We opt for the scenic route from Johannesburg to Tanda Tula. Tanda Tula is in the Timbavati Game Reserve, on the edge of Kruger National Park. There is an option to fly directly into Hoedspruit, a neighboring town, seemingly there to support the all-important wild game industry. But we are here to experience Africa and that can be difficult from 30,000 feet.
We pack our two carry-on suitcases and our backpacks into our rental car and head north out of Johannesburg. Anna is armed with snacks to keep me awake while driving— almonds, dried apricots, bottles of water. We lumber along rather unceremoniously on the motorway for a few hours and then turn off to take the more scenic route. We start to feel like we are in Africa. The towns are less manicured, the streets are a bit more gritty, dusty, and the roads are traversed by endless coal trucks, hauling coal to and from. The roads are potted with pot-holes, apparently from the endless coal trucks. I work to strike the balance between making good time and dodging potholes along the way, often having to move to the other side of the road in the process.
We make our way through the industrial coal-mining towns along the route. Then, magically, almost without notice, the landscape opens up. Before us lies one of the most gorgeous mountain landscapes we’ve seen— as if the national parks of North Yorkshire had a baby with Kauai in the Hawaii Islands. We have arrived at the Drakensberg Mountains. We traverse the mountain roads, the mountain tunnels, stop every mile to take pictures. We are eager to get to Tanda Tula but not at the cost of missing the countryside.
We arrive at Tanda Tula at lunch time, after a 6am hotel departure and a 7 hour drive. Do you know the feeling you have when you walk into a hotel you booked and you know that you nailed it? That was how we feel at Tanda Tula from the moment we arrive. We are greeted by Foreman. We feel like we know him because we “met” him on the Tanda Tula website. He offers us a welcome beverage which refreshes us after the long drive. Meanwhile our luggage is carried to our tent without any notice on our part.
Lunch is being served in the open-air dining area / living room / bar. Chef Ryan carefully explains what he has prepared for us. He explains it the same way your grandmother might explain the holiday feast she has prepared for you. The tone has been set. Our only job is to indulge and relax. Everything will be handled for us for the next 4 days.
We use the time after lunch to settle in. The afternoon game drive starts at 4:00pm. We meet our guide Scotch and Pat. Anna knew they would be our guides because she saw the note in our tent and she remembered them from the website. We have won the lottery. Scotch and Pat have collectively been at Tanda Tula for 47 years. They laid the damn roads that we drive on. They live and breath this game reserve. They could do other jobs but for them, this is not a job, it’s their life’s passion. You get the sense that it’s their greatest honor to be able to share their country, their bush and their animals with us.
As we start our drive, I ask Anna what animal she is most excited to see. She exclaims “A Leopard!!” The sense of wonder is real and alive— like it’s living and breathing. She is transported back to a 3 year old at the zoo. She's been waiting her entire life to see a leopard. Within 10 minutes, Scotch has his Land Rover parked next to a resting leopard. She’s breathing very heavily (the leopard although Anna’s breathing heavily too)— the leopard’s body’s way of cooling herself and digesting the kill that’s she’s been eating. Leopards are quite elusive. They stay fairly idle during the warm days and can be hard to spot. Yet, within 10 minutes we saw Anna’s dream animal. Off to a great start!
On the drive we meet sisters Melinda from Maine and Allison from Florida. We don’t know their story but we become fast friends. Yes, the drive is about seeing the game but it’s also about the entire experience. Scotch has a photographic memory. The kind of which I’ve never seen. He has a 400 page book titled “Birds of South Africa”. As we come across a European Roller or Yellow-billed Hornbill, Scotch calls out the page number and the item number on the page— “262, number 3” for European Roller, “266-5” for yellow-billed hornbill. We check his work and he’s scoring 100%. For someone who doesn’t recall what he had for breakfast, I’m mesmerized. I catch Allison’s sneaky eyes darting over to me, and back. As if to say, “I’m going to let you in on a little joke”. In her lap is her cheat-sheet. She has the same book that Scotch is using and she brought it with her from Florida. She wrote down the page numbers and item numbers of 5 birds she was sure to see. And she’s calling out the reference numbers and quietly laughing under her breath when Scotch proclaims her the “star student”. This is the funniest thing I’ve seen in sometime. I feel like the lucky kid who is friends with the class clown.
As Allison and Melinda head home in a couple of days, Allison passes on the cheat sheet to Anna. Unfortunately for the trick, and perhaps fortunately for me, Anna has a terrible poker face and Scotch catches her the very first time she uses the cheat sheet. Oh well, we all enjoy a hearty laugh at the game itself and it seems well-worth getting caught in order to enjoy that laugh together.
For 4 more days, we “enjoy” our 5am wake-up call. Pat personally brings coffee, tea and rusks (aka biscotti) to our tents at 5am, in the pre-dawn darkness. We sip our coffee in the pale light of our lamps and listen to the wilderness come to life. Our morning game drive is at 5:30am. In all, we go on 8 game drives. Our friend Nate said it best when we discussed how long we should go on safari. He recommended 4 days, after which he said, as ridiculous as it sounds, you start to get “kind of over it”. That doesn’t happen to us, probably because we heeded his advice and booked for 4 nights. All of our game drives are magical. We see the big 5— lion, rhino, elephant, leopard, and buffalo— so called, we learned from Scotch, because they are the most threatening to humans if they feel threatened themselves— meaning they will attack. We also see countless wildebeests, impala, kudu, zebra, hippo, giraffe, baboons, and hyenas and too many birds to recall.
I find wildebeests strangely alluring. And I can’t help but laugh as Scotch explains how they are not the smartest animals. Scotch tells us that they will run away from a preying lion, then halfway along the run they will forget why they are running and turn back to investigate, only to run back into the waiting lion. Maybe they are adorable in the way the Dory is adorable.
Hyenas are disgusting. I’ve never come across an uglier and smellier animal in all my life. And yet I love finding hyenas because, despite how unpleasant they are on the eyes and nose, they stimulate the sense nonetheless.
And there are the moments and memories that I’ll cherish forever.
I’ll never forget sitting quietly while a herd of elephants break tree branches, or when these massive elephants walk without making any sound at all. It seems to defy the laws of nature. I’ll never forget watching the curious giraffes, with their beautifully long eye lashes, as they watch us with a vivid curiosity. And I’ll never forget the pit-stop we made in one of the few open plains of Timbavati. We sit quietly enjoying our tea while giraffe, zebras, wildebeests and impala all graze as one big mixed family.
And I’ll never forget the time after a group breakfast we enjoyed out in the dry river bottom, when Scotch turned to us and asked “do you want to walk back to camp”. We jumped at the chance and after a 10 minute safety briefing of how to walk in the bush and what to do should we come across wild game, we set off, on foot. We don’t see any game but the experience is magical in a different way. Scotch tells us how the animals use nature— how the rhino’s cake themselves in mud, let it dry, and then use an old tree stump to scrape off the mud, catching ticks in the process. And how they use the same petrified tree stump to sharpen their horns. He takes a twig off a particular tree, removes the bark with his knife and feathers the core of the twig, creating a natural make-up brush. He points out the “toilet paper tree,” so called because the feather-like leaves can be used as toilet paper while in the bush.
All of our experiences at Tanda Tula are magical on this scale. When we booked Tanda Tula, it was because it felt like family. And our expectations were blown away. Literally every single person we come across introduces themselves to us as we cross paths. And we feel like we know them because each and every one of them is on the website.
And we fall in love with everyone, just as we expected we would. Happiness is behind the bar with her beautiful smile.
Civilized and his wife Dolly are our hosts for dinner one night. He tells me about his son Little Civilized. I tell him I would love to meet him and I get the privilege 2 evenings later when Little Civilized mesmerizes the guests during the traditional African Bush dance— while wearing his Sponge Bob Squarepants shirt. Pretty takes care of us during most of our meals. She has the most amazing smile, and a larger-than-life personality. She and Anna hit it off like they are long-lost soul mates. Then there’s Thabo, who proudly refers to his little bit of extra weight as his “airbag”.
Everyone at Tanda Tula is great to be a round. And most of them have been there for 10, 15, 20+ years, despite a change in ownership along the way. It’s obvious to us and to everyone around that they are Tanda Tula because it’s home to them. We are guests in their home and we are treated to most gracious hospitality. Towards the end of our stay we meet co-owners Nina (her husband Don arrives just after we left) and husband-wife duo Dale and Haley, who have just arrived. It’s a privilege to meet them because what they have created is not easy. They have created an luxury African safari lodge where guests feel as they are part of the family. We learn a bit of their background— how they learned the hospitality business at the ground-level, working and learning and then making a move to buy Tanda Tula when they could. To a young couple looking to reinvent themselves, it’s affirming to see other couples achieve their dream through hard, and smart, work. And we are so happy we got to meet them before we depart.
Needless to say, our stay at Tanda Tula is a home-run success. It’s a great honor to be able to capture our experience in words. It’s also a great responsibility. Just as we have fulfilled on a desire we’ve had for a long time, I hope you too will get to experience an African safari.
When you are ready to plan, allow me to offer some words of advice. Get clear about what you want from your safari experience. Splurge a little if you need to— after all, haven’t you been waiting forever to go on safari? Figure how you can save elsewhere to make it work. And finally, go ahead and book at Tanda Tula. You will not be disappointed. Tell our friends hello when you arrive. And have the time of your life!
We are still learning how to embed photos into our blog. Please head over to our photos page at https://www.weplayeverywhere.com/south-africa and enjoy some of our favorite safari pictures. And thank you for reading. If you like what you've read, I'd love to know! Please comment below, on FB or on IG. Looking forward to hearing from you.