The Timbavati Reserve lies in the depths of the Greater Kruger area. Green and lush, with terrain ranging from far reaching savanna to dense thickets, the area provides the ideal playground for any first time or seasoned safari goer.
Long established as a private nature reserve, the fences that separated the area and the Kruger National Park were officially taken down in 1993, resulting in many wildlife species now calling the area their home.
On a windy, chilly bush weekend, we were invited to spend the night at Kambaku River Sands, a romantic safari lodge in easy driving distance from the Timbavati Reserve gates. Upon arrival into the reserve, one’s excitement always begins to peak, and one’s senses seem to heighten automatically as we try to distinguish between the oddly shaped tree stump and the back end of a lion. Within just 20 minutes of comfortable tar and dirt roads, we arrived at the lodge. Right away we were greeted by Johan, the lodge manager, who instructed us to relax and leave our bags – someone would pick them up and bring them to our room for us.
My first impression of the lodge was one of wilderness. Though the buildings are large and spacious, and the configuration of the suites and common areas leave much privacy, one feels overcome with a sense of space. The private suites seem to hide behind tall grass and ageing trees – almost like nature herself had placed a gate or a fence around each one.
The camp is completely unfenced, adding an ever present sense of adventure to the experience. It is not uncommon for animals to wander throughout camp, and it is for that very reason that guests are always escorted to and from their rooms in the ‘danger hours’ – dawn, dusk and nightfall.
Johan showed us to the main area of the lodge, which set the theme for the rest of the accommodation – open, with a modern indoor and outdoor flow, expansive views and warm staff. As we were greeted with a welcome drink, a lone elephant rambled along the opposite side of the riverbed, providing a wonderful start to our stay. A wine cellar/ground level hide provided a surprise addition, perfect for romantic and intimate experiences.
The lodge itself sleeps 20 people, and only allows children over 12 – providing the perfect escape for honeymoon couples, or any couples wanting to enjoy a romantic getaway.
As we were shown to our room, I was pleasantly surprised at the size of the suite – easily large enough for two, with plenty of space to relax and unwind – a gigantic bed (mosquito net, of course) with a lounge area too, overlooking the open riverbed and shrubbery. The bathroom is one of the most spacious ones I’ve seen, with a romantic claw foot bath overlooking the bush, and an indoor/outdoor free flow shower, his and hers sinks (always helpful!), with slippers and robes for that extra touch of comfort. I am always a sucker for attention to detail, so this ticked a box for me. Before he left us, Johan turned and said, ‘Oh, just one more thing – the hyenas have been eating the deck chairs lately, so that is why you might see a bite mark on one of them…’. Talk about excitement! He also pointed to the sliding door (and the gauze door that was in front of it), and suggested that while it was perfectly safe to sleep with the door open (in order to hear the wildlife at night), we must please keep the gauze door closed for safety. After hearing about the hyenas, he certainly didn’t need to tell us twice!
We unpacked and made ourselves comfortable, Rod cracking open a beer for us both. That was a great benefit of the lodge – minibars in the room itself was a convenient addition, especially as the walk to the main common lounge was quite a distance. We relaxed for an hour, alternating between the comfy lounge chairs inside, and the laid back deck chairs outside. We often heard rustles in the bush, setting our imaginations on fire.
As the warmth of the day began to reside, it was time to join our fellow guests for high tea, and to meet our ranger. Palence greeted us with a round smile, and I knew right away we were in good hands. Having been in the industry for many years, Palence inherited his love of the bush from his Grandfather, who worked at a nearby reserve while Palence was growing up. He would visit him often, and hear tales of what it was like to live a wild life. This inspired him to change his career path from wanting to join the police, to becoming a ranger.
As we sat down and met the other guests, we were invited to enjoy a multitude of snacks – sweet treats in the form of caramel cupcakes, along with savoury eats such as quiche and boerewors – our local South African sausage. This was accompanied with a selection of beverages, including home made iced coffee – a real treat in the bush!
After being asked what we fancied for our sundowner drinks (gin and tonic for me, Castle Lite for Rod!), we hopped into the game vehicle and set off with the perfect safari attitude – NO expectations. I was stoked to see the vehicle had a box for storage in each row, where the middle seat usually is – making it wonderfully comfortable with only 6 people per vehicle. We were joined by tracker Kenny, who had an air of absolute expertise about him – spotting tracks and signs of animals far in the distance long before the vehicle drove close to them.
We were treated to Palence’s encyclopaedic knowledge – he seemed to know a fun fact about every bird, plant, tree and animal that we came across! He even taught us about the medicinal and tribal qualities of many plants, which I enjoyed. To me, having been in this industry for seven years now, the mark of a good guide is one that can excite guests even when there are no animals to be seen. Though this wasn’t the case on our drive (we saw many species of animals and birds, including zebra, impala, elephant, buffalo, warthog and so much more), it always leaves a marked impression when the rangers go above and beyond the stock standard information about the many different species part of the Greater Kruger.
Kambaku’s traversing area is a good 11,000ha, which is one of the larger traversing areas in the region. The bigger a traversing area is, the wider variety of animals can call it home, and thus the higher your chances are of seeing a good variety of species out there. Just in the 3 hour drive, we saw many different terrains, accompanied by various species you only find in those kind of areas! Again, this completely exemplifies the importance of choosing a lodge with a large traversing area.
The highlight of our drive was watching a group of elephant females munch away peacefully on some trees. They were accompanied by a large adult bull elephant, who was in musth. Palence had told us earlier about a bull (also in musth) that had charged them on their morning drive, which made me watch our new friend VERY carefully.
Anyone who has ever locked eyes with an elephant absolutely knows the undeniable power that lies within these extraordinary creatures. They are far deeper than we can imagine, or that we give them credit for. A certain energy comes over you when you’re in their presence, and this is amplified when there is a bull who just wants to mate, and will mess up anything that gets in his way! This also resonates with the power of a good ranger – knowing the species well enough to see when they’re relaxed and happy with your presence, and when they absolutely aren’t!
As we made our way to our ‘sundowner stop’, the sky began to grow darker, threatening to release much needed rain in the form of a storm. Luckily, it passed just as quickly as it had gathered.
One of my favourite parts about the actual game drives is the midway stop. I like my food, ok?!
Palence brought us to a massive dam, just as the sun began to set, showing us a treehouse hide that Kambaku offers as a private experience for guests to view game from. We enjoyed chips and traditional snacks, along with our well earned (looking for animals is tough!) drinks. Just a note/small FYI for the ladies here – Palence brought along toilet paper and paper bags to use when you need to take a bush pee! Again – totally love the attention to detail! We spotted many cute little critters, like the squirrel below.
On the way back to the lodge, Kenny once again showed us how talented he was by spotting a chameleon hiding in a bush – need I mention that it was night time, and the only aide he had was that of a spotlight! AMAZING!
As we arrived back at camp, we were greeted with warm towels to refresh ourselves with, and a glass of sherry to warm us up a little more. After being escorted by torchlight to our rooms, we were given half an hour or so to relax before dinner – we took an opportunity to check emails and catch up on a little work (WiFi in all rooms – great for some people, unwanted for others – but happy to see the option there!), before Palence arrived at the door again, ready to take us back to the main lodge. It added a thrilling level of excitement, to be escorted around the camp – a reminder that we truly were out in the Wild!
Dinner was served on the deck overlooking the open riverbed, underneath a cloudy sky. It was mesmerising to hear the call of many different nocturnal birds and animals as they ‘woke up’ for their turn to play, all while enjoying a good choice of house wines – The Protea range. A glass of merlot was savoured with TWO starters – tomato soup, followed by springbok carpaccio. Once completed, we were brought our choice of lamb chops or dorado, served with rice and vegetables. This was tied together with either a chocolate brownie, or apple pie, for dessert. With very full tummies and happy conversation with Palence and Sharon (Kambaku’s wonderful reservationist), Rod and I departed back to the bedroom with the rest of our merlot, headed straight for a relaxing bath before falling asleep to the sound of owls and hyenas floating through the gauze door.
At 5:30am, Palence gave us a wake up call in the form of a hello and a friendly ‘Good morning’, ensuring we were up. We were actually – I like to get up a few minutes earlier so that I have time for a super quick shower before heading out on drive!
The air was crisp, and it held the promise of a beautiful day before us. We joined our ranger and other guests for a quick cup of coffee before jumping back into the vehicle and out onto the morning drive. There is nothing more captivating than that of an African sunrise or sunset. Something magical takes over the land, and all those who are witness of it are frozen in time.
We were blessed with buffalo and elephant once more, along with many stunning birds and raptors. The final sighting of the morning, as we were on our way back to the lodge for breakfast, was my favourite of the entire experience. Palence spotted a massive herd of elephants, and navigated his way gently into the herd. He pre-empted where they were going to cross, and stopped the vehicle. We watched in silence as the elephants – there must have been 20 or 30 of them – crossed in front of us or munched around us. There were 3 or 4 young, young elephant calves, and this was pure magic to see. Playing gently with each other, learning to use their trunks, showing off to us by flapping their ears and raising their trunks before running back to their Moms.
The morning was finished off with a seriously divine breakfast – an array of dishes were presented, ranging from cold choices such as cereal, yoghurt and fruit, complemented with a buffet of different salads, cheeses and crackers. Once we’d finished our first meal, we were then offered eggs cooked our liking with a wide variety of sides! Kambaku River Sands certainly scored high on the food, among the other aspects too! I remember being notably impressed by their food a few years back, when visiting their sister property (also in the Timbavati) – Kambaku Safari Lodge.
Kambaku River Sands is an excellent choice of lodge for the couple seeking privacy and space, with fantastic opportunities for varied game viewing. Well done to Bryce and Nicola, the owners of the Kambaku brand, for creating such a magical place for people from all over the world to create life-long memories. The food is superb, the traversing area fantastic, and the overall experience exactly what one would imagine. Can’t wait to visit again!