You are relaxing, gin-and-tonic in hand, on the verandah of a tree-house, high above the South African bush. Above you is the velvety night sky, the glittering stars seemingly close enough to touch. Below lies a watering hole where the animals will, sooner or later, come to drink: a lion, perhaps, or a cheetah, and numberless small creatures of the night. Alone with Nature, but safe in your tree-home, your heightened senses pick up every sight, sound and smell—tree frogs croaking in the branches, warthogs foraging in the scrub, the cry of a jackal. This is Garonga, the stuff of adventure stories, and the most intimate safari experience you could wish for.
Garonga is owned and run by one of our Members, The Hon Bernardo Smith, and our Members can enjoy an exclusive experience here as VIP guests with extremely preferential rates (see full details at the end of this article).
Meaning ‘Big Tusked One’, Garonga is on the Makhutswi River in a private game reserve in the Limpopo Province. It is the inspiration of the Hon Bernardo (Bernie) Smith, who, when he retired from the British Army, aimed to create a‘safari for the soul’: restful, healing, and restorative. Think of reclining in a hammock while watching impala, or tip-toeing down sandy tracks in search of elephants, or enjoying a candlelit massage in the open-air sala, or taking a dip in the saltwater swimming pool—it is as much about regeneration as it is about seeing the ‘Big Five’.
After a visit to South Africa in 1995 to attend a rangers’ course, Bernie was so smitten that he decided to build an eco-lodge and safari camp. Together with his friends James Marshall, of Conservation Corporation Africa, and James’s interior-designer wife Trish, he formed a team and began planning and designing. Only 18 months later, in 1997, Garonga was completed.
The safari camp lies in the 11,000-hectare Greater Makalali Game Reserve, an hour west of Krüger National Park. It is home to many animals—including lion, rhino, elephant, cheetah, leopard, hyena, hippopotamus and crocodile— and of course a profusion of bird life.
Drives are taken with care and supreme sensitivity —there is no dashing about in a 4×4 to tick off the ‘big five’. You are in the best of hands: you are expertly guided through the bush-veld, and informed of the facts and philosophies of life in the wild.
Bush walks are more intimate still. From the strenuous and the heartbeat-raising to the contemplative, these forays let you get close to Nature, breathe in some warm air and feel the earth beneath your feet. On other walks, you find a space on your own in which to sit and listen. There is time to reflect and focus on the environment, and you cannot help but drop into a slower gear. On other walks you learn about the plant species and their medicinal qualities.
From dawn to dusk, the photographic opportunities are unreal—epic sunsets and sunrises, the ever-changing light on the plains, the impossibly bright feathers on a bird, a gathering of wrinkled grey elephants around a watering hole. Bring more camera cards and batteries than you could possibly need—and borrow Garonga’s easel and pastels to capture a scene.
Back at camp, one way to unwind is with an aromatherapy massage, or some reflexology, hot stone therapy or reiki—a Japanese form of spiritual healing— in the thatched sala. Later, after an afternoon siesta in the cool shade of your hammock, enjoy a long, fragrant soak in the open-air ‘bush bath’ while gazing at the stars. But perhaps the best thing about Garonga is that you do not have to do anything at all. You can while away the day with a book and a sundowner, and nobody will bat an eyelid. It is your holiday, after all.
Bernie both owns and manages Garonga, so you are guaranteed personal hospitality and service. Meals are taken at separate tables, or as a group, depending on your preference. You can enjoy a romantic al-fresco picnic, a private dinner, or poolside barbecue. The local wine, beer and spirits are all included, and the food is sublime—London fine restaurant standard.
The camp is small and peaceful—it contains six tented double-bedded rooms, all with indoor and outdoor showers, king-size four-poster beds and viewing deck over the flood plains. Only 14 people can stay here at any one time, and guests are charmed by the North African-inspired decor, the crisp white linen, wooden furniture and the calming, neutral decor which echoes the bush around them. In the thatched reception and dining area a crackling fire and large, comfortable sofas await weary limbs on cool nights, and the open sides let the warm breezes refresh the guests in the heat of the day.
Added to this is Little Garonga, with three fully en-suite, thatched and air-conditioned suites, all situated around indoor/outdoor lounge areas, a swimming pool and built-in braai/barbecue area. Each suite has its own platform deck complete with hammock. These suites comprise the luxury villa, the Hambleden Suite, is Indonesia-meets-colonial Africa style, and has a saltwater swimming pool, out-door sala and indoor lounge, as well as a glorious ebony four-poster bed and a hand-beaten copper bath. The suite is self-contained, so you can have complete privacy. The Chiltern Suite can be found 10m away, while the Buckingham Suite lies on the far side of the main lounge.
There is also that amazing tree-house above the watering hole, where you can spend the night of your life—a totally African, other-world experience, gin and tonic in hand! At Garonga, you do as much or as little as you like, whenever you like. However you spend your time, it will be special.
WHEN TO GO
High season: September-March is spring/summer, with maximum temperatures of 50°C, minimum 20°C. November-March is also when the rains arrive, but they are neither prolonged nor too heavy and the landscape becomes lush and green. Low season: May-August is autumn/winter, with maximum temperatures of 30°C, minimum 5°C (at night/dawn in peak winter), coupled with dry weather which forces game to congregate near watering holes, making this prime season for game viewing. Temperatures reach about 25°C maximum during the day and fall to 5-10°C at night. Bring woolly hats, jumpers, gloves, scarves …electric blankets are put in the beds in winter. Garonga is in a low-risk malaria area, but anti-malarial precautions are recommended.
The closest airports are Hoedspruit (SA Express) and Phalaborwa (SA AirLink). Both take about one hour, followed by a 75-minute drive to the camps (Garonga have their own transfer vehicle if requested). One route is to fly to KMIA (Kruger Airport) from Johannesburg, then take a short private charter flight. Garonga has its own airstrip five minutes from the camps. Garonga is a six-hour drive from Johannesburg, three hours from Nelspruit.
As a Member of CountryClubuk, Garonga Safari Camp is your home from home in the African bush. You receive VIP treatment which includes a 20% discount on rates as well as a complimentary upgrade to the exclusive Hambleden Suite if available, and treats such as a bottle of South African bubbly on ice to welcome you and a complimentary 45-minute massage to put you in the mood for this ‘safari for the soul’. Rates include all meals (including teas and coffees); all drinks, including house wines; all game drives and bush walks; sleep-out excursions; bush bath; and laundry. Stays are of course subject to availability.
For full details, to check availability and your exclusive Club rates, please call Member Services on 020 7399 2960, or follow the link below.