Flying low over the savanna in Federal Airline’s Pilatus PC 12, I see the ivory tent-tops of Saseka Tented Camp below us. They are strung out on a curve of the Monwawa River in Thornybush Private Game Reserve, like a baroque pearl necklace. As the runway is clear of game, the plane can land on the bush airstrip. After a short drive in an open safari Land Cruiser I am warmly welcomed to the camp, with smiles and a fruit drink.
With a high tented ceiling of creamy-white canvas, stone colored conglomerate flooring and an open front, the main public area - with lounge, dining veranda and bar - is bright and airy. Viewed through the multi-tiered space is a panorama of river and verdant bush. Designed and decorated by the renowned duo, Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, there are creative and arty surprises everywhere. Slabs of rock form a bridge over a water feature that reflects the wooden sticks of the ceiling, as light filters through them. A low table has a cork background, with tiles showing local species of plants that were pressed into the clay before it was baked. The color palette is unobtrusive, with accent hues of sage blue and pastel pink, a fresh and original approach to fashioning a game lodge. Sourced in South Africa, antiques and furniture pieces include a wooden lectern displaying information, an iron Aga stove, wooden chests. A wooden swing chair adds another playful item, ideal for my imitation fashion shoot selfies! Carefully placed bleached animal bones, plus pottery vases of dried flowers and pods contribute touches from nature. The atmosphere is one of relaxation and informality, an invitation to be comfortable and inquisitive about the decor details.
The sand path to my tented suite is flanked by undisturbed bush, with indigenous trees like Apple Leaf, Leadwood and Jackalberry, above shrubs and flowering grasses. A nyala - a spirally horned antelope - with her baby, tread delicately before me, as if showing the way. I spot a lizard basking in a circle of sunlight, then a startlingly bright green grasshopper.
My tented suite - one of eight - echoes the elements of the communal area, with an inside/outside feel of immersion in the bush. Floor to ceiling glass doors, plus the open plan of lounge, bedroom and bathroom zones, allow for maximum light. The draped ceiling fabric sports botanical images of local plant specimens with their Latin species names, originally sourced from Pretoria Herbarium. Instead of using the air conditioning, I pull open all the doors, to savour the fragrance of pure air and to hear bird calls.
Before unpacking, I enjoy a dip in my totally private pool, to watch a crested francolin family foraging in the grass and a Red-backed shrike immobile in a tree fuchsia. I gaze from this elevated spot down to the beach-like river bed, edged by lush bush. Melodious notes from a white-browed scrub robin add the feel of being in nature nirvana. Beneath the canopy of a mature Maroela tree, my outdoor shower is also completely private. A Victorian-style bath inside the tent is positioned next to glass doors which slide open, to allow for a cool breeze and an unimpeded view. Aromatic eco-friendly amenities, including bath salts, are provided. As well as plush towels in pastel colors, I use the light cotton sarongs and Indian towels.
Thornybush Nature Reserve borders the celebrated Kruger National Park. With no fences, game has freedom of movement. I have heard about unrivaled sightings of the Big Five, the most dangerous animals facing hunters of yesteryear. My game guide, Grant Parker, has a degree in his field, so is a fountain of up to date information about the flora and fauna. We don’t just have a brief view of the lions and the leopards that we find, we follow the felines off-road, to observe their behavior. For me to capture memorable images, Grant carefully positions our vehicle at each sighting. He is a personable man with a great sense of humor, forging a companionable and relaxed camaraderie.
A highlight of my game drives from Saseka Tented Camp is viewing a bull elephant with mastodonic tusks. He is in musth, so has a rich, warm odor, from a steady trickle of urine down his back legs. A secretion flows from his temporal gland. As one of the largest extant tuskers in Kruger, he has been named and collared, for monitoring purposes. Watching us, but unconcerned about our presence, he munches on bark that he is stripping from a tree. Testosterone laded musth bulls are usually highly irritable, restless and aggressive, so his insouciance makes for a rare sighting.
Parked in the midst of a 19-strong pack of African wild dogs, we see that they are hyperactive, not lying down for long. Youngsters play with one another, making chattering sounds, bully a smaller dog, greet and sniff one another and roll in the grass. When two Spotted hyaena try to sneak up to claim remnants of the wild dog kill, they are chased away and have their flanks nipped. The wild dogs soon fan out through the bush searching for prey. We follow them to a muddy pool of water where they slake their thirst and continue to noisily interact with one another.
Returning to the camp after a morning game drive, breakfast is served on the lower terrace in the amphitheatre forming the communal area. On a leaf-shaped ceramic platter, my hospitable butler presents an array of cold meat, cheese, freshly baked pastries, pared fruit and various home-made table condiments. Cooked fare is available, with chef’s special of the day or your own selection from the traditional English or American breakfast. My binoculars accompany me to each meal, as the river bed is a game trail for animals like warthog, impala, giraffe and elephant. Nearby trees are home and foraging area to numbers of bird species.
The newest accommodation in Thornybush Game Reserve, Saseka Tented Camp is amongst the finest places in South Africa for a memorable safari. With its stylish modern architecture and design, exceptional game and bird viewing, fresh harvest table meals, friendly staff, well-educated guides and trackers, this is a five star experience par excellence. While this safari ticks all the boxes for luxury, elegance and perfect service, it is refreshingly down to earth. I feel comfortable, as if with friends. If not for Covid protocol, I sense that there might have been warm hugs as I say my farewells.
Phone: +27 11 253 6500
Website - https://www.thornybush.com/
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/thornybush.safari/
Youtube - https://www.youtube.com/c/Thornybush
LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/company/thornybush
Federal Airlines has shuttle flights from their private air terminal near to Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, to lodge landing strips in the lowveld. To Saseka airstrip I was turbopropped in an ultra-luxurious Pilatus PC-12 that has . Back to Johannesburg I experienced a flight in their Cessna 208B Caravan 1, a nine seater aircraft. Covid protocols are observed in the private terminal lounge, as well as on the flights. The lounge has an indoor and outdoor area, where drinks and snacks are served as I wait. It is a simple, comfortable space, right next to their runway.
Self Drive from Johannesburg is a pleasant 6 hour road trip.
- Thornybush is a malaria area, so consider consulting your doctor for prophylaxis
- Children under 10 are not permitted unless the Leadwood Villais reserved, where a private game vehicle with an experienced guide and tracker is included. This tented villa is sited above a bend in the Monwawa River, looking down towards a rocky bank. Expect an exclusive use lounge and dining space, fire pit, dedicated chef and swimming pool.
Thornybush Game Reserve has outstanding game sightings all year round
Massages are offered in the privacy of one’s villa
Article by Gillian McLaren (@Jetset_Gillian)
Images by Gillian McLaren and Saseka Tented Camp
For more Travel features by Gillian Mclaren: www.gillianmclaren.blogspot.com