Jet-Set Bohemian: Off-Season Safari SpotsTop photo courtesy of Leshiba Wilderness Travel Features Safari
A jet-set lifestyle doesn’t have to be all private planes and decadent digs. In our Jet-Set Bohemian series, we blend the best of high and low for just the right balance … enticing everyone from backpackers to luxury boutique hotel lovers to come along for the ride.
Looking out across the valley, moss-green plains and low scrubs seemed to extend miles into the distance and up the side of the jagged, rust-red mountains. Pockets of trees shielded the area’s main residents: herds of zebra, impala, a giraffe and her calf. “This view never gets old,” says Kathryn Straughan, leaning against the wooden railing on the patio of her eco lodge, Leshiba Wilderness. “If the bush was flat, I would get tired of it, but with the mountains, every day offers something new.”
Kathryn has been living in the Soutpansberg mountains in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, an hour’s flight from Johannesburg, for nearly 24 years. Her lodge is one of more than 28,000 in the country, but its location is one that few others rival. Kathryn’s father purchased the 6,000-acre private game reserve when she was just a child, transforming a former hunting lodge into their family home. It was only a little over a decade ago, however, that they discovered the dilapidated Venda Village that would open as Leshiba in 2006. Lovingly referred to as the “African Eden,” Kathryn and her family turned the one-time hunting destination into a site of preservation, where wildlife like rare brown hyena and leopards roam free without fear of being shot.
Photo courtesy of Leshiba Wilderness
For Kathryn, this is home, with each season bringing a different surprise to the bush. When I visited, it was mid-May and she just finished some of her busiest months—March and April—which fall into South Africa’s wet season. This is the time when the bush is at its greenest, thanks to the afternoon showers. Mornings and evenings may be cooler in winter (our summer months), but the secret to seeing the most wildlife—sans the crowds—is during this “lower season.”
“The months leading up to September are the most enjoyable time for visiting game parks since more animals can be easily seen and spotted, since they are not hiding in thick bushes,” explains Bruce Nobela, CEO of South African-based tour operating company Nhlamulo Destinations. This is when your chance of spotting the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) jumps. Plus, there’s less mosquitos, which makes game drives a whole lot more pleasant.
This summer, set off to some of the hottest off-season safari spots from the mountainside eco-chic Leshiba to private game reserves outside Kruger National Park like Karongwe, where you’ll have prime game viewing of lions and leopards practically all to yourself.
Photo courtesy of Karongwe
“There’s a cheetah that likes to run in front of your room,” the receptionist told me as I checked in at Karongwe River Lodge, set along the Makhutsi River in the Drakensberg Mountains. I wasn’t sure whether this made me more nervous or excited, since I was sleeping alone in the thatched-roof, treehouse-style suite for the next two nights. Here, wooden decks with plunge pools look out across the bush, giving travelers their first glimpse of spotting game like elephants and antelope coming to graze by the river bed.
Days are divided into two game drives, morning and evening, with a knock serving as a wake-up call around 6 a.m. just in time for sunrise. Animals come out at different times of the day, so each drive means an opportunity to spot something new. In the evening, set off across the 22,000-acre reserve in a 4×4 with a dedicated duo of ranger and Shangaan tracker (hailing from a nearby village) sitting up front, on the lookout for signs from droppings to footprints. Just before sunset, you’ll pull up to a scenic stretch where the ranger will set up a white table-clothed sundowner in the bush, complete with South African bubbly and views looking out at the impressive mountain range.
Photo courtesy of Karongwe
At Mopane Bush Lodge, 12 thatched-roof chalets sit on the 18,000-acre game farm in the Limpopo Valley near the Mapungubwe National Park, where the first southern African kingdom sprouted up in the 13th century. Trails snake throughout the Mapesu Private Game Reserve, accessed solely by the lodge’s 4×4 vehicles. Three days is the perfect amount of time to get a feel for the land here, with afternoons still warm enough to lounge by the pool. In the evenings, bundle up and take your pre-dinner drinks on safari in the bush before warming up with a glass of red Pinotage wine around a traditional boma, or bonfire, where the team will prep a three-course South African barbecue that serves as a rustic, five-star barbecue.
For an haute way to safari in South Africa, one of the most luxurious lodges is Shambala Private Game Reserve’s Zulu Camp in the Waterberg Mountains, with honeycomb-shaped thatched chalets built in traditional Zulu style and a river running through camp. Nightcaps take place on sundowner boat cruises through southern Africa’s largest man-made dam, where you’ll spot herds of hippos and crocodiles lurking in the water. Take your pick of Big Five viewing options, setting off on games drives with guides or walking safaris through the bush, made easier in winter thanks to shorter grass and less foliage. When it comes time for dinner, don’t expect a menu. The chef will craft a meal that can be as formal or casual as you’d like, from five-course gastronomic feasts to leisurely picnics along the water.
Lane Nieset is Paste’s Jet-Set Bohemian columnist and a freelance writer covering all things travel from her home base in Nice, France.