Watching African wildlife in their homes and living in luxury at Lukimbi

Viewing magnificent African animals in their own habitat is an experience I’d wish for everyone.

I’ve served Heart for Africa and its children’s home on nine trips over 14 years, yet it was only three years ago that we experienced a week in a safari park, Zulu Nyala. It was a small, privately held park that was suffering in the brutal drought that gripped Southern Africa in 2015-2016. They literally were

The view from the bathtub at Lukimbi

trucking in water in huge tanker trucks.

When we returned to Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) in July for the 10th anniversary celebration of Heart for Africa, we decided to visit the giant Kruger National Park in South Africa for three nights. Kruger covers more than 7,500 square miles in northeastern South Africa. We visited one of seven private concessions within the park that “only” spanned more than 37,000 acres.

Lukimbi Safari Park will celebrate its 20th anniversary in a couple of years and we would heartily recommend it for an upscale safari experience. We spent one great night there three years ago when we were focused on two rounds of golf at Leopard Creek, which is located across the Crocodile River from Kruger.

The lodge features individual units and is ideal for both couples and families. Several families were enjoying the five-star accommodations during July. It’s the dead of winter there with the landscape completely dried out. The winter months are a big advantage for seeing animals compared to the hot and humid summer with everything green and growing in the rainy season.

The Lwakahle River that fronts the Lukimbi lodge was down to some mudholes—a fact that an older male hippo, who had been kicked out of the nearby Crocodile River by stronger, younger males, would rue. Hippos dehydrate if they are out of water for more than 72 hours so that hippo may struggle to make it to the summer rains, which may begin in October.

whire rhino photographed in 2016

Despite the time of year, the temperature hit more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit one day, so it invited starting the afternoon game drive at 3 p.m. in shorts and a polo shirt. By contrast, the 6 a.m. drive started in very crisp weather—under 50 degrees—that demanded layers in the open safari Land Cruisers. When advised to take gloves and a stocking cap—do so—it’s good advice.

Days at Lukimbi start with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call from your ranger. The Land Cruisers leave at 6 a.m. or earlier if guests are ready. It’s still dark so our tracker, Thomas, plugged in a halogen spotlight and consistently moved it back-and-forth on both sides of the dirt road. It’s the same routine in the 30 minutes on the afternoon drive after the sun goes down. He’s looking for the yellow eyes of a predator.

Lukimbi’s three-hour drives are particularly civilized. About mid-way in the morning drive, the ranger, Reinhardt Victor in our case, stops the truck and invites us for a coffee, tea or hot chocolate break with freshly baked treats from the kitchen. In the afternoon, it’s a “sundowner” with the cocktail of your choice that you ordered during lunch.

bomo for traditional bbq

A cooked-to-order breakfast complemented by a buffet with fruit, cereal, cheese and freshly squeezed orange juice is served starting at 9 a.m. For those wanting more, there’s a ranger-led bush walk at 10 a.m. or a trip to the Crocodile River to view hippos and crocs. Lukimbi worked out special access with park officials so two rangers—armed with elephant rifles, can walk guests down to rocks adjacent to the river. The hippos or crocs cannot get up the rocks so it’s a safe place to watch and not-to-be-missed.

Reinhardt said they have been surprised by lions and other wildlife walking down to the river, which is why there’s always two armed rangers.

Another morning we opted for a massage that helped relax muscles stiff from a week of other activities.

Seven lion clubs playing

We were fortunate during our six drives to see the “Big Five” although it was our last afternoon drive before we saw lions up close. One Irish couple, who unfortunately left that morning, had been pushing for lions on each of our drives. Other vehicles located the seven lion cubs we had seen from long distance in the morning and, going off-road, we were able to get very close and saw the three lionesses engage in an unsuccessful impala hunt. When the moms took off on another hunt, the seven cubs gathered and laid down within a few feet of our vehicle.

Earlier in that drive, our ranger took us to a hyena den—the adults weren’t home, but a pup came out and seemed to pose for the camera. That followed an encounter with a group of elephants, including one that had been born in the last 24 hours. Quite an exciting drive.

Hyena pup poses for tourists

In the bushland (low veld) portion of Kruger, elephants, cape buffalo. white rhinos and various herds of antelope are seen on most drives. The lions, hyena and others are harder to spot, although the waterholes left by the river in front of the lodge drew herds of animals for a daily drink.

We also were fortunate that a mating pair of leopards were hanging out around the compound. The male was spotted one day under a cottage and guests there a couple of days earlier saw the leopard kill an antelope and then climb a tree with it. The hyenas got the remnant a couple of days later.

In several prior drives, I had only seen one leopard and that was from quite a distance. This time, we were a few feet from the male as he laid in the shade of a bush, breathing heavy from all of his mating. Ranger Reinhardt noted that once they start mating, they go at it many times without even taking a cigarette break. The leopard was tuckered out. Later that evening, we saw him again in a different area of his turf, apparently finished with the female who hung around the lodge later that evening crying out for him.

New-born baby elephant and mom

Surrounding the compound is only a couple of electrified wires designed to keep elephants out—they are not always successful as big piles of dung testified. Otherwise, the compound is open. During evening hours, rangers and other staff walk guests to their units waving flashlights to warn any predators that may be lurking in the dark. Lions and leopards will hunt throughout the night.

Female cheetah heads off road

Our final morning drive was highlighted by seeing a cheetah strolling down the road. Wildlife, particularly those with pads, routinely use the roads so it’s ideal for the trackers. The cheetah crouched when he spotted us and then went off the road to continue toward the waterhole.

Lukimbi is ranked as a five-star lodge and its food, service and lodging meet that standard. We stayed in a suite with a huge soaking tub, an indoor and an outdoor shower, a huge king-size bed surrounded by mosquito netting and a separate dining area and living room.

Like many other lodges, its staff operates on a six-week-on, two-week-off schedule that everyone we talked with preferred. They work seven days a week when on and, given the small staff, it was notable how staff members pitched in to create the experience excellence for guests. Our rangers served as bartenders, dinner companions for single people, and any other role necessary. We found the staff friendly, accommodating and well-trained.

monkfish with wild mushroom risotto

The food was excellent, both in the dining room and at the Boma for the traditional South African wood-fired barbeque (save your post-drive shower or bath for washing off the smoke after dinner). Lukimbi also boasts an excellent wine cellar (private dining is available there and was used for a special dinner for one couple on their honeymoon). We relied on the bartender, whom we’d remembered from our prior visit, to pick wines with each of our meals. The South African wines, both crisp whites such as Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc and their red blends, are excellent.

Coupled with a very favorable exchange rate (14 rand to the dollar), we enjoyed some great wines during our stay at very favorable prices. The same goes for the golf lodge we stayed at in Eswatini while serving with Heart for Africa. We sampled our way through the full selection of Louis Oosthuizen’s red wines (he designed the golf course) and we were paying between $15-20 a bottle in the restaurant.

roasted urdu with South African red blend

Given the massive size of Kruger, it would be easy to pick a lodge in another area for a different experience. We saw most of the grazing species, although only the impalas were in any quantity. The open grazing lands, according to the park guide, have much larger herds of zebra, various grazing species and wildebeest plus a higher concentration of lions and other predators.

The park is also open to people who want to visit for the day in their own vehicle and/or camp in one of many designated campgrounds. One note: We used local drivers for our transfers because South Africans, like the English and Scottish, drive on the opposite side of the road.

By Tim Hunt