Thanda Safari was our last chance to complete our Big Five mission.
It’s no secret that we’re not adventure travelers.
We don’t hide the fact that we prefer to travel in comfort with the odd bit of luxury added to the mix. And we’re definitely not campers. To us, pitching a tent takes a lot of time – time that we’d rather spend doing pretty much anything else.
Despite our disdain for camping, we jumped at the chance to stay at Thanda Safari, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and multiple winner of the World’s Leading Luxury Lodge award.
Why We Glamped at Thanda Safari
In addition to its nine swanky bush suites and a decked out villa, Thanda Safari has a camp with 15 ‘tents’ including one extra special tent for honeymooners. Though we’d be sleeping in one of the tents, we assumed that the experience would be quite different than sleeping on an air mattress in our REI tent.
This would be glamping at its finest.
Luxury aside, we were excited about the animals.
The safari bug had bitten us hard, and we needed to scratch the itch. Plus, after two safaris, we were on the hunt to complete our Big Five mission.
Though we were 80% there with up-close encounters with a leopard, elephants, rhinos and water buffalo, the mighty lion had heretofore remained elusive.
Since Thanda Safari has all of the Big Five animals on its 14,000-hectare private game reserve, we were guardedly optimistic that we would finally see a lion during at least one of our twice-daily game drives and maybe some more water buffalo too.
Our Stay at Thanda Safari
The word Thanda literally translates from Zulu to love, and that’s exactly what we experienced at Thanda Safari.
Part of the love came from the staff who took care of our needs starting with cold drinks when we arrived. The rest of the love came from us. Let’s face it – staying in a luxury tent is romantic. Plus, we loved Thanda’s two main focuses – celebrating the local Zulu culture and protecting the wildlife that lives on its property.
Thanda Safari’s spacious tents are filled with luxurious details and upscale decor, and ours was no exception with its hardwood floor, ceiling fan and ensuite bathroom. The tent’s signature piece – a big, comfy bed – was our favorite feature.
We also liked the tent’s outdoor shower and private sundeck. Interestingly, the tent did not have full electricity, an intentional choice meant to encourage guests to immerse themselves into the natural environment.
Though the tent was non-electrified, its limited solar power and battery power somehow kept the bathroom light and fan working throughout the night. We wouldn’t want to live without full electricity and wi-fi for more than a couple days, but we were cool with the adventurous experience for a night or two.
The chance to fall asleep to the sounds of the bush without fear of being eaten alive by mosquitoes, not to mention bigger animals, was a fair trade for us city folk.
Charge your devices and batteries at the Thanda Safari lodge. You don’t want to miss any photo ops during the game drives (or, in our case, during the meals).
Safaris are both utterly exciting and utterly exhausting, making it extra important to eat well for the energy. Luckily, finding good food is no problem at Thanda Safari. In fact, it’s almost too easy to find good food, if there’s such a thing.
Thanda’s culinary team makes every effort to showcase local South African cuisine in an accessible way. During our stay, we found a wealth of food options from fresh salads to decadent desserts. Some of the food was served buffet style, while other dishes were made to order. Whatever the style, the food was always fresh, attractive and tasty.
Let the Thanda Safari staff know if you have any dietary restrictions. They should be able to accommodate your special request.
It’s easy to work up an appetite during a morning game drive at Thanda Safari. It’s ironic when you think about it since safari game drives involve a lot of sitting and not much exercise.
However, the intense experience creates a non-stop adrenaline rush from seeing all of the animals. Plus, the bumpy roads make a body tired.
Lunch was our first meal at Thanda Safari and it set the food tone for the rest of our stay. We loaded our plates with fresh vegetables, many plucked from the on-site garden.
We could have stopped there. We should have stopped there. However, we ended the first lunch with our first (but not last) dessert. What can we say? We love delicious homemade treats.
As Americans, the concept of sundowners was new to us.
By the time we arrived at Thanda Safari, we were already fans of the South African tradition of enjoying stiff drinks and savory snacks while watching yet another gorgeous sunset. We had already enjoyed memorable sundowners in Cape Town, Durbanville and Knysna, and Thanda Safari’s version didn’t disappoint.
Seriously, watching the sun set over the vast savannah is memorable on its own. Add some biltong and a glass of wine or a G+T, and it’s even better.
As seems to be the trend at luxury safaris, dinners at Thanda Safari alternate between romantic dinners with individual table service and communal braai dinners served outside with candlelight.
For our first dinner, we sat at a romantic table for two and ate dishes like smoked Norwegian salmon salad, kudo fillet and sundried tomato chicken roulade.
Our second dinner was more social. We joined new friends for an outdoor braai buffet where we chowed down on butternut squash soup, salads, lamb ribs, BBQ chicken, sausage and dessert.
Thanda Safari promises close-up encounters with the Big Five and authentic wildlife experiences. Based on our experience, the Thanda team delivers this promise and wraps it with a bow.
Safari animals roam freely throughout the property, but animals are just part of the experience. The mountain-fringed grounds are green and filled with native umbrella thorn bushes arrayed with dagger-like needles. In some ways, the land felt as old as time. In other ways, it felt fresh and poised for growth.
Affable Ranger Themba, made sure we saw as many animals as possible. So many animals populate the property, and we loved seeing each and every one of them, the closer the better.
Themba also pointed out the different types of plants we encountered during our drives and stopped the Land Rover when one of the trees grabbed Daryl’s hat.
At the end of the day, though, the game drive is mostly about the spectacular animals. On our first evening drive, we traversed the northern section of the property with high hopes. We saw zebras racing in the wind, blue wildebeest, a rhinoceros and baby elephants bathing in a waterhole.
We were jazzed with the varied animal sightings including two Big Fivers, but we still needed to see a lion to complete our Big Five checklist. We were happy either way, but our hope sprang eternally. Let’s face it – who knows when we’ll be back in Africa.
We started our second drive with high hopes. First, we saw giraffes so close to us that we could see birds perched on their backs. The animals kept coming – rhinos, antelope, wildebeests and impala. Once we saw (and smelled!) a decomposing zebra, we knew that lions were nearby.
And then, like that, our mission was complete.
We found six lions, a complete pride, lounging in an abandoned building. Themba explained that the three generations of lions – a grandmother, mother and 8-month old cubs – sleep 14 hours each day. Even still, we were more than happy to keep our distance from the lounging lions.
We saw more animals during our next two game drives. We saw bathing rhinos, monitor lizards, monkeys and water buffalo. Though we saw cheetah tracks, we never saw cheetahs. Sure, seeing cheetahs would have been icing on the cake. But we couldn’t wipe the grins off our faces after seeing the lions. To us, that was enough. In fact, it was everything.
Each Thanda Safari game drive is a magical event. Guests are guaranteed to see a variety of animals, though there is no guarantee that these animals will include any or all of the Big Five.
Riding along the open roads at dawn and dusk while watching nature in its purest form – that’s what it’s all about.
Don’t be misled by any preconceptions about camping or even glamping. Thanda Safari includes fabulous amenities for all guests including those who choose to sleep in luxury tents.
The game lodge at the Thanda tented camp provides a great spot for guests to relax after a game drive, socialize with new friends and charge devices. It’s also the meeting spot for pre-dinner drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Actually, guests can enjoy drinks here at any time of the day. In our opinion, it’s always wine o’clock in South Africa since South African wine is so good.
Oh, we didn’t mention the best part of the lodge: Wi-Fi. Though the tents provide a space free from the interruptions of modern life, guests who need to be connected can access the internet in the lodge.
Located right next to the tented camp lodge, the pool is a great spot to relax and take a dip. We saw the pool moments after we arrived at Thanda Safari, and we wanted to jump in right away due to the abnormally warm weather.
Sadly, the timing wasn’t right since we had to take care of more important things, namely lunch and a game drive. However, nothing stopped us from jumping in the next day. Bliss!
As if two daily game drives weren’t enough, Thanda Safari offers the following additional activities:
These activities involve additional costs for guests in the tented camp. You can find more details on the Thanda Safari website.
Transportation and Logistics
Getting to Thanda Safari
Thanda Safari is just a three-hour drive from Durban and a six-hour drive from Johannesburg, with most of the driving on highways like the N2 and the final five kilometers on a gravel road. Rental cars are not expensive in South Africa, but be aware that people drive on the left side of the road.
If you’re not comfortable driving in South Africa, the closest airports are in Richards Bay and Durban. The team at Thanda Safari can assist you with road transfers from either of these two airports.
Include your visit at Thanda Safari as part of a week-long Kwazulu-Natal adventure. You won’t get bored if you plan out a KZN itinerary that goes beyond a safari.
Rates vary at Thanda Safari based on the chosen accommodation. As an example, our tent cost 4,040 Rand (approximately $307 USD at the time of our visit) per person per night.
This cost included two daily game drives, meals, non-alcoholic drinks at all times and alcoholic drinks during game drives and dinners.
The cost did not include spa treatments, premium drinks, private dinners, transfers, laundry, gratuities, phone calls, purchases at the gift shop, guided bush walks, additional activities (outlined above) and a nominal conservation fee.
Thanda Safari offers a less expensive volunteer program geared to younger budget travelers. You can check out the details here.
When to Plan Your Visit
Thanda Safari is open on a year-round basis. In our opinion, the best time to go is when you are on your South Africa dream vacation regardless of the season. If you are flexible on the timing, we recommend planning a trip to Thanda Safari during a shoulder season, either spring or autumn, when the weather is mild and dry
Book Your Stay at Thanda Safari
Click here to research the current rates for your Thanda Safari experience.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.