One of the must dos in South Africa is to visit a private game reserve. There are hundreds of them in South Africa as families are allowed to own land with wild animals on them. Many of these private properties have been turned into luxury lodges where visitors can come relax in style and go on game drives to see the animals on the property. I went to a private game reserve called Thandeka Game Lodge. This place was recommended to me by coworkers, and is famous for their white lions. Some of them are tame too so you can actually play with grown lions!
Private Game Reserves vs Public Game Reserves
So a game reserve is different from a Safari mainly in the sense that a safari is “wild” so you get to see animals in the flesh, in their natural habitat. Game reserves have animals as well and they are wild by all means but they’ve been brought into a reserve someone owns and it probably looks like a public park but it’s a controlled environment since it’s owned by someone. In a sense, it’s almost like a zoo but 100x bigger and instead of being behind a cage, the animals are in their natural habitat. Of course because a game reserve is privately owned, and hence the owners have to pay for its upkeep and feed any carnivores they have, the amount of animals will be far less than at a large public game reserve like Kruger. Also, most game reserves are meant to be a relaxing experience with high end accommodations, great food, and game drives available at your leisure. Safaris on the other hand, while plenty of luxury options for very expensive prices exist, generally cater more towards the opposite.
Because these private game reserves are so much smaller, there are many of them all around South Africa offering different animals, accommodations, and prices whereas the only public game reserves I know of are Kruger National Park and Pilanesberg.
I had no idea where to start when booking said private game reserve but my coworker told me that Thandeka was supposed to be a very nice one and that Bush Breaks currently had cheap rates. Bush Breaks is a booking agent for all private game reserves with what seems to be very good deals. We ended up booking a weekend trip for 2 nights. It game out to about 1500R (~150$/night) a person per night and this included all game drives and food. If I had booked it a few weeks prior, the price would only be 1000R which is just a great deal for everything that you get.
Located close to the city of Bela Bela, Thandeka is just a short 2 hour drive north from Johannesburg. The roads in the cities are quite horrid which I’ll comment another time but the N1 highway headed north is very nice as it was rebuilt for the World Cup. Accompanied by the scenic drive into the Limpopo province which is home to hundreds of game reserves, this was a quick 2 hour drive for sure. As you leave the main highway which you must do to get to this place, the roads revert back to what you’d think of when you think of Africa and are undeveloped and scary to drive on. Eventually, we made it to the reserve alive and was pleasantly greeted by the game drivers and receptionist that promptly grabbed our stuff and showed us to our tent.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the tents because I mean how luxurious could a tent be? I was pleasantly surprised. At first glance from the outside, it just looked like an extremely large tent but it turned out to be a mini house with tent shaped roofing around it. The inside is like a hotel room with a large king sized bed with a heated mattress that would become necessary at night as it got very cold.
There was a full bathroom, shower, and even a bath. You won’t spend much time in your tent anyway as you should be taking advantage of the game drives and other activities. The whole tent area is pitch black at night so packing a flashlight or having a flashlight app on your phone is advisable. Because you’re legitimately surrounded by animals, the tent areas aren’t fenced off so animals could come very close. One of our neighbors woke up in the middle of the night and saw two huge Kudus chilling outside eating!
To sum it up, we were fed like kings of the jungle. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included in the price of the stay and because there was a lot of downtime between drives, we just lounged around and ate our hearts out. The food was very good; omelette and toast for breakfast, buffet for lunch, and steak/fish for dinner. Alcohol wasn’t included in the price but what else are you gonna do it in the middle of the bush when you’re not looking for animals besides have a few brews?
I came here with my girlfriend and our mission was to see some animals, catch up on some sleep, and just relax. If this is what you’re looking for, then this is it. These places aren’t conducive if you’re trying to be unleash the inner party animal. The whole atmosphere was quiet, intimate, and the bar closed before midnight. Plenty of families with young kids came for the weekend as well. We were probably the only two people that didn’t have kids and weren’t retired.
Just because it is Africa doesn’t mean it’s warm year round on the entire continent. South Africa is quite far south and during its winter, which was when we went to Thandeka, it can get very cold at night. Temperatures during the day will reach 22C/70F and will be pleasant when you’re in direct sunlight but as soon as the sun sets, the temperature can get below freezing. The wind however is forgiving here so you do not need to worry about that but make sure to bring some jackets.
Waking up at 6am for the morning game drive was very difficult however. It is so cold in the morning, there’s no actual heating in the tent except the heated mattress and it’s so early in the morning that you can just hear the mattress telling you, “what are you even thinking? You know you don’t want to leave this comfort and warmth!”
The Game Drives
This is without a doubt the main highlight of these private game reserves. We arrived around 4pm on Friday which was just in time for the afternoon drive. They have 2 game drives a day, one in the early morning around 7am and then another in the afternoon around 4pm, each lasting about 2 hours. You can go on either of them as much as you want.
Having not gone on a proper safari yet, this was my first experience finally sitting in a 4×4 and going game viewing. Thandeka had plenty of wildlife and we saw a heard of cape buffaloes, wildebeests, a pair giraffes, and many lions. These animals can get quite close to the vehicle which makes it that much more awesome. There would be times however, where you’d drive for awhile without seeing anything but that is just the nature of the beast.
White Lions of Thandeka
We saw everything they had to offer but the highlights of the entire park to me were definitely the pack of white lions, and the tame white lions. We learned that white lions get its bleached fur color from a recessive gene like blonde hair on a person but is very rare. The reserve has a total of 9 of these white lions. 6 of them are wild and 4 are tame. The 4 tame ones were born in captivity but the mother did not want them and would have killed them otherwise so the people at the reserve decided to take them away and raise them as pets.
Without the interaction of their mothers, they never learn to hunt prey, learn what’s dangerous, and just how to be a lion. Nevertheless, you get to get close to the wild lions separated by an electric fence. I got a little too close to the fully grown male lion for his comfort and he roared which scared the shit out of me but an experience nonetheless. You were so close to them that you could just feel the lions thinking to themselves, “if this fence wasn’t here, you’d make a nice snack”. Even though these lions are “wild”, they no longer hunt because they’d just end up eating all the animals at the game reserve.
The Tame Lions
Eventually, we made it to the tame lions. The game driver just called their names and they just jumped out the bush like a dog responding to its master. They weren’t fully grown lions but there were 2 males about a year old that were easily big enough to kill a man and two female cubs that were absolutely adorable. As soon as I got out the truck, the lions immediately ran towards me and brushed up against my leg like an actual cat would! It actually knocked me back a bit because you’re talking about a 200lb lion!
They were incredibly friendly and at no point did it feel like they were a threat to the us. The driver did warn us to always make sure we were standing taller than them and to make sure no kids were in the vicinity. Lions instinctively always size up prey, even if they are completely tame, and if they see something much smaller than them, they may be keen to attack. After playing with them four times over the weekend, I don’t think they’d ever attack a human being but I suppose you can never be too safe. I asked the driver if they’d ever one day attack an animal on the reserve since it wasn’t behind a fence like the wild lions we saw earlier.
Turns out because these lions don’t have the oversight of their mothers, they will never learn to kill prey and they’d likely be killed if they tried to go after something like a cape buffalo. In fact, they know so much about the wilderness that they want to play with every animal in the park and one day got a little too close to the rhinos and they were extremely fortunate not to have been killed. It’s a little sad that these guys will never be nothing but pet lions of the park but I still think it’s better than them being killed by their mothers.
I knew I would see plenty of lions when I moved to South Africa, but never got to think I would be able to play and hug one almost fully grown. As the park did two drives a day, the tame lions are always on the agenda so we ended up getting play with them four times and it never got old.
To be honest, there isn’t a whole lot more to do aside from eating (which we did a lot of), lounging around, and going on game drives. As there are only two game drives a day, one in the early morning, and one in the late afternoon, the downtime we had was spent eating, drinking, and laying by the pool. Thandeka offered separate excursions from what’s included in the price like walking with cheetahs and going on an elephant trek at another reserve, which we ended up doing. I think in total three nights is the most you’d need to spend here as you’re just going to see the same animals every time you go on a game drive. The tame lions made it interesting on every drive but if it weren’t for them, I think I’d be bored after two days.