Thanda Safari: 7 reasons to visit

Thanda means ‘love’ in isiZulu.

Which makes sense when you consider that this 14 000-hectare private game reserve in the heart of Zululand cultivates a love of conservation and a deep understanding of Zulu culture, while piquing guests’ curiosity about which culinary delights will be served next.

This is the place where The Great Rift Valley meets the Lebombo Mountains. The luscious northern KwaZulu-Natal landscape and fairly temperate climate make this malaria-free safari destination perfect for year-round Big Five game viewing and birdwatching. It’s an ideal stop-over if you want to trace the road trip around KwaZulu-Natal we did a few years ago.

Located 23km north of Hluhluwe Game Reserve and about 220km north of Durban, Thanda Safari is also within easy reach of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The continent’s largest estuarine system is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you can happen across the largest concentration of Nile crocodiles and African hippos. Thanda Safari’s location makes it possible to head out on a two-hour interactive boat trip along the St Lucia Estuary. This day-trip allows guests to experience the best of what the bush and the boat have to offer. Here is the Instagram Story highlights reel of our stay.

Thanda Safari

Thanda Safari truly puts the ‘Zulu’ into KwaZulu

Zulu, when translated into English, means ‘heaven’. Hence the Zulus are the ‘people of heaven’. Guests at Thanda Safari have the opportunity to better understand Zulu history, culture and heritage during their stay.

The sincere commitment to Zulu culture is palpable from the predominantly Zulu staff who willing share their heritage in the stories they tell. This translates to the Zulu proverbs on your pillow during the turn down to the architecture of the accommodation and its colourful decor. Zulu artefacts and artworks are incorporated into the interiors of the main lodge as well as each suite, alongside everyday items a tradition Zuluman or woman living in these parts might need, from cattle sticks to headdresses and wooden gourds for water storage. Beaded Zulu necklaces are displayed behind glass, shepherds’ sticks hang on walls, and bed nets are made from metal wrapped around stones.

A private bush villa at Thanda Safari Lodge

Thanda Safari is defined by 5-star luxury that exudes from its spacious accommodation, the warm-hearted service, and delectable food. It is a proud member of The Leading Hotels of the World and has been awarded The World’s Leading Luxury Lodge a number of times. Know that you’ll be spoiled with world-class service and experiences.

There are three different accommodation types to choose from: Thanda Safari Lodge, Villa iZulu and Thanda Tented Camp. Thanda Safari is running a promotion until 15 December 2021, prices start from R2 995 per person sharing per night. You may book on [email protected] or +27 32 586 0149.

Thanda Safari

We stayed in one of the nine thatched Thanda Safari Lodge suites that are shaped like a traditional Zulu homestead. Each of the airy 220m2 bush villas looks out onto 180-degree views of the game reserve, whether you’re lying on the king size bed, submerged in the bubbles of the bathtub, or relaxing in the lounge with its inclusive stocked minibar and snack selection. The villas are sumptuously decorated with modern Zulu flair and a touch of red. And if it gets really cold, which it seldom ever does in this part of South Africa, there’s a traditional two-sided fireplace that connects the lounge to the main bedroom.

The wrap-around wooden deck was my favourite feature of our villa. At the one end was a large circular day bed-cum-sofa beneath the shade of a sala (ideal for day naps induced by all the snacks), and on the other our private boma. While we ate meals in the homely ambiance of the lodge, guests can have a romantic dinner alongside their own bon fire. At its centre, the wooden deck is punctuated with a heated plunge pool that appears to overflow into the bush. It is accentuated with reclining loungers and a nook for early morning coffee with the best views.

The tiered bathroom has a double vanity that encircles a roll-top bath, big enough for two. It looks out of the pull-back sliding windows that open up to allow for game watching. After returning from our final dinner, the bathtub had been drawn with African-infused bath salts and bubbles. It was decorated with red rose petals that were served up with a chilled bottle of sparkling wine. The second level leads into the glass indoor shower, which has an adjoining sheltered outdoor shower.

Thanda Safari

The dining deck at the main lodge, which consists of a restaurant, bar and lounge, makes for yet another opportunity for game viewing. Animals come to drink frequently from the man-made stream that flows between the reception and the lodge, where it pools at its foot. I truly felt that Thanda Safari distinguishes itself from other luxurious lodges, in the set up and decor of its bush villas – it wasn’t simply a case of having spent far too much time at home and far too little time travelling because of the pandemic.

Perhaps on our next visit, we will stay at one of the 15 safari-style tents at Thanda Tented Camp, each with its own viewing deck and en-suite bathroom. The Jabula (meaning Happiness) Tent has a private splash pool on its larger deck as well as a lounge. While Villa iZulu offers the ideal safari hideaway for larger groups (up to 10 guests) who want privacy and dedicated service.

Encounters of the wild kind

Zakes, our tracker, jumps out of our game drive vehicle. He has been silently scanning the red dirt road on our sunrise game drive, following the direction of fresh tracks made by a lioness and her two 7-month-old cubs. His eyes follow their trajectory until the tracks disappear into the grass.

We find the lioness a few minutes later, visibly distressed. Pacing-pacing-pacing. Stoping. Sniffing. Smelling. Letting out repeated guttural moans. Her cubs are nowhere to be seen. She circles the area. Disappears; reappears. Calls them. Again and again.

The lioness crosses the ridge. She traverses the road and climbs to higher ground to scan the horizon on the one side and the winter-coloured thicket on the other. When she becomes indistinguishable from the hip-high grass, we can only pinpoint her position from her low-pitched continuous calls.

Thanda Safari

After our mocharula stop, we see a lion with a determined gait walking in her direction. He quickens his pace as she groans, despite his evident limp and bleeding leg. The lion jogs behind her swooshing tail, until she pulls a 180-degree pirouette on her hind legs to swipe him with her paws. He follows in her steps, until dejected he retreats with a bleeding brow. A couple of metres away his brother takes slow laboured steps, as he uncharacteristically tiptoes on his left limb. As we edge nearer, we see that his swollen foot bleeding from a gash that soaks his coat in crimson red. He flops down into the grass defeated.

On the drive towards breakfast, we conjure versions of the sequence of events that might have unfolded — where even lions come out second best.

A week later, I receive a Whatsapp from Matthew, our guide. He tells us that after close to a week, the cubs have been reunited with their mother on the western part of the reserve.

Cheetahs on the hunt

Thanda Safari
Thanda Safari

It was the first time we had seen cheetahs out in the wild doing their cheetah things, rather than tracking them down like we did at Samara Private Game Reserve, which makes a cheetah sighting much more likely. Barely five minutes after leaving Thanda Safari Lodge, Zakes exclaims as he jumps in his seat. We follow his gaze and pointing finger.

A young male cheetah nonchalantly crosses the road. He is soon followed by his brother. We switch off the game drive vehicle and stay with them. They patiently wait for the most opportune moment to pounce on an impala that is feeding on the ridge of the dam. The impala spotted us as we edged forward, but continued to eat unaware that concealed between the golden grasses lay two hungry cheetah in wait.

Matthew explains how the flicks in the cheetahs’ tails are used to communicate. Each time the cheetah at the front made some kind of tail movement, we saw a reaction, or corresponding acknowledgement, in his brother. It was a silent game of Simple Simon Says. Their undulating collarbones creep closer and closer under the shelter of the road’s raised lip. The rustle of the bone-dry grass would most likely give away their location. After a long wait, they leap into synchronised action.

The startled impala gallops down the dam bank into the thicket. The cheetahs circle the dam to an alarm call soundtrack. They drink from the dam, use a dead tree as a scratching post and lay claim to the dam wall before blending off into the wilderness.

Thanda Safari
Thanda Safari

Mocharula sunrise game drives

Our sunrise game drives are accompanied by decadent triple chocolate cookies, homemade mini muffins and rosemary shortbread that were complemented with daily mocharulas. If you’re missing the bush and can’t wait to get out into nature again — make this mocharula recipe as a reminder of the great outdoors.

Here’s the recipe courtesy of Matthew and Zakes.

1. Mix hot chocolate with a tot of Amarula (Baileys or Kahlua will do) and a dash of milk

2. Pour in filter coffee (from a height) to help froth it up

3. Enjoy the deliciousness and go off in search of more game

In true safari style, our sunset game drives included a sundowners stop of picturesque views, biltong, droewors, dried fruit, seasoned corn kernels and chips. We had to ensure that we didn’t over-indulge during our sundowners stop, as Chef Nickolaus always outdid himself with his meals, from homemade muesli to grilled squid heads and calamari with hand-cut chips. You’ll also find Norwegian Smoked Salmon Roulade Salad, springbok carpaccio and ostrich fillet on the menu. If you want to try some of his creations at home, here is a selection of Thanda Safari’s recipes.

Conservation activities at Thanda Safari

Aside from Big Five game drives, bush walks and photographic safaris with resident wildlife photographer and guide Christian Sperka, guests can partake in Zulu cultural tours at nearby communities that form part of The Thanda Trust Foundation and various community projects. Little ones can join the Bucks & Bugs Club to learn how to track wildlife, identify spoor and distinguish birds, trees and stars.

Guest can also participate in a number of conservation activities during their stay, including placing GPS collars. We were fortunate enough to spot rhinos three times on our four game drives. Thanda Safari does not shy away from the fact that there are rhinos on the property – they dehorn their rhinos and have a 24/7 anti-poaching team that tracks them daily and undertakes various conservation activities.

Rhino tracking is a three- to four-hour activity (R825 per person, up to 4 pax) that involves heading out in a game-viewing vehicle before sunrise with the wildlife team in search of rhino tracks. Once these are located, the rhino monitor will take you, on foot, deep into the bush to find them. During this experience, you will learn how to read their tracks, observe their behaviour and feeding patterns, all while learning more the daily threats they face due to poaching syndicates.

Guests also have the opportunity to partake in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get close contact with a rhino during rhino darting (R27 500 per rhino darting with a maximum of 14 pax). This half-day activity involves darting a rhino from a helicopter and assisting the wildlife team in notching the ears of the sedated rhino for easy future identification by the guides and trackers. Various medical observations are conducted alongside DNA sampling for research purposes and to add them to the national database, before the animal is released back into the wild.

Birdwatching at Thanda Safari

I only really discovered the value of birdwatching while in the Serengeti, where you may drive for hours on end sometimes without seeing very much, or any new species, and have to entertain yourself with the birdlife to pass the time and the distance. Soon enough you’re focusing just as much on the birds as the other bigger bucket-list sightings. You don’t have to go as far as Tanzania, if you want a spot of decent birdwatching, as Thanda Safari is home to roughly 400 bird species.

Birdwatching might be a frustrating activity because birds are known not to sit in one place for very long. They conceal themselves behind dense foliage or only reveal their call. Then just as you focus on them, with somewhat of a decent view, they take to flight. This also makes it one of the most rewarding of activities, particularly if you tick off a lifer.

Thanda Safari

Spending your time with your head tilted skywards and surveying the greenery above sure has its rewards. If, like me, you are an amateur at identifying birds by their plume or call and have to page through bird books, then rest assured that the guides at Thanda Safari are astute birders. You can join one of their regular birdwatching getaways to learn more and to reacquaint yourself with their new names.

Because it is no longer a black-eyed bulbul, but a dark-capped bulbul. And purple-crested louries now go by the name of purple-crested turaco. Matthew explained to us, as we drove from the entrance of the reserve to our suite, that some of these name changes are as a result of the widening body of knowledge as the study of birds evolves, which lead to changes in the classification of certain species and hence new names.

Thanda safari regularly hosts Birding Weekends with James Rawdon who has a bird-ringing license. Guests can experience first-hand how wild birds, including returning migratory birds, are caught, ringed and released on the Saturday and Sunday morning of their stay.

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We were hosted by Thanda Safari on behalf of Theresa Gibbon. All opinions are my own, but you already know that! ;) A few photographs are courtesy of Christina Sperka.

Iga Motylska

Iga Motylska is a Johannesburg-based freelance writer, photojournalist, sub-editor and blogger. She is published in numerous local and international publications, including: Forbes Africa, Forbes Woman Africa, Forbes Life Africa, CNBC Africa, Ventures Africa, Marie Claire, Sawubona, AA Traveller, Fastjet inflight magazine and Seoul Magazine among numerous others. Her editorial interests range from documenting the entrepreneurial spirit to women's and human rights issues, environmental affairs and of course travel writing.


  1. I enjoyed this read. I really felt as though I was there with you.

  2. Thanda Safai sound amazing! I’ve been on several South African Safari’s and only seen lions and leopards from a long way off or seen footprints but no Cats. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!

  3. This is such a detailed and helpful post. We have been to a safari in Kenya but was thinking about visiting SA and a safari was on our minds. ALso, great pictures and the lodging looks very nice too!

  4. This is amazing!!! I really enjoyed our safari in South Africa and I’m dying to go on another one – this looks perfect!!!

  5. A lovely post about Thanda. You have some great pics of the birds! They are not easy to photograph.

  6. You are so lucky to go on a Safari as a post pandemic trip!

  7. I feel bad when many people underestimate the beauty of birdwatching. It is such a unique experience in itself.

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