A Luxurious Kalahari Safari ~ Luxury, Adventure and Untamed Beauty

Kalahari Africa Landscape overview

In the Kalahari desert, travel writer Ginny Cumming finds a safari experience that feels out of this world.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your plane is ready for boarding.”

To anyone with a passion for travel, these are always welcome words. But when your mode of transport is a private jet and your destination is one of the finest safari destinations in all of Africa, they suddenly become a sonnet, an aria, a love letter…

There were just seven of us on the private jet, plus our two pilots. We were on our way from Johannesburg to Tswalu, the largest privately owned wildlife reserve in South Africa. It’s located in the north of the country, in the Kalahari; a semi-arid wilderness that stretches across seven countries. For me, until this trip, the Kalahari was just another name on a long list of deserts learned by rote in school geography classes. In my childhood imagination it was nothing more than the sand dunes you see in a cartoon. Now, as an adult, I was about to witness its diverse magnificence firsthand.

We landed at Tswalu’s private airstrip, making our way to the open-air thatched bush terminal for a cold drink and a warm greeting from our guides, Juan and Calamari. Yep. I was in the Kalahari, going on safari with a guy called Calamari. Only two minutes on the ground and the anecdote gods were smiling down on me already.

Tswalu covers more than 110,000 hectares and over the next four days we were to have the entire place to ourselves. It’s maybe the most remote and isolated I’ve ever felt in my life, and I loved every moment. Tswalu is actually comprised of two separate camps: The Motse, which recently re-opened after an extensive refurbishment, and what was to be our home during our stay, the supremely lovely Tarkuni Lodge. This is no ordinary residence. Once the personal home of Nicky Oppenheimer, the former chairman of the world’s largest diamond producer, De Beers, it’s now a five-star exclusive-use lodge and one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World. To say we were eager to get to our digs, nestled at the foot of the only mountain range in the region, the Korannabergs, was an understatement.

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Jumping in a Land Rover, we tore across sandy roads and wide-open savannahs, cresting occasionally on deep red dunes before plunging into valleys as if on the deck of a ship on a wild and stormy sea. Tswalu may sit in the “green” part of the greater Kalahari, but it’s still the primary colours that dominate here: red sands, skies of burning blue and even splashes of yellow. Recent rains had transformed parts of the reserve and every so often we’d be enveloped by a carpet of golden flowers, so delicate and pretty in the middle of this vast and hypnotising landscape of burnt sands, mountains and endless grassland.

And then suddenly, we were there. We swung into a circular driveway, where the Tarkuni team had lined up to greet us, and from the very moment we stepped out of our vehicles, we were home. There’s no other way to describe it: it was relaxed five-star glam all the way at this luxe and lovely abode, but it truly felt like home; and the staff our extended (and very helpful) family. The feeling that we were staying at our own private African estate never went away, and there was an ease and relaxed elegance to everything. It made for the very best kind of five-star living. There are just five suites at Tarkuni, each featuring a star bed and outdoor shower on a private sun deck, and a romantic mosquito-netted bed inside. Everything is stylish and supremely comfortably, echoing the subtle colour palette of nature outside.

The beauty of staying at an exclusive-use lodge, of course, is that you get the whole place to yourself and it’s totally geared around you. Not only did we have a 24/7 private chef, but also – and this is the ultimate luxury when you’re in Africa – our own private guides, trackers and safari vehicles. And with 110,000 malaria-free hectares to explore, we also had the luxury of unimaginable space in which to roam. Even when Tswalu’s at maximum capacity there are only 28 people and 10 vehicles on the entire property (that’s Tarkuni and The Motse combined), so the chances of seeing anyone else are pretty slim. Especially as you also have freedom when it comes to your daily itinerary.

Most days on safari in Africa are fairly structured, but at Tswalu you can pretty much call the shots and do what you want, when you want. There are no set times or schedules and everything is tailored to suit you, just as if you were the owner of this magnificent estate. In between game drives you can do a horseback or helicopter safari, see ancient rock art dating back 380,000 years, spend an entire day in the bush on a full-day game drive, take a picnic in the dunes or simply head back to lie by the pool and read a book before swanning off to the luxe spa for a massage or beauty treatment.

However there is one thing you have to fit in with around here: the natural cycle and rhythm of the animals. Mother Nature waits for no one. Every experience at Tswalu is spectacular and the accommodation is so superb you’ll never want to leave, but let’s be frank: it’s the wildlife encounters that people really come here for. This part of Africa may not be a “Big Five” region, but don’t let the fact that you won’t see an elephant stop you from visiting. With about 300 species of birds and animals in total and an open habitat that makes for excellent game viewing, it’s an absolute embarrassment of riches.

The largest lions in all of Africa – the famous black-maned lions of the Kalahari – are top of many people’s list, but Tswalu’s wildlife checklist extends far beyond these magnificent kings of the, um, savannah. The reserve is also home to a healthy population of cheetah and, thanks to its wide open plains, it’s also one of the best places on the planet to witness the fastest animal on the planet in full flight.

The cheetah was also one of the animals that was still, after three visits to Africa, on my “please, please, please let me see one this time” list. Trying to locate these masters of camouflage in the middle of a property almost four times the size of Malta gave us a great opportunity to watch our guides and trackers in action. Anyone who’s been on a safari in Africa will tell you that a good guide and tracker can make a game drive, and we were in the presence of some of the very best. With Calamari at the wheel and Jacob in the tracker’s seat, scanning for any signs of these elusive animals, he all of a sudden raised his hand, indicating that he’d seen something. Calamari braked, and Jacob jumped to the ground, scoured the earth more closely for tracks… and then casually ambled off into the bush. Alone. In search of wild animals. Free of any weapon other than his incredible knowledge and a radio. He remained in contact and I remained on tenterhooks. Was he going to be okay? How on earth was he going to find anything? What if he stumbled across something even more potentially threatening than a cheetah? Wait, was I finally going to see a cheetah? His voice crackled down the line every so often until we finally got the answer I was hoping for. In this vast and seemingly empty wilderness, thanks to his awesome skills in the ancient art of tracking, he’d located two cheetahs. We wove through thick bush, following his directions to find and observe the elegant animals, taking special delight when they eventually leapt up into the wide and open branches of a tree and stood there like sentinels, surveying their domain. Bucket list item: ticked.

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The next day, Calamari and Jacob were at it again, this time giving us a masterclass in the art of rhino tracking. Tswalu is home to about one third of all surviving desert black rhinos in South Africa. In a world where numbers of these magnificent beasts are ever declining, this is a truly special place. But you still have to work hard to find them. Luckily, these guys are not only masters in tracking, they also make the experience a hugely exciting adventure. Their bushcraft skills and ability to read and anticipate every move of the animals they track is simply astonishing. On this particular game drive Calamari told us: “These desert black rhinos are crazy”. Not two minutes later, Jacob jumped off the vehicle. He was at it again. On foot and weapon-free in the face of “crazy” rhinos. Just a radio and years of experience. But within 15 minutes – 15 minutes! – we heard that familiar crackling of the radio and his calm voice advising us that he’d found a mother and her calf. Every day at Tswalu seemed to strike safari gold like this.

But it’s not just about the big animals at Tswalu. The other things that people come here to see are much smaller, rare nocturnal creatures, many of which are almost impossible to see anywhere else. It’s why night safaris are so popular here. The list includes aardvark, aardwolf, porcupine and caracal, but number one for most visitors would have to be the pangolin, the cutest scaly anteater around. This is one of the best places in Africa to see these elusive creatures in the wild, but even here you have to be lucky. Alas, for us it was not to be on this trip, however we did get to experience another small and much-loved animal that everyone loves to see at Tswalu: meerkats.

It was still dark when we set out to see them one bitterly cold morning, and black clouds gathered ominously in the distance. We donned waterproof oilskins in the nick of time before the heavens opened, but just an hour later and we were bone dry, warm as toast, and oohing and aching as we watched a group of meerkats emerge from their burrows. A more endearing creature you’d be hard pressed to find, and there can surely be no better place to observe them than Tswalu, where they’re now habituated. It means the meerkats have grown to trust people, so they let you approach and observe more closely than you can possibly imagine. At one point I was convinced an inquisitive – and super-close – meerkat was going to reach out and pinch my phone as I snapped away while sitting cross-legged on the ground, that’s how relaxed they are about human interaction. It made for great photos and even greater memories, just to sit and watch these tiny members of the mongoose family warm themselves in the rising sun, posing as if they somehow knew they were destined for Instagram. Then they’d take off, on the hunt for breakfast, and we’d scamper after them, watching their playful pursuits until it was time for our breakfast. It was an unexpected and utterly charming start to the day.

Later that evening, as if to remind us of the harsh realities of life in Africa, we experienced a stark flipside to these sweet little meerkats. As sunset loomed, we set out to try and witness some legendary predators in action: African wild dogs. Seeing wild dogs hunt is one of the rarest and most thrilling adventures you can have while on safari in Africa. It’s wildly exciting; like being in a car chase in an action movie, hanging on for dear life as you tear across the bumpy plains, racing after these animals that are famous for their speed and incredible endurance. The only way the pack can survive is to work as a team, and the way they hunt is quite extraordinary. They’re completely silent and communicate via body language – we were told to expect some serious action when all of their ears completely flattened back. And so it was when the dogs got a warthog in their sights. After such a thrilling chase, the next bit was brutal. There’s no sugarcoating it: they killed Pumbaa right in front of us, and it was tough. But The Lion King had it right; this is the “Circle of Life” and African wild dogs are incredibly endangered – Tswalu only has 16 on the entire reserve. For a day that started so sweetly, this wild dog hunt was an epic, exciting and savage end.

But the days never really end savagely at Tswalu. Far from it. They end, as is only right when you’re on safari in Africa, with a gin and tonic at sundown, looking out to endless horizons and golden sunsets that seemed to linger for hours (or at least a second G&T), or back at Tarkuni for drinks around a crackling fire in the outdoor fire pit. They end with superb meals in the dining room, where chandeliers hang from suspended tree branches, or a traditional al fresco boma dinner, where hurricane lamps, open fires and a silver-service barbecue all add to the cosy ambience. African safaris are famous for their food (tip: leave your diet at the door), but Tswalu takes things to another level and 2020 looks set to be a stellar year. Together with executive chef, Marnus Scholly, celebrated South African chef, Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen is now curating all the menus at Tswalu. His restaurant JAN in Nice, France, has a Michelin star and the big news is, he’s set to open another restaurant, KLEIN JAN, at Tswalu in 2020. Book me in now.

On one unforgettable occasion our day ended with a special dinner under the stars at The Malori, a secluded sleep-out deck quite literally in the middle of nowhere. With a long table set up for our entire party we feasted under the stars and gazed in wonder as the Kalahari sky slowly transformed from glowing sunset to cobalt blue to black velvet. After dinner, the chefs, staff and the rest of the gang departed. There were just two people left now under a vast dome of stars, with nothing but a gorgeous deck to sleep on, a stash of gourmet supplies and a radio, just in case. If you’re going to spend a night in the African bush, with nothing between you and the stars, this is the place to do it. The isolation of the Kalahari means it’s devoid of any light pollution, so stargazing here is almost beyond compare. It’s the perfect place to admire the glittering African night sky, studded with a blanket of diamonds, while listening to the calls of nocturnal animals and just enjoying the space, the solitude and the deep emptiness. There’s nothing like it. On this particular evening, there was an added bonus: a dramatic lightning show that got more exciting as it got ever-closer. The storm broke just as dawn did, but it was all over by breakfast, and another sunny day in paradise beckoned.

All too soon it was time to leave Tswalu and the Tarkuni team gathered again, but this time to farewell us in song. There was a lump in my throat and more than one tear in my eye as we headed off, Tarkuni fading into the distance as its lovely people still waved us goodbye. This is a magical destination, indescribably wild and remote and starkly beautiful. I turned to my friend, a veteran of more than 20 African countries and more than 1,000 camps and lodges to get his final word on the matter. His five simple words said it all: “My safari cup is full.”

The writer travelled as a guest of African Safari experts Encompass Africa who have been creating safari holidays for people wanting extraordinary experiences for nearly 15 years, offering unrivalled service and the sort of insider knowledge that can elevate a great trip to an unforgettable adventure of a lifetime.

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