REVIEW: ARATHUSA SAFARI LODGE

REVIEW: ARATHUSA SAFARI LODGE

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ARATHUSA SAFRI LODGE REVIEW

THE SHORT OF IT:
Game viewing: 10/10
Accommodation: 9/10
Staff knowledge & friendliness: 10/10
Food and wine quality: 6/10

THE LONG OF IT

On the 12th of June 2015, I visited Arathusa Safari Lodge, nestled within the famous Sabi Sands reserve.
Sabi Sands is well known for its prolific Big Cat (think Lion, Leopard, Cheetah!) population, and we were lucky enough to find this out first hand.

Arathusa is located about 45km from the Orpen Gate. We travelled along a dirt road through a rural village to Gowrie Gate (one of the three Sabi Sands gate), and from here it was only around 9km to the lodge.

Upon arrival, we were immediately greeted with a smiling face, welcoming us to the lodge, and instructing us to leave our baggage – someone would come and collect it for us! We were already feeling very spoiled.
As we entered the reception of lodge, we noticed how it combined a real indoor/outdoor flow with natural finishes – mostly wood that you would find out in the reserve. We were handed a seriously tasty welcome drink, and given a quick orientation. Lunch at 2, game drive at 3 – and we were not to walk to our rooms alone at night. WHAT?

Apparently, the night before, the lions had been sleeping just outside one of the rooms. I gulped – sure, it would make a great story, but I didn’t know if I was ready for that much excitement!

As we were shown around the lodge, I began to understand their philosophy of luxury without being OVER THE TOP. I think they nailed this pretty well! Looking at pictures never really gives you the entire view of the lodge, so seeing Arathusa in person showed me the size of it too. What struck me most was the HUMUNGOUS water hole right in front of the lounge area, where there about 6 hippos relaxing and snorting (hippos make such a funny noise, kind of like a burp mixed with an ‘aa aa aa’ sound). Absolute pristine beauty. When I say a huge waterhole, I mean literally like the size of a supermarket parking lot. With an infinity pool set just above it, I can image the great views swimmers would have on a hot summers day.

After having a quick peek at the lounge area, we were escorted to our room (about a 5 minute walk!)– SURPRISE! We had been allocated a luxury suite, our one known as ‘Knobthorn’. With a big wooden door as an entrance, the natural flow from the reception carries on through all of the rooms. Check out the gallery below to view the pics of the place.
What stuck here for me is the attention to detail that Arathusa has. Not only do they have plugs in just the right places, but there are even international plugs built into the walls to ensure you can charge everything you want – no matter where you come from!

After settling in, we left for lunch. A beautifully decorated table awaited us (with a great view of the waterhole), and we were offered three choices for lunch – Chicken and cous cous, prawn and fruit salad, or a prego (steak and sauce) roll. We both opted for the chicken, and were surprised at how quickly it came out – within three minutes of ordering! There was a hearty green salad and fresh bread with butter on the table for us to help ourselves to.

We had a table of 8, which included two special clients that we had worked with for close to two years,  and two more American couples. For most of them, it was their first ever safari, so I took great pleasure in hearing their excitement – it always brings me right back to my first safari too.

During lunch, we were asked what drinks we would like on our evening game drive – I opted for red wine, and Ken for a beer. It was time to go and grab our warm things before meeting back in the lounge.

With 10 minutes to spare before 3pm, we changed into long pants and long tops, and filled out hands with scarves and jackets (and Ken with his mighty camera). The dry season, AKA winter (April – August) can be warm during the day, but severely cold during the game drives as the wind chill factor comes into play.
I always recommend to clients to dress like an onion during winter (in LAYERS), and this was no exception. As soon as the sun goes to sleep, the cold can really take over.
The lodges will usually provide you with a blanket (and some even a hot water bottle!), but being cold on safari is really no fun. So, no matter what – TAKE A JACKET (and a scarf, and gloves, and a beanie…) if you are going on a winter safari!

Our room was located a good little trup (walk) away from the main lodge which gave us a lot of privacy, but it meant we needed to cater for the time it took to get back before game drive. Arriving a few minutes after 3, we were stunned – MORE FOOD! Lining a table was a caramel cake, a milk tart, iced coffee, iced tea, warm coffee, warm tea… One thing is for sure, you never go hungry on safari!

Through full mouths, we met our ranger, Sean, who we were assigned to along with our clients, and one of the American couples we had enjoyed lunch with.
Sean had been at Arathusa for 10 months, and had a kind face, always with a joke on the tip of his tongue. Full of knowledge, Sean was genuinely interested in us and our story too.
After enjoying our high tea, he invited our group to board our game vehicle so we could begin to search the plains for the famous wildlife.

The vehicles at Arathusa are Land Cruisers – made by Toyota. They are the typical safari jeeps, with 3 rows of 3 seats made out of khaki material, and with an open top. They have a pocket on the seat in front of yours, which is very useful for holding water, sunglasses, lip ice, a hat and so on – all your safari essentials.

Ken and I sat in the middle row, with our clients behind us and the other American couple infront of us. As we were climbing on (they have special mini ladders that are built in), we were informed about an Italian couple who were running late, but wanted to join in on the game drive (they had only just checked in), so we got comfortable and waited a for a few minutes.
The game drive vehicles collect you right from reception, so it is a really accessible lodge.

Once the Italians joined us, Sean started the vehicle and we were off!
The temperature was already dropping from a balmy 24 degrees to around 20 in about half an hour. Boy, was I glad I had brought a few extra layers!

The safari vehicles are always a bumpy ride, but it is not an uncomfortable bump at all. They are designed to absorb the shock.

Within the first half an hour, we bumped right into a big bull elephant that our tracker (named Rifus) heard from right across the vast dry riverbed. Even though I live right here in the bush, it still puts me a little on edge being with 2 meters of a bull elephant.
This one was quite chilled out, and we spent at least 20 minutes with him. Sean spent the time telling us interesting facts about elephants, and I learned some things that I didn’t know.

After viewing the bull, we drove on for about half a kilometre, where we caught up with the breeding herd of ellies that the bull was following. Among them were about three babies. If you have ever seen elephant babies in the wild, you will agree with me that they are just about the cutest things on this earth.
Again, we stopped the vehicle, and listened to the breaking of branches, admiring the strong trunks these animals possess.

After spending quality time with the herd, the sun began to set. Sean took this as his cue to start the vehicle back up, and he drove us through the bush to an open plain with a small pan (small waterhole) in view. We parked right next to it, and Rifus and Sean began setting up our sundowners table underneath a rising moon.

There is a special time on safari, where both the sun and moon are in the sky. If you look one way, you will see one of the most spectacular sunsets you have ever seen, with colours of purples, pinks, oranges and reds. If you look the other way, you will see a large moon rising, growing bigger with each minute. We were lucky enough to enjoy our beverages underneath this sky.

Served with your sundowners will be snacks, because again – you will never be hungry on safari!
At Arathusa, we had pepperdews filled with cream cheese, some corn chips, and dried fruits. Laid back and delish.

Back on the game drive, and with the red wine having warmed me up a little bit, we continued our safari with the aid of a spotlight to catch the eyes of any nocturnal wildlife. After a little searching, we drove into a low lying area, and spotted a female leopard with a full belly relaxing in the overgrown grass. We watched her for a good ten minutes, when to our surprise a leopard CUB appeared out of the grass, and walked right past the vehicle. Sean put it at around 6 months old.

Suddenly, the mother leopard pricked up, intent on listening to something that our human ears couldn’t pick up. Within seconds, she ran to her unfinished kill lying on the ground (a baby kudu) and dragged it up the nearest thorn tree. Before we had a chance to wonder why, a hyena came trundling at high speed out of the grass, and went STRAIGHT to the kill, jumping to try and grab a leg or piece of fur.

Luckily the leopard managed to get it high enough to avoid the hyena’s first attempts, but her grip wasn’t a lasting one, and she let go for a split second to readjust her grip. The hyena are the biggest opportunists of the safari land, and this one lived right up to that name – as soon as the leopard readjusted, the hyena used that split second to get a grip on a leg. The mother leopard was no match for this hyena’s strength, especially from such an odd angle, so she had no choice but to let it go. Amid many ‘oh no’s!’ from our fellow guests, Sean politely explained the ‘circle of life’ in the bush.
We all began to grow concerned about the baby leopard, but it was old enough to know that hyena = danger, and it stayed well hidden in the tall grass.

After hearing the hyena devour the carcass by crunching through bone, and watching it’s stomach grow larger and larger, we headed back to the lodge for our own dinner. By now it was only around 12 degrees, so we were all ecstatic to be greeted with a tot of delicious sherry upon arrival, accompanied by a warmed hand towel. Attention to detail – it always makes the biggest difference!

Escorted back to our room for a quick freshen up, we headed back to the lodge (escorted, again – damn lions!) and joined the other guests for a pre-dinner drink in the lounge. They had two roaring fires with welcoming couches, so we settled there until dinner. It was a popular idea – we met more of the 18 guests staying at the lodge, including two retired FBI agents!

A beating of a large, traditional drum signalled that dinner was ready, so we all made our way down to a veranda that was built over the waterhole. Bridget, our client, told us that Arathusa had served them dinner in a different location each night – what fun!

The tables were all in a U-SHAPE around a deliciously large fire, and we took seats right in the middle. I always love dinnertime on safaris (and not only because we get more food!), because the ambience is so outstanding. Lanterns, candles, fire, and the sounds of nature all underneath a bright and undisturbed canopy of stars. That is something truly magnificent.

Once we were all seated, the chef came out and personally announced the menu for the night ahead. Four courses. FOUR!

First course was potato and leek soup, which I found absolutely fantastic and perfect for the cold night. It was served with freshly baked bread rolls and butter.
Second course consisted of fish, and the third course consisted of pan seared steak fillet with veggies.
Dessert was a crème brulee, but it was quite overcooked. Other than that, dinner was spectacular.

One of the guests, from India, tinkled his glass with his fork, and announced that he has spent the last day on safari with the other guests, but he hasn’t gotten to know some of them yet. He suggested we all go around in our U-shape and tell the group a bit about ourselves. I absolutely loved this idea, as the people you meet on safari can make a big difference to your overall experience.
So, around we went, and learned all about each other – two couples on honeymoon, many retirees on their first safari, a big group of friends enjoying the outdoors.. It was great networking.

After dinner, we made our way back into the lounge, seeking the warmth of the big fat fire, the dangerously comfortable couches, and another glass of red wine before bed.
We chatted for hours, enjoying the company of the other guests, and even had a listen to Toto’s ‘Africa’. A special moment.

Finally, we were escorted to our room at around 11:30pm. I couldn’t wait to get under the covers, and listen to the night sounds as I dozed off.

At Arathusa, there are phones in the rooms which are used as wake up calls – conveniently located far away from the bed to ensure we get up.
5:15am came far too quickly, and before I knew it, I was showered and ready for our next game drive – again, in some serious layers. Morning was even colder than night.
As Ken and I enjoyed a hot cup of coffee in our room, we heard the lions calling from across the waterhole – a very unique wake up alarm.

At 5:45am, Rifus knocked on our door, and escorted us not to the lodge, but to the game drive vehicle which was 5 metres away. Yup, lions were there – again! I guess they liked the place. We drove to the other guests, and once we picked them up, made our way to the main lodge and lounge area. We were offered hot coffee and tea (snacks too, of course!) before jumping back on board the safari vehicle. Off we went, in the freezing cold, to our next adventure.

Sean excitedly informed us that we would be tracking the lions, which we spent the next hour doing. They were giving us the complete run around – we drove around in circles and on the same road many times, only to see their tracks over our fresh vehicle tracks in the sand. I bet they were doing it on purpose!

Luckily though, we unintentionally bumped into two beautiful rhinos – a mother and a calf of around 1 year. It was humbling to see them in the wild, as so many are being massacred on a daily basis for their horn.

On we went, back on track to find the lions – around and around we went. Driving at high speed onto the airstrip, we finally caught the cheeky buggers! And boy, were they running. Whilst following them in haste, Sean explained to us that a few days ago, a rival pride had come into the area and scattered the territorial pride. So, now a lioness with cubs was calling the remainder of the pride that she had been separated from, and the ones that were running (and giving us the run-around!) were trying to catch up to her. We followed them for a good half an hour before we left for breakfast, and I do hope they eventually were reunited.

During our time with them, four of them suddenly stopped dead in their tracks, lowered their bodies, and stuck their ears back. They had spotted buffalo (which, coincidently meant we had now had our Big 5 fix in 2 game drives!), and were preparing to stalk it. Slowly, almost too slow for the eye to catch, they patted their way through the yellow grass, with the buffalo taking no notice whatsoever.
Suddenly the female at the front shot ahead, signalling to the others that it was time to HUNT. This startled the two buffalo, who for such big animals, picked up a lot of speed in a small amount of time. Unfortunately, the lions didn’t get breakfast – but we did.

Driving back to the airstrip, we were surprised by a luxury breakfast in the bush!
The staff had set up a completely satellite buffet,  complete with any girl’s best friend – champagne on arrival! Again, it was accompanied by the warm moist towel offered to us to use to freshen up.

We were invited to dish up, which Ken I did almost immediately. Breakfast consisted of cereals, yogurt, fruit, scrambled eggs, French toast, pork sausages, grilled tomatoes, baked beans and sautéed potatoes. Every piece of it was divine.

As we enjoyed our champagne and orange juice, we soaked up the view – breakfast was set near the airstrip, allowing for a vast open area to be seen from the breakfast tables.

After a hearty breakfast, we trundled back to the lodge, and began to pack up our things – but not without a quick peek in the curio store!

Overall, our experience at Arathusa lived up to everything a Sabi Sands safari is about; Outstanding game viewing, and luxury living.

Thank you to the team for hosting us.

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