South Africa - jump start needed

Aug 21st, 2011, 05:26 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: May 2004
Posts: 26
South Africa - jump start needed

My husband's fantasy retirement trip is a safari in Africa. I'm a little overwhelmed by the research I've done to prepare for this trip. We have managed to narrow down our choice to 6 days in the Sabi Sands area in May followed by 3 or 4 days at Marlin Lodge in Mozambique.

We'd love to spend 3 days at an upscale lodge - on a river, or near water - and 3 days at a tented camp. And that's about as far as we've gotten. We have been working with a woman from Kensington Tours but would like to do some comparison shopping with a couple of other tour companies.

Some of the lodges I've read about look very luxurious but also look kind of Vegas-modern. Is there such as thing as" moderate luxury" - is that an oxymoron? - with a more traditional African feel?

In the end I know that no matter what we choose we will have the experience of a lifetime, and I don't want to be too obsessive about overplanning - even though I am a pretty obsessive planner. I would love to hear from anyone who has been through this process and can give me a jump-start, recommendations or tips re. accommodations, pros and cons, etc. Thanks!
labfans is offline  
Aug 21st, 2011, 07:15 AM
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This website gives info on all camps in Sabi Sand (except for Mala Mala):

Without a budget, it's difficult to give recs because the costs vary widely. You can search by price level on that website. We liked Arathusa because it has a water hole - we spent hours on our little deck watching the wildlife come to drink. But it's not luxurious and the game vehicles tend to pack in too many people. We enjoyed the company, so it worked for us. Others would not happy. Are there any tented camps in Sabi Sand? Not sure. There are a few in other nearby reserves.

Are you flexible on the time in Africa? Ten days is short for the long flight.

I totally understand how difficult it is to choose your first safari! We solved that by just going back as often as possible. First safari, very expensive. Third safari, affordable! Next (fourth) will be cheap.

There are many camps that the travel agents that cater to American clients don't suggest. Most are much less luxurious and more affordable. Many are independent and are more casual. We have used TAs to book them and arrange transfers even though they don't suggest them. If you find a camp you think is perfect for what you are looking for Kensington should be able to arrange your plans. I would use a TA for a first safari - just for peace of mind should there be a tiny snag. (we've not had any snags).

Have fun planning! I'm always planning the next one.
christabir is offline  
Aug 21st, 2011, 10:57 AM
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Christabir mentioned MalaMala above. That would be a good choice for a first time safari and it also meets your requirement for moderate luxury (at least by my definition). MalaMala is the largest piece of land in the Sabi Sands and you have a very good chance of seeing the big five each day. It is also on the Sand River which cuts right through the property. I have been to MalaMala many times and May will be a good time of year.

I do not suggest six days of safari in the same ecosystem or at the same camp. Like you mentioned, perhaps go to another property first. If you have six days, then I suggest you spend three in the Sabi Sands and three days somewhere else like Phinda, Mashatu, or Pafuri. These properties are far enough away to give you significant environmental diversity – especially the first two. Mashatu is MalaMala’s sister property on the Botswana/South Africa. There is a tented camp that is reasonably priced at Mashatu.

Kensington Tour is a good company to work with. They are based in Toronto. Given the opacity of pricing and the total expense of a safari, it is still always good to shop around a bit and benchmark what you are paying for. Just make sure whoever you work with does not try to slot you into one of their set-tours. I do not know how Kensington operates so this is more of a general statement. You just want to make sure the company you book with has no financial benefit to book you into a particular lodge. You need to make sure they are independent and looking out for your interests as opposed to theirs. Financial pressure comes when a tour operator has, among other things, set departures (seats to fill) or pre-paid allocations at a safari lodge. With allocations, they get a good price up-front but they have to perform! As expected, this can taint the so called “recommendations” you get from them. Once again, this is a general comment and does not apply to Kensington.

Here is how a Mashatu/MalaMala/Marlin itinerary could work. There are quicker ways to get from Mashatu to MalaMala but they would involve a charter aircraft at a higher cost (time vs money).

Day 1 Arrive Jo’burg and overnight.
Day 2 Fly SA Airlink to Polokwane and road transfer 2 hours to Mashatu tented camp.
Day 3 & 4 Mashatu
Day 5 Return to Polokwane by road and fly SA Airlink to Nelsruit/MQP with a connection in Jo’burg. Overnight near Nelspruit at a place like Hippo Hollow or Perry’s Bridge Hollow.
Day 6,7,8 Road transfer 2 hours to MalaMala
Day 9 Road transfer back to Nelspruit. Catch the 3x per week direct flight on FEDAIR from Nelspruit to Vilanculos. From here go to Marlins.
Day 10,11,12 Marlins
Day 13 Fly from Vilanculos to Jo’burg and go home.

May is one of the coldest months of the year in Mozambique. IF (big IF) they get a cold front you could have a cold time at the beach.
There is a scheduled flight from Mashatu to MalaMala on Sunday. But, you need to pay for four seats and only get refunded for two of them if somebody else signs up for the flight.
Be sure to time the trip so Day 9 coincides with the Fedair flight to Mozambique.
All lodges in the Bazaruto Chain (Marlins, Azura, Benguerra, etc.) have stay5pay4 or stay4pay3 of some sort so be sure not to miss those deals.

I disagree with christabir. Any agent that is truly an expert on Africa will be able to guide you through an array of choices for lodging. A general travel agent will not be able to do so. In the Kruger area when people only have three days for a safari I usually recommend a lodge inside the ecosystem (i.e. not a fenced reserve) and also in the Southern part of the ecosystem which is more dense from an animal population than the northern or central part of the Kruger. Here are some examples of the least expensive lodges I would recommend to a client: Arathusa, Elephant Plains, Cheetah Plains, Nottens, Hamilton’s Camp. The last one is a private concession inside the Kruger. Kensington works with a lodge called Hoyo Hoyo which is also a private concession in the Kruger. IMO this lodge is a little far north to serve as your only Kruger experience but it would be a good second camp and far enough away from the Sabi Sands to give you diversity. None of these camps are on permanent water source like the Sand or Sabi River which is one reason they are less expensive than lodges on a permanent river in the same area. In general, when you “scrape the barrel” for a safari lodge, you get what you pay for.


Craig Beal – owner – Travel Beyond
Safari_Craig is offline  
Aug 21st, 2011, 12:30 PM
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Craig - I misspoke. Any safari TA can make arrangements, not just any TA. I guess I assume people will make that discernment here, and the OP is already using Kensington.

In only 10 days, Sabi Sands, Mashatu or Phinda, Mozambique is a lot of travel! I loved Mashatu, but would not do it in this situation. Nothing wrong with a Sabi Sands/Timbavati or Kruger combo. Add more time and go for it! Three nights minimum gives you time to relax and get a good feel of a camp. Our first very expensive safari involved too many two nighters. It was great to see a lot, but we always felt rushed. I enjoyed Pafuri but wouldn't recommend for a first safari.

"Scrape the barrel"?! Another reason the independent/more affordable camps are not popular with Americans. US TAs think they're not good enough? Yikes.
christabir is offline  
Aug 21st, 2011, 12:45 PM
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Good advice above. If your from USA (as I am, CA) then to make those 26 hours of flights and $$$$ (each way) worth it, I stay at least two weeks in Africa. My next safari May 2012 will be three weeks .

Also agree that a safari camp needs 3 or more nights. To be specific, for you first time of say 6-8 nights I'd recommend 4 nights at Kings Camp in the Timbavati reserve followed by 4 nights at MalaMala, Sabi Sand reserve. Both reserves border Kruger on the south west side. I've been to both several times.
Rates are in the $500-600 per person per night.

I know nothing about Mozambique.

regards - tom
cary999 is offline  
Aug 21st, 2011, 01:13 PM
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Thanks for your input. We've spent the afternoon cruising the byways of the internet and are most interested in Mala Mala Sable, Hamiltons Tented Camp, Savanna and Tanda Tula. It seems that Mala Mala is a must for a first timer but we would also love to have a tented camp experience in another location or in Timbavati. Any comments on those places would be appreciated. I like my creature comforts but and am willing to pay for them but we do not need things like our own plunge pool, LCD tv, etc.

I totally agree about 4 nights in each place. Then we'll try to add on a Mozambique island extension for a few days.

We are retired teachers and to be perfectly honest we are not looking for a "family friendly" place - we spent our entire careers around children and prefer to vacation without them which is why Sable appealed to us as they do not take children under 16.

A final question - ha! - about game drives. My husband is an avid photographer. Is it necessary to do a private game drive for part of the trip in order to have enough time to take frame and take pictures at our leisure?

Just like dominoes, one question leads to the next. I can already tell that I'm going to be obsessed with this trip for the next 6 months.
labfans is offline  
Aug 21st, 2011, 03:40 PM
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I'm a great fan of private-use vehicles. To answer your specific question, labfans, I would say that you do need a private vehicle to get exactly the photo you want. Having the private vehicle also gives you much more space for your photo gear, gives you much more freedon if you have unipod/tripod, and gives you the freedom to schedule your drives (for example, you might want to out a little earlier to get the morning's "golden light"). But there's obviously a trade-off: if you're on any sort of budget, hiring a private vehicle probably means you'll spend fewer nights on safari.

Owner ... Don Topaz Travel
DonTopaz is offline  
Aug 21st, 2011, 04:49 PM
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The "problem" with camps around the Greater Kruger Area, i.e. Kruger National Park, Timbavati and Sabi Sand reserves is that it is the same echo system. You will not see the classic African plains savannah of Tanzania or Kenya. However for wildlife viewing, big 5, it is the best. (IMHO ).

I'm also an avid photographer and would like to have private vehicles. However, a private vehicle is typically $200-300-400 additional per day. So I budget trade off (like Don above says) that for more safari days. That your -guide/ranger- is into photography is the most important thing. Tell the camp management that you are a photographer and request a like minded guide. I can tell you that the three times I've been to MalaMala each (different) guide has also been into photography and was great. (And if you go to Kings Camp get Patrick or Morne).

Also regarding MalaMala, its three camps, Main, Sable, and Rattrays. Each of my three times there I made reservations for Main. But every time they gave me Sable. Not sure exactly why, probably because I'm/we are (also) senior citizens.

Also, FWIW, here is link to my safari photos, non from a private game vehicle, most to accompany my Fodor's trip report. And after every safari I work up a DVD of stills and video clips as a "picture souvenir album".

regards - tom
cary999 is offline  
Aug 21st, 2011, 05:10 PM
Join Date: Nov 2008
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Hey guys. Good discussion.

Christabir – sorry for the confusion and by no means do I want to banter with you since you are a valuable and long standing member of this community. I feel like I know you.

Therefore, I suppose I need to clarify my scrape the barrel comment. My warning to the safari novice is to consider what corners need to be cut when you choose a lodge that sells for less than approximately 2,000 rand per person per night (<$300) for your once-in-a-lifetime safari . The underlying value of land in the best areas, like the Sabi Sands, is so high the cost of capital alone to run the lodge amounts to over $100 per day per guest at many places. Factor in food, (quality) rangers, staff, land rovers, diesel, wine, beer, cost of accommodations and something has to give if the lodge is not charging enough. Sometimes, the first thing to give is the land rover in which case the lodge will pack nine people on a vehicle with several in middle seats. Perhaps the next thing to “give” is quality rangers and trackers. Often something that gives is the size of land thus the lodges with small parcels of land form traversing agreements with neighbors.

Anyway – I endorse all the lodges I discussed in my comment but I would not recommend many properties below the price point of Elephant Plains (i.e. ZAR 2,000 per person per day). If anyone knows a great lodge in the open Southern Kruger ecosystem below this price point I would love to hear your experience.

I also endorse the Timbavati/Sabi Sands combo and have done that many times and sent many clients on that type of safari.

Craig Beal – owner – Travel Beyond
Safari_Craig is offline  
Aug 21st, 2011, 08:10 PM
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Craig - ditto.

I haven't been, but Tanda Tula has been on my wish list. It looks as close to perfect as a camp could be. They even publish their private vehicle rate - R2500.

Savanna looks very nice, too. If it were me, I'd do Tanda Tula and Savanna. Tented camps are wonderful as you can listen to the sounds of the bush while falling asleep and brushing your teeth in the morning. In May, air conditioning is usually not necessary so tented camps are fine. Mala Mala seems so commercial, it holds no interest to me. But everyone loves it, so I'm probably way off base on my feelings about it. Hamiltons is in Kruger NP, so there is no off road. For your husband, he wouldn't be happy at a lion sighting and not being able to get the correct light.

Ask your TA about number per vehicle. We've gotten lucky a few times and by chance had private safaris. But we've been unlucky to have eight people per vehicle too. Luck of the draw. Personally, I prefer sharing a game drive (but not with 8!), but depending on the others who you are with, can be difficult if your interests are different. We got "stuck" with two children on one drive. It was awful - until we came upon lions. They were perfectly behaved! We were shocked because they were not earlier. (I don't want to be around other people's kids, either).

So many choices! But the ones you've narrowed it down to (minus Hamiltons) are all good, IMHO All will make a great trip.
christabir is offline  
Aug 22nd, 2011, 12:43 AM
Join Date: Jul 2011
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Hi there

Just picking up on all the discussions - 'Christabir' - Tanda Tula is lovely and staff are friendly and experienced - game viewing is good and in my opinion, the Timbivati offers a brilliant game experience - for first timers and repeat visits.

A thought if you hav 6 nights is a combination - say 3 nights in the Timbivati and 3 in the Sabi Sand before flying off to Mozambique - you need to plan your days as from the Kruger side these flights are only 2x a week. In Sabi Sands Savanna is a great option as well if this is the way you are thinking. Otherwise look at a combination of Kings Camp (Timbivati) and Leopard Hills (Sabi Sands) - they are sister lodges and you sure to get a good financial deal too.

Enjoy your holiday, regards Anthea... Travel UNITE
Leopardress is offline  
Aug 22nd, 2011, 01:36 AM
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Having done multiple safaris to five of the private reserves near Kruger (Klaserie, Umbabat, Timbavati, Manyeleti and Sabi Sands) and Kruger NP itself AS A TOURIST, my advice would be totally different as the tips given above.

Here's my input;

1) There is more than Sabi Sands. Lodges in this reserve are - on average - more expensive because the reserve established a name, and because those lodges focus on big spenders. Look beyond Sabi Sands.

2) Spend your $$ wisely. There is absolutely no need to spend 400-500$ a night per person to get a good safari. There are good lodges, even in Sabi Sands, for half that price or less. Game viewing is equal, guiding is excellent, food is great, and level of comfort is simply perfect. Clean rooms, good beds, nice shower, great view from the room; you really don't need more.

Coincidence or not; the rooms with the best view was by far the most expensive I've been in (Simbavati River Lodge), the lodge with the best food was by far the most expensive (Shindzela), the lodge with the best guiding was by far the most expensive (Africa On Foot) and the lodge with the best sightings overall was by far the most expensive (nThambo).

3) Don't go flying all around the place. It wears you out. It costs a lot. And it takes up a lot of time. Time you should spend while on game drive, enjoying yourself. Who cares if you only see one type of landscape now (ic the lowveld)? This is your first safari! Even if you stay two weeks in the lowveld, you will not get tired of what you see. And what you see will be new things every day. Just switch lodges now and then (after 3 or 4 nights) and make sure you try different types of lodges (like one near water, one in a dryer area, one that focuses on foot safaris, one with rooms made of canvas, etc).

4) Choose a good local (ic Stouth African) tour operator. They are much closer to their "product", and cost much less. A US-based TA adds nothing except $$ to your total cost.

5) A private vehicle is absolutely not needed. I am an amateur photographer too, and the total number of times I was not able to make a shot because of other people in my jeep equals Private vehicles are more for those who are seeking to make money from their shots. Also; you will never end up with kids in regular vehicles, as long as you choose camps that do not allow kids under 12 for safety reasons (most of them are like this).

6) If you do all the above, you can do more for an equal amount of $$. You could stay longer (you are retired; you have the time!) Or you can put some money away for a next time. There WILL be a next time, I can assure you!

Gotta run now, but I hope to find some time later to type down a sample itinerary that will, I can assure you, be very different from the ones above.


pixelpower is offline  
Aug 22nd, 2011, 11:52 PM
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OK had no time yesterday. But got a moment now.

How about this?

1) Flight Jo'Burg -> Hoedspruit: R 1400 pp. The advantage of picking a camp in Klaserie or Timbavati is that the airport is very close. Unlike for Sabi Sands where you either land in Nelspruit (which is a couple of hours away) or where you have to hire a private charter. If you take the noon flight, you can already do the afternoon game drives.

2) 3 nights in nThambo, Klaserie; R 5500 pp. Fantastic tented camp. Incredible guides. Pics & trip report here:

3) free transfer to next camp (it's only 30 mins away; nThambo will gladly take you there for free).

4) 3 nights at Simbavati River Lodge; R 6750 pp if you choose the right period. This camp is on a river, like you wanted. Pics & trip report;

5) Transfer to Nelspruit airport; count R 750 pp (I'm probably over-estimating this)

6) Flight to Vilanculos with R 2100 pp

7) Your stay 4 nights at Marlin Lodge: 2320$ (OMG so expensive. I'd choose somthing else, but OK)

8) Flight to Jo'Burg with Fedair: R 1550 pp

Total of this trip, excl international flights; 4800$ pp (of which 2300$ is for those 4 nights in Moz!)

If you book it through a local TA, and certainly Sun Safaris which is the promotor of one of the camps above, then you can ask them for promotions. They will have price reductions, or deals like "stay 5 pay 4". IOW I'm guessing that for 2500 to 2750$ pp you could easily get 8 nights instead of six.

And yes, you will see the big 5. nThambo has a mum with two leopards cubs on the property. Especially the cubs are comfortable around people. We even walked up to them on foot.

Also; sightings are shared with other camps, so you get plenty to see, but not "over the top" (ic forcing you to move out after 15 mins). nThambo shares traverse with Africa On Foot, Gomo Gomo and Baobab ridge (on invitation), plus about 10 other properties up north. I think they're close to 7000Ha already. And Simbavati shares with Motswari, Kings Camp, Tanda Thula, Umlani, etc. They have about 12000Ha in traverse.
Seriously; the time when you could only find the perfect balance between sharing of sightings and abundance/relaxedness of wildlife in Sabi Sands is long gone.


pixelpower is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2011, 12:44 AM
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Thanks J.
Instead of going to Marlin Lodge and since Simbavati is in the Timbavati reserve, why not stay at another camp in the Timbavati? Thus saving the flight to Vilanculos. Is Marlin Lodge worth $2,620 ($300 plus 2,320), four nights, $655 per night? Less than $655 night will get many other camps in Timbavati (or Sabi Sand).

regards - tom
cary999 is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2011, 08:31 AM
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In my experience the animal density and diversity is less in the Timbavati than in the Sabi Sands. Even if you stay in the Kruger, I strongly encourage first-timers or one-timers to spend some time in the Southern part of the ecosystem.
Density = number of animals seen per game drive or per day.
Diversity = total number of species observed.

If someone could tell me the name of a lodge in the Sabi Sands that is $200-$250 per night, I would love to know what I have been missing for the past five years? I base this question on this comment: “There is absolutely no need to spend 400-500$ a night per person to get a good safari. There are good lodges, even in Sabi Sands, for half that price or less.” At today’s exchange rate, Elephant Plains is about $300 per night and I endorsed that lodge above.

As far as I know, all Rivers in the Timbavati are seasonal and they do not flow year-round like the Sand River and Sabi River.

Looking for a less expensive beach resort not requiring a light aircraft transfer? This one is in South Africa 3-4 hours from Durban:

Craig Beal – owner – Travel Beyond
Safari_Craig is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2011, 09:53 AM
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Having spent around 20 nights in Sabi Sand camps and 25 nights is Timbavati, over the last 4 years, I agree with Craig that the animal diversity and density is better in Sabi Sand. Not twice as much better, maybe 25%?

regards - tom
cary999 is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2011, 10:44 PM
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Well, my opinion is that this "animal density" is simply perception. It depends on a few factors, some of which are human-controlled (like sharing/traverse), some of which cannot be controlled (weather).

Exclude the latter (I've been in Sabi Sands and Timbavati when a cold front rolled in and saw very little in either places), and it pretty much comes down to the providers of the safari:

- Do you get a guide that will go at length for his customers and is he as eager as you to see the animals?
- Do you have a tracker that actually looks for tracks, or does he sleep in that bait seat and hopes he will be "saved" by others radioing sightings in?
- How much traverse does the lodge have?
- Are other camps nearby busy?

This last point is a very important one, and is often overlooked. With the current crisis, some camps are sometimes completely empty. And when they're empty, they're not sharing any sightings with you. Plus, sometimes traverse is "by invitation" which means; if your neighboring camp is not driving customers around, then you're not invited to any sighting, nor can you drive around on their plot. So your "area of operation" effectively shrinks.

So you see; the current malaise in the more expensive camps has a double negative impact, which makes spending a huge amount of $$$ at those camps even less worth it.

There's also a few factors that do make less of a difference IMHO:

- The availability of water. Everyone made waterholes. Unless you arrive really at the end of the dry season (september) all or most of those waterholes are full. You really do not need to be near running water. Any water will do.

- The relaxedness of animals. This may have been the case years ago, when Sabi Sands had "an edge" over other reserves; their lepards were already used to tourist vehicles while that was not the case elsewhere. But now I see that changing. In Timbavati, we were near a leopard that was as relaxed as the ones we saw in Sabi Sands. In Klaserie, we even visited 8 month old leopard cubs on foot (they were used to it already).

Add this all up, and I think the best thing to do is go for the less expensive camps but stay longer.
1) You will still have paid much less in total.
2) Your longer stay will have compensated for that "25% less animals" as Tom describes it (although I'd rather estimate it at 10% or less)
3) You will return home in higher spirits (the longer you stay in the bush, the better the impact on your psyche).


pixelpower is offline  
Aug 24th, 2011, 05:21 AM
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Very true statement Pixelpower! "You will return home in higher spirits (the longer you stay in the bush, the better the impact on your psyche)."

Safari_Craig is offline  
Aug 24th, 2011, 06:25 PM
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PP - Like to ask again as above - is Marlin Lodge a good value at $655 per night?

And very much agree your guide/ranger is the single most important factor for game drives.

regards - tom
cary999 is offline  
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