I was lucky enough to find myself heading up to Garonga in September. It had been (far too many) years since my last visit – which was before the addition of sister camp, Little Garonga – so I was very excited. Plus I was thrilled to have my Dad acting as my tour guide as he knows the roads up to the Greater Kruger like the back of his hand. I inherited my passion for game viewing from both my parents- who had me in the Kruger before I could even walk and I was still calling zebras “pretty horses”! So a long time ago.
As we turned off the tar road and started making our way to Garonga it suddenly came back to me that the road is really better geared towards a 4×4 or SUV. They are clearly signposted but the gravel and rocks can be a little tricky if you have a normal car that is quite low to the ground.
We arrived at Little Garonga and checked into the magnificent Buckingham Suite. There are only 3 suites at Little Garonga so this really is the height of exclusivity! The suites are large and beautifully decorated with lovely personal touches like a welcoming note, your very own water bottle with Garonga logo to refill for game drives and take home afterwards as a memento, a Help for Heroes teddy on your bed and a kikoyo to wear should you want to truly embrace the laid back atmosphere in camp.
After a light bite it was off on our first safari. Bernie, the owner, was probably the first person to coin the phrase “a safari for the soul” 20 years ago – focussing on the holistic side of spending time in the bush, relaxing in a hammock – or being pampered with treatments and therapies at the rustic bush spa/sala rather than ticking off the Big 5 in quick succession. Some of the reasoning behind Bernie’s laid back safari two decades ago might have been because the reserve was still relatively new and the game was not as prolific as other reserves in the Greater Kruger. But this is certainly not the case now! The reserve is now home to all the Big 5 and I was truly impressed with the quality of our sightings over the 2 days we were there. Our ranger Jaff and tracker Kaizer were excellent and on our first drive we came across a recent lion kill and watched the pride enjoying a lazy lunch of fresh kudu. We stopped a little later for sundowners and this is something Garonga does with style! What a spread of nuts, crackers, crudités, dips and biltong to complement our drinks as the sun set slowly behind the horizon. We returned to camp to beautifully laid out tables beneath the stars and a fantastic meal with our fellow guests. We were most surprised that out of the 3 suites all of us were multigenerational families rather than couples, which seems to be a growing trend.
Then it was up early the next morning for coffee and rusks. The bush in September was looking desperately dry and the elephants were wreaking havoc on the trees searching for what little nourishment they could. Thankfully they have had some good rains since so I would love to see it now all lush and green again! But the sparse vegetation did make for easier game viewing and we saw some of the precious black rhinos up close and personal! So close in fact that I could hear his teeth crunching the thorns as he ate. Garonga recently updated their trusty fleet of Landy’s and I have to say they were some of the most comfy seats I have ever sat in. Made the hours out in the bush on bumpy tracks fly past! We stopped for a much appreciated coffee and to stretch our legs at a big pool full of hippo which was lovely. And again – when I say coffee, what I really mean is a full spread beautifully laid out on a table cloth with dried mango, homemade biscuits, rusks and freshly cut fruit skewers.
A bit more game viewing and we returned the camp for brunch, which tends to be served at individual tables around the pool rather than the big communal dinner table. I absolutely loved the way they serve everything in individual pots. We had Greek yoghurt, a range of gorgeous tropical fruit, pastries straight out of the oven, cold meats, salads and a cheese board. Their healthy smoothies also are to die for! Plus the big smile and toast making expertise of Camp Manager Robert to welcome us back. Most drinks are included at Garonga so you can just help yourself from the bar. Only premium brands are extra.
We then had some free time to try out a treatment or massage in the bush sala, relax in our hammocks or just chill around the pool. I took a walk down to the safari camp, just a short walk down the hill, and was most delighted to find a small herd of elephants enjoying a cool drink at the waterhole opposite the lodge. They clearly decided “fair was fair” and crossed the river bed for a closer look at us enjoying our drinks too! They took a slow stroll right through the camp, munching on a few trees – all while Bernie watched from a distance to make sure they weren’t being too destructive to his beautifully refurbished new camp!
The afternoon drive produced fantastic sightings of elephant, lion, leopard, rhino (both black and white) and the highlight – a cheetah with a cub enjoying a kill. We also saw lions right next to the track and some more ellies eating trees (sharing is not always caring apparently). A highlight was definitely some rhino crossing the road in front of us. Honestly I was rather gobsmacked at the quality and quantity of game we saw in just 2 days!
There’s really no such thing as a “typical day at Garonga” because each guest’s experience is very much tailored to how they want to spend their day. I was sad we didn’t get a chance to try out the sleep out in the bush (I couldn’t bear to leave our gorgeous Little Garonga room unoccupied and truth be told I’m a bit of a wimp) – or the gorgeous bush bath under the stars – but that would be perfect for a romantic stay! A lot of guests also explore the reserve on foot, walking back to camp after the morning game drive for a bush breakfast in the riverbed below camp. Jaff and his team are on hand to make sure your safari is simply unforgettable…
Garonga has just been voted as one of the Top 25 Small Hotels in South Africa by Tripadvisor. It may not be a hotel– but it certainly ranks up there with some of South Africa’s best intimate places to stay!
Garonga – you were worth the wait! I cannot wait to go back!