Simbavati Hilltop Lodge
Few activities could make morning-averse travelers, such as myself, wake up giddily at dawn than going on an African safari. I became an eager early bird, immersed in the wild, at the Simbavati Hilltop Lodge in South Africa. As a spanking new addition to the world-famous Kruger National Park, the Hilltop Lodge may very well have advantages over neighboring safari lodges. Here, you can encounter all of the coveted Big Five (buffalo, lion, rhino, leopard, and elephant) and enjoy contemporary, wholly up-to-date comforts and amenities.
Simbavati Hilltop Lodge sits acropolis-style, overlooking endless bush country, helping me better comprehend the scale of “hide and seek” that will ensue with over 40 mammal and 360 bird species scattered about the reserve. The main area’s sexy, wall-less wooden build includes a large infinity pool, bar and lounge/library area, a spa, and a very welcome Wi-Fi connection.
The lodge features eight tents, each scattered along a hill and connected via tanned wooden walkways. Simbavati’s tents are surely not of the “roughing it” ilk — their spacious pavilion-style suites feature plush king-size beds, stocked mini-bars, sleek en-suite bathrooms, well-appointed furnishings, and a wraparound private deck. All three meals are included, including a pre-morning drive coffee/tea and snacks service, as well as an optional afternoon tea. Dinner meals are the highlight, as you’ll either eat on their romantic deck, or at a traditional boma, in which drums, song, and dance preface your meal next to a cackling fire and an open sky.
As lovely as the dining and lodging may be, they don’t make or break a safari experience — the safari guide and tracker’s skills do. How fortunate was I to have Colbert Lubisi as my designated ranger — a jolly, intensely knowledgeable guide from the local Shangaan tribe who followed in his father’s ranger footsteps. It was Colbert who first explained to me why first-of-day game drives start so early in the morning (animals prefer to beat the high heat during daily routines) and which animal of the Big Five is the most dangerous (surprisingly, it’s the buffalo). Thanks to Colbert’s and tracker Derick Ntlemo’s super-astute eyes, my fellow Hilltop guests and I were able to witness a pride of stealthy lions intimidating nearby buffalo; leopards resting on tree branches and silhouetted by a dimming sunset; a multi-generational herd of elephants meandering near our vehicle; and we encountered a pack of curious hyenas so close I could’ve pet one leaning out of my seat, amongst countless other “pinch myself” sightings. Shutterbugs can also take their drives up a tremendous notch with Simbavati’s Photographic Safari package option. This one-of-a-kind service enlists Nikon Professional Photographers to accompany and instruct guests on specially outfitted photographic vehicles to ensure spectacular safari wildlife images.
Though there are scores of other fantastic and established safari game lodges in South Africa, you’d be faultless to choose the brand-new Simbavati Hilltop Lodge for your debut or second or third, and so on, bush experience.