How the safari sector is bouncing back in South Africa's north east

Amid soaring massifs and rugged bushveld, safari camps and conservation projects across South Africa’s northeast are innovating to attract travellers, offering them rare front-row seat to the battle against species extinction.

The sun sets at the end of an afternoon safari drive, near Tanda Tula Safari Camp.

Photograph by Ben Pipe
By Ben Lerwill
photographs by Ben Pipe
Published 23 May 2022, 08:00 BST

Scotch Ndlovu has been working in the same open-plan office for 27 years. It has the sky for a roof and covers more than 210sq miles, but he knows its ways and moods. He sees stories in its tawny, waist-high grass, hears tell-tale notes in its bird-chatter and insect-chirr. Right now, at 7am, the temperature is already pushing 30C and the scent of wild sage hangs on the land. Above our stationary Land Cruiser, a white-backed vulture perches on a dead acacia tree, its feathers lit by the rising sun. Scotch takes a long inhalation through his nose and tilts his head. “Elephants,” he smiles. “Just wait.” 

Within half a minute, the animals materialise from the bush in ones and twos, ears flapping and tails swishing, a herd of 30 heading for the water hole in front of us. Near the shoreline, the excitement for some of the younger elephants gets too much and they jog ahead, sploshing into the lake. Soon the whole family is knee-deep, drinking great draughts of water and tossing trunkfuls over their mountainous backs. There’s the occasional trumpet-blast, like a brass section tuning up in the South African dawn. Ours is the sole vehicle in sight; only zebras dot the horizon. “No rush,” says Scotch. “Let’s stay here awhile.” 

A cheetah crouches beside a watering hole at Timbavati Private Nature Reserve.

A cheetah crouches beside a watering hole at Timbavati Private Nature Reserve.

Photograph by Ben Pipe

I’ve come to the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger area, as the first stop on a road trip around the northeast of the country, from Johannesburg into the wilds of Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, taking in what will turn out to be three hugely contrasting wildlife destinations. The Timbavati Reserve shares an unfenced border with Kruger National Park, meaning that whatever roams there, roams here. With Scotch as a guide, it takes little time to discover how true this is. Having touched down in the country only the day before, my first morning is an Attenborough blur: a cheetah preening itself under a silver cluster-leaf, mobs of wildebeest on the plains, giraffes on a slow-motion canter in the drowsy heat. A juggernaut of a buffalo appears and stares at us unblinkingly while oxpeckers groom its flank. Welcome to the bushveld. 

In many ways Timbavati is the archetypal upmarket safari destination — impala-watching at sunset while you’re handed an ice-cold gin and tonic — although for obvious reasons, it’s not had an easy ride of late. Scotch has been part of the team at the excellent Tanda Tula, one of 12 lodges in the reserve, since the mid-1990s. For he and the 55 other staff at the lodge, most of whom, like Scotch, grew up in towns and villages just outside the reserve, recent times have proved uniquely testing. 

Every facet of global travel suffered at the hands of Covid-19, but not all of them were claw-swiped quite so sharply as the African safari sector. Money from wildlife tourism not only employs workers who often support six to 10 dependents, but provides vital funds for conservation programmes, community schemes and anti-poaching projects. A heavy reduction in visitor income therefore means bad news for the people who live close by, and deep uncertainty for the reserves themselves: rhinos, rangers and all. 

Zebras at a watering hole in Marataba, where, since 2020, conservation has been moved to the fore of the visitor experience.

Photograph by Ben Pipe

“A 210sq mile reserve is a tremendous beast to keep running,” says Edwin Pierce, Timbavati’s head warden. We’re speaking in Tanda Tula’s open-sided dining area, watching banded mongooses skitter over the grass as nyala antelopes wander up from the sandy riverbed. “When Covid-19 hit, our operating budget tumbled, and this was at a time when anti-poaching security costs had risen 600% in the previous four years. Our 40 field rangers all took voluntary pay cuts to keep things ticking over.”

The increased sophistication of poaching syndicates — in South Africa, more than 450 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2021 alone — is a tragedy of its own. Taken in tandem with the devastating fallout from Covid-19, which in Tanda Tula’s case impacted everything from its local education programmes to its conservation research, the going has been decidedly rocky. The return of international visitors has been a godsend. “I can’t put a value on the money that it brings,” continues Edwin. “It’s fundamental to absolutely everything.”   

Back out on the bushveld, as we rumble over grasslands under eagle-patrolled skies, this “everything” becomes ever more vivid. Scotch reveals golden orb spiderwebs, hunting jackals, resting lions and a slinking leopard. He identifies bird species with ease, giving not just their names but their field-guide page numbers. “Grey go-away-birds,” he says, pointing to a punk-haired pair, named for their loud ‘go away’ call, who are overlooking a herd of spiral-horned kudu. A half-second pause. “Page 231, entry six.” A sense of interrelation underpins all he shares. A chalky pile of droppings in a clearing is from hyenas, he explains, who chow down on scavenged carcasses and ingest the bones. “The dung then gets eaten by tortoises,” he adds, confidingly. “The calcium strengthens their shells.” 

Twenty-seven years in the same environment hasn’t dampened Edwin’s wonder at coming across rare creatures. On our final morning, after three days of eye-widening sightings, we’re treated to a dazzlingly up-close encounter with a pack of nine African wild dogs, one of the world’s most endangered mammals. The dogs sprawl across each other in a snoozy heap, their oversized ears twitching and their spotty legs akimbo. “Can you believe it?” whispers Scotch, as we watch them slumber and stretch in the low grass. “These animals are like a gift.”      

Guide Wiseman Manganyi from Pafuri Tented Camp, which is almost entirely staffed by members of the Makuleke community. 

Photograph by Ben Pipe

Heavenly hosts

The Greater Kruger is big. It takes around six hours to drive from Timbavati in the south to the Makuleke Contractual Park in the north, with most of the journey within Kruger National Park itself — a route that zigzags cautiously past elephants, veers slowly around water bucks, and adds new meaning to zebra crossings. Along the way it also traverses the Tropic of Capricorn, meaning that by the time I arrive at the glorious Pafuri Tented Camp, where crocodiles line the river under vast jackalberry trees, it feels like a different country altogether. 

The 102sq mile Makuleke Contractual Park is tucked away in the northernmost pocket of South Africa, with barely a warthog’s whisker between my bed and the border, but it’s emphatically no backwater. The park packs in more biodiversity than any other part of the Greater Kruger, despite comprising just 1% of its surface area. Wetlands, gorges and woodlands throng the map, giant baobabs from some alien otherworld loom over the land, and a feathered rainbow of trogons, rollers and wattle-eyes flit in the branches. 

So while the Big Five are present and correct, if less visible than they are in the southern Kruger, the joy of a trip here is more about wallowing in the surroundings than ticking off I spy megafauna. “This is the largest fever tree forest in the country,” says my guide, the unflappable Wiseman Manganyi, as we enter a cathedral-like jungle of pale, slender trees. He explains that early European arrivals believed the ghostly trunks caused malaria, hence their name, then his attention gets caught by a cloud of scarlet-beaked birds gusting through the woods. “Red-billed quelea,” he says. “People say there are more than 33 million of them in the Kruger. They’ve been here forever.”

If the area’s natural history is a long-standing thing, its human history is more turbulent. In 1969, the Makuleke people — who settled here from Mozambique in the 1820s — were forcibly evicted from the land by the apartheid government as a means of expanding the national park. It was only in 1998 that the territory was returned to the Makuleke, an arrangement that granted them a say over its future. They opted to maintain its conservation status, later partnering in the opening of Pafuri Tented Camp — one of only two main lodges in the area — which is now almost entirely staffed by members of 
the community.

Travellers sitting around a boma (campfire) in Tanda Tula Field Camp.

Photograph by Scott Ramsay

This back-story means that as we venture through the landscape, there’s far more to see than the fauna. “My sister went to school right here,” explains Wiseman, as we stand on the clay-brick foundations of what was once a hilltop building. It’s now half-swamped by the bush and vervet monkeys cavort nearby. “It was also the church,” he adds, poignantly. Some 200 families were caught up in the 1969 eviction and they left behind a tangible legacy, including a former general store and a colossal baobab tree that served as a meeting point for more than a century. Today, the tree’s moisture-rich bark has been stripped by thirsty elephants, but its swollen trunk and boughs remain a valued link to Makuleke heritage. 

Exploring again the next day, we stop for morning coffee at the meeting point of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers, with the green outlands of Zimbabwe and Mozambique both visible across the waters. The spot, long known as Crooks Corner, was once frequented by gun-runners and illegal ivory traders, able to flee across either border at a moment’s notice, although today our sole company is a snorting pod of river hippos. Just their snouts, eyes and ears are raised above the surface, as if in cautious greeting.

By this stage of the trip, the daily routine of a high-end African safari — rise early for a game drive, unwind at the lodge in the heat of the day, head out pre-sunset for more wildlife — has taken firm hold. Being immersed in the noises of the wild and the earthy, herby scents of the reserve is intoxicating. The tents are spacious and ludicrously comfortable. Each day at dawn, I wake to a knock at the porch and a woozy welter of birdsong drifting along the river; post-dinner, I fall asleep to croaking frogs and buzzing cicadas. If you gloss over the occasional caterwaul of a mating baboon, it’s heavenly. 

On my final evening, Wiseman takes me out to the sandstone amphitheatre of Lanner Gorge, where a simple but sweaty scramble brings us to a natural precipice some 500ft above the riverbed. We’ve been joined by the camp’s garrulous general manager, Godfrey Baloyi, who worked up through the ranks after starting his career as a guide. The view below us is a limitless panorama of cliffs, trees and ridges. Swifts carve through the air as the sky melts into ice-lolly shades of orange. “What a land,” laughs Godfrey, before he begins to croon into the dusk. “When I, in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made,” he sings, his arms outstretched, his voice resounding into the canyon. “How great thou art, how great thou art.”

Guide Max Tindall using a radio tracking device to trace cheetahs.

Photograph by Ben Pipe

A hands-on experience

Two days later, and seven hours’ drive to the southwest, my hands are resting on the hide of a two-ton southern white rhino. The animal has just staggered into the bush after being immobilised by a dart from a helicopter, and a team of more than a dozen people are helping to keep it stable — hauling branches from its path, monitoring its breathing — while a collar is fixed to one of its hefty, tree-trunk ankles. Its mighty body rises and falls under my palms, its skin tough and warm, its odour dry and strong. An hour later, with the procedure long finished but my emotions still in overdrive, the heat of the wild rhino still lingers in my hands.

The collar, which sends an alert if unusual movement is detected, may well save its life from poachers. I’ve left the Greater Kruger behind to reach the remarkable Marataba Conservation Camps, an 80sq mile sprawl of wilderness in the Waterberg area, some four hours north of Johannesburg. An innovative tourism-conservation model, it represents the shared vision of Nelson Mandela and a Dutch philanthropist named Paul van Vlissingen, who in the year 2000 jointly proclaimed the area, formerly farmland, as a protected reserve to help safeguard wild species. A Noah’s Ark-worth of native wildlife was then reintroduced here, from predators to megaherbivores. 

“It’s free-roam conservation at scale,” says head of operations André Uys, as we look across the plains at the ancient cliffs and buttresses of the Waterberg Massif. Giraffe silhouettes are visible in the middle distance. “It’s remarkable what can be achieved.” A mass rewilding scheme of this size is fiendishly complex (ever considered how to move 50 elephants?), but more than two decades on, its success is self-evident. Our first evening drive reveals two cheetahs feasting on a freshly caught baby wildebeest, antelope-studded grasslands prowled by hyenas, and a lion, shaggy of mane and regal of bearing, rending the night in two with a roar. As a breeding ground for rhinos, meanwhile, Marataba has become a crucial tool against extinction. 

Profits from guests are channelled almost exclusively back into its conservation schemes, so tourist money makes a quantifiable difference. And for visitors, the appeal of a stay at one of the two camps here is far more than simply the animal encounters (on one drive we see nine southern white rhinos, including a deliriously adorable calf, but no other vehicles) and the comforts of the hospitality (the fireside food at my accommodation, Explorers Camp, is garden-picked and staggeringly good). It’s also the opportunity to get hands-on — literally, in the case of the rhino-collaring. 

A white rhino calf spotted near Marataba Conservation Camps.

Photograph by Ben Pipe

Since mid-2020, conservation has been moved to the fore of the visitor experience, partly as a result of a growth in demand. In the company of young Marataba guides Max Tindall and Lindsay Whitton, my three days here are spent not just watching wildlife — buffalos here, bat-eared foxes there, bee-eaters overhead — but tracking key species, logging data on rare sightings and setting camera traps. A quick aside: when you’re retrieving a camera on foot and a leopard flows out of the camelthorn tree in front of you, pausing for a heartbeat to stare, it’s not a moment that’s easily forgotten. 

“Life attracts life,” Lindsay tells me, referring to the organic way in which Marataba has become largely self-sustaining, an ecosystem with a million moving parts. But it’s the rhinos, those exquisite, gentle souls in the bodies of battering rams, that leave the biggest impact. Between 30 and 40 were reintroduced here between 2000 and 2004, and the subsequent population has increased tenfold. The aim is that they might all eventually be collared, and therefore, that much safer. Even watching them graze, as butterflies flutter around their horns, melts the heart a little. 

In 2016, on a reserve elsewhere in South Africa, a young male rhino survived a brutal poaching attack — just. His face was left as jelly. He was named Seha by his rescuers, short for Sehawukele, which means “have mercy on us” in Zulu. Thirty operations later, he still lacks his horns, but he has a future. Now something of a poster-child for the conservation movement, he’s been living wild at Marataba since early 2022. I don’t set eyes on him — he’s doing exactly what rhinos should do, namely wandering where the mood takes him — but his story is powerful. 

The same adjective, of course, applies to so much about the region. As I leave, I’m reminded of something Scotch said back at Tanda Tula. “Everything out here is interconnected,” he had explained. “The animals, the plants, even the people. Everything.” And that, surely, is what makes it all so priceless.  

Getting there & around

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic both fly nonstop daily from Heathrow to Johannesburg.

Average flight time: 11h.

Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport has numerous car hire outlets, including AvisBluu, Thrifty and Budget

When to go

Kruger is a year-round destination, but the dry South African winter (June and July) is generally seen as offering better game-viewing, particularly around water holes, whereas the rainier summer months (peaking in December and January) produce longer grass. Temperatures can reach the high 20s at any time of year, but take a fleece or two with you for cooler days and evenings. 

Where to stay

Tanda Tula. From R12,600 (£650) per person per night.
Return Africa Pafuri Tented Camp. From R6,750 (£345) per person per night.  
Marataba Conservation Explorer Camp. From R23,585 (£1,210) per night, for up to four people sharing the camp.
All three properties are part of Classic Portfolio.

More info

Rough Guide to Game Parks of South Africa, RRP: £17.99. 

How to do it 

The Luxury Safari Co offers a nine-night trip to South Africa, including return flights from the UK, car hire and three nights at the Classic Portfolio properties of Tanda Tula, the Return Africa Pafuri Tented Camp, and the Marataba Conservation Camps, from £7,000 per person.

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