AFRICAN WELCOME SAFARIS SIGHT INSPECTION REVIEW Author – Alex Simon – Co Director
I started writing this review whilst flying in the luxurious Pilatus PC 12 Jet belonging to the wealthy South African Oppenheimer family.
The flight path was from Tswalu in the Kalahari to Cape Town. My partner and I accepted the invitation of a two-night all-inclusive sight inspection visit to Tswalu Kalahari. When my partner told me that we had been invited, I was not quite sure what to expect as its reputation was only exceeded by its own.
To have experienced this magnificent and opulent journey to Tswalu first-hand has given me a great understanding of what next level luxury is. Let me say here that the Southern African Safari product is huge. Thousands of fabulous, well run, elegant and intimate Safari lodges spread out over many great wilderness reserves compete for business. Tswalu Kalahari , however , has always just stood out. Towering high above the rest.
Portraying a magical ring of exuberant and opulent luxury, deep within the distant solitary red sands of the mystical Kalahari. Tales of pangolins with elegant scales, majestic black maned lions and fascinating meercats drew fantastic imagery in my mind. Visions of a place born of great wealth filtered through my thoughts. Diamond fortunes that glitter alongside the mountains of pure gold. Diamonds that have been transformed and returned to its ancient parent. The dry African sand drinks thirstily from these shining gems. Vast desert lands fatigued by exploitative carelessness. Gently allowing this restorative energy to soak back into its billions of ancient grains. Allowing its living companions to thrive magnificently in all their glory. A place fit for Sultans and Kings to indulge in the splendid lands of the Kalahari.
OUR EXPERIENCE AT MOTSE TSWALU
We packed the night before and set out at 05h45 the next morning to the airport for our 06h50 check in time. We enter the plush Execujet lounge and are immediately welcomed by the staff. Filled croissants, fresh fruit kebabs and coffee are served. Four Americans arrive and we introduce ourselves.
They had spent 4 nights in Cape Town, then they had planned 4 nights at Tswalu Tarkuni and then the Kruger Park. They were from Cape Cod and were thoroughly enjoying South Africa. A short time later our Pilot introduces himself and announces that we are ready to board. Our bags are whisked off as we make our way across the tarmac. I saw some tired looking jets first, thinking we may be flying on one of them. Then as we made our way I thought “oh my goodness “when the pilot showed us the Pilatus. The fabulous sleek and stylish shining silver Pilatus PC 12 stands ready for take-off. The 4 Americans with us looked as delighted as they board. On entering we are met by a very plush interior with polished wood and leather seats.
The Americans take the 4 seats facing each other and we take the other two behind them. The pilot settles us in and points out the snacks and drinks area. Some safety talk and he takes his controls with the co-pilot seated next to him. A smooth and agile take-off sees us climb in the pressurised aircraft to cruising altitude. It is quite remarkable that this direct flight 2 hour takes one from a big city to such a remote place in such a short and convenient way. After a smooth and very luxurious flight , the pilot announces to fasten our seatbelts.
He starts his decent and the aircraft gets heaved and bumped around by the heat air pockets coming from the desert. Tswalu has a private 2030-meter tarred runway that allows us to land smoothly in the middle of the red sand desert. As we say our thanks to the pilot, we feel the 35-degree dry heat in the air. A welcome temperature after leaving a cold and rainy Cape Town. A short walk across the tarmac takes us to a thatch roofed lounge area where we are warmly greeted by the staff on duty. Hot towels are immediately offered, and a bar area filled with small quiches, biltong and dried sausages, a local delicacy. Immaculate and luxurious bathrooms are found just behind the bar area. Part of the Tswalu experience, which is included in the price, is a private land rover ,tracker and ranger for each party. We say our goodbyes to the Americans as they board their Land rover. They are going to stay at the exclusive Tarkuni Lodge.
Our tall ranger then comes to us and introduces himself as Kalamari. Quite a unique name ! He introduces us to our tracker Ben, who then takes the tracker seat on the front end of the bonnet. They will stay with us for all the game activities. I have been on a few Safaris before, but never had exclusive use of a vehicle. I must say that it is quite a treat. A sense of comfort in that privacy sort of takes over. We settle into the raised seats behind Kalamari. I did not know then, how well we were all going to get to know each other. Kalamari tells us that a 40-minute drive will take us to Motse Lodge.
Feeling a little tired from all the excitement we arrive at Motse and are met by smiling staff offering hot towels to freshen up. Then a soothing cocktail is handed to us. We make our way to the lounge area which is meticulously designed to blend in with the Kalahari. High thatch roof with big wooden beams and then luxurious couches are available throughout the deck area.
My eye sweeps across the two crystal clear swimming pools surrounded by the red desert sand. A short distance further is a waterhole where two warthogs and a couple of large antelope are quenching their thirst. We too quench our thirsts as this unique environment captivate our beings.
The endless red sands, toughened antelope walking across the desert, then the silence that flows from this most isolated place. A sense of peace makes one feel at home. The charming manager then shows us to our room. There are only 9 rooms at Motse Lodge and ours was everything I was expecting and more.
Again, a lovely thatch roof, four poster bed, and a viewing deck overlooking the waterhole. I really liked the outdoor sunbed that allowed for an afternoon nap. At night it is used for star gazing. One found a fully stocked bar in the room (all drinks are included in the price ), a great selection of Darjeeling Tea, rusks, dried sausage, complimentary cakes and a welcoming letter.
The two staff members who had also assisted us to our room asked what our drinks of preference were. As we were unpacking, they left and returned a short while later and re stocked the fridge and bar with our preferred beers and wine. As we have an appetite after the journey to Tswalu, we ordered an excellent Croque Madame which we chose to eat on the deck of our room. It was brought to us promptly and done to perfection topped with a Sauce Mornay and a pickled red onion salad. Whilst lunching we saw a large herd of wildebeest coming to drink from the waterhole.
A great sense of peace came about us as we indulged in this fantastic landscape, as the afternoon sun warmed the air. I then chose to have a nap on the large and very comfortable sunbed draped with shade cloth , which was a refreshing choice after an exciting journey so far.
OUR KALAHARI SAFARI EXPERIENCE WITH KALAMARI
To have a private Land rover available to you exclusively allows for a wonderful sense of privilege. A large 4×4 Land rover perfectly suited to the loose sands of the Kalahari.
Twice daily three-hour Safaris made sure we had ample time in the bush. We would meet our Ranger at the agreed time for each Safari Kalamari at the wheel, large rifle resting on the dashboard and our tracker Ben perched on a seat on the front end of the bonnet. Off we drove into the vast desert, in anticipation of the days game viewing.
It is almost a spiritual time as one reflects on the quietness of the desert compared to rambunctious traffic snarl ups of a big city. We would embark on long conversations with Kalamari, ranging from his upbringing, past work experience, the Oppenheimers to politics. Then we would pass a herd on Gnu. Kalamari enjoyed verbalising the name of the animal in exaggerated fashion by raising the tone of his voice and slipping out GGGnnnnnuuuuu ! This became part of our game drive experience each time we saw Gnu. The Kalahari reserve is divided into two sections.
The larger covering about 100 00 ha where the species range from Pangolin to Meerkats. The smaller one at about 20 000 ha has the black maned lion. There is a public dirt road that runs between the two and one needs to go through a set of gates to enter the reserves.
Our game drives alternated between the two. Kalamari was an excellent driver who showed complete control of his vehicle as he navigated it through thick sand at a good speed to allow for our passage not being bogged down by the sand. Sliding from side to side as we climbed a steep dune.
As the sun set, Kalamari stopped the vehicle at the summit of the dune which offered sweeping views over the desert as far as the eye could see. It was sun downer time. Ben jumped off his trackers seat and went to the back of the vehicle to fetch a cooler box. They set up a table at the front of a vehicle and Ben poured me an ice-cold beer. My partner was offered some good red wine. Then lovely canapes and biltong were brought out for us all to enjoy. Small quiches and cucumber and salmon sandwiches. An excellent chocolate desert followed. The moment was magical, as we all watched the sun set in a display of deep reds and oranges.
My beer had gone down with such savour that I was quite ready for another. Kalamari swiftly reached into the cooler bag and offered it to me with his charming and gracious smile. If I were to compare the other Safari regions I have visited, such as Kruger, this experience was quite different. I much preferred this one.
Unique terrain, which I should repeat, was simply breath taking with its red sands and pastel colours. Unlike Kruger the Safari felt significantly more relaxed, with less anticipation of seeing the Big 5. We were very alone out there with no other vehicles to be seen allowing for such a sense of privacy.
Our venture out was to engage with all manner of creature to be found and one would marvel at its unique survival skills in dry and hot environment. Kalamari and Ben would discuss with us what viewing interested us. We decided that Lion, cheetah, pangolin, wild dogs and meercats would be the species that we would look for. Our rangers were specialist trackers and would be able to work through square kilometres of an area allowing for the animals to be found.
On our sunset Safari drive, Kalamari was in contact with the land rover the Americans we flew up with were on.
They had found a pack of wild dogs on the hunt. The other vehicle came close to ours and the Americans looked at us with a smile. One of the American men pointed at us in surprised recognition and said quite loudly “Alex and Kathi? “in his inimitable American jarl. This caused some laughter at this recognition as we smiled and waved at each other.
The pack was some 15 dogs strong and were cruising almost effortlessly across the dunes. Kalamari explained that their long thin legs moved in such a sophisticated way which was designed to conserve their energy. Again, the moment was infused with wonder for us, as these dogs prowled this surreal landscape. We followed them for quite some time, until they disappeared into inaccessible terrain. Kalamari told us that in the past he had seen the pack attack a large warthog. Stopping the car, he asked Ben to show us the clip he had taken on his phone. It was quite gruesome to see the relentless and precise attack taking place. We carried on into the night back towards Motse thinking about this time we had spent with this pack of wild dogs. Visions remain of the pack moving effortlessly across the desert night after night in search of their meal.
MEERKATS AND THE MALORI SLEEPOUT
On our morning Safari drive, we asked to see the Meerkats. They have a habituated colony that was to be found not far from the Malori sleepout.
As we passed the sleepout, we asked if we could stop and have a look. Kalamari explained that the sleepout had to be booked in advance and then great preparations were made to create a most romantic and unique sleeping environment. Raised on a deck with a thatch roof, guests have a king size bed and can spend the evening alone in the middle of the desert. One is brought there by your ranger and then snacks, and sundowners are served. A chef then prepares a private dinner to be had under the stars.
One is then left to enjoy the evening. The outdoor toilet caused us a laugh, as it was free standing facing the great expanse. Although this toilet is far more luxurious than digging a hole in the ground! It must be a magical experience to have such a sleep out.
A short drive later, we are greeted by a solitary ranger wandering through the warm desert. Kalamari explains that as we spoke the day before about the meerkats the ranger had been sent to keep track of the Meerkats for us.
We disembark and walk through the thick red sand towards this delightful colony some 20 strong. The morning temperature is a good 30 Degrees Celsius already. What a wonderful experience it was to see these most active and alert creatures going about their daily business. The mobs and gangs of meerkats chirruped and growled as they dug furiously with their claws.
We were told that their fingers were long claws that were used in combination with their strong tail for balance. The dark rings around their eyes protected them from the harsh sun. Membranes on their eyes protected them for the dirt being dug up. Every moment one would stop digging and look around with great intensity for any danger. Clearly, we were not a threat as they paid us no attention. What lovely photo opportunities there were with the red hues of the sands, fawn coloured meerkats and magnificent camelthorn trees.
BLACK MANED LIONS
The next morning Safari plans were to track down the lions. This meant crossing into the smaller of the two Kalahari reserves owned by Tswalu.
We arrived at the gate with its hundreds of kilometre long fences on each side. Crossing the sand road, Ben jumps off the tracker seat and unlocks the other gate. A sense of excitement emerges as we are now in lion country! We notice that the terrain is rockier than the other reserve as we swerve through the loose sands.
After some driving and more Gnuuuu, Ben points towards a thicket of Camelthorn trees in a depression some way away. Ben tells us there are lions there. I squint my eyes in the direction and I just cannot see any lions. Amazing eyesight these trackers! As we round a corner, a steep mountain of thousands of red rocks sweeps upwards to the blue sky. Suddenly a terrified warthog scrambles ahead of us, tail pointing upwards like a radar. The animal then ascends the mountain with such incredible survival skills as its hooves rapidly find perfect landing places.
Up it scurries, and in no time its more than halfway up. Next moment we see an enormous black maned lion appears ahead casually following the warthog. The lion ignores us as we see it intently watching the warthogs progress. Kalamari explains that the warthog had made it to safety, as the lion would not be able to climb the mountain. The lion disappears into the bush as we try get closer. A short drive later we encounter the main pride lying in the shade of a Camelthorn tree. A sense of excitement rushes over us as we move towards the sleeping pride.
Kalamari navigates the car to a safe distance from the cats, but close enough to feel part of the pride. This Kalahari moment was once again magical as my mind momentarily drifted to my normal life in Cape Town behind my desk. Here we were in this most unique place spending our Friday morning with these magnificent beasts.
The hunting male has now returned to the pride as his massive frame drops onto his sleeping companion as if he were claiming his spot. This caused the sleeping lion visible irritation as he struck out with his claws and let out a thunderous roar. Nearly jumping out of my seat, the roar had such power that the hair on my neck crawled. A depth of sound that can only come from primal vocal cords. I was completely humbled by it. The desert became quite again, so incredibly quiet, as the lions settled down. After a good half hour, we bade farewell to the pride and made our way back to Motse Lodge. Looking forward to breakfast.
Kalamari had asked what we would like to do in the afternoon, and we asked if we could do a horse ride. Once again, he immediately arranged everything, and we set out in the afternoon towards the stables that were to be found somewhere in the red desert.
Kalamari then enquired if we had any riding experience. We told him we had spent a limited amount of time on horseback and he assured us that we would not mount the horses they used for fast rides. We arrive the stables which were neatly set out amongst the dunes, once again being greeted smiling stable staff.
The staff issued us with the correct gear and helped us mount the horses. Our guide told us that we would do a circuit through the dunes which would take an hour or so. Off we trotted as we came to adjust to the swaying roll and tumble of the mounts. Ahead, we saw a rather steep looking dune that looked like it required more than our riding experience to negotiate. Our guide assured us that we would be fine as he swept up the dune effortlessly. My partner was next, and she struck the sides of her horse with her boots and thundered up the dune like a cowgirl.
My turn now as I summoned the necessary courage. I felt the power of this steed as it glided up the dune with such force as I desperately tried to stay in the saddle. Next thing I was at the top of the dune in one piece as the others gave me a smile. By now dripping in sweat, we again settled into the sway of the journey in the middle of this great desert.
Again, this sense of timelessness gripped me as I marvelled at the array of pastel colours and clarity that only the Kalahari offers. We passed countless skulls, and on enquiring, our guide said this was cheetah country. As we arrived back after a wonderful experience, we said our thanks and Kalamari took us back to Motse in time for high Tea.
DINING AT MOTSE LODGE
We were aware that we would also be in for a gastronomic treat ! As the Michelin stared chef Jan Hendriks was involved in the menus. With Breakfast, lunch, high tea, and Dinner on offer each day The breakfast is served after the morning Safari and is a thorough treat with a selection of freshly baked breads made with timeless Kalahari recipes held by the locals.
Smiling staff who are always at the ready and offer wonderful selections of cooked breakfasts and creative and delicious cheeseboards. We chose a lovely table on the deck with a view of the endless desert and dusty waterhole. After breakfast one has time to relax and we chose to sit on the deck of our room and watch the game go by.
Lunch is an informal affair, and when one is ready, one makes their way to the Lodge deck and takes a table. The staff will offer you a variety of delicious sounding meals that are served with such grace and friendliness. High Tea was a treat we came to really look forward to. This is served on the deck in that late afternoon, and again charming staff begin to prepare the buffet table with a wonderful selection of sweet and savoury delicacies. Attentive staff took our coffee and tea order and announced that High Tea would soon be served.
A selection of delicious savoury and sweet treats was brought out and laid out neatly on a table. Goats cheese quiche, lamb meatballs in a wonderful sweet sauce and a host of other delectable. As we indulged in this delicious feast, a young gentleman came over and introduced himself as the front of house manager. I picked up his Turkish accent and he confided that it was his first day and had just arrived from Istanbul. It was also his first time in Africa. He seemed very overwhelmed by finding himself in such a remote area and that there were lions to be found as well ! After tea we were looking forward to our afternoon/evening Safari with Kalamari and Ben. On returning from an exciting Safari we went to freshen up and prepare for dinner with a good appetite after driving around the Kalahari.
What we liked about the dining area was its informal but Kalahari chique style. We chose an outside table on the deck overlooking the desert. A magnificent sun set further prepared us for a much-anticipated dinner. Without having to ask, our waiter brought a bottle of wine of my wife’s choice as well as my preferred beer! Our Turkish friend immediately welcomed us and asked with fascination about what animals we had seen. He was quite fascinated as we relayed our encounter with a large pack of wild dogs on the hunt. The lodge manager came to join us for a drink at our table as the sun set in its inimitable African style. The view of the stretching Kalahari was timeless. The manager outlined his daily life and past work experience. He had worked at many high-end lodges in Kruger, and this was his favourite.
After an interesting conversation he carried on with his duties. Our attentive waitress showed us the menu. A selection of starters was offered and my favourite main course, the Karoo lamb was available. Karoo lamb is fabled in Southern Africa for its tenderness and juicy flavours. Without asking we received fresh warm bread as well as a side of the most perfect French fries. This came with a bowl of the most delicious mayonnaise I had ever tasted. Creamy, just the right proportions of mustard, salt, and vinegar with a touch of lemon juice. It was such a treat to dip the fries into the mayonnaise as the Belgians love to do! I asked our manager friend for the recipe which he gave to us neatly typed out in a sealed envelope. After a sumptuous meal we were served the most delicious berry tart with fresh cream.
My wife who normally not a desert person could not resist it.
All of this was served in an elegant and unobtrusive way. We had a feeling that the staff really loved their work and the kindness and smiles went a long way to furthering our magical experience. Our last interaction of the evening was a young man who came to ask if we had enjoyed the evening. We gave all due compliments. On asking how long he had worked here, he replied he just returned from a stint in Kruger and was not feeling at home there. He said the sands started calling him and he left with a big smile.
The next evenings dinner was at the Boma. Kalamari asked if he could join us, and we accepted immediately. A large fire was burning in the centre of the Boma and the tables were laid out in a circle around the fire. There was a large buffet table with another barbeque going with a team of chefs watching carefully over their fare. With such a choice of excellent cuts of meat and fantastic selection of vegetarian sides prepared in South African style, we chose what we could manage. We spent a memorable evening with Kalamari and I realised that after quite a few hours together we had started forming a bond.
For our last morning game drive, we asked Kalamari if we could see the exclusive Tarkuni Lodge which was once the private homestead of the Oppenheimer family.
He made the arrangements with the Tarkuni staff to expect us, and off we went again into the desert with or rangers’ navigational skills showing once again, where I would get lost a thousand times. En route, he pointed out their new home which they had built as a replacement to Tarkuni. It was quite stupendous in its quiet and elegant glory.
After a few twists and turns we arrive at Tarkuni to be met by a herd of large buffalo drinking at the resident waterhole. The Buffalo carefully monitored us as we exited the Land Rover and made our way along the wooden walkway. A magnificent building appeared with a large deck for al fresco meals and the wonderful thatch roofs that we became accustomed to.
A smiling lady welcomed us and offered us refreshments on the deck as we watched the buffalo. She then took us on a tour of this most luxurious and exclusive lodge. With five bedrooms it is perfect for a private family’s accommodation. One has a butler, cleaning staff, fully equipped kitchen preparing sumptuous meals and a private Land rover and ranger for the activities. After being most impressed, we said our farewells and made our way back to Motse for our last breakfast and check out.
FAREWELL TSWALU – THE GEM OF THE KALAHARI
The manager was on hand to check us out as we filled in the guest comments book and settled our gratuity to the staff. Kalamari had already loaded our luggage in the Land Rover as we said our thanks and bid all farewell. A sense of sadness gripped me as we drove out as this had been such a most special and wonderful few days we had spent here.
Getting to know Kalamari and Ben, the lovely staff, the magnificent accommodation, the unbelievable game drives, and this most special place of our world the majestic Kalahari.
As we arrived at the airstrip the beautiful Pilatus was standing at the ready on the runway in its shining silver armour. We were slightly taken aback as we were told we would be the only passengers for the return flight private jet and all, which allowed us into the world of the extraordinarily rich for two hours !
We said our farewell to Kalamari and Ben promising to stay in touch. The Pilatus jets roared in preparation of the take off and as we jetted along the runway lifting off, I saw Kalamari standing tall and straight at the edge of the runway with his hand in salute to us , and off we went. I must say that this was another emotional moment that I figured out could only be the part of the magical energy and experience of this great and mystical place, the Kalahari.
Farewell Kalamari and thank you for showing us your great land.