Updated: Oct 12, 2019
I was in South Africa from September 28th – October 7th, and it’s like each holiday keeps topping the last because this one was the best yet. Never have I experienced such a diverse range of terrain, activities, food and genuinely kind people on any trip. What made it even more special was that I got to fulfil my life dream of experiencing a true African safari – watching animals roam around in the wild and living their best life while we made as minimal an impact as possible.
I’ve managed the Nat Geo Wild feed for Asia for around 3 years now, and in that time I’ve seen a hell of a lot of wildlife documentaries (purely for work) and met with the most inspiring wildlife filmmakers, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotions I felt when a wild, real life leopard came close enough to our open-top vehicle that I could see the blood in its teeth and fur from a recent kill.
Lion Sands River Lodge afforded us that once-in-a-lifetime experience, in addition to being incredibly luxurious in all aspects. There is definitely a warm community feeling here, or maybe I went during low season because it was always just us two and around ten other international guests around at a time.
If you’re trying to decide on which safari resort to stay at in Skukuza, I hope this guide makes it a little easier to make your decision. While it was my first safari, Lion Sands River Lodge was honestly such a mind-blowing experience that I’m happy to write up all the details that I wish I knew before coming!
PREPARING FOR THE TRIP
We had no idea what to expect about things like the weather, insects, clothes, disease prevention and tipping. I think we went during the best season of the year – because it was just on the brink of going into the hottest season of the year (December) but not quite yet. The morning drives were sometimes freezing, though, so make sure to pack super warm clothes in addition to the tank tops and shorts. Regarding clothes, I took the dress code a little too seriously (earth tones) and ended up looking like Indiana Jones crossed with Lara Croft every time. No need. Just wear what’s comfortable, but obviously no ‘loud’ colors like bright red, pink, neon, white and yellow. And bugs love black, so avoid that too. If you’re going on a bush walk, buy hiking boots, but other than that, any closed toed shoes should be fine.
No vaccines are needed to go to South Africa from Hong Kong/UK. Malaria is still a possibility although very slim at Lion Sands, so you can weigh the risks. The mosquitoes were dormant in early October, and I ended up getting no mosquito bites throughout the trip. If you need malaria prevention medication without going to the doc’s, go to FANDA pharmacy in either Central or TST to get “Malarone”, a circular red tab that you should start taking 2 days before your trip, throughout your trip, and 5 days after (1 tab per day at the same time). I ended up just stopping the Malarone because once I got there, I realized there were no mozzies.
Tipping is definitely part of the deal, and at the River Lodge, you get assigned one person for everything – including your own ‘butler’ slash waiter, safari ranger, tracker and housekeeping staff. So at the end of the trip, prepare an envelope with the tips for each department. Don’t follow the online forums saying US$10 per drive – you’ll realise this doesn’t do the service justice, and you’ll definitely want to be more generous than that once you experience this.
GETTING FROM HONG KONG TO SKUKUZA
My flight itinerary was – Hong Kong - Johannesburg, then a domestic flight from Johannesburg - Skukuza (around HK$1,200 with South African Airways). I highly recommend getting a local SIM card from Vodafone, which is located in the arrivals hall of O.R. Tambo airport. I bought 10GB of data, which was enough for my 9 days of hardcore IG storying and Whatsapping. Do NOT use data roaming with SmarTone – they will take tens of thousands despite their supposed HK$198 per day deal.
In O.R. Tambo airport, the domestic terminal is within the same building, so go up 2 flights to get there. If you need to go to a lounge in the domestic departures, go to Bidvest Premier Lounge (it cost me like HK$266 to stay for the whole morning). There are nice little restaurants and souvenir shops as well. Once in Skukuza, someone will be there to pick you up and take you straight to Lion Sands.
THE RIVER SUITE – 5 NIGHTS
So we actually moved around a lot over this trip, from Room 2 to Room 9 to Room 19 to the Kingston Treehouse, but my absolute favourite lodge villa of them all was Room 2 (The River Suite). If you’re on your honeymoon, try to request for this room specifically, because our other River Suite room was lovely but it was more for a ‘family’ experience.
The ‘all-inclusive’ deal means the room has a free bar (I say bar because it is definitely not mini), with bottles of whisky, vodka, gin, various mixers, champagne, juices, soft drinks and bartending tools. The bed is fitted with a mosquito net, and tons of mosquito repellent and wipes on the nightstand if you need it. There’s a gorgeous deck, outdoor pool, and an outdoor shower so you’re basically right in the bush – so you’ll have to use your common sense when there are wild animals around (there’s no fence, of course, so a hyena or leopard could just appear there – although rare).
There are indoor showers too with two shower heads, and all bath / skincare products are from the eco-friendly Africology range, scented only with pure essential oils.
Room rates are located here: https://www.lionsands.com/our-lodges/river-lodge/.
You’re assigned a vehicle, a tracker and a guide, and you stick to that group until the end of your trip. There are two game drives per day, one at 5:30 or 6am depending on time of year, and another at 4pm. Each drive lasts around 3 hours.
You would be surprised just how easy it is to spring out of bed for a game drive, no matter how chilly it is, because either there’s a hippo wallowing right outside the window at 4am or you’re just brimming with the excitement of getting on that vehicle and driving into the bush. If there’s time, your guide will stop somewhere nice for a group sundowner, and prepare some “Ranger’s Coffee” aka coffee with amaranth. Every day is unpredictable. You just never know what kind of animals you’ll see, and somehow we ended up seeing them all – even the rare ones like wild dogs and black rhinos.
Loved our guides, Jamie and Joe – if you land them as your duo, consider yourself lucky. They really went above and beyond to deliver a personalized experience and to make this trip so special.
In a way I’m kind of upset because I feel like no other trip could ever possibly top this one. If I had to criticize something, I think it would be the food deal. Since it’s all-inclusive, the menus are set every day and you go to the restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner to have your meal. Sometimes the meals had me wanting more though, as once the menu was salad appetiser and a salad main, and once I was kind of disappointed by a main dish of ‘Asian stir-fried noodles’ in a safari lodge so far away from home. I’d have loved to eat more of the local cuisine.
Sometimes, I was blown away, like with the ostrich steak and the all-you-can-eat African-style barbecues – this only happened on select nights, and was so delicious. Overall though, and for once in my life, I wasn’t even thinking much about the food because I was so in awe with the wildlife, the lodge, the service and the people that we met.
For any questions, feel free to drop me a DM on Instagram @furellie, am happy to answer! Xx