« What would you like for your birthday »? The yearly question that is being asked in anticipation of your big day. Because I would celebrate 4 decades this year (don’t rub it in) I was planning on ticking off some stuff from my everlasting bucket list. I mean, it’s not getting any shorter when travel is your passion. One of the items on the list was Tswalu Kalahari.
Why? Well….there are several reasons but the most important ones are the fact that you have a better chance of spotting rare animals over here, the remote location allowing you to fully soak up the Kalahari and of course the lodge itself which is still among the best in South Africa. And it just got a full refurb so it was the perfect time to check it out.
Tswalu is a private game reserve which stretches over 110.000 hectares (no, there’s no mistake in the amount of zero’s). As a result, it is the biggest private game reserve in South Africa and owned by the Oppenheimer family. After they sold their shares in De Beers, the family-focused even more on conservation and research in the Kalahari, but also on restoring this amazing piece of land back into its original state. The latter might sound a bit strange, but Tswalu is made out of former farmland, which the family bought, in order to preserve and restore the southern part of the Kalahari. They are still in the process to buy more land from farmers that want to abandon the area, making this a project that will take a long time to complete, but with some of the most amazing results.
How to get there?
Getting there might sound like a mission but Tswalu does make it very easy with their own fleet of aircraft that will fly you in from either Capetown or Johannesburg. It’s about a 2 hours flight from the mothercity and 90 minutes from Jozi. The plane, a Pilates PC-12 is comfortable, fast and the perfect way to start your trip in style. Alternatively you can fly into Upington and use one of the Tswalu helicopters for the transfer to the game reserve.
We opted for a departure from Johannesburg and a return flight to Capetown to make the birthday celebrations a bit longer. Staying at Tswalu doesn’t come cheap, but you will feel like royalty for the duration of the trip. The flight for example doesn’t leave from the main terminal in Johannesburg. It leaves from the Fireblade Aviation Terminal which is located on the other side of the airport. Also owned by the Oppenheimer family, it is used for flights to Tswalu but also for passengers flying on other private planes. So, you can expect much more than just a luxury lounge. When you walk in you are greeted by name, without even showing one document. You’ll be informed about all the facilities that are available for you while sipping on your welcome cocktail. A chef of the restaurant will gladly explain the full menu and they will serve you what you want, when you want. The bathrooms are equally impressive, not to mention the gym, meeting rooms, exterior terrace, different lounge areas, … All in all the perfect way to start your trip.
After a very comfortable flight with some amazing views along the way, we arrived at the airstrip of Tswalu. Our guide and tracker were waiting for us when we left the plane. The welcome was warm and sincere, something all too rare in the current tourism industry. After the first drink and introduction in the open air lounge which they build right next to the airstrip, we were transferred to the Motse.
Tswalu consists out of 2 lodges, the Motse and Tarkuni. The latter is the former private residence of the Oppenheimer family which you can now book as a holiday villa. With only 5 bedrooms and a maximum capacity of 10 guests it’s the ideal place to escape with the whole family.
We stayed at the Motse, the other part of Tswalu, which consists out of 9 suites (though villa would be a more suitable name). In case you are travelling with kids or friends, 3 of these villas are upgraded into family suites with 2 bed-and bathrooms in order to give more flexibility to the guests, or just to offer more space and comfort to couples. We stayed in villa number 10, one of the family villas where DJ Tiësto just left that morning while being on his honeymoon. The villa is just stunning. The make-over surely had comfort and the outdoor landscape in mind, as the natural tones and materials which are used throughout are giving you a feeling of being part of the Kalahari. Everything is here to make sure you can relax and enjoy all the comforts you desire. A fireplace, daybed, inside-and outside showers, a massive (and insanely comfortable) bed, a fully stocked mini bar with loads of snacks on the side (of course all of this is included), and the list goes on and on…. No television but if you would miss that, you’re in the wrong place. All the attention is drawn to the outside and we were regularly just looking at all the animals that were passing by from our bed, lounge, daybed or even from the outside shower.
Even though there’s only a maximum of 18 adults at any given time, the Motse makes sure there is everything you need to kill time in between activities. There’s the obvious spa and gym, but they even made a room where you can use Lightroom and some other editing programs to enhance those amazing pictures you took during your game drives. A library on the upper level of the main lodge is another great spot to chill out. Or you can cool down in one of the two pools which give you great views over the surrounding area and the animals that pass frequently in front of the lodge. One of my favorite places to hang out though, was the wine cellar where you can have an extensive assortment of fine South African wines.
Most of us think of the Kalahari as a dry and boring place where no life exists. Though the truth couldn’t be any more different and Tswalu is putting everything it has into restoring the southern part of the Kalahari into its former glory, which is much greener than what I anticipated. Same goes for the wildlife that roams around. I came to Tswalu hoping to find 2 specific animals, being the aardvark and pangolin. I had informed the lodge upfront in order to align my game drives accordingly to increase my chances. The aardwolf was a the third animal I was hoping to see, but with the first 2 being difficult enough, I didn’t mention it upfront.
Our guide Mark knew he had a hard task ahead of him as all of these animals are nocturnal, though he embraced the challenge and nothing gives you more chance of succeeding than a guide who wants to see the animals as much as you do. Our first game drive was an instant success and quickly became the best one I’ve ever had (and trust me, I’ve done countless in many parts of Africa). Even for Mark it was the first time to spot the aardvark (which we followed on foot for over 20 minutes), the pangolin and the aardwolf in one go. We quickly realized that we were experiencing something extraordinary as not even all the guides at Tswalu, let alone the rest of safari guides in the country have had the privilege to spot these 3 elusive animals in one game drive. The pangolin was the last one we spotted and we followed this one on foot too in order to really see how they go about it. Fascinating stuff which I’ll remember for a long time, and the best birthday gift I could wish for.
The added bonus of this amazing game drive was the fact that pressure was off and we could focus on other animals for the rest of our stay, like the black maned lions, rare antelope species, wild dogs and so on… When we found the wild dogs on one of our drives, they gave us a great show too. First they haunted down a warthog which miraculously found a way to escape, only to find the dogs targeting some oryx which had some newborns among them. Again the dogs failed which isn’t common as they have a success rate of 80%, though it did give me the chance to take some nice action shots.
Because the Oppenheimers knew from the start that the key to understand and preserve the Kalahari would be research, they created the Tswalu Foundation. It’s a platform which gives local and international researchers the chance to study this unique region. It is a huge success and even teams from National Geographics come over here to research species like the pangolin. There’s also a colony of meerkats which they monitor daily, resulting in the meerkats to ignore the humans around them. That gives guests at Tswalu the chance to see these amazing animals up close, trying to dig up worms and scorpions, or just soaking up the sun.
Besides that they also constructed the Tswalu Healthcare Centre and Tswalu school. The first one provides vital medical services to the community and the latter makes sure the children from the staff members are well educated while living in this remote area.
Many of us would think that the culinary aspect at Tswalu would not be at the same level as all the rest, due to its location and the fact that people come over here for the wildlife and not to get a full tummy. Well, there’s a reason why this lodge is so highly rated (rightfully so) as the food here is among the best I’ve had on any safari. They only use fresh produce, even if that means they have to drive well over 100km of gravel roads to get that specific piece of meat or dairy. They also constructed their own vegetable garden, making the journey from soil to plate a matter of minutes. Recently hey started working together with Michelin star chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, so expect even more gastronomical gems being served in the near future. They are even constructing a restaurant in an old barn in the middle of the reserve which will host you while enjoying culinary masterpieces, while making sure they integrate the Kalahari into the dishes as much as they can.
Even though the lodges one the reserve hold a maximum combined capacity of 28 guests, there’s a lot of activities which you can enjoy, besides the obvious game drives. I won’t talk about all of them, but the one that stood out for me was the horseback riding in the middle of the reserve. Indeed, no fence, no extra security measures, just you and the horse trotting around, looking for wildlife. It was a first for me and it felt similar to a walking safari as you open yourself to the “dangers” of the bush. But I loved it and we saw a lot of antelope, giraffes and many more. A welcome change from spending the midday in the spa, pool or just your villa.
By the length of this review you can get a sense of how good this place is. There was a reason why I wanted to celebrate my special birthday here, and I so glad I did. Besides the obvious luxury, it is the Kalahari itself, with its rare animals that I’m going to remember for a very long time. The staff makes it all complete cause even though the price tag isn’t cheap, they don’t make the service and interactions static and uncomfortable. On the contrary, it’s very laid back as if you are staying over at a friend’s house (which I had friends like this). Leaving this place was hard, but Tswalu isn’t going anywhere, and there are constant changes which makes the perfect reason to return to this pearl of the Kalahari.
Guest Blog: Text and Images by Kristof Eyckmans @KEyckmans