For our last stop in Southern Africa, we circled back to Thornybush Private Reserve on the western border of Kruger National Park in South Africa. Royal Malewane’s lodge initially caught my eye for it’s elegant colonial style decor, and their team of expert trackers and rangers impressed David. The owner, Liz Biden, personally designed each suite and common space, sourcing treasures for the lodge during her extensive travels. Her expert eye effortless blends British campaign furniture, antique Persian carpets, chinoiserie accents, and naive artwork with a finesse you can’t learn from design school.
The rooms and main lodge are connected by a system of wooden boardwalks, and the staff cautioned us to remain alert as animals regularly wander through camp. As if on cue, we turned a corner on our way to our suite, to see a herd of nyala (spiral-horned antelope) gathered along the path, allowing us to pass within two feet of their adorable babies. The herd of nyala followed us to our suite, wandering through the wilderness beyond our plunge pool as we explored our new accommodations. We later learned that the wildlife did indeed feel at home in camp, and a young male elephant had recently torn a priceless Persian rug to pieces thinking it was a toy.
I cannot say enough about the incredible suites at Royal Malewane. From the beautiful furniture, to small details like sheets refreshed each day, french doors that opened our clawfoot tub to the outdoors, a pair of loungers shaded by a thatch roof (perfect for watching animals pass through our “backyard”) and a bottle of sherry set out at night it was hard to leave our elegant haven. The suites are so private and romantic, this would be the ultimate safari honeymoon destination.
Similarly, our animal encounters here were on another level, often finding ourselves amid a herd of elephants so close we could feel their breath on our cheeks. If you were watching my Instagram stories from Royal Malewane you’ll know there were several times I was worried an elephant was going to pluck David, or our tracker, Mumps from the vehicle – we were that close! Not only were the animals closer while on safari in Thornybush, we also were lucky enough to tick off the final boxes on my safari wishlist: seeing both the highly endangered black rhino and painted dogs for the first time. Both encounters were magical. A rainbow appeared above the female rhino and her calf as if pointing them out to us, and while watching the painted dogs an elephant decided he didn’t want to share the watering hole and chased them off – an unusual interaction. We were able to track the dogs down once more and follow their pack for 20 minutes, taking full advantage of the rare sighting.
The professionalism of rangers and trackers in South Africa is outstanding, and Royal Malewane’s team is one of the most accomplished in the country. We were honored to spend our game drives with their head ranger, Ryan, and expert tracker, Mumps. The ranger and tracker work as a team finding the animals while on game drive. On our first afternoon, we were no more than 200 meters out of the property when mumps pointed to the left: a female lioness was slipping into the bush! We slowed down and began to follower her, shortly coming upon the entire pride. Known as the Black Dam Pride, Ryan explained the current family dynamics, pointing out the elderly matriarch who was suffering from a wound that wouldn’t heal, explaining which of the younger lionesses would be her likely successor. The next day we discovered a family of cheetah, who had started eating a freshly killed nyala. We pulled up and saw that the mother cheetah was teaching her young cubs to fend for themselves — how to begin the process of eating. The cubs were full of energy and easily distracted playing with one another – and their food.
On our last night we bundled up after our evening game drive and hopped in the rover to head out to the bush again for dinner. About 15 minutes outside of camp we found a beautiful tent framed by two mature trees, with a row of lanterns leading the way to our table, where we joined other guests and our ranger for a meal under the stars.
Thank you to Ryan, Mumps, and the entire team at Royal Malewane for a few days of pure magic.
All photos by David and Stacie Flinner for stacieflinner.com