South Africa is as good as it gets for a low-fuss, far-flung holiday by all my key metrics. The weather (balmy!), food (gigantic steaks!), beaches (some of the best in the world!), language (English, easy-peezy!), direct flights (straight down, no faff!) and next to no time difference (no jet-lag!) all add up to the perfect long haul destination.
The real pull, though, is its wildlife and with myriad options — from an afternoon self-guided game drive just outside Johannesburg to full immersion in one of its vast reserves, it’s the ideal place for first timers.
I consider a safari to be one of the most magical experiences on the planet and have become slightly addicted to the thrill of seeing nature do its thing. As such, I’ve been lucky enough to do safaris in the Masai Mara, Serengeti and the Kruger park — all them of them offer something unique, from the once-in-a-lifetime migration I was privy to in Kenya to the searingly beautiful savannahs of the serengeti. But, I ticked off the most animals — the Big Five, and then some — at the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve in South Africa.
Sharing an unfenced border with the Kruger National Park, the best way to reach Sabi Sabi, which is within the Sabi Sands, is by catching the one-hour flight from Johannesburg to Skukuza airport. We flew with Airlink and found them to be reliable, friendly and with generous free snacks and meals.
From Skukuza, a tiny but delightful airport strip in the middle of the bush, it’s a bumpy and thrilling 45-minute drive to Earth Lodge. The safari begins here. We saw giraffes, elephants, buffalo and warthogs on the way. Two guests we chatted to had the rare privilege of spotting a pair of cheetahs on their journey to the lodge.
Forget everything you might expect a safari lodge to look like. Out of the four Sabi Sabi lodges dotted throughout the reserve, Earth Lodge is the most epic. A brutalist bunker carved into the bush, so integrated into the landscape that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. With bush on the very roofs of the suites and main buildings it’s common to bump into impala, kudu and elephants while you’re making your way around. We had a particularly life-affirming encounter one morning while sunbathing on our terrace — a family of seven elephants grazed right up next to us for half an hour.
Nature and sustainability have been incorporated throughout — from the wall render made from the very land that was excavated (it gives a sort of mud hut effect) for the lodge to the local hides used as rugs and fallen trees skillfully repurposed as tables and desks. This is well executed minimalism, allowing the 54,000 hectares of game reserve to be the star of the show.
You’re only here for one reason: safari, baby! There are two game drives per day. The first at 6:30am after a coffee and pastry, the second at 3:30pm is timed perfectly for a sundowner cocktail in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Each drive lasts for three hours. You’re accompanied by a tracker and a guide who are considered about how they configure the guests in each Jeep. We shared ours with one other couple and on the last day, we had the vehicle all to ourselves.
Depending on the time of year, the mornings can be bitterly cold — but they provide hot water bottles and cosy blankets to take the edge off. The safaris are well choreographed with the lodge’s vehicles tag teaming for most exciting sightings so the animals never feel crowded. The trackers and guides are dogged in pursuit of the most noteworthy wildlife, often grabbing their rifles and continuing their tracking on foot. Among many other fauna, we saw lions and lion cubs, cheetahs, leopards, buffalo, rhinos, hippos (on the move, quite rare), elephants, jennets, hyena, giraffe and warthog. It’s a life-affirming way to spend a few days.
When you’re not on a game drive, the time is your own. Relax with a book by your private pool as you soak up the sights and sounds of the bush (watch out for hungry elephants!), or book in at the Amani spa. I had a wonderfully vigorous massage, perfect after a few days jangling around in a Jeep.
There is also a small gym and the boutique is packed with tempting local crafts. The laundry service is also included in the price which is a much-needed luxury after several dusty drives.
Food & drink
Food is plentiful at Earth Lodge. So plentiful we couldn’t keep up and ended up skipping lunch most days — what a wonderful problem to have!
The day kicks off at about 6am with tea, coffee, pastries and fruit to warm you ahead of the first game drive. Back at the lodge, buzzing from the sights of a morning out in the bush, breakfast awaits. A buffet table heaving under the weight of fresh juices, more pastries, fruit, cereals, bagels, smoked salmon, Bloody Mary stations, sparkling wine and continental options. The a la carte options include omelettes loaded with everything from biltong to avocadoand venison sausages. The local chakalaka (beans, fresh veggies, onions, pepper, and tomatoes) was delicious.
Lunch too is a hearty buffet, along with a la carte which offers salads, ostrich wraps, huge Mozambican prawns, daily changing tartlets, venison kebabs, burgers, tacos. It goes on and on. If you have the super-human ability to fit in anymore, afternoon tea is served at 3:30pm before the evening game drive.
Dinner is exceptional. A relaxed affair, I’d recommend rolling straight from the safari Jeep to the bar — don’t waste time getting showered and changed. It’s a cosy campside sort of vibe. Take a perch at the bar by the roaring fire while the mixologists work up old fashioneds, gin & tonics or keep you topped up with something from their extensive South African wine collection. Premium spirits and international wines are available for an additional cost.
Dinner is again a la carte — but more refined — and served either in the boma — heaters, fires and blankets are provided on chilly nights or out on the lawn underneath the stars and overlooking the watering hole in the distance where the local hippos wallow (and roar). Meat features heavily — try the springbok — but lighter veggie dishes are available. A sample dinner might look something like this: caprese salad, french onion soup, springbok loin with sweet potato and apple & macadamia ragout finished off with sticky toffee pudding.
Back in the rooms, you’ll find more snacks and a sturdy minibar filled to the brim — all included in the price.
There are 13 stand-alone suites — all with sizable private pools and views out over the bush. More akin to underground bunkers than traditional thatched safari lodges, they are the masterpieces of the Dakota design studio. Staring slack jawed at the wilderness from the corner sofa (or swinging sling chair) on your terrace is where you’ll spend the most of your time, if you’re anything like me. We stayed in number 12 which was at the far end of the property and felt completely secluded.
Bathrooms are special with huge tubs, an inside shower overlooking the reserve and an outside shower to help you really convene with nature. The walls are constructed with the land dug up to make the hotel for a rustic, mud hut feel. If that sounds unglamorous, think again. Furniture is mid-century with cushions and cow hide rugs from local artisans. Watercolour and drawing papers are provided should the incredible landscapes inspire your inner Hockney.
You’ll be escorted around the site by a ranger at night, in case a not-so friendly hyena or hippo gets in your way.
My only small gripes were the size of the bed — it felt on the snug side — and the lack of phone chargers and universal sockets by the bed. It made springing out of bed for the 6am alarm that bit tougher.
As well as the twice-daily game drives, the Earth Lodge offers walking safaris and community tours. Sabi Sabi is serious about its charitable foundation which works on providing education, employment and conservation in the region. Donations from guests are extremely welcome.
Honeymooners, couples, friends, animal-lovers.
The starting rate for Earth Lodge is ZAR 29,500/ £1,245 per person per night. This includes open vehicle safaris by day and at night, environmental awareness walking safaris, breakfast, lunch, “boma” dinner, all drinks excluding French Champagne and Private Collection Wines, Wi-Fi & limited laundry service. There is an additional Sabie Game Reserve (SGR) Conservation Levy of R270 (VAT inclusive) per person per night. sabisabi.com
Virgin Atlantic flies daily between London Heathrow and Johannesburg with return Economy fares starting from £667 per person. For further information contact virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770.
We flew into Johannesburg and spent two days exploring the city.
5 things to do in Johannesburg
1. Stay at the Peech Hotel, Melrose
Two swimming pools, lush gardens and a destination restaurant. In the thick of the action, near Melrose Arch, Sandton City and Rosebank, the boutique is a delightful base. From £182 per night; thepeech.co.za
2. Eat at Marble Restaurant
With views over Johannesburg and with a chic crowd, this is the place to get your meat fix; marble.restaurant
3. Soweto tour
Home to the Apartheid Museum and Nelson Mandela’s house, a tour of the largest township in Africa is fascinating and moving.
4. Constitution Hill
The former Old Fort prison, where Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were held, provides a visceral reminder of the horrors — many quite recent — that South Africa has suffered.
5. Dinner at The Grillhouse, Rosebank
Cosy and relaxed with affordable steaks in vast quantities — always packed and vibey; thegrillhouse.co.za