I’m somewhat addicted to South Africa. And by somewhat, I mean I love it with a fervour bordering on the obsessive. While I’ve adored exploring its culture and history on previous visits, its famed wildlife has thus far eluded me. This is not because of any ninja-like flair Africa’s critters have for hiding, it’s 100% down to my offspring threatening to divorce me if I ever dared to set foot on a game reserve without them.
Once the domain of khaki-clad, pith-helmeted adventurers, more and more safari lodges are recognising the benefits of introducing children as early as possible to the natural world to foster environmental responsibility, making the safari experience a more accessible and attractive proposition for families.
So, when the opportunity arises for a visit South Africa with both the kids, there is no way we we are going to leave without getting our game on.
Top of my South African safari lodge wish list is what must be the most family friendly of them all, Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge – one of four ultra-luxurious game lodges in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, a 65,000 hectare oasis of unspoilt, wildlife-packed bush located at the southwestern corner of the Kruger National Park.
We’d heard that a stay at Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge with kids would be the ultimate introduction to South Africa’s incredible wildlife. But though our imaginations are vast, nothing in our wildest dreams could have prepared us for the true splendour of Sabi Sabi’s incredible wildlife and wilderness, or the incredible opportunities it would present for us to connect as a family through shared learning.
Here are just 9 of the reasons I’ll be returning, as soon as possible, for a bigger dose of the wonderful Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge with kids.
1. The Big Five
Obviously, the biggest drawcard of Sabi Sabi Bush lodge is its safaris. Blessed as it is with a great biodiversity of habitat, and zero fences between the reserve and the Kruger National Park, its most famous residents are the Big Five: the lion, the leopard, the elephant, the rhinoceros and the Cape buffalo, the only member of the Big Five not endangered or threatened. The term Big Five is derived not from their size, more grimly it came from19th century big-game hunters, as these animals were considered the most dangerous, ergo the most coveted as trophies.
Thankfully, for the past 40 years, Sabi Sabi’s strict conservation policy and dedicated anti-poaching unit have been providing protection and sanctuary for wildlife from predatory hunters. Only rangers are permitted to drive off-road here, and a strict ‘non-interference’ policy is in place, making for happy animals.
Needless to say, sightings of the Big Five are frequent. So much so that we’re told we have a great chance of spotting all of its members within two to three safari days.
But being the brilliant wildlife warriors we are, we manage it in the first two to three hours. Yeah, all right we can’t take any credit for this win at all, it’s all down to our safari crew, legends that they are.
On our very first safari drive, close encounters with lions, rhino, Cape Buffalo and elephant are all ticked off in quick succession. But it is the sighting of a rather peeved leopard, watching from the trees as a pack of opportunistic hyenas devour his kill, that has us calling bingo on the Big Five, at least once we scrape our jaws up off the floor.
The winning streak continues over our next three safaris, with astounding sightings of each, on every safari, all thanks to the efforts of Ranger Dan and Tracker Crimson, who, according to wannabe ranger Raff, are two of the coolest dudes in all of South Africa.
Beyond the Big Five
Due to its diversity of habitats, the reserve supports 47 large mammal species, 57 species of reptile, over 300 species of birds plus a cornucopia of other critters including bats, rodents, amphibians and insects.
Thanks to the eagle eyes and remarkable tracking skills of Dan and Crimson, we witness a wildlife spectacular with a cast of thousands. The Big Five may be the headline stars, but there’s also a constant chorus line of impala, steenbok, waterbuck, nyala and curly-horned kudu.
Twittering birds provide a soundtrack as the boys point out dramatic vultures, eagles and raptors in the distance, while happy hornbills dance closer by.
There are frequent flashy sightings of dazzling zebras and elegant giraffes, and a dose of drama is added by a supporting cast of wild dogs, warthogs, wildebeest and snarling spotted hyena.
A prickly porcupine and wallowing hippos peeping from a waterhole make guest appearances, as do bolshy baboons and a mob of skittish mongoose. Directed by mother nature, it’s a triumph of choreography, colour and chaos.
One of the highlights of a visit to Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge with kids is the family friendly accommodation. Our lavish two-bedroom luxury villa elicits gasps of delight from all of us. The lounge is all comfy sofas and carefully curated, and extremely covetable, collections of bush trinkets and African artefacts, overlooked by a mammoth chandelier crafted from gnarled twigs. The dreamy master bedroom boasts an enormous canopied bed and a spectacular bathroom with twin freestanding tubs, floor to ceiling windows and a dressing room bigger than my actual bedroom back home.
Plus, there’s an indoor shower and an insanely cool outdoor shower, where the kids frolic buck naked in the spray while actual (water)bucks saunter by.
The kids’ bedroom is equally fabulous, boasting twin four poster beds, en suite bathroom and a super cute tee pee play space.
But it is the outdoor lounge, with a private plunge pool overlooking a waterhole frequented by Eland and Impala, that’s our favourite spot to relax and play in our luxurious home away from home. A place so perfect that we all agree we’d quite like to make it our permanent residence.
The feast of African food
Food is an integral part of everything my very hungry travellers do and, happily, it’s also an intrinsic part of the Bush Lodge experience. Menus curated by the brilliant Chef Wilfred Mtshali celebrate the freshest local organic produce and the best of contemporary African cuisine. There are morning pastries and steaming tea plus sassy sundowners and snacks during game drives in the bush.
Back at Bush Lodge, bountiful breakfast buffets, a la carte al fresco luncheons overlooking a busy waterhole, and afternoon tea towers of freshly baked cakes and biscuits await.
As night falls, it is all about the seductively smoky braai (barbecue) in the boma and lantern lit culinary creations under the stars.
But the thing that really sets Chef Wilfred’s kitchen apart is how it gives back to neighbouring communities through his 12-month culinary programme that is training a new generation of chefs. For a taste of Sabi Sabi without leaving home, try this no fail recipe for mouthwatering South African melktert (milk tart) from their ‘Bringing Home The Bush’ cookbook.
The EleFun kids club
When my kids actually ask to go to a kids’ club, you know it’s got to be good, because they usually fight going. But part of the charm of Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge with kids is its EleFun Center (for kids aged 4 to 12) which Sugarpuff can’t get enough of. Even Raff has a ball at the fun and educational indoor/outdoor facility, though he is admittedly more taken with leaping around the obstacle course and zooming Tarzan-like across the zip line while Sugarpuff bush crafts up a storm.
Both kids enjoy learning all about Sabi Sabi’s wildlife, bugs and birds in the Introduction to Junior Ranger Programme, with its ranger led walks and educational drives into the bushveld. They’re also pretty happy to leave their messy mark amongst the hundreds of colourful hand prints on the walls of the centre, like hundreds of kids before them.
The spotlight on sustainability
The Sabi Sabi team’s dedication to balancing the ecological needs of South Africa’s precious flora and fauna with those of the Shangaan communities leaves us mightily impressed. Passionate eco warrior Raff makes it his mission to find out more, questioning guides, trackers and rangers at every opportunity.
What he discovers is an inspiring commitment to preserving the surrounding bushveld through dedicated Habitat Management and the work of highly trained and qualified rangers, who act as environmental educators. Sustainability efforts go beyond the protection of the park’s wildlife, with the application of environmental controls to remove threats to indigenous plant life, fire management, waste management and a clever sustainable wastewater management system that filters water to create wetlands for wildlife, all part of their continued efforts to provide an environmentally sustainable safari experience.
The connection to community
More than 80% of Sabi Sabi Private game reserve’s employees, including our awesome tracker, Crimson, hail from neighbouring Shangaan communities. Sabi Sabi’s community efforts include hospitality training initiatives as well as development projects for education and healthcare, and cultural and sporting facilities to support the communities more holistically. We’re thrilled to be introduced to the culture and history of authentic village life by a local guide, with proceeds from the tour fee all fed directly back to the community.
We visit a school, dance with the local ladies gathered outside the Village Elder’s home, meet a myriad of characters with stories to share, and enjoy an audience with a village sangoma (healer) who reads “bones” – an eclectic collection of bone fragments, shells, coins, seeds and dice – which leaves the kids both bewildered and enchanted in equal measure.
The Amani Day Spa
It’s not only mum and dad who can indulge in holistic rituals, massages and treatments at Amani Spa at Bush Lodge – a tranquil haven with water features and a secluded outlook onto the bush – kids are welcome too. In fact, I barely even get a look in, though a certain spoiled 8-year old gets to test drive a Paw Pedi and an Elephant Foot Print Massage, leaving her floating and me a little miffed at missing out.
You might think it would be hard to beat the wow factor of Sabi Sabi’s wildlife, but the thing that truly elevates our stay at Bush Lodge is its incomparable hospitality.
From the warm and welcoming reception team, the sweet crew at the Elefun centre, the chatty barmen and waiters, and the always smiling chefs through to our brilliant ranger/tracker team of Dan and Crimson, it is the the amazing people of Sabi Sabi who make every moment a memorable one.
Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge with kids – need to know before you go
When to visit
Sabi Sabi is a year-round destination but the dry season, from May to October, is considered the best time for game spotting. It’s also more comfortably cool and the risk of malaria, slight though it is, is also at its lowest.
South African Airways flies from Sydney to Johannesburg via Perth with easy connections available to Skukuza Airport in the Kruger National Park through South African Airways’ regional airline, Airlink.
Though there are 11 official languages spoken in South Africa, including Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans, Shangaan is the language of the people of the Mpumalanga province, in which Sabi Sabi is located. Resort staff and rangers are fluent in English as well as a selection of other foreign languages.
The Rand (R)
Voltage is 230V and 50Hz. Power outlets are round three pin sockets.
Visa & Passport Requirements
A South African tourist visa is not required for citizens of Australia for a stay up to 90 days. South Africa requires that all children entering or leaving the country carry an unabridged birth certificate and parental consent affidavits if they are travelling with only one parent. All visitors will require a passport valid for at least six (6) months.
Mosquito borne diseases including malaria are a risk in Kruger National Park. While the Sabi Sands Game Reserve does lie in a low risk malarial zone, only one case diagnosed at Sabi Sabi since 1970, we recommend protecting your family by applying child-safe insect repellent (with no more 20% DEET) at regular intervals and make sure they are dressed in long but light clothing at all times. It is also worth up to date advice on other immunisations, including the use of antimalarials, with your family GP at least six weeks before travel.
Waterborne and food borne diseases are prevalent throughout South Africa. While tap water in major cities is generally safe to drink, it is best to avoid it in any rural and regional areas.
Water is provided in recyclable bottles to guests in suites, on game drives and by request in communal areas. Any unfinished water left in bottles is collected and used for laundry and watering plants, ensuring not a drop is wasted.