In June 2017, my husband and I took a much needed anniversary trip sans children to Africa. Although our itinerary included stops in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, we worked in two separate safaris: Umlani Bushcamp in the Timbavati Game Reserve just outside Kruger National Park in South Africa and Muchenje Safari Lodge just outside the Chobe National Park in Bostwana. Both stays were four day, three-night stays, thus allowing us sufficient time to explore all the camps had to offer.
To read about the Muchenje experience, go here.
Words cannot begin to express how much I loved our experience at Umlani Bushcamp. For our party of two, our four day, three-night all-inclusive stay (which included pick up from Hoedspruit Airport and departing shuttle from the Timbavati to Johannesburg National Airport) was less than $1300.
I’ll admit that my husband and I were both skeptical because it seemed so cheap. Indeed, I comparison shopped and a four day, three-night stay at a five-star lodge in the Timbavati would have cost $3,692.31 the same dates we were there! Suffice it to say, I was worried going into Umlani that it would be an awful experience, but I left deeply in love with the camp and can’t wait until my children are old enough to bring them back.
The Timbavati, I learned, is a private game reserve that was set up by a number of landowners in the 1950s. The reserve borders Kruger National Park and there is no fence between the two, meaning the animals are free to roam the two areas. Some of the land had been used previously for cattle farming and during our game drives, we did see evidence of its cattle farming history.
There is no electricity at Umlani, so everything is solar powered, including the Wi-Fi, which is available during daylight hours (although if you ask nicely, they will turn it on in the evenings so you can text your in-laws and check in on the children, while gloating about the fabulous rhino pictures you took). There’s a central charging station, located in the gift shop, where I felt perfectly comfortable leaving my cell phone and camera batteries to charge during the day. There is no age restriction on guests; however, if I remember correctly, children under age one cannot ride in the safari vehicles and children under a certain age (I believe 6?) are not permitted on bush walks. I asked our head ranger and was told that although children aren’t permitted on bush walks, they can arrange for shorter walks around the camp if children are well behaved. The camp can also arrange for an overnight stay in the Treehouse, which we did our second night.
The camp’s daily schedule is: 6AM bush drive, followed by breakfast, lunch at 1PM, 3PM bush drive, followed by dinner. An optional bush walk, guided by a ranger, is available after breakfast. We arrived at camp around 12:30pm, and there was only one other guest at the time. We enjoyed lunch together and then it was time to depart on our first game drive.
Umlani game drives all take place aboard open-air vehicles. Because the Timbavati is a private reserve, off-roading is allowed, unlike in a national park where vehicles must stay on the major roads. At Umlani, each game drive took place with two staff members – one driver/ranger and one tracker, seated on the front of the jeep. We were given a number of instructions prior to our first game drive, including, but not limited to, stay in the land cruiser, do not stand up unless given permission to stand up, and wear neutral colored clothing to avoid drawing attention to yourself, etc…
My husband and I were dedicated safari-goers, participating in every morning and afternoon game drive and requesting the optional bush walk after breakfast every morning. On our first game drive, we saw a white lioness, and on our very last game drive we saw a leopard – in between, we saw the other three animals which form the Big Five (the elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros) and countless zebra, giraffes, and other local game. Because off-roading is permitted, we were able to get much closer to the animals than our subsequent safari, which took us through Chobe National Park.
Viewing the animals in their natural habitat was an incredible experience and it did not take long for me to understand why people fall in love with Africa – it is intoxicating. But what made the Umlani experience was the people who work there. Everyone was incredibly kind and welcoming, going the extra mile to ensure that we were comfortable. They encouraged us to ask questions, volunteered information about living and working in the bush, and every night, at least one member of the staff joined us for dinner. We definitely felt like we got to know the employees and they also took an interest in our lives and hearing about our children back at home. By our second day, the staff knew that I liked white wine at the sundowner, red wine for dinner, and that I had two little kids at home, staying with their grandparents, and thus needed to spend a fair amount of time on the Wi-Fi, ensuring everyone’s happiness and well-being.
On top of that, I found this article about Umlani after our trip and found myself loving Umlani even more! During our stay, I got a sense of how wonderful the camp is to its employees – including welcoming the children of employees to stay with the staff on camp and join along on game drives when they aren’t full, but learning that Umlani has actually changed lives really brought home just how unique Umlani is. My husband and I both found ourselves commenting that we needed to get back to Umlani soon and often because rarely in life do you find something so special.
Practically speaking, Umlani would have been an outstanding experience for my eight-year-old, but a terrible experience for my two-year-old. Because we’re out in the bush, there’s very limited open space for kids to play and cause ruckus. My two- year-old likely would have had a difficult time getting his energy out in a safe manner. Logistics aside, it would seem awfully inconsiderate to bring a toddler on a safari unless you have a large enough party that you require an entire vehicle on the game drives. I cannot count the number of times I have gotten fed up with the constant toddler chatter, demands, whines, etc in the car; I would never think to subject other paying vacationers to the same experience. The safari schedule is also rather rigid – you must get up and be ready to depart at 6am for the game drive; there is no waiting or dawdling and so, if you need to be able to manage your child’s schedule in a way that it conforms to the safari routine, without inconveniencing others. Consequently, while Umlani does welcome children of all ages, I would not bring a non-school aged child on safari without understanding that there are significant draw backs to doing so (including having to sit out on certain experiences and/or not being able to participate in bush walks) and tempering my expectations accordingly.
The lack of electricity, however, was not an issue, and I found myself surprised by just how comfortable the accommodations were. In the evenings, everyone gathered for a dinner in the dining room (served family style), and then staff members escorted you back to your room. Although some people stayed to have an additional drink in the boma, most people went back to their room and went to bed, to get ready for the next morning’s game drive. I believe the only thing that is out of the question at Umlani is the hair dryer, but I never expected to “do” my hair while on safari anyway, so I didn’t miss it.
A note about the return transfer to Johannesburg Airport. Our travel agent suggested that we take the shuttle from the Timbavati back to Johannesburg Airport as we had a full day and were not scheduled to fly to Victoria Falls until the following morning. We were booked onto Ashtons Tours, but, through no fault to the company, I would not recommend this drive with small children. The drive from the Timbavati to Johannesburg took approximately six hours and it was a long time to spend in the car. Moreover, there was only one short stop of about 15 minutes, and I cannot imagine children enjoying this ride. I would recommend either driving yourself, although this is not without risk as portions of the road are in horrendous condition, or simply returning to Hoedspruit and flying on to your next destination. In hindsight, we should have taken a flight from Hoedspruit to Johannesburg and flown directly to Victoria Falls from there, without our overnight at the Johannesburg airport. This would have saved us a day and a very long ride in the shuttle. If you are shuttle bound, however, Ashtons is not only affordable but honest. My husband, in his haste to unfold himself from the car, left our DSLR in the vehicle. When I emailed the next day inquiring, I was informed it had been located and they happily arranged to drop it off at our airport upon our return to Johannesburg for a very nominal fee.
To read about the Muchenje experience, go here