19 October 2016 by Debbie Mayger
When planning your Big Five safari trip, you’ll quickly find that there’s an abundance of safari parks, hotels and destinations to choose from. To help, we’ve put together this collection of Africa’s finest lodges that combine luxury living with exclusive wildlife-viewing opportunities. There’s everything from thatched private pool indulgence to glass-walled suites raised out of remote forests on giant stilts. In each, game drives, bush walks and even helicopter flights will help you get the best out of Africa’s premiere parks and reserves.
Set beneath a leafy forest canopy on the banks of the recurrent Sand River, this luxury offering enjoys a prime location on a private reserve. It’s intimate too, with just eight thatched suites, all appointed in earthy tones that showcase authentic African artwork. However, it’s their plunge pools and outdoor showers that really stand out. And, with Sabi Sand sharing an unfenced border with South Africa’s Big Five posterchild, Kruger National Park, the daily game drives and bush walks are superb, covering over 10,000 hectares of bushland.
While sky beds and star baths will turn your eyes upwards, the rich wildlife of the next-door Moremi Game Reserve will snap them back to the bush. Here, canoe safaris and a signature ‘walking with elephants’ experience will get you close to the Big Five, while expert guides keep you fully informed. Back at base, although sustainably grown wood and recycled tins are among the environmentally friendly building blocks, this is eco-conscious design at its most luxurious. All five suites are perfectly opulent, featuring four poster sleeping arrangements and beds that can be wheeled out to join the outdoor baths on the sun decks.
This private reserve borders Botswana and encompasses over 750 square kilometres of rocky peaks, grasslands and valleys that all but bristle with Big Five activity. Sanctuary Makanyane is designed to have a minimal impact on it all, with eight secluded suites constructed from local stone, wood and thatch; each glass-walled offering features private views of Maricover River and the surrounding bushland. There’s even the option of sleeping under the stars on a second story deck, hidden among the grounds. Early morning and evening game drives are equally wild while three-course a la carte dinners and afternoon teas offer the refinement.
Designed by architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, this is a slice of award-winning design in the wild bush of Zambia’s Luangwa Valley. Ancient trees provide the shade while grass and canvas walls are at once modern and African traditional. And although each of the six exquisite villas feature its own private pool and giant bath-with-a-view, you’ll want to tear yourself away from the luxuries and spa facilities to explore the camp’s 60 acres of private land. Along with the national park, their oxbow lakes and great plains are home to 60 animal species and over 400 bird species. End the day by the cosy intimacy of the fire pit.
Located on Chitabe concession, Sandibe’s position on the Santandibe River – a wide channel that splits into numberless serene lagoons – characterises the Okavango Delta perfectly. This is the land of lions, leopards, buffalo, elephant and fish eagles. And the lodge fits right in, with a rustic blonde-timber design that hosts private plunge pools and stunning views across the delta. Head out and explore on game drives, helicopter flights and photographic safaris before returning to evenings of fine food and lantern-lit drinks.
Sabi Sand’s second entrance into our top list adds in a more contemporary European design to the obligatory African chic. Sweeping modernist curves frame suites that come with the equally obligatory private plunge pools and oversized timber decks. From here, look out over one of Kruger’s largest lakes – a popular watering hole for its indigenous wildlife. Meals are a social occasion with dinners served around the open-air fire pit and breakfasts taken in the traditional thatched lapa hut. It’s an idyllic setting for Mediterranean and African dishes matched by vintages from the lodge’s Italian wine cellar. And, once you get off the sunset deck and away from the rim-flow swimming pool, the national park’s wildlife awaits.
The Makgadikgadi – sound it out slowly – Salt Pan is the prehistoric setting of one of the largest dried super-lakes. It offers a striking desert contrast to the usual safari fare, with the opportunity of tracking such Great Kalahari inhabitants as meerkats, hyenas and Kalahari lions. You’ll even be able to follow the ancient tracks of the San Bushmen on compelling bush walks. Keep cool with the pool pavilion and accommodation that comes in the form of luxury 1940s-style desert safari tents. Each features romantic outdoor showers, copper baths and idyllic muslin-draped walls.
Phinda offers the best Big Five safari in KwaZulu-Natal, tucked away in South Africa’s easternmost tip. While there’s a range of accommodation, our favourite is the Mountain Lodge. Stilted suites tower above the canopy of a rare sand forest with floor-to-ceiling glass walls making the most of the view. And what a view it is; the reserve features over 380 bird species and borders coastal marine life said to rival that of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s all spread over no less than seven distinct ecosystems explored on a range of wildlife activities. You can even request to dine out in the bush, enjoying views of animals grazing on the open plains.