Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, Sabi Sand, Mpumalanga, South Africa
Where is it?
On the 35,000-acre private Sabi Sand concession on the western border of Kruger National Park in South Africa.
What’s the best season to visit?
The lodge is a year-round destination. Technically, April through October are the drier winter months, and December through March is the rainy season. Due to the density of wildlife in Sabi Sand, however, iconic species can be viewed any time of year.
What’s the starting price per night, per person?As of today’s exchange rate, about US$1,916 per person per night. Included: all food and beverage (including alcoholic beverages and complimentary mini-bar); twice daily open Land Rover safaris, guide-led walking safaris; road transfers between Ulusaba airstrip and the lodge; and laundry service. There’s no minimum stay.
What was the transfer experience to get there?
We flew from Johannesburg to Ulusaba’s private airstrip just beyond Kruger National Park, about an 80-minute trip on light aircraft with Federal Airlines. We landed at Ulusaba airstrip and were greeted with a generous glass of champagne. The transfer from the airstrip to the lodge is by Land Rover and takes but 10 minutes. We were able to bring 20 kg (44 lb) in checked (soft-sided) baggage and 5 kg (11 lb) in hand luggage (though they weren’t very strict about the hand luggage).
What’s the vibe?
I checked into Ulusaba’s Rock Lodge—and you should, too—because the views are simply amazing. High on the Ulusaba Hills, ancient Shangaan tribal warriors once considered this site the prime lookout point in the region. Nowadays, this sky-high, multi-tiered hilltop is an idyllic platform for watching wildlife below, and there are even telescopes to help. You’ll spot elephants and buffalo with the telescopes, but more exciting is the leopard that frequents the camp.
Now tell me about the rooms.
There are a total of 21 rooms and suites across three lodges: Rock Lodge (10), Safari Lodge (11), and Cliff Lodge (which is, in fact, a private two-bedroom suite within Rock Lodge).
The Rock Lodge section of Ulusaba is built directly into the high-rising rocks, so much so that the stone makes up a number of the main lodge walls. Most suites are loft-style and each room has a different design reflecting African tribal style. My suite also had a private plunge pool.
On the downside, Sabi Sand isn’t as remote as other safari lodges, and the lights and development of local communities are visible from some angles on the hilltop and especially when flying into the Reserve. Upside: There was excellent Wi-Fi on property, some of the best I’ve ever had on safari.
How’s the food?
One of the first things you hear at Ulusaba is that you eat as “one big Ulusaba family.” Meals are served at an extra-long dining table meant to accommodate all safari-goers. You can always request to dine separately, but that rarely happens.
Though there are many options available (including vegetarian), guests tend to opt for local meats, like kudu burgers for lunch and warthog steak for dinner. The chef announces the dinner each night during cocktail hour, and it’s traditionally served as a three-course meal.
Bartenders shake, stir, and muddle any cocktail imaginable at the main bar, but the crowd here skews oenophile, so expect plenty of fine South African wines on offer. That said, your most intoxicating moments are likely to happen during sundowners when staff set up elaborate food and drink displays near some of Sabi Sands’ more interesting sights (like on the rocks near hippo pools or along a ridge with clay licks frequented by colorful bee-eaters and other interesting birdlife.)
Now, about that safari. What did you see? How were the game drives? How was the guiding?
Sabi Sand Game Reserve is one of the most predictable spots in South Africa for excellent wildlife photography. Without a doubt, you’ll saturate memory cards during the twice-daily game drives. In particular, look forward to a large pack of resident wild dogs, a healthy lion population, and some of the world’s best opportunities to photograph the critically endangered black or hook-lipped rhinoceros and its larger sibling, the white, or square-lipped, rhinoceros. This is one of the few places on earth where the rhino population has not been completely decimated by poachers. The guiding is great, but you’ll surely see many other safari vehicles and often have to share the sightings with others.
Were there any other cultural or outdoor experiences that were really interesting? Were they well done?
Community visits can be arranged for an extra charge. For those who prefer the idea or romance of safari to the early morning reality, sleep in and enjoy mornings in the outdoor pool, the state-of-the-art gym, and take in the views from the telescopes.
Bottom line: Was this property worth the money, time, and effort to get here?
This is an excellent introductory safari experience for couples and families. It’s also so rich in wildlife that prize-worthy shots are nearly guaranteed. Add the Sir Richard Branson designation—this is one of Branson’s Virgin Limited Edition collection of retreats—and you’ll surely leave with major bragging rights.