”Is it okay if I squeal?” I ask ranger Juan Pinto before my first game drive in the South African bush. You see, I know in advance that the animals will be cute. And I want to be professional about this: I don’t want to be the vision of some lovelorn teen who has just spotted a celebrity. So I want ranger Juan to tell it to me straight. He smiles indulgently. “No squealing. But you can talk.”
But nobody really needs to say a word in the South African bush. Nature takes care of the sound effects: baboons bark, cheetahs chirp (yes, they really do), hyenas screech, hippos snort — and, of course, lions roar. All the while, a chorus of birds whistles diddle-dos, carols and trills. One feathery fellow, called the Go Away Bird, even emits a cranky warble that sounds as dismissive as his name. Add in the soft whirr of the Jeep, the velvety purr of the breeze and the sound of our jackets brushing against leather seats and we have entered our own symphonic sanctuary.
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But hearing isn’t the only sense titillated to the max on safari. Here in the Thornybush Game Reserve, a 4,600-acre expanse just west of Kruger National Park, the world unfolds in myriad dimensions. We bump along dirt roads, lined with thorny acacia trees, tall leathery-leafed jackalberry trees and the scrubby, chaotic mixed plants of the woodland savannah. Thick with chill, the air smells of dew, grass, rain and musty earth. A sunrise explodes against the horizon in abstract splotches of purple, salmon and pink. And animals — as evocative as storybook characters but far more real — simply go about their business. Before we stop for a bush coffee break, we’ve seen giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, lions, crocs, hippos, rhinos and elephants. And it’s only 7 a.m.
Such is life at Royal Malewane, an illustrious, intimate lodge amid so much wild. Each morning, I rise before dawn to my wake-up call. When my phone rings in the darkness, I struggle within the confines of my mosquito-net–canopied bed, feeling much like a spider caught in a web. In the distance is the tinkling of china teacups being laid out, while the aroma of fresh-baked muffins scents the air. I tumble into the lavish common room of Africa House, Royal Malewane’s private villa-cum-lodge and a favorite of such safari fans as Elton John and Bono, ready to rumble through the bush, but only after a civilized cup of tea.
What we love:
- The design. Not rustic, the lodge was created by Liz Biden, one of South Africa’s most revered hoteliers and long a fan of the Thornybush area. Her talent lies in her ability to spin dreams, and the lodge feels much like leaping into an Expressionist painting: It’s colorful, fantastical and courageous in decor. Meant to pamper, the superior service only guarantees the scene reaches the highest level of quixotic.
- The service. Their over-the-top service extends to the game drives and exploration of the bush — which is really what the visit is all about. When I booked my bespoke safari with Micato Safaris, multi-time Travel & Leisure award-winning safari outfitters and tour operators, I didn’t know that the ranger team assigned to me, the aforementioned Juan Pinto and master tracker Wilson Maciya, were the best in Africa. But later, when I discover their reputation and contrast them with other guides, I’m not surprised to hear it. Without a doubt, it’s our twice-daily excursions into the bush with them that feed my soul and define my bush adventure.
- The spun magic: Royal Malewane excels at providing a never-ending array of surprises. Whether it’s the astonishing bush dinner set out among the terrain, replete with a fire, oriental rugs carted across the terrain, tables set out with food and even colorful lanterns, the daily sundowners, a dusk-time picnic with a white-clothed table gin and tonics atop a cliff (or beside a waterfall or in the middle of an Acacia-stamped expanse with elephants in view), the riverside breakfast or the personal service of our butler, the staff takes the clear magic of the bush up a notch in a way that only they seem able.
- The location: Though near famed Kruger National Park where cars must stay on the road, Royal Malewane occupies a reserve that allows for some eco-conscious off-roading when necessary — such as the time we follow an injured cheetah mother who had not been spotted for days and the time we find her babies at play atop a rock.
Need to know:
- The intimate retreat has a spa and a stunning lap pool, perfect places to unwind between game drives.
- The food is exceptional; not camping food, but expertly epicurean. There’s even a Kosher compliant kitchen.
- Royal Malewane is all-inclusive, meaning it includes wine, spirits, drinks, meals, snacks and most activities, including game drives.
- The Lodge at Royal Malewane has just six Luxury Suites, two Royal Suites, and Africa House – a villa with six bedrooms. Just 12 miles away, The Farmstead at Royal Malewane offers three Luxury Farm Suites and The Farmhouse – a three-and-a-half-bedroom private villa.
- Plan your trip to South Africa to include stays at the Royal Portfolio’s other unique hotels, each a slice of its location’s attributes. The urbane Silo in Capetown channels city life and the country house La Residence, set amid the South African wine lands, pampers with bucolic glee.