Part 1: Simbavati Camp, Timbavati Reserve

By Bert Duplessis

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If a trip could start on an auspicious note, this one certainly did.  Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia closes at 600P on Oct 30 due to expected high winds from Hurricane Sandy.  Our SAA flight to Johannesburg via Dakar slips out just in time to dodge a possible 2-day delay, at 20 minutes to six.

The flight itself was unremarkable, just the way I like them.  Not a great selection of movies on SAA, food ok, seat not too bad, legroom bearable, distance and duration pretty much unbearable.

SAZ1After an overnight stay at the Metcourt Suites at JNB Airport (clean, convenient, safe and with easy access to restaurants), it was just a short flight with SA Express (impressive in-flight service with light sandwich snack and drinks served in about  an hour) to Hoedspruit and a road transfer of about 45 minutes or so at maximum  speed of about 35 mph to Simbavati Camp in the Timbavati Reserve, adjacent to the central portion of Kruger Park.

SIMBAVATI CAMP, TIMBAVATI RESERVE – 30 & 31 Oct 2012

The very friendly reception which I received from Hayley  at Simbavati River Lodge was the first of several positive impressions.   There is no lack of space in the huge thatched lounge and dining room complex overlooking a river.  At the time of my visit there was no water flowing, and only some of the rooms (the three chalets and first 2  tents) actually look out over water.  The remaining tents have a partial view over the dry riverbed, or have a ‘bush view’.

SAZ2Early in 2012 (January) this and many other lodges in the Timbavati and Sabi Sand areas of South Africa were severely damaged by floods, caused by the remnants of a tropical cyclone hitting the area. Simbavati did a great job repairing and rebuilding the camp in double quick time and it now looks almost new!  Even so, I have for many years refrained from sending any clients to the Kruger Park area in Jan and Feb for this very reason.

The camp consists of 3 family chalets (brick and mortar), each with 2 rooms and a communal bathroom leading out of one of the bedrooms (so not suitable for 2 couples).  The chalets have good verandahs with views over the rivers, as have the first few tents.  The others are surrounded by bush.

 

Privacy is is not great: the rooms are quite close to each other; from my ‘Leopard’ tent I could see the guests on the verandah of Chalet #3.  However I could not hear them.  The tented and chalet rooms are effectively air-conditioned, and I like the design of the tents with separate en suite bathrooms, with a regular door between the sleeping area and bathroom.  Bathrooms have ‘twin’ showers with 2 shower heads next to each other, and either indoor shower and outdoor bath or vice versa (indoor bath and outdoor shower).

After settling into my room, I enjoyed a light lunch (brown rice and butternut squash salad & some fresh fruit) before going out on an afternoon game drive at 4:00P.  It was a fairly quiet game drive with not a whole lot of general game but we did have a really good elephant sighting with a small breeding herd practically surrounding the vehicle and feeding just about on top of us.

Dinner was quite enjoyable too with ‘pap’ (polenta) with a tomato and onion sauce, a mixed salad and traditional malva pudding for dessert.

I spent a fairly peaceful night but was woken up at around 2:00A by the sounds of hyena cackling close to the room.  Unbeknownst to me, there was drama at the other end of the camp.  A leopard had killed a waterbuck, then losing it to a pack of about 9 hyenas, only to get it back and drag it into a tree, where we saw it the next morning. The inhabitant of the tent where the waterbuck was taken (a lady from Japan) apparently did not get a wink of sleep as the events unfolded practically in her room; the waterbuck scuffled right up to her tent as it was attacked by the leopard and she had a bunch of loud hyenas excitedly calling right at her doorstop almost the entire night!

WILD DOGS AT SIMBAVATI – 31 Oct 2012

Up at 5:00A, I enjoyed a very light snack and departed on a game drive at 06:00.  It was pretty quiet again until nearly 9:00A, with some general game including a good giraffe sighting.  Right around 09:00A our guide started to follow some wild dogs track and about an hour later we were advised by radio that one of the other guides had located the dogs.  What followed was an exceptionally good sighting of a very large pack of 26 wild dogs, which had just recently killed and devoured an impala.   If you looked closely, you could still see some fresh blood on some of their muzzles.  At the sight of the kill itself there were just a small pile of bones, with a bunch of vultures fighting over the scraps.  Several of the dogs were youngsters and it was fascinating to watch them interact with each other, and running through the woodland.

Back in camp, breakfast consisted of maltabella porridge, fresh fruit and toast – and then it was time for a siesta to catch up on some much-needed sleep!

The afternoon game drive was in search of some lions which had been seen that morning – it was a bit of a drive but we located the three young lions and had some point blank views of them, one chewing on a carcass and the other two dozing.  We spent quite a bit of time with the lions before driving back to camp, bumping into a couple of large white rhinos en route.  They were impressive and I think I got quite a few decent photographs in the process.  Other than that, we saw plenty of general game including zebra, giraffe, impala and wildebeest.

Any criticism of Simbavati would have to be confined to the number of persons on the vehicles.  All three the vehicles were full with as many as 9 persons on just about every game drive.  In my opinion that is 3 persons too many:  nobody should be ‘forced’ to sit in a middle seat on a game drive, even in a totally open vehicle.  I overheard one of the children (part of a very nice quiet English family) saying “…I just don’t want to be in the middle in the middle…”  I agree with the boy: it is no fun being in the middle seat in the middle row of 3 seats.  I was told that the camp strives to have a maximum of 7 persons per vehicle on a game drive.  All I can say is that they need to do what is necessary to make this happen.  Every time.  Serious photographers visiting this camp will be well-advised to pay the extra $250 or so for a private vehicle and guide, or to sign up for one of their regular monthly specialized photography safaris.

Our Simbavati guide Diff was personable, knowledgeable and very good at dealing with sometimes divergent demands from the various guests.  Two of the couples (one American and the other French) had not been on safari before and wanted to spend more time with some of the ‘common’ and sometimes almost overlooked animals.  All safari camps will be well advised to keep this in mind: not all guests want to spend hours driving around in search of wild dogs or other high profile species.  Of course they don’t mind seeing those special animals but not at the expensive of taking some time to look at giraffe, kudu, zebra, wildebeest etc.   The Simbavati guides need to be reminded to give a proper safety briefing before each drive – some of the guests on our drives were not advised about  not standing up in a vehicle, not making objectionable noises to attract the attention of the animals, and so on.

There were several nice touches at Simbavati:·

  •  Very high level of personal and friendly attention from the managers.
  •     I thought the tent worked really well with very little space wasted and good lighting (this is crucial, nobody likes to stumble around in semi-darkness!), coffee and tea supplies and water.
  •     Quiet yet effective air-conditioning
  •     A small box with all necessary adaptors is provided for each tent and there are ample plug points for recharging batteries.

 

On the last morning drive at Simbavati we had some really close-up views of elephants and of another pair of white rhinos.  Even though the game-viewing was rather difficult due to the high grass (they had had early rain) it was definitely more than satisfying and I think it would pass muster with even seasoned safari-goers.

Continue to Part 2

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