There’s a magical moment of anticipation whenever you climb into a vehicle for a game drive.
I always chuckle when the ranger asks us what we want to see, as if he’s some khaki-clad Doctor Doolittle with the innate ability to conjure up animals on request.
What shall I ask for — a lion kill, a herd of thundering wildebeest, or a haughty leopard looking imperiously over her shoulder as we ooh and ahh at her glorious coat?
But be careful what you wish for, because the best rangers really do seem to have that amazing skill to find whatever it is you’re looking for.
On the drive I’ll take dozens of photos of zebra bums because I’m ridiculously fascinated by the funny patterns, and I’ll fret if we come too close to squashing a tortoise. Later I’ll cool down in the open air shower, feeling deliciously naughty to be naked in the great outdoors.
Dinner will inevitably be wonderful, because no matter which of South Africa’s game lodges you choose, the food is almost always a highlight.
Then I’ll sip wine on the deck overlooking a waterhole and feel privileged to witness this world where the eternal challenge of beast against beast plays out, utterly oblivious to the city lives we all find so important.
Finally I’ll fall asleep, listening to a cacophony of bullfrogs and the roar of a lion that thrills and chills simultaneously. And hopefully I won’t hear the equally chilling whine of a pesky mosquito. With so many lodges to choose from, finding the right experience at the right price can be tricky. These are some of my favourite places, each with enough quirks to make them memorable:
Molori Safari Lodge
Madikwe Game Reserve
Closest town: Rustenburg
Malaria-free Madikwe is best known for its wild dogs, which are facing extinction with only about 3,500 survivors. They’re a savage bunch too, and head ranger Rudi Venter took us on an afternoon drive to coincide with a hunting spree.
As they picked up pace so did we, hurtling through the bush to follow them as they chased down a wildebeest. We lost them, but soon tracked them down again by their excited yelps as they writhed their snouts deep into a gory supper.
The Molori rangers also support the reserve’s rhino tagging scheme to help combat poaching, so if you’re lucky your game drive will turn into a tagging exercise where you can watch a darted rhino being microchipped.
Stunning Molori Lodge is owned by an American designer who has made each of its five suites exquisite. The décor is sumptuous yet bush, so everything is rustic, wooden and rounded, including wrap-around wooden decks built around live trees.
Everything at Molori is generously sized, including the meals, with brunch spanning cereals, yoghurts, breads, pastries, pancakes, cold meats, cheese and fruit. One dining area overlooks a water hole where animals obligingly arrive at meal times, and dinner may feature gorgonzola tart, seared salmon and decadent chocolate mousse.
The swimming pools are enormous too, but chilly. Exploring the winding paths brought me to a plunge pool by a well-equipped gym with a sauna and jacuzzi, while another path leads to an observatory with a sliding roof for stargazing.
Each suite at Molori has floor-to-ceiling windows that slide back to let nature in, a wonderful outdoor shower, a small pool and a circular settee that revolves to follow the sun.
With a maximum of 14 guests the other visitors can be as elusive as those leopards, so it’s like having your own private retreat in the bush.
Who to take: Somebody you want to get it on with.
Who will be jealous you went: Everybody, darling!
Price: A suite for two costs from R24 750 per night.
Lion Sands Reserve Mpumalanga
Nearest Town: Hazyview
This private reserve borders the Kruger, yet the landscape seems a little lusher and animals, just like humans, gravitate to where the living is easy.
Game viewing included the voyeuristic sight of a mighty shaggy-maned lion in a bonking session with the bored lioness beneath him.
That National Geographic moment was topped by tracking a leopard through the bush, before getting stuck in a traffic jam of six rhino.
As we returned from the evening game drive the Milky Way had switched on its full display, and Jack our ranger guided us through the galaxies with his rather impressive Lightsabre.
Ivory Lodge is so classy that you have a private butler to pamper you. Mine was Solly, who served lunch in my suite so I could eat with my feet in the plunge pool.
That’s on the deck outside an enormous bedroom leading to a bathroom with his ‘n hers sinks, indoor and outdoor showers and a bathtub too.
On the other side of the suite is your large private lounge. You may never want to go home again.
Dinners are served al fresco on the Mahogany deck, with dishes like spinach and feta soup and perfectly grilled yellowtail, kudu or blesbok.
A path leads to the sister property River Lodge, a larger and less exclusive complex where you can use the swimming pool, spa and gym.
You can also opt to spend a night in Chalkley Treehouse, a funky bush bedroom named after Guy Chalkley, who bolted up a Leadwood Tree to escape the predators below.
The ranger drops you off with drinks and a picnic basket for supper on an incredibly sturdy platform high up in the branches.
There’s even a mezzanine floor with a toilet. As dark falls you crawl into bed with only a mozzie net to separate you from nature.
But rain was threatening when I was there, and a wet night in a tree versus a glass of wine by the Ivory Lodge fire didn’t even merit tossing a coin for.
Who to take: Overseas visitors who’ll see the big five and love the lavish hospitality.
Who will be jealous you went: Any overseas visitors you left at home.
Price: Ivory Lodge costs R11 500 per person per night.
Tangala Thornybush Reserve
Nearest town: Hoedspruit
Much as I love the luxury of swanky lodges, sometimes it feels incongruously over the top when you’re meant to be in the untamed wild.
Tangala is the perfect antidote — the game viewing is probably the best I’ve enjoyed, the prices are far more affordable and the lodge is comfortable and welcoming. It’s all commendably practical rather than pimped, giving you a bush experience without really roughing it.
Each of the five rooms has thatched roofs and stand on raised decks with a sloping ramp to prevent animals from strolling in.
The décor includes old safari trunks doubling up as tables, dark floor tiles and bamboo blinds to keep the sun out, which is crucial since there are no fans or air conditioning.
Actually there’s no electricity at all, so the rooms are dark, and lit by paraffin lamps at night. Gas heaters make sure there’s always hot water for a shower.
Tangala offers traditional Afrikaner hospitality, with manager Louw Booysen and ranger Floris de Meyer dining with you around a fire in the boma.
The meals are hearty rather than haute cuisine, and cooked by gas or over the fire. There’s no choice of menu, but you can specify any dietary requirements. The honesty bar is delightfully cheap.
A small swimming pool on the deck often attracts the buffalo, so don’t freak out if a hairy interloper falls in when you take a dip. Luckily they come with handles so you can pull them out quite easily, Louw says.
On game drives we had the vehicle to ourselves, scoring jealous looks from guests at the far more expensive lodges in Thornybush who were crammed in 10 to a vehicle.
Floris found us leopard twice, a pride of lolling lions at very close quarters, and elephants so near I could have shaken hands with their trunks.
Who to take: Rugged people who don’t demand hairdryers and an electric toothbrush in the bush.
Who will be jealous you went: Anyone wanting five-star viewing at three star prices.
Prices: R2 300 per person per night.
Nearest town: Vaalwater
Game viewing takes a back seat to game-playing at Leobo. The lodge is owned by a British millionaire geek who’s clearly still a boy at heart.
As well as the reasonably sane activities of quad biking, horse riding, helicopter flips, stargazing and a rifle range, you can try crocodile wrestling. So we did, and the croc won. It’s interactive croc feeding really, where you lob a chunk of chicken tied to a rope into the water, and the ever-ready croc grabs the bait.
Then you tug it onto the bank and feel its astonishing strength until the croc severs the rope and struts back into the water, probably thinking how easily amused we humans are.
The stargazing set-up is just as daft, with silver lamé jumpsuits so you can dress up like R2D2 and scour the skies for home.
Leobo’s eight chalets are lovely and not too lavish, with decks overlooking an endless plain and a large heated pool where you can sip your cocktails. Up the path lies the totally over-the-top Observatory, the owner’s private home for rent, where every luxury imaginable has been flown in.
A chef is flown in too when the lodges are booked, often Coco Reinharz of Sel et Poivre restaurant in Sandton or one of his sous chefs. His menu may feature tomato, basil and mozzarella wrapped in phyllo pastry, followed by duck in orange and ginger sauce, then a rich chocolate cake creation.
Breakfast is a lavish buffet, but leave room for the three-course lunch as well.
Leobo has to be hired en masse, either by taking over all eight chalets or by renting the Observatory. With Leobo being so close to Joburg and Pretoria, city slickers could hire it for a business trip and be terribly serious, doing some work, discussing strategies over dinner, and stargazing without wearing silly costumes.
But I’m all for the silly version of paintball fights from the helicopter, sinking the quad bikes in the river and chucking chicken at the predators.
Who to take: All of your daftest friends.
Who will be jealous you went: Boys aged anything from 10 to about 60.
Prices: The lodge can sleep up to 18 people at R22 000 per night and the ostentatious Observatory sleeps nine for R35 000 per night.
De Hoop Nature Reserve
Nearest town: Bredasdorp
For a different kind of wildlife, De Hoop in the Western Cape is a relaxing destination.
This is rugged wilderness with a less developed, more pristine atmosphere than many reserves, and with no dangerous predators you can bounce through the fynbos on foot or by bike to admire the vlei dotted with pink flamingo.
You can take guided walks and quad bike excursions, zipping past bontebok and kudu or spotting baboons cavorting in the distance.
While De Hoop doesn’t have the big five, it does have the rather bigger whales, and it’s rightly hailed as the best whale-viewing vantage point in the country.
Another attraction is the delightful Dalfrenzo Laing, a qualified marine guide whose fascinating facts make even the barnacles and limpets sound exciting. He tells spooky ghost stories too, and could put Wikipedia out of business if someone figured out how to get better internet access into the area.
There is a variety of accommodation options, from a campsite to lovely old-fashioned rooms attached to the main Opstal building, which houses the reception, bar and restaurant.
The lounge with squishy sofas and a blazing fire is particularly welcome for thawing yourself out after Dalfrenzo has whisked you off on a chilly 6am marine walk.
A great option for family groups or friends is to rent the Melkkamer, a farmhouse dating back to 1907 with four en-suite bedrooms.
My room had a huge bed and a bathroom with a shower and an old-fashioned bath, and gas-heated hot water.
A generator keeps the lights on from 6pm to 10pm, but we were so involved in a ferocious game of 30 seconds one evening that Dalfrenzo left the lights on until 11pm.
You can cater for yourself, but what kind of holiday is that? Rather book some cleaning and kitchen staff, like our cook Marsha, who conjured up wholesome fare like kingklip with cape gooseberries on a bed of mash, then a generous chunk of baked pudding and homemade custard.
Who to take: Friends and family who want to get back to nature without the obligatory big five checklist.
Who will be jealous you went: The cheery outdoor types who love whales and long hikes through the fynbos.
Prices: Camping from R295 a night, a stable suite from R1 090 a night, and from R695 per person in various cottages.
Stones is a freelance travel journalist. She was a guest of the lodges mentioned in this article