayed at, the Thanda Safari Lodge.

How it works is this – we make a reservation for you and you arrive at the entrance gate into Thanda, (and if you can’t get there under your own steam, we will arrange transfers for you) and they then take care of you right up until your departure. A staff member collected us from the gate (oh, and your vehicle is kept in secure parking, safe from wildlife) and we were driven directly to the Safari Lodge. After completing the check-in formalities, we were shown to our suite. Each suite at Safari Lodge has a spacious lounge, master bedroom, double-sided fireplace and an indulgent bathroom, with a beautiful bath, an indoor and an outdoor shower.

An aerial view of a Safari Lodge suite - image courtesy of Thanda

Safari Suite Lounge

Private plunge pool at a Safari Suite

Each of the suites have a similar private relaxation area 


Bathroom - image courtesy of Thanda

Thanda Safari Lodge’s shared or communal areas include an inviting lounge, expansive deck and library overlooking a water feature, impressive wine cellar and the Thanda Safari Spa.

Dining room with outside deck

Bar area

Even though I did not stay here on this occasion (I had stayed here previously a long time ago), the Thanda Tented Lodge offers an authentic safari adventure with fifteen luxury safari tents in a bush setting, enhanced by flickering firelight and lanterns guiding your way at night. This is bush living as nature intended: open and inviting with unparalleled closeness to the bush - its sights, smells and sounds. Each of the tents has a private sun deck and en-suite canvas bathroom. The shared areas here include a large rim-flow pool, a spa tent, atmospheric Hemingway-style lounge and dining area.

The sole-use Villa iZulu is a luxurious homestead that features five suites and includes a heated swimming pool, wine cellar, library, a games room and a spacious viewing deck overlooking a water hole. It’s the ultimate safari hideaway for guests needing total privacy or for families, friends and company getaways.

Meals, well, what can I say? This little piece is not going to be an opinion of their culinary offerings – I am not qualified for that! What I will briefly touch on is the different meals…

Breakfast was really, really good – a selection of muesli, grains, cheeses, cold meats, fruit, yoghurts, jams, breads, rolls (need I go on)  and then a hot selection off the menu, which in my opinion could be the envy of some fine restaurants in a city, never mind a game lodge far from the city. If my memory serves, the choices here were about eight different choices, really, really good. What mostly impressed me was that one could also order a cappuchino or espresso which was excellent.

Lunches consisted of a platter with various dishes that changed daily and included selections of salads, starch, veggies, proteins, sauces and followed by dessert.

For dinners one has a choice of two dishes from each of soup, starters, mains and dessert – simply outstanding.

Just something that warrants a mention is the staff – a more friendly group one could not wish for. They were very helpful and friendly, always willing to please. So, that is it for the accommodation and food – what about the main element (well for me, the main element), the wildlife!

The game drives were very good and here special thanks must go to our guide, Peace (a very knowledgeable person, well-spoken, friendly and a very good driver) and our tracker, Zeblon, who had a good sense of humour coupled with eagle eyes. This pair worked so well together and afforded us some very good sightings out in the bush. Our game drives were the usual three-hour or so early morning and late afternoon drives, which has been proven over and over again to be the best time to look for wildlife. I am not going to give a blow by blow account of every drive and what we saw – this small cross section of images below hopefully will give you an idea. One occasion I do want to highlight though is when we went out looking for lion early one morning. Peace and Zeblon knew the general area where these animals were, but finding them in very thick bush was no easy matter and the eagle eyes of Zeblon, following obscure tracks and Peace doing some serious off-road driving, brought us into contact with a pride of eleven lions that had killed a zebra during the night. This photo below is an example of the steep incline we had to get up to find the lions, and then down again when some of the youngsters in the group decided to head for the open road (the vehicle in this image arrived after we had found the lions and we were the only two vehicles at the sighting for probably an hour or so).

One of eleven lions at this particular sighting

We had some close encounters with elephant, cheetah, jackal, birds, general plains game in abundance, hyenas and and and…

Very young rhino calf with his/her mother

Oh, and you may be interested to know that you don’t only have to go on a game drive to see wildlife. This sample of photos below were all taken at the lodge, either from or near my suite or from the central communal area – the elephants paid a visit to the water feature during lunch on one of the days.

Just a frog...

Nyala near to the path to some of the suites

At the water feature during lunch

and of course one has to get into the shallow water

This reptile stayed on the light support for two full days, following the shade around the pole

I shared my pool with these three Black-capped Bul-buls

Spotted bush snake - totally harmless

This chap was certainly a 'peeping tom' - he spied on us most of the day. Here he is perched on the door handle of the door leading between the bathroom and outside shower

If ever you’re looking for a safari, you could do no worse than putting Thanda on your list, choosing between the budget friendly Tented Camp, the more luxurious Safari Lodge and if you’re a group or extended family, the Villa Zulu is the one to choose – you will not be disappointed at any of these three options. Whilst the level of luxury and accommodation differs, the most important aspect, the game drives, are the same, no matter which lodge you’re staying at. Lastly, on this topic, there is no rush at any of the sightings to get to the next sighting or to make way for newcomers to get into the sighting – with all our high profile animal sightings, there was no limit on the time we could spend with the animals and I suspect that if I wanted to stay three hours at a particular sighting, this would not have been a problem – maybe the other couple on the vehicle may have objected, but I don’t know, this was never put to the test!

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Samara Private Game Reserve - The Manor House - Jeremy and Lana Williamson

Our focus is on marketing and booking clients into the principal Game Reserve venues in South Africa and some neighboring countries. These vary in many ways but in my opinion, Samara Private Game Reserve in and around the Plains of Camdeboo in the Great Karoo is rather unique and a destination that Lana and I unhesitatingly highly recommend.

The topography is not typical Acacia Bushveld as one experiences in the majority of South Africa's game parks. A semi-arid biome with mountainous grasslands and open plains below. This, over 28,000 Hectare wilderness, that has been rehabilitated and carefully restored towards its original status, is in the Eastern Cape some 40 minutes drive south east of the delightful Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet and approximately only a 2,5 hour drive from the Garden Route's capital city of Port Elizabeth, all on good tar roads.

Lana and I had made a decision to revisit this incredible protected area, restored to its former glory with pride and passion by its owner, and a venue dear to our hearts. It was here that Lana had her first sighting of Aardvark and Porcupine, this on foot and during the day, with excellent views of these rather retiring nocturnal species. It was here too many years ago that we experienced our first 'walking up' on a Cheetah and her two subadult cubs. These totally free roaming and born in the wild.

To add value to this visit, we included a couple of nights at the nearby Mountain Zebra National Park near Craddock, also a very special place where we enjoyed some excellent game viewing – it was certainly worthwhile including that Game Reserve on this trip making the visit to the area even more interesting and complementing our three night stay at Samara.
At the Mountain Zebra National Park Lana and I 'did our own thing' and drove ourselves within the park road network. At Samara we were treated to the luxury of being driven in search of the wildlife and enthralled by a really enthusiastic knowledgeable guide whose primary involvement at Samara Private Game Reserve is as an ecologist.

The guided game drives early morning (with our encouragement very early) and late afternoons into the evening (these, for our photography, were obligingly conducted slightly earlier than the norm) returning as that orb in the sky lost its impact on veld, dimming, darkening, to allow us to witness the most incredible display of the diamond studded night sky, so denied one, when living in a city. With no ambient light to detract from this spectacle, it seemed one could simply reach out to that magnificent lit canopy in that dome above, quite breath-taking.

There are two venues for general guest use at Samara, The Manor House and Karoo Lodge. We were staying at the Manor House on this occasion. 

The Manor House is a 4 double bedroomed venue, that can be booked individually or for a particular groups' sole use of up to 8 guests. Each room has a luxurious bathroom en suite, the public rooms are designed with a variety of comfortable seating venues. 

With a group of 8 in a party, there is ample seating in a variety of spots for the group to be together. For a couple or a smaller group, so there is a nookie here, there and almost everywhere to sit, lie and relax.

Dining locations are varied too, with the wide-open verandas a popular choice for their delightful cuisine. Lana and I avoid carbs in our diet, the Lodge chef catered for our whims admirably, living up to their 5 star status with aplomb.

The Manor House, as too the Karoo Lodge, add that extra touch of comfort and luxury to a very special wildlife experience. Samara is driving a grand plan to restore a vast area to its natural status and are well on their way to accomplishing this. The introduction of animals that previously existed in the area is complete with the recent release of lion to the reserve. That deep rumbling roar had not been heard in the area for approximately 180 years. When Lana and I visited, they were still being acclimatised in a boma on the property. They have subsequently been released to the wilds. The Game Rangers will now needs up their game with respect to the walking with guests on the property. This was a pretty relaxed excursion in the past, with the rangers knowing where the dangerous big game was, such as the Black and White Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo and the Cheetah. Leopard are on Samara but due to a legacy of past persecution, very rarely encountered. Lion add a slightly different aspect to this very popular game experience on foot, so enjoyed by guests.

With the Samara Private Game Reserve really being all about the wildlife, with that being our focus too, so it was on the guided game drives that we thrilled. On day one, arrival, luncheon and then with just Lana and I the only guests that night at Manor House, we enjoyed an exclusive game drive, and what an amazing experience too. We were driven to where a Cheetah and her 5 cubs were known to be.  They were secreted away under a bush out of the sun. Our guide queried as to whether we would be prepared to sit it out and to wait for them to come out and play, we were on! He was spot on. We slowly approached the thicket where they were enjoying the shade and at our guide's behest, sat on the earth fairly close to these dozing felines. Slowly there was egress from the shrubbery, as first one then another cub took a tentative peek, then carefully exited their sanctuary, then there were five, gambolling and playing roly poly, tag and catch me if you can. Too angelic. What a privilege this was to be in such proximity with wild cheetah on their terms.

Mum cheetah exited eventually in support, what a sighting. Now life must go on and I am sure there were a few hungry little fellows. As the sun started settling lower so mum and the cubs stretched, then chose to do a bit of crepuscular hunting and off they departed the forum of our enjoyment at a trot. We departed for the Samara Manor House.

The game drive vehicle crossed the electrified fence and drove up to the entrance circle at the front of the Lodge, there, brightly burning braziers and lanterns welcomed us, along with staff with warm towelettes and a glass of sherry.

Wiping the grime but not the memory of the afternoon's most enjoyable drive, it was for us to drop off our cameras and gear, a quick freshen up, then to the lounge / bar and the superb dinner. The cellar had some rather excellent vintner's products too. Now where's that comfortable King-size bed?

To the bar?

Dinner alfresco

Realising that both Lana and I were keen on capturing our images in that good golden light that is so briefly accessible to the photographer, our enthusiastic guide, Jan Dunn, offered to get going on the morning game drive just as the eastern dome started to lose its shawl of darkness and the first rays of a hidden sun paled the ethyl ether, those regions of space beyond the earth's atmosphere, then to appear in glowing shafts of light from our eastern horison. 

By the time that brightly lit disk appeared, casting that magic glow over the plains, we were in game viewing country, cameras at the ready. It was here in 1896 that the last of the Great Springbok Migrations occurred, as witnessed by Gert van der Merwe's party. A particularly dry season, the animals channelled through this region in their hundreds of thousands in an endeavour to reach the coastal plains, succulent grasses and abundant water. Samara is doing its bit by returning these beautiful gazelles, South Africa's National antelope, to their traditional home. This great movement of antelope was curtailed by the farmers wanting to isolate their stock, they laid down many kilometers of fencing which restricted the migrations. Springbok can 'pronk aka stot' but are not able to clear a fence restraining sheep and goats. 

Samara Private Game Reserve follows the tradition of Lodge game drives with a comfort stop at some appropriate stage. This our morning coffee stop on the second morning, their coffee made in a bodum was top notch, made more delectable with a dash of Amarula cream..

It is not only the Springbok that have been reintroduced, but Mountain Zebra, Eland, Red Hartebeest, Gemsbok, Blesbuck, Kudu, Black Wildebeest, Waterbuck, Giraffe, Warthog.

With others that were on the 11 farms that were bought to make up this vast protected area such as Mountain Reedbuck, Grey Rhebuck (Vaal Rhebok), Steenbuck, Common Duiker, Chacma Baboon and Vervet Monkey amongst others.

Porcupine and the endearing rare Aardvark, are a special here and for a number of reasons are regularly seen during the day on Samara, particularly in winter. We missed the Aardvark on this trip but were fortunate to see a Porcupine foraging relatively close.

Jan took our group up the roller coaster mountain pass to the upland plains where the larger plains game seem to congregate. Admiring a herd of Blesbuck we noticed a lone cheetah stealthily, belly to the ground stalking. Before I could get my binoculars onto him, he took off and at full speed tore into the herd, something went awry and it was a 'miss hit'. Rather thankfully, as both Lana and I are not that keen on witnessing the kill. This event however was enthralling and makes one appreciate the skill and speed that is necessary for these threatened cats to survive.

Samara is a very important haven for some of South Africa's threatened bird species. The Blue Cranes thrive and breed here, as too the Grey-wing Francolin.

This large area with the adjacent neighboring farms, these also enjoying a protected status, offer raptors and over 200 various other species of bird a safe haven over many thousands of hectares.
During our stay Jan offered to take us to Samara's Karoo Lodge to refresh our memory of the venue and to update on some images, as there had been some soft refurbishment done. Looking good, we so loved the comfortable old style furniture and fittings at both Lodges, to say nothing of the most pleasant, competent and attentive staff.

As this attests, Samara Private Game Reserve and its very comfortable accommodation venues is really rather special. With the game reserve being in a semi arid biome seasonality does not really apply and guest are able to enjoy outstanding sighting no matter the time of year, this is a big plus! Another advantage is that the open topography affords relatively good sightings. Management of Samara is very progressive with much planned for the future, much already achieved. Including this unique wildlife reserve in ones itinerary is really highly recommended, Lana and I have visited literally hundreds of southern Africa's wildlife havens with Samara, for all the above reasons and some, standing out as a favorite.

All photographs by Jeremy and Lana Williamson