Looking for a trustworthy review on a lodge? What could be better than getting a guide’s perspective for your next safari!

I was lucky enough to spend some time recently at Tswalu Kalahari, the Oppenheimer-owned lodge situated in the Northern Cape. The nearby Kgalagadi Transfronteir Park is my favourite South African National Park, and I was interested to see what magic Tswalu could conjure up for us during a five night stay.

If you’re looking for a safari with a difference, look no further. Hardly a moment went by without highlight. We saw an incredible array of birds, the most amazing colours that clustered like jewels around the waterholes. The diversity of mammals was astounding,  we found thirty-two different species (of around 80!) all in all. We watched cheetahs partolling through quartzite rocks. We had two incredible lion sightings: one, a large pride feeding on an eland bull, and the other when our guide and tracker successfully tracked and found a lioness with cubs.  We saw a phenomenal five aardvark, four of the sightings were during the day and three we were able to view on foot. We enjoyed a gourmet picnic under an Acacia tree in the middle of nowhere. We were invited to join in on a rhino capture and had a once-in-a-lifetime moment up close and personal with one of these huge creatures. We spent a morning on foot in the company of a family of wild meerkats. And most enjoyable of all, and too difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t felt it: there was the atmosphere of the Kalahari itself. The honey smell of the blackthorn trees, the warm glow of the sand in the evening and the chittering of sociable weavers and clicking of the barking geckos.

HERE’S THE LOWDOWN:

Exclusivity: With over 100 000 hectares of land and a maximum of  six vehicles out, Tswalu is not only South Africa’s largest private game reserve but also its most exclusive. By miles. Compare this to the 65 000 hectares of the Sabi Sands with its few hundred guests and you’ll get an idea of the stillness of this Kalahari paradise. In all of five days at Tswalu we encountered just one other vehicle, and hardly heard a transmission from our guide’s radio, allowing for a truly spiritual wilderness experience. Not that there wasn’t much to see: this semi-desert is very much alive.

Special mammals: Not only did we see incredible diversity but we saw some very special creatures: Hartmann’s zebra,  Smith’s red rockhare, yellow mongoose, desert black rhinoceros, and the aardvark (a species in eight years of guiding I had only seen five times in total). Other species you have a fair chance of seeing at Tswalu include Cape and bat-eared fox, brown hyena, and if you’re really lucky the elusive pangolin. We saw many tracks and even found the scales of this little seen anteater.

Contribution towards conservation: Rest assured that by visiting this reserve you are contributing directly to conservation: Tswalu are at the forefront of reclaiming the Kalahari back from farmland to wildlife, and are vital custodians of both black and white rhino populations.

For the birders: at one stage we had green-winged pytillias, violet-eared waxbills, black-cheecked waxbills and a golden breasted bunting drinking together at a waterhole! With over 240 bird species, many of which are difficult to find elsewhere, this ‘green desert’ is a birder’s paradise.

Get out of the vehicle: Being on foot in the Kalahari is highly encouraged by the Tswalu guides: we tracked pangolin, followed a white rhino and had three memorable encounters with aardvark away from the vehicle.

When is the best time to visit? Each season will have its advantages and disadvantages.
Winter: freezing mornings that can drop below are made worthwhile by frequent day time sightings of nocturnal mammals rarely seen elsewhere on safari, and concentrated animal activities around waterholes. Try and time your safari to coincide with the new moon and you will be rewarded with a most dramatic night sky.
Spring: my favourite time of year for safari, a time when so much life returns to the bush. Very pleasant temperatures.
Summer: very hot midday temperatures, but incredible flower blooms, the return of the migratory birds, the occasional dramatic storm, baby booms for the antelopes, fiery sunsets and an abundance of macro and micro life make a summer a month to consider.
Autumn: Pleasant temperatures and the greenest time for the Kalahari. Rutting antelope can lead to good predator activity.

Tracking culture: inexperienced safari goers may not understand the true importance of a good tracker: know that the quality of trackers at Tswalu is very high, many being direct descendants of the San tribe, possibly the greatest masters of the art of tracking the world has known. The Kalahari sands are also the perfect canvas for those guests with a keen interest in this skill to learn, whole stories can be interpreted on the red sand canvas. It’s a real cultural treat.

Getting there: it’s a two hour flight from Cape Town, one and a half from Johannesburg, and a perfect tie in to a South African holiday.

Photographic heaven: Blue skies, red sand and white/green grass are the background to a plethora of wild animals. But it’s the space and hours of golden light that are most special. You’ll battle to have this much fun with a lens. Electricity runs all night for your chargers, but remember to pack a lens pen or brush for the occasional spot of dust.

Malaria: this area is malaria free: it’s not often that good wildlife viewing and no malaria risk go hand in hand.

A tip for the romantics: Try the Malori sleep out deck. Just you and the Kalahari night. If you’re thinking of popping the question on safari this is a deal sealer! http://www.tswalu.com/the-experience/the-malori

Quality: Although there are thousands of lodges with idyllic rooms on offer these days, and Tswalu is no exception, there is one area of the lodge experience where Tswalu stands out as a leader: the level of service. I have been to many of the continent’s top lodges, but rarely will you find a lodge that gets the mix between extreme professionalism and genuinely warm hospitality so right. We never had anyone hovering over our shoulders, but were faultlessly attended to. And the food was out of this world!

Lastly, and most importantly, the guides: The guiding team at Tswalu are a unit. Behind the scenes they are treated very well: some of the best guide accommodation and perks I’ve ever seen at a lodge. And happy guides mean enthusiastic guides: they all seem to go out of their way to create the perfect personalized safari experience for their guests. Well lead by head ranger Marco Tonoli the rangers are constantly motivating each other to up their qualifications and skills (a minimum of a FGASA Level 2 is required to work here). You will be in good hands at Tswalu, and receive a very good interpretive experience.