Best Safari Lodge in South Africa
Updated: Jan 24
A Luxury Travel Review of Kapama Private Game Reserve - Hoedspruit, South Africa
I grew up in the Midwest in a typical middle class home. There was not much active travel adventure there, aside from climbing through fence holes in the back of our yard or sneaking out windows at night to hang out with friends. But even as a small child, I had my travel imagination fed and wanderlust created from a running subscription to National Geographic magazine and ritually watching television shows such as ‘Wild Kingdom’ and ‘Kimba the White Lion’. Touring South Africa and going on an actual animal safari would take forty more years, a lot of cash saving, and a decade birthday to underscore the reason to finally make it happen.
And it was worth the wait.
Not only did we action pack this hybrid travel trip with an adventure-filled nine days exploring Cape Town, the coast and wine country (see here for our entire South Africa travel itinerary), but we topped it off by spending three days on safari and celebrating the New Year at one of the most incredible lodges in the world – Kapama Karula. To describe it as ‘5 –star’ or ‘Luxury’ doesn’t do it justice. The staff, the food, the game drives and especially our guide, Dennis, all contributed to three days of wildlife encounters that I can only describe as extraordinary. Below, I’ll do my best to describe why our stay at Kapama Private Game Reserve was one of the best luxury travel experiences we have ever had, anywhere in the world.
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Kapama sits between the Drakensberg mountains and Kruger National Park in Hoedspruit, South Africa. It is easily accessible by air from Cape Town or Johannesburg via one-hour flights. All stays include complimentary pickup from the Eastgate airport. The reserve covers fifty square miles of wilderness and is home to over forty different mammal species, including the Big Five: Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Rhino and Water Buffalo.
Kapama has four different areas of accommodations throughout its territory. They range from luxury tent camps perched high on platforms, lodges suitable for families and groups, to a set of ten ultra-luxury private suites equipped with private pools and animal viewing decks. All lodging types include all meals, alcohol, twice a day safari drives, twice a day housekeeping and access to a spa.
Why choose a game reserve?
On reserves, animals are protected from being hunted but are not interfered with by the rangers. Animals kill each other, die of natural causes and can be very difficult to find on a large piece of property. Believe it or not, it even took us three days to track and find a herd of thirty elephants, because they were moving so stealthily through brush on a corner of the reserve. A game reserve is about the whole experience. More than just self-driving through Kruger National Park in an enclosed vehicle and jumping out to snap a photo (along with a crowd of others) and then moving on, animal safari is about submerging yourself into that entire African Animal Adventure fantasy but still seeing nature in all its glory: riding open air in a Jeep that is not limited to paved roads, sitting in the company of only 6 or 8 other people, observing animals respectfully for as long as you desire, receiving tailored treatment and education from the guides, following a pack of lions as they hunt and conversing over drinks at dinner with other guests about that days experience.
Of the four accommodation options available at Kapama Reserve, we were torn between the more traditional elevated tent suites and the ultra-luxury pool suites. Tough decision, as it was my birthday. However, my indecision eventually made the choice for me, as the tented suites were booked for the dates we had planned. So Kapama Karula, with it’s private pool suites, won out. Lucky me!
Over many travel years, I have had the good fortune to stay at some pretty fabulous rooms and suites, either related to business travel or special occasion. But I have to admit that the suites at Kapama Karula were one of the most unique, luxury experiences I will probably ever have. The room itself was ENORMOUS with a full living room, bar area and full-length viewing deck. It also included a private swimming pool where we could sip wine and cool off, while watching for any animals that may pass by in the distance. The décor itself was phenomenal: uber chic, with tawny, natural colors mixed with clean white accents, equipped with both indoor and outdoor showers, ultra soft linens and skin-soothing bath products. It was a true Modern Safari suite and unlike anything I have ever experienced.
A Typical Day
With game drives twice daily, the morning starts early. Different animals are active in the dawn hours compared to the evening. In addition, your chances of seeing the Big Five, as well as some of the other classic species, improve the more drives you do. I somehow had the crazy idea that most of the bigger creatures would be easy to spot, or at least have the decency to congregate together on open grassland once a day – Not true. Giraffes, zebra, impala and lion prides were seen routinely. We even got to see the aftermath of an wildebeest hunt. But rhino, hippos and elephants (yes, even HUGE elephants!), took five drives and two days to track and find, as the reserve was so large and these animals can be very reclusive.
The most elusive was the leopard, which we finally found on the third day. My point being, if you only stay one night, you will only go on two drives. So the chances of seeing every animal you want to, is slim. I’d recommend staying at least two nights, which gives you four drives: the evening you arrive, two the next day and a fourth drive on the morning you leave. The afternoons are hot and a great time to read, nap, take a dip in the pool, go to the spa or go through the hundreds of photos you probably took that morning.
The vehicles are designed to carry up to eight people.There is a guide who drives and a tracker who sits up on a seat on the front of the vehicle. On some of the drives, there were only two or three guests.On other drives, we had a full vehicle.The guides do a great job at making the experience feel private.They communicate with other rangers to make sure animals are not overrun with too many vehicles at the same time and they keep each other updated on animal sightings around the reserve.Each drive last about three hours, with a coffee break midway in the morning and even a cocktail hour midway in the evening.
The only aspect that was a personal challenge for me was that the experience requires a lot of sitting in a given day. For safety reasons, you are not allowed to get out of the vehicles except at designated spots. And although there was a spa and gym on the premises, I was either too tired from our early morning start or it was too hot midday to think about going for a run or working out. So my activity needs did not get met as much as they did on the first part of our trip (see full itinerary here)
The best thing about the drives, is that the rangers can drive off-road through brush and go pretty much anywhere they need to in order to go after an animal sighting. This definitely added to the adventure of the ‘safari experience’! Searching the bush for leopard, hunkering down into our seats to avoid sharp branches as our guide instructed in his thick African accent,“no touch!” - now THIS was the safari I had envisioned!
The Meals and the Staff
Every one that worked at Kapama was so nice and genuinely committed to making our stay memorable. From the wait staff at meals to housekeepers we saw around the property, everyone was kind, smiling and willing to do just about anything to make us feel welcome. The meals at Karula were terrific. You could either select off a menu or ask for something made to order. There is one main dining area and an open-air fire pit, which is used one night for an African style barbecue, complete with tables set out under a starry sky. It was beautiful. Before early morning drives, Kapama provides was a light snack, coffee or tea. But you can also order a traditional breakfast off the menu when you get back from the game drive.
Dennis, Dennis, Dennis. I can’t say enough about this guide. He IS 'the man' at Kapama Karula. We felt so fortunate to have him as our guide. He is incredibly knowledgable about the wildlife on the reserve, is passionate about conservation, and is a masterful driver. There were times when other guides sat parked on the main road trying to spot an animal in the distance. But not Dennis, he just put it in low gear and charged off road so we could get a closet look and a better camera shot. He could handle that vehicle like no other guide that I saw out there. And we always felt safe with him no matter how thick the brush or bumpy the terrain. He is also extremely professional, yet takes the time at night to socialize with guests before dinner, answers questions, and offers intelligent and thoughtful perspective on Africa and its people. Thank you Dennis. You were a large part of making our safari experience so incredible.
First let me say that a safari on a private game reserve is the way to go, no matter what level of service or lodging you desire. It’s less crowded and more respectful to the animals. Plus you learn so much more, see so much more, and get a more intimate experience with the animals themselves. Kapama Reserve is fantastic and offers several diverse lodging options based on your group size and budget. When considering price, remember that this is all-inclusive. So although a vacation ‘investment’, it’s worth it for a Bucket List Experience that includes meals, animal drives and alcohol. Kapama is an iconic Wilderness paradise that offers renewal and reconnection to our natural world. You won’t be disappointed and will leave feeling that you got more out of it than you ever dreamed of.
Click here to see current prices at Kapama River Lodge (great for couples, families or groups
Click here to see current prices at Kapama Southern Camp (similar to Karula but in different area of the reserve)