What a way to finish off our South African adventure! We enjoyed a three night luxury safari at Amakhala Game Reserve. We stayed in a five star tent, saw countless animals and had the ultimate travel experience.
Nothing can compare to spending the night in a tented camp when you know there are wild animals wandering around outside. The excitement as you hear the sound of a tree rustling or the cry of an animal, as you scour the landscape hoping to spot one of the ‘Big 5’. Spending days in the African Savannah with no other cars, shops or electronic devices; a safari holiday is, to quote the cliché, ‘a travel experience’ and is world’s apart from everyday life.
I have always been a bit of an animal lover and twenty years ago I went on my first safari in South Africa. I loved it so much I booked a holiday to Tanzania the following year. My ten year son, Luke, didn’t scrape it off the ground, he has been an animal fanatic since he was a toddler! In fact when Luke was a year old, he could name all the main farm animals, and this was before he could say ‘Mama’! I had annual passes for Dublin Zoo for seven years and we went constantly – we also visited Fota Wildlife Park, twice! Luke watches re-runs of Deadly 60, National Geographic and Planet Earth over and over and keeps pestering me to get a pet – something I still haven’t given in to yet! I did however strike a compromise and promised to bring him on safari in Africa once he was old enough. Sure enough his 10th birthday came around and he asked me when we were going! We decided to book South Africa so we could combine a city break with some beach time and of course, the all important safari had to be incorporated into the trip. We flew into Cape Town and then drove the Garden Route to Amakhala Game Reserve. You can read my top tips on how to plan the perfect South African road trip here.
I was recommended Amakhala Game Reserve by Andre Migliarina, AKA The Safari Expert. Born in Namibia, Andre has been tailoring unique safari holidays for over fifteen years. He took into account that I was travelling with children, that we wanted somewhere that was malaria free, where we would see lots of game and that we wanted an authentic safari experience. Amakhala seemed to tick all boxes. Amakhala is a massive 18,000 acre game reserve and has a wide variety of 3, 4 and 5 star accommodation, ranging from restored country houses to tented camps. We decided to treat ourselves as the safari was the main reason for our trip and we really wanted the wow factor. Andre recommended Bush Lodge in Amakhala for a luxurious safari experience. For the first time in my life. I let someone else book my holiday for me but I knew we were in safe hands.
After a leisurely ninety minute drive from Cape St Francis Resort, where we stayed for two nights, we arrived at Reed Valley Inn, Amakhala’s reception, which looked more like a colonial house than a safari lodge. We were immediately greeted by Penny, a friendly staff member who introduced the kids to the house pets as we were checking in. She told us to leave the car at the house and she would take us to Bush lodge. We would not see our car again for three days – it was almost symbolic, we were venturing into the African bush and no longer needed modern accoutrements….
We arrived at the main lodge and I knew instantly we were going to love it here. The comfy leather couches and massive wooden dining table immediately caught my eye, as did the expansive outdoor viewing deck, that happened to overlook a watering hole. I imagined us sitting around the large open firepit at night time, watching the animals at the watering hole and the stars in the night sky. The wow factor had kicked in already and we hadn’t even seen our tent yet!
There are eight tents at Bush Lodge, all located close to the main lodge and within minutes we were standing outside ours. The excitement was palpable. When I say a tent, this doesn’t adequately describe what we were staying in. We opened the door to see a massive room with a thatched roof, tented walls and a wooden floor. There was a king size bed, free standing bath, a fireplace, an outdoor shower, plunge pool and a separate bedroom for the kids – to say it was everything we had hoped for is an understatement. We were blown away, it was spectacular.
All of the Bush Lodge tents overlook a watering hole and it wasn’t long before our first visitor arrived. A giraffe walked majestically towards the watering hole and Luke was mesmerised. I know this might sound cheesy but a tear came to my eye, he was so excited and I was so happy for him. It was a bit of a struggle, but we finally managed to tear ourselves away from our verandah and made it to dinner.
Dinner is served at the massive dining table in the main lodge, where all guests dine together. There was a great mix of people and nationalities staying at Amakhala, including an American family with kids similar ages to ours. Despite this, my two chatted incessantly to newlyweds from Wexford! Traditionally people tend to book the safari at the end of their holiday and this was the case with most of the guests. We all enjoyed talking about where we stayed in South Africa and the various places we visited. Some of the guests had arrived the previous day so we listened intently to thrilling stories of animal sightings and hoped our first game drive the following day would be as exciting.
We enjoyed an à la carte dinner and there was a good mix of European style food, chicken, pasta as well as local dishes. My husband tried the Kudu steak and it was delicious. There was no separate kids menu but each day after lunch we were shown the menu and if the kids didn’t like the choices available, they were offered alternative child friendly options. After copious amounts of delicious South African red wine at (and only 70 cent per glass!), we made our way to our tent and anxiously awaited our 6am wake up call, for our 6.30 game drive. TOP TIP: Unlike many hotels, Amakhala encourage you to check in early. Try to arrive in time for lunch (all meals are included in the cost of your stay) and then you will be able to take the afternoon game drive.
I don’t think we were ever so happy to hear our alarm go off at 6am. We jumped out of bed, had a quick shower outside, (which was roasting by the way) and went straight to the lodge for coffee and croissants. We met Melissa for the first time and she told us that she was going to be our ranger for our entire stay. We immediately warmed to her soft South African accent and overall pleasant manner. We boarded a large Landrover Defender that was parked outside and off we went. I was surprised to see no other guests in our vehicle but this varies depending on the time of year, the maximum number of guests in a jeep is nine, although we never had any more than seven at any time.
It was quite cold when we set off, which we found strange considering it was 32 degrees at midday. Luckily there were warm blankets on the jeep so we were able to wrap these around us until the sun came up. Within minutes we spotted giraffe, wart hogs and impala. In the midst of all of this, Melissa stopped the jeep when she spotted a giant African land snail in the middle of the path. She immediately moved it off the path out of harms way. It was wonderful to see her love of all animals straight away and her enthusiasm was infectious.
The sun started to rise in the sky when we spotted a tower of giraffe (a tower is the correct term believe it or not!) and a herd of zebra – two animals that are iconic to Africa, it was a good start! It was one of those ‘pinch-me’ moments as the giraffes stopped right beside the jeep and grazed over the tall trees. We could hear them clearly munching leaves, it was incredible. Melissa explained to us how giraffes walk with two legs on the same side which is something I never noticed before, it is the opposite to cats and dogs and most animals. It was also fascinating to see how different the zebras stripes were, every zebra is has unique markings. It was facts like this that Melissa pointed out constantly and kept us intrigued at every animal sighting. Reluctantly we had to move on, but on we went in search of more game.
We came across impala and many cute wart hogs before stopping for coffee, tea and muffins at a panoramic viewing point. It was only then I realised the true size of Amakhala game reserve. It has 18,000 acres, with a river running through it and has extremely diverse landscapes. In fact if it wasn’t for the water shortage in South Africa we could have opted for a river safari – something guests can experience on a three day visit.
After our three hour game drive we were warmly welcomed at Bush Lodge with hot towels and friendly faces. We went straight in for breakfast which was an amazing buffet display of fruits, breads and cereals as well as the option to order hot food à la carte, which we duly enjoyed!
After breakfast we enjoyed some chill time in our tent. Ideally should have had a snooze but the excitement was too much and sleep just wasn’t going to happen. Instead the kids spent hours with their binoculars gazing at the watering hole, amidst the odd dip in the plunge pool. I decided to relax on a sun lounger and enjoy the views. I attempted a swim but water was freezing, I realised the reason it was called a plunge pool!
After an à la carte lunch we ventured out on our next game drive. We saw giraffes, various antelope and wart hogs before I heard Luke roar ‘Lion’! Melissa wasn’t sure at first but lo and behold there was a large male lion walking towards us in the distance. Melissa immediately drove towards it and much to our surprise she stopped right behind him.
I couldn’t believe how close we got, my daughter Alex (7) was actually scared and couldn’t understand why we were going so close, or following it for that matter! For the rest of us it was thrilling, I thought Luke was going to combust he was so excited! We spent about thirty minutes with this magnificent animal but had to move on eventually to allow other guests to see him. Amakhala have a policy that no more than three jeeps can be close to one of the ‘BIG 5, (lion, buffalo, rhino, leopard, elephant) at any time. As much as we didn’t want to leave him, I was happy with the reason why.
Just as we thought the day couldn’t get any better we spotted a massive herd of elephants, including a tiny baby elephant that was only a few weeks old. They crossed right in front of the jeep, it was breathtaking. It was an amazing end to our first day!. We arrived back at Bush Lodge to a delicious meal surrounded by equally enthusiastic guests. We recounted our day to each other, listening to exciting stories about the various game that was seen that day and showing off our impressive photographs.
Our second day of game drives was equally impressive. In the morning we saw two elusive rhino. Melissa reminded us of the serious problem that has arisen with poachers and I was amazed to learn that there was an anti-poaching team on site 24/7 watching their rhino. A scary reminder of the world we live in. We also saw a cheetah, relaxing at the side of the road. It was bizarre, she almost looked comfortable with us watching her. She sat still for about twenty minutes, only moving her head slightly.
Our afternoon drive was another incredible experience. We saw a large male elephant walk towards a watering hole to take a bath in the blistering heat. He happened to be surrounded by a herd of buffalo and spent ages enjoying the cool water. It was an another pinch-me moment. I felt like I was David Attenborough witnessing something extremely rare.
To complete the safari experience, Melissa took us to another magnificent viewing point and proceeded to take out some refreshments. I couldn’t help but notice she brought the red wine that we had enjoyed so much the night before. She also brought juice and crisps for the kids. Sundowners in the open plains, with wine, beef jerky and light snacks – what a perfect end to a perfect day!
We took another game drive on our last morning as our flight wasn’t leaving until the afternoon. I would encourage anyone visiting to try to coordinate your check-in and departure times to allow for as many game drives as possible. We were so glad we took this final drive as we came across a group of lionesses playing together. Melissa knew it was our last morning and that we hadn’t seen them. She really went out of her way to find them for us and was constantly on the radio with her colleagues to find out if they had been seen. Throughout our visit she was so attentive to Luke and Alex and I really felt that our experience mattered so much to her.
Like a dog with a bone, Melissa eventually found the pride of lions and once again drove up close to them. I had mixed emotions of fear and excitement. We watched closely, you could hear a pin drop, as one of the lionesses walked towards us while another used our jeep as cover when she spotted a wildebeest in the distance. We thought she may go in for the kill but alas this didn’t happen. However, what did was another amazing experience. Three lionesses played together in the wild – it was magical. At one point the sun was behind them, it was straight out of a National Geographic magazine. We watched them for about a half hour but I could have watched them all day.
It is so difficult to describe the difference between seeing lions playing together in the wild and watching them in a closed environment, like a zoo or wildlife park. I suppose it’s like watching your favourite movie star on TV and then meeting him in the flesh – it’s a completely different experience. It was only a matter of time before the other jeeps arrived to witness this incredible sight and unfortunately it was time for us to make our leave.
We drove back to the lodge feeling we had witnessed something special, and it was not just the lionesses playing. Over three days we had followed a male lion, seen a massive elephant taking a long bath, watched as a cheetah looked majestically at us and enjoyed a tower of giraffe grazing at sunrise. In fact as great as all of these individual experiences were, it is not just these that made our three nights in Amakhala magical. The beauty was in the whole experience. The magnificent tent you sleep in and the noise from the animals outside, the wonder in seeing a giant African land snail or a female warthog staring at you as it protects it’s baby. A few days in Amakhala was like being transcended to another world, we completely switched off from reality. We have been on many family holidays and usually what happens is I sunbathe and spend too much time on my phone, the kids go to to the swimming pool and Cormac, my husband, finds an umbrella to hide under and read his book. We spent our few days in Amakhala together, equally enjoying the same activities. There were no TV’s, no time for trawling through social media pages, no large swimming pool to lay beside. It was every bit as magical as we could have wished for and it has convinced me to bring the kids on more adventurous holidays in the future. Namibia watch out………
Planning a trip to South Africa? Check out my video from our stay at Amakhala and all my posts from our South Africa adventures below.