Thanda Safari will remind you just how achingly gorgeous the SA bush is
Its name means 'love' in Zulu and the dreamy Thanda Safari private reserve in KwaZulu-Natal certainly stirs that feeling in guests
Near-death encounters always make for great dinner conversation. If you love a little attention and a captive audience, you can thrill them with your story about how truly lucky you are to be here — still alive — after you almost lost your life. It's the stuff Discovery ID documentaries are made of. And it's often exaggerated (what's a story without a little extra dramatic effect thrown in?)
Well, I have my own near-death encounter story to share, and I will be telling it at dinner tables until I'm 87 and my children are rolling their eyes so far back that they'll be able to see the day of Shaka Zulu's birth.
On a mildly warm Sunday morning, five women and two men (a head ranger and a ranger-in-training) went on a specially requested bush walk somewhere on 14,000ha of gorgeous, scenic, Instagram-worthy land in KwaZulu-Natal.
We wanted to see lions. We were guests of Thanda Safari private game reserve, and the establishment's then-head ranger Morné Hamlyn led us to a spot where we might find the alleged king of the jungle (I reckon the lionesses are the real kings, but that's not what we're talking about here).
We found one lazing about in an open field. It was, according to Hamlyn, a safe distance away. Some of us (read: me) wanted to go closer, but we couldn't because our ranger had to remind us that lions aren't cute, cuddly cats - they're killing machines. This wasn't The Lion King.
Although a few hundred metres away, its roar made it seem closer. Instagram stories were taken (two of us on the trip were millennials) and Boomerangs were filmed (if you don't know what that is, please upgrade your Instagram game). And then we got moving. Walking in an orderly fashion (straight line, but lots of talking), writer Lucy O'Connell, who was behind me, suddenly whispered: "There's a rhino!"
"Where?" I asked.
"Right f***ing there!" she hissed.
As if on cue, a rhino came charging out of the bush nearby. Clearly scared, the panicking animal stomped around and past us, and at one point was a few small steps away from goring one of us.
Hamlyn banged on his rifle to distract and scare off the animal (and got incredibly close to it), while the five of us scurried away into the bush, following the trainee ranger, Ronnie Nsukwini, trying not to panic and definitely trying not to run.
And the lion was no longer lazing about — it was moving closer to us to see what the commotion was. So there we were, caught between a lion and a rhino, escaping into a bush which we very shortly after found out was also harbouring a lioness and her cubs. Yikes.
But, we got away safely, thanks to Hamlyn and Nsukwini.
Okay, so it wasn't a near-death encounter, but it could have been. And I hope you read that story in David Attenborough's voice.
SIMPLY THE BEST
Once back in the safety of our vehicle, we quickly headed back to the enticing arms of the lodge, which is — and I mean every word — the most incredible I have ever set foot in.
Surrounded by lush vegetation and those clichéd rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, the reserve (and other properties in the Thanda stable) is owned by Swedish businessman and philanthropist Dan Olofsson.
A large majority of its employees are from the surrounding communities and there's an emphasis on — and appreciation of — Zulu culture that doesn't feel contrived, appropriated or disrespectful.
Take, for instance, our accommodation. The Safari Lodge, painted a dark salmon colour which surprisingly complements its surroundings, has rondavel suites.
It gives off the vibe of being in the countryside, but it's also comforting for ophidiophobics (like me) to know that there's no corner for snakes to hide should they wish to share your accommodation.
The lodge offered an interesting dilemma. Because of the land it's built on and the animals that roam here, you want to head out on a game drive or a bush walk.
You want to see the rhinos grazing, rather than charging at you. You want to see the giraffes taking leisurely walks through the trees and you want to witness elephant herds gathering and playing at watering holes for over an hour (a spiritual experience for those who adore the tempestuous giants). You also want to head to the spa and get pampered silly.
These are all experiences we had at Thanda in a few short days. (Thanda is also big on conservation, and it especially looks after its rhino population — for obvious reasons.)
But you also want to stay in your room and enjoy the jaw-dropping views of the surrounding trees. You want to lounge in that outdoor pool or take a nap or read a book on the gloriously oversized lounger. You want to soak in the oval, deep red bathtub that also offers a view of the land.
No wonder tourists love our country so much — it truly is beautiful. A place like Thanda reminds you just how achingly gorgeous SA is.
IMPRESSED IN TENTS
Another Thanda property, its tented camp a few kilometres away, is not as luxurious but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable.
If you like the fine things in life (hot water, a comfortable bed and luxurious bedding) you will be at home here - this is glamping, darling.
Before arriving, I was a tad unsure about sleeping in a tent — any form of camping isn't something I'm interested in. But Thanda's tented camp was fit for Tatler-reading British aristocrats enjoying themselves in the land they once colonised. No sleeping on the floor here.
The mini hikes to each room are good for your thighs and will definitely test your fitness levels.
You can also visit nearby communities (great for tourists, meh for locals) and be treated to a candlelit outdoor dinner featuring some impressive and acrobatic Zulu dancers and drummers.
ON THE CATWALK
The game drives at the tented camp — and the safari lodge — are so breathtaking sometimes you feel as though you must be dreaming. It's as if all the animals in the kingdom decided this is fashion week, the land is their catwalk and we are their captive audience, cameras in hand, Instagram accounts at the ready.
Our guide on these drives was Christian Sperka, a former IT professional who now spends his time showing guests around Thanda's expansive land, taking incredible pictures of the wildlife (we saw him in action many times) and also teaching them how to make the most of their cameras (he does give lessons, but be sure to book in advance).
Sperka's right-hand man is the charming Bheki Ngubane, whose voice could rival James Earl Jones'.
Thanda Safari is definitely worth the seven-hour drive we made from Joburg to northern KwaZulu-Natal.
Thanda - which means "love" in Zulu - lives up to its name. It's the kind of place you fall in love with instantly. I have never struggled to go home as much as I did when I was there.
As singer Sophie Ellis-Baxter asked: If this ain't love, why does it feel so good?
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Thanda Safari Lodge has special rates for SADC residents — 40% off normal rates,all year, no matter the season.
The usual rates are as follows: Thanda Safari Lodge per person sharing per night is from R4,450 (kids aged two-16 pay 50%). This includes luxury accommodation, two game drives per day with professional guide and tracker, all meals and selected local beverages, bush walks with specialist guides, in-room minibar, wifi and laundry (and one private boma dinner with stays of four nights or more).
The Thanda Tented Camp cost per person sharing is from R2,379 per night (kids aged six-16 pay 50% of adult rate). The Jabula Tent starts from R2,917 per adult sharing per night. This includes two game drives per day, all meals and selected local beverages, in-room minibar and wifi in public areas. (No children under six).
• Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi was a guest of Thanda Safari...