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Travellers Tales: Three Private Reserves in Greater Kruger

Alistair visit three private game reserves in Greater Kruger and shares his experiences, and where to stay.



Africa Specialist
Published on

07 Aug 2023

Updated on

22 Aug 2023

Game Drive Kambaku River Sands Kruger South Africa 2 min

Earlier this year, Alistair, our MD, travelled to South Africa’s Greater Kruger for an unforgettable safari experience and to check out some of our old favourite lodges, and add some new ones too.

Alistair shares his experiences below.

Looking for animals? Come rain or shine The Greater Kruger Area always delivers. I had the privilege of a quick visit in early May. Not peak season by any stretch of the imagination, even in these tempestuous climatic times; the bush was thick green abundance and generally the skies were a beautiful bright blue – we only got a bit of rain on final day. Access was in through Hoedspruit and out through Skukuza, 2 airports set very close to the reserves and serve their sole purpose of delivering and extracting safari-goers brilliantly. It really is a beautifully efficient network of getting in and out of The Greater Kruger.

Ali on safari
Ali relaxing after a safari
Ali lion on safari
Lion spotted on safari

1. Timbavati Private Nature Reserve

First up was Kambaku in the Timbavati. The Timbavati Private Nature Reserve (to give it its proper name) is a private reserve located on the Kruger’s western border, no fences between the national park and the reserve so animals roam freely, it sits just north of the more famous Sabi Sands Private Reserve.

Its 50,000 acres of prime big country are shared amongst 17 lodges. The game more than delivered and in 4 drives we saw plenty of lion, buffalo, elephant, white rhino, plains game and hippo. We were also treated to a very relaxed male leopard under a spotlight grooming himself.

Kambaku River Sands

The accommodation at Kambaku River Sands is difficult to fault. The rooms were chalet style with thatch for the roof and everything was so large (room, bathroom, bed, shower) I wondered whether I had shrunk on the flight over. The private balconies were a treat too. The food and service were great, and the communal infinity pool was a real treat, if a little chilly! The nicest thing about Kambaku River Sands was the atmosphere – it felt like staying with friends.

The new sleep-out deck is a real bonus. Not only does this sleep-out platform have spotlights out over the dam, big comfy beds and a firepit, it also has a proper bathroom with a hot shower should you choose. A real extravagance and highly recommended.


Room Kambaku River Sands Kruger South Africa 1 min
Kambaku river sands

2. Makalali Private Reserve

We then moved on to The Makalali Private Reserve. This is ½ the size of the Timbavati and is located west of the Kruger, not on its border. It is fenced mainly for the safety of the animals and is a Big Five reserve as well. Whilst the area is much smaller than Timbavati, you do get a feeling of being very private as there are only 5 lodges located within the Makalali and 25,000 hectares is a huge area in itself.

The bush is pretty thick here and we were made to work for our game as there are fewer vehicles about with which the guide could triangulate game that had been seen by others. Whilst we didn’t see as much as in the Timbavati, the reward almost felt greater as it allowed the guide and tracker the opportunity to display their bushcraft. Our guide/tracker combination here was the best of a very good bunch throughout the trip.

We were staying at the new Garonga MCH, 4 enormous tents all decked in a very stylish colonial manner with a bath on the deck with views out over the reserve. MCH was originally designed for exclusive use but that has changed, and I think for the better. It has a feel of being in a Mediterranean Villa while sat at the pool under the bougainvillaea, although this may not conform to the traditionalist's views of a safari camp it does add a bit of style and colour. Our guests have been using Garonga main camp very successfully for over 20 years now and it still over-delivers but what MCH offers is a similar type of experience that has been elevated in terms of size and standard of accommodation, not to mention exclusivity. Definitely one of the highlights for me.


Sleepout deck bed Garonga MCH South Africa
Sleepout deck at Garonga MCH

3. Mala Mala Game Reserve

The world-famous Mala Mala was our final stop. Its reputation as one of the best places to see the big 5 is steeped in history having operated since 1927. It is located in between the Kruger and the Sabi Sands, has 13,000 hectares that it doesn’t share with anyone else (selfish!) and there are 3 camps in all. Its reputation in the past was a bit arrogant and stiff, but that has all changed now and the attention is, as it should be, on guest satisfaction.

Our guide (or ranger as they are known) was female, a welcome first for me, and she was not the only one, which says a lot about how the South African safari industry and this lodge, in particular, are moving with times. The game at Mala Mala is a given and we doubled down on our superb leopard sightings, spending time with a female, using our vehicle as a shield to stalk from. There were elephants everywhere and a general smattering of plains game, but our time was mainly taken with the leopard who was so relaxed. If you want numbers and diversity this is the place to come.

No one can complain about seeing too much game, but the reward seemed somehow less when you stumbled across it as you almost knew it was coming. The rangers are getting a lot of information in their earpieces from other guides and the game is so abundant that the quandary is which way to go.

Mala Mala main camp was the biggest lodge we stayed at with 19 rooms but when you have all this space to yourself there is plenty of bush to get lost in. The food was outstanding as well, but the main highlight was the afternoon spent wallowing in the pool whilst several herds of elephants did the same not more than 50 metres away in the Sand River.

As well as being the only camp we stayed in with female guides, Mala Mala is also one of the few safari camps which is able to offer a fully equipped disabled suite, demonstrating one of the ways in which they are pushing safari to be more inclusive.


Mala Mala Dining Views
Dining views at Mala Mala

Looking for some more inspiration? Have a read of the below.

Kenya vs South Africa – which is better for safari?

Best time to visit South Africa

A first time visitors' guide to Kruger National Park

Three very different safari experiences, all easily accessible from Johannesburg. Which was best? It entirely depends what you are looking for, get in touch and I’ll help you decide the right one for you.

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