We spent the last four nights of our African Dream trip in South Africa at the Lion Sands Safari Lodge. I have always referred to this part of the world as “Kruger Park”, but that’s not 100% accurate. As I learned when I started planning, Kruger is a national park and is accessible to the general public. Most of the accommodation inside the park is in rest camps, run by the national park service and is quite basic. Most privately run safari lodges are actually in private concessions, privately owned land bordering on Kruger National Park. Lion Sands is in the Sabi Sands private concession, one of several running along the west side of the park. There are no fences between Sabi Sands and Kruger, so the animals can go back and forth, but only the vehicles from the lodge are allowed to drive on the property.
These safari lodges allow for an amazing wildlife experience. Guests are taken on game drives twice a day in an open Land Rover with a ranger at the wheel and a tracker perched on a seat on the hood. They are in contact with the other rangers and trackers from the lodge and this pretty much guarantees great viewing opportunities. We saw the “big five” (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo) within 36 hours of arrival, and on two occasions we saw four out of the five on a single drive. The rangers ask about what kind of wildlife you are interested in seeing and will customize your drive based on your requests. We told them we wanted to see “everything” and that’s pretty much what we got!
The flip side of all this nature stuff was the pampering you got when you came back. The lodge itself blended into the African bush, but it had every amenity of a five star resort. The thatched roof rooms had enormous beds with luxury linens, gorgeous white on white decor, soaker tubs and indoor/outdoor showers. The food was amazing and it kept coming and coming. We felt a bit like hobbits, eating first breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, tea, sundown snacks, dinner, etc. The all inclusive plan only covered domestic wines, but this being South Africa, we managed to cope. The service was incredibly attentive and the overall effect was a sensation of being pampered from morning to night.
The downside of the safari lodge experience? Well, there’s only one but that’s a biggie: price. These places don’t come cheap.They start at about $500 per night, per person and rise significantly from there. We probably could’ve stayed in a rest camp in Kruger Park for a month for what it cost to stay at Lion Sands. However, we also probably would not have seen as much wildlife on our own in a month than we saw in four days at Lion Sands. We were also very limited in time since the kids were with the grandparents, so we chose to maximize our experience in our limited time.
So would I take the kids to a private safari lodge? Probably not. For the first thing, many lodges don’t allow kids; Lion Sands doesn’t allow kids under 10 and bans kids under 15 from game drives, which would defeat the whole purpose of bringing them. There are a few lodges that allow younger kids, but I just couldn’t see how I could justify the cost. A few places offer slightly reduced rates for kids and teens, but the overall cost for a family of four still be prohibitive. Then there’s the fact that game drives really aren’t a child friendly activity. As fun as it may sound to see wildlife in a natural setting, the fact is that it’s not a zoo, and finding the animals involves a lot of patience and sitting in silence. For every 10 or 15 minutes of admiring the animals there is 30 or 40 minutes of bumping around on rough tracks in a chilly open vehicle, quietly scanning the landscape. Even the teenagers we saw on safari usually looked quite bored most of the time. I would have to take serious stock of my kids’ patience and maturity levels before committing to this type of trip, no matter how much they loved animals.
So, Lion Sands probably was a real “once in a lifetime” experience for us. But what an experience it was.