South Africa is a nation that ignites the senses. It’s a place that you smell, taste, touch, hear, see and feel. So much so that after several visits, I’ve become somewhat hooked on South Africa. And by somewhat, I mean I love it with a fervour bordering on the obsessive. But while I’ve explored its culture and history on previous visits, its celebrated wildlife has thus far eluded me.
This omission is not because of any ninja-like flair Africa’s critters have for hiding. It is 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 stars align and we find ourselves winging our way to South Africa en famille, there is no way we are going to miss 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
Blessed as it is with a great biodiversity of habitat, and zero fences between the reserve and the Kruger National Park, Sabi Sabi’s biggest stars are the Big Five: the lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo, the only member of the Big Five not endangered or threatened. Incidentally, the term Big Five is derived not from their size. It’s history is more grim, coming from19th century big-game hunters, when 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 top shelf wildlife warriors we are, we manage it in the first two to three hours. Okay, so we can’t take any credit for this at all. Our success is 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 miffed 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.
This winning streak continues over our next three safaris, with astounding sightings of each of the five wildlife superstars, 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
But its not all just about the headline acts at Sabi Sabi. 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 leads, but there’s also a constant chorus line of impala, steenbok, waterbuck, nyala and curly-horned kudu.
Twittering birds provide the soundtrack, distant vultures, eagles and raptors lending a little orchestral support, as happy hornbills dance close by.
There are frequent flashy sightings of lean limbed and lovely cheetah, dazzling zebras and elegant giraffes, and a hefty 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, while bolshy baboons and a mob of skittish mongoose add a little comic relief.
Directed by mother nature, it’s a triumph of choreography, colour and chaos.
Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge
The grand spectacle doesn’t stop with the wildlife. Another highlight of our visit to Sabi Sabi is the family friendly accommodation at Bush Lodge. Our lavish two-bedroom luxury villa elicits gasps of delight at first sight. The lounge is a confection of comfy sofas and carefully curated, and extremely covetable, collections of bush trinkets and African artefacts, all overlooked by a mammoth chandelier crafted from gnarled twigs. The dreamy master bedroom boasts an enormous canopied bed, while the main bathroom is accessorised with twin freestanding tubs, floor to ceiling windows overlooking the bushveld and a cavernous dressing room that makes our light on luggage look more than a little lost.
There’s also an indoor shower plus an insane outdoor shower where my kids take the stage, frolicking buck naked in the spray while actual (water)bucks saunter by.
The kids’ bedroom is equally fabulous, boasting twin canopied four poster beds, an en suite bathroom and a seriously cute tee pee play space.
But it is the outdoor lounge, with its private plunge pool overlooking a waterhole frequented by Eland and Impala, that’s our favourite spot to relax and play in our luxurious African home. A place so perfect that we all agree we’d quite like to make it our permanent residence.
A 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.
We’re served morning pastries and steaming tea, and 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 served under the stars.
But what really makes Chef Wilfred’s kitchen shine is how it gives back to neighbouring communities through a 12-month culinary programme that’s 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 attend a kids’ club, you know it’s got to be good, because they usually fight going. But part of the charm of visiting 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 like an action hero and zooming Tarzan-like across the zip line while Sugarpuff bush crafts up a storm.
Both kids love 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 colourful hand prints in Bush Lodge’s take on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 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 8-year old diva gets to test drive a Paw Pedi and an Elephant Foot Print Massage, which leave her floating and me just 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 truly leave us starstruck.
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.