This story was first published on 19 April 2018 and was updated on 21 December 2018 by Leigh Hermon.
You won’t have to break the bank to stay at these great spots.
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1. Mongena Game Lodge, Dinokeng Game Reserve
You’re advised to book early to secure your chalet on the manicured lawns where zebras graze (the indigenous landscaping is a nice touch). There’s a lot to do here, on this reserve north of Pretoria. Mongena’s game drives are excellent and, on more than one occasion, I have seen four of the Big Five. Elephant’s often come to drink at the large dam. Sunset boat cruises are also offered, if the water levels on Mongena’s own 28-hectare lake are sufficient, and they’re a must for photographers – look out for Fish Eagles. The camp itself is not large but is ideal if you simply want to relax. There’s a pool for the kids and the Kingfisher à la carte restaurant, which overlooks a small dam, is perfect for long, lazy lunches or afternoon tea.
The price tag From R1 350pn for two people
Words Fiona Zerbst
2. Tamboti Bush Lodge, Dinokeng Game Reserve
This has long been a favourite of mine. It’s so close to the big cities that I often go there just for Sunday brunch. The menu is extensive and the food always delicious, especially the pancakes. You can eat beneath the tamboti trees and listen to the bird calls – twitchers come here in droves, and a birding club recently counted 140 species at Tamboti in just one weekend. I prefer a homely log cabin to the luxury safari tents in summer (purely because it’s easier to escape the heat), but can recommend both.
There are also suites inside the main house, including honeymoon suites. Tamboti is an intimate camp, offering landscaped gardens and a swimming pool, as well as bushveld and small dams that attract the birds. Owners Derrick and Pixie Cochran are amiable hosts, and Derrick’s stories are legendary. He recently bought a game-drive vehicle and it’s a joy to travel with him because he is knowledgeable about every tree, bird and animal in his neck of the woods.
The price tag From R550pppn
Words Fiona Zerbst
3. KwaZulu-Natal, White Elephant Bush Camp, Pongola Game Reserve
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Six family members from the UK wanted a bush experience and, after their generous hospitality when I’d travelled abroad, I knew I was to foot the bill. Instant panic.
Fortunately, I found White Elephant Bush Camp at a daily rate that no one could dispute. I booked the villa comprising seven chalets in the 30 000-hectare, malaria-free reserve at the foot of the Lebombo Mountains and close to Lake Jozini. The twin-bedded, en suite accommodation is well-appointed, and these self-catering chalets ensured a relaxed, private, bush experience.
Home to four of the Big Five, we also had the chance to spot hyena, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, warthog, 12 antelope species, some 350 species of birds and many smaller mammals and insects. A game drive, a guided walk and a boat cruise gave us good insight into this unspoilt wilderness. The opportunity to cool off in the swimming pool, enjoy spectacular landscapes and glorious sunsets, rounded off this rich encounter with nature.
The price tag From R2 420 per unit per night
Words Olivia Schaffer
4. Mwinilunga, Mana Pools National Park
Set on the banks of the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, this must be one of the best tented campsites in Africa. Owners Tess Arkwright and Dave McFarland were on hand to show us to our simple tents with open-air bathrooms a few metres from the edge of the river.
The outside loo and basin are attached to the tents but the shower area is set under massive sausage trees where monkeys play. After a guided game walk (this is one of the only places in a national park in Africa where you are allowed to walk on your own, if you choose), we settled in for sundowner drinks. A herd of elephant munched peacefully nearby and the hippos grunted, readying themselves for a night out grazing.
This is an affordable camp with an incredible setting tailor-made for your pocket and preferences (self-drive or fly in, catered or not, and guides are optional). It felt like a family stay; food is simple and hearty and the beds are comfy. Our only dilemma was whether to enjoy an early morning coffee on the veranda, or take a stroll in the bush.
Words Sue Adams
5. Sekala Lodge, Welgevonden Game Reserve
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Sekala Lodge in the Waterberg area offers self-catering in a magnificent environment, with the added bonus of the Big Five experience, as well as cheetah, brown hyena and 15 species of antelope. We saw all but leopard on our four-day stay.
It’s also a birder’s paradise and the guides are very knowledgeable. Although you bring your own food and drinks, there’s a chef who’ll prepare it for you. The lodge consists of five spacious en suite chalets accommodating ten adults sharing, and an executive family suite (four people) available on request.
The lodge is for exclusive use, so a minimum of four guests is required, making it a great place to take the family or a group of friends. There are two rock pools, a hide and waterhole, boma and stunning elevated lounge and deck. Weekday rates are cheaper, and the price also includes two game drives a day. This is truly an unforgettable experience.
The price tag From R5 500pn
Words Ann Gadd
6. Family Cottages, Mountain Zebra National Park
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I soon realised that this park, about 15 kilometres outside Cradock, was about much more than Cape mountain zebras. While the park was proclaimed to save this species, there are springbok, kudu, red hartebeest and more on this hilly landscape with its thorn trees. Buffaloes and lions also roam, while cheetahs are best found by booking a tracking experience. I learnt so much about the role these magnificent animals play in the park.
There are numerous routes offering great self-drive opportunities, most with spectacular vistas and viewpoints – some even allow you to leave your vehicle. The rest camp is perfect for families looking to unwind. In hotter months, the swimming pool is ideal for cooling down, while two hiking trails are great for those who prefer something more active. The longer of the two trails offers great views of the rest camp and surrounds.
Book a two-bedroom, fully-equipped family chalet and you can braai under the stars on the veranda. If it’s cold, cook inside or head to the restaurant for a hearty meal.
The Price tag R1 342pn for two people
Words René de Klerk
7. Satara Rest Camp, Kruger National Park
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Satara is the second-largest and one of the busiest camps in the Kruger National Park, and rightfully so. The accommodation is reasonably priced and boasts quaint bungalows with all you need for a comfortable stay.
Most include a kitchenette on the stoep while others share facilities, but all have fridges and braais. The large lawns and towering trees add to the prolific birdlife and there’s tons of running space for the kids. There’s also a swimming pool for hot summer days, and multiple play areas.
Situated in the heart of lion territory, the savannah around the camp is home to a variety of animals and is fairly open, so spotting wildlife is a breeze. In the evenings the resident badgers enter the camp to scavenge, and their visit is a highlight so keep your eyes peeled for these clever critters.
The price tag From R1 574pn for two people
Words Carina Classens
8. Sandforest Lodge, Hluhluwe
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We arrived at Bushwillow in Kuleni Game Park outside Hluhluwe to find the best of both worlds – four-star luxury in the pristine bush. One of several Sectional Title properties in the reserve, Bushwillow comprises a restaurant and lounge area, and six private lodges each accommodating two or four guests.
We stayed in Yellowwood, a self-catering unit reached along a path through a mystical sandforest that echoes all day with birdsong. Magical though that approach is, it cannot prepare you for the treat in store – a gorgeous, light-filled hideaway with its own plunge pool that sometimes serves as a watering hole for animals like the nyala that popped in for a drink during our stay, and the giraffe previous guests reported.
Walking trails throughout the reserve allow for further close encounters with wildlife, and guided activities like nocturnal spider walks offer a chance to meet the little critters. With Kuleni central to sections of iSimangaliso and also near Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Bushwillow is an ideal base for exploring the wider region – if you can tear yourself away from the paradise it is.
The price tag R1 950pn for two people
Words Andrea Abbott