Welcome to Part II of my South Africa Travel Series. This is more of a detailed look into our un-freaking-believable safari experience at Garonga Safari Camp. To get the full layout of our trip, start here. If you’re here for the safari dets, read on!
Traveling to safari-land takes a bit, but I promise you it is SO SO worth it. As much as I wanted to get there right away & skip the stopover in Johannesburg, it ended up being nice to have a night to catch up on sleep. I was so full of energy in the AM and ready to really start our trip. To get to the bush from Johannesburg, you’ll need to take a quick flight to a tiny airport called Hoedspruit. When you land, you literally look like you are in the middle of the wilderness. It.is.so.cool. Our plane wasn’t sketchy or overly tiny (so if that’s a fear of yours, rest easy), and the flight was just an hour and a half. When we landed, we were greeted by another friendly driver arranged by Scott Dunn‘s team, who whisked us away to Garonga Safari Camp.
The drive from the airport to the camp was about 1.5 hours, most of it on a rugged dirt road as we drove deeper into the Greater Makalali Private Nature Reserve – 60,000 acres of land just west of Kruger National Park. We couldn’t believe how much wildlife we encountered on the drive alone. It really started to set in that we had arrived somewhere truly remote and remarkable and pure.
STAY // Garonga Safari Camp
Researching places to stay on safari is OVERWHELMING. There are so many options, and many “luxury” experiences are outrageously expensive. Since it was our honeymoon (and since I like nice things in general, let’s be honest), we wanted to stay somewhere that felt really special & luxurious-ish, BUT we also wanted an experience that felt authentic. Enter Scott Dunn‘s team, (to the rescue!) with their ringing endorsement of Garonga. Once I stalked the website and read the HUNDREDS of 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor, I knew we’d found our spot.
The location was spectacular & incredibly intimate, with just six luxury “tents” surrounding a central common area, featuring a gorgeous little pool and deck with open-air lounge seating. All of this overlooked a watering hole, where we’d watch various animals (elephants, giraffe, zebra) come for a drink while we enjoyed our morning coffee or a glass of rosé by the pool. So, so dreamy.
Don’t be put off by the word “tent” – we had all the creature comforts of a typical hotel room (comfy bed, lovely bathroom, etc.) with the added bonus of being able to unzip our “room” to become an open-air oasis overlooking the reserve. Liiike are you kidding me?
You can take a look at the pricing on their website, but I will tell you the value is incredible, especially since it includes your accommodation, the most attentive customer service, along with:
- Breakfast, lunch & dinner daily (all of which were SO good)
- Game drives 2x daily
- Other adventures like the bush bath (do this!) and the sleep-out experience (do this too!)
- All of the wine & beer (the wines are local & divine)
A Day in the Life at Garonga
Before we left on this trip, I worried that safari would be exhausting right after the wedding and that I may have made a big mistake by making it our first stop. I knew it would involve early call times & I am NOT a morning person, but the time change had us wide awake and energized by the time our wake-up calls rolled around. I ended up loving our morning game drives so much (the adrenaline, the nature, spending time with our incredible driver & tracker & new friends). I was genuinely SO excited to jump out of bed every morning. Literally for the first time probably ever. Here’s a play-by-play of what our 4 days of bliss at Garonga looked like.
5am // Wake-up Call – Garonga’s “wake-up call” was quite literally a member of the hotel staff standing outside our tent and gently saying, “Hello!” A very welcome change from my usual alarm clock.
5:30am // Coffee on the Deck – After throwing on our safari gear (a mix-and-match of natural greens & taupes – usually leggings, tennis shoes, layering of shirts/light jacket, light scarf), we’d walk the stone path to the main deck for a quick coffee & biscotti. We’d also get a peek at the chef’s breakfast menu for the day, and place our order for when we get back. This was ideal, as I could fantasize about my breakfast order throughout the entire game drive.
6am // Morning Game Drive – After a few sips of caffeine, we’d hop into our retro-chic safari vehicles, usually with just 2 other guests (slash new friends) + our driver Jaff and tracker Stuart. We loved that we had the same driver and tracker every day – they really got to know us and went above & beyond to ensure we saw the Big 5 + any other animals we were dying to see. Shout out to you, Jaff + Stuart! We legit have this framed pic of y’all in our apartment…
7:30am // Coffee with a View – Around mid-drive we’d pull over someplace with a gorgeous sunrise view where we could hop out, stretch our legs, and enjoy some snacks & a coffee in the fresh air. Heaven.
9am // Breakfast Time – After around 3 hours of tracking animals & thinking about the food I ordered earlier, we’d return to camp for breakfast. We’d sit in the sunshine, sip fresh squeezed orange juice and take in the scenery around us. Complete serenity.
10am – 2pm // Siesta – This time of day was EVERRRYTHINGGG. It’s so rare that we have an excuse to truly relax on vacation (at least for us) without feeling guilty that we should be doing something else. There were no TV’s – just a pool for a dip, hammocks for napping, a fridge filled with ice-cold beers and South African wines (complimentary, might I add) and the beauty of nature to take in. They even have an onsite masseuse if you need a little post-safari detox. I read an entire book while I was there, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
2pm // Lunch – After a few hours of reading, snoozing, swimming or being pampered with a massage, we’d congregate for yet another delicious meal on the terrace. The food was always fabulous and curated daily by the chef. We’d eat and chat with the other guests (there were only about 10 of us) which made for a really nice sense of community & a cool way to connect with people from all over the world. We met friends from the UK, Germany, Canada and Spain.
3pm // Afternoon Game Drive – Right after eating, we’d jump into our safari vehicles and cruise back out into the reserve. Jaff and Stuart were always on the hunt for the Big 5 or any other animals we were dying to see. We were lucky enough to stumble upon a pride of lions on Day 1. I could hardly breathe when they slowly stalked past our vehicle, just an arm’s length away from my body, staring me dead in the eye. They are simply magnificent.
We saw countless giraffe, zebra, impala, and hyena, but the lions, cheetah, leopard and rhino were much more elusive and exciting to track. We were fortunate to find all of them besides the leopard (thanks to Jaff & Stuart’s expertise). Tracking the cheetah was possibly the most breathtaking, adrenaline-pumping experience we had. After following their tracks for hours, we finally spotted two cheetah – a male and a female – hunting together. We even engaged in a high-speed chase as they sprinted after a jackal for an afternoon snack. The entire experience was absolutely UN.REAL. It was like being inside of a movie.
5pm // Sundowners – A day on safari would be incomplete without a Sundowner, which is basically Africa’s version of a “happy hour.” Toward the end of our afternoon game drive, we’d pull over somewhere safe(ish) with a beautiful sunset view to stretch our legs, enjoy a glass of wine and a few light snacks while watching the sunset. Not a terrible way to end the day.
7pm // Dinnertime – Our game drives would usually put us back at the camp just before dinnertime, so sometimes we’d take a quick shower before, or other times we’d just stay in our day clothes. The nice thing about Garonga is that you can come as you are. Our first night, we had what they call a “Boma Dinner” where we enjoyed typical South African fare, wine and conversation with our newfound friends under the stars. We’d finish the evening with a nightcap around the firepit, and usually turn in by 9 or 10pm (amazing.) Had to get our beauty sleep for that 5am wake-up call!
So are you booking your safari yet?
I could go on and on about this life-changing experience for hours, but I can’t emphasize enough how transformative it is to be somewhere so removed and other-worldly. While we were obsessed with the next two stops on our trip, this is the place that will forever have my heart.
Do you have any amazing safari stories or places you’ve stayed and LOVED? Tell me in the comments below!
Be on the lookout for Part III of my South Africa Travel Series, coming soon. Next stop, CAPE TOWN!