Few things in life have ever gotten my heart pumping as much as stalking a 5,000-pound rhinoceros on foot through the African bush.
To be clear, I wasn’t hunting the rhino—I was tracking it alongside a team of professional wildlife researchers inside Thanda Safari, a non-hunting private game reserve in South Africa. It’s one of the many unique programs offered by Thanda to get guests like me out of the safari vehicles and into the wilderness, up close with the African wildlife.
In my case, very up close.
My safari’s Specialist Rhino Monitor, a burly 28-year-old Afrikaner from Johannesburg named Morné Arnold, had been leading my small group on the trail of a rhinoceros for nearly an hour—inspecting old tracks, observing impressions in the grass, and generally following the trail like a professional wildlife CSI—when we suddenly found ourselves no more than 20 yards away from three enormous white rhinos.
I froze. We all froze. What else can you do when you’re close enough to witness three mammoth rhinos snorting, snuffling, and chewing in the wild—not to mention occasionally raising their heads to sniff you whenever the breeze shifts?
For me, that was the moment that drove home the essential truth of an African safari: In the bush, out there on foot and surrounded by wildlife, you’re a guest in their house. And you’d better behave like it.
I think that’s the kind of perspective a stay at Thanda Safari is designed to inspire. This isn’t a Disney animal park—it’s nature, unfiltered. Thanda positions you to experience it up close, camera in hand, for the kind of unique safari experience you’ll never forget.
A Focus on Wildlife Photography
Thanda Safari is a luxury Big Five private game reserve located in KwaZulu-Natal, the Zulu homeland, not far from the beaches of Durban and the Drakensberg mountain range. I visited in June as a guest of the property, during the dry season when the weather was a pleasant 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and a mild 50 degrees after dark. That made for comfortable game drives and bush walks, as well as great lighting all day long—excellent conditions for taking wildlife photos.
The ideal conditions were no accident. Thanda is the place to take a private safari in South Africa if wildlife photography factors into your plans. Included in every stay is a 90-minute instructional session with Thanda’s Resident Wildlife Photographer, Christian Sperka. That’s a big deal because Thanda is the only game reserve in South Africa with its own resident wildlife photographer available to give lessons or take guests on guided game drives.
My private session with Sperka covered the basics of wildlife photography with instruction tailored to my specific camera and experience level. “The most important thing about teaching wildlife photography in this setting is to actually sit down and go through the individual’s equipment and ensure they understand its full capabilities,” Sperka told me in a post-trip interview via Skype. “And, of course, guests must be shown how to capture animals in motion. I start with the camera set-up and can tailor my instruction for those who are already more advanced.”
Like me, a lot of guests come to Sperka for instruction on capturing wildlife photography with an iPhone. “I do a lot of work with smartphones,” Sperka told me. “And even there, it’s possible to greatly improve people’s photography. Many people have no idea how to get the most out of their phone’s camera, for example.” Others in my small group brought small and medium-sized SLRs as well. Sperka’s course offered tailored instruction for each camera.
Sperka can also take interested guests out in a remodeled Land Rover he’s dubbed The Green Mamba—a luxurious game-viewing vehicle that’s been custom-built for photographers. “I wanted to create a vehicle that’s more than a typical game drive vehicle: one that has everything that I as a wildlife photographer of 17 years would like to have. And a bit of extra luxury, too,” Sperka told me.
Among the special features: extra-space seating for two photographers to allow for taking wildlife photos from many angles, a canvas floor for kneeling to shoot at eye level, movable padded armrests to allow for additional shooting options over the side of the vehicle, and a built-in iPad to refer to for information about the game reserve’s many species of mammals and birds. And because this is a luxury safari experience, The Green Mamba also features a martini bar (for martinis and other drinks, including the signature Thanda Martini and the Thanda Gold Long Drink) and a built-in Nespresso coffee machine and milk frother (for those early morning game drives).
Why Choose a Private Game Reserve
Most people think of the big national parks, like Kruger, when they think of a South Africa safari. But if you only have a limited time to visit, a private game reserve may offer the better safari experience.
Thanda Safari, at 14,000 hectares (roughly 35,000 acres), is just the right size for guaranteed wildlife sightings. I saw elephants moving freely across the landscape, a pack of lions stalking a herd of Cape Buffalos in tall grass at sunset, and zebras and giraffes and rhinos all in their natural environment. And I didn’t have to search for days to see them, either.
Thanda’s open-top safari vehicles, and the opportunity to venture off-road for better sightings, are also typical of the kind of private game reserve experience that’s not widely available at the larger national parks—to say nothing of the guided bush walks and rhino tracking expeditions that put you up close with the wildlife.
Accommodations at Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve
Thanda offers three lodging arrangements tailored to different interests, group sizes, and budgets: a safari lodge featuring nine private bush suites and a shared common area, a private villa for large groups (perfect for multi-generational families, for example), and a tented camp (think: “glamping”) for a true luxury bush experience.
Located in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal, on the eastern side of South Africa, Thanda is situated in a low-risk malaria zone. Generally speaking, bug spray is a sufficient precaution, rather than prescription malaria pills. No cases of malaria have been reported in the area in decades. This is an especially great consideration for those with young children. (Another Thanda perk: It welcomes children, a rarity on safaris.)
Getting to Thanda Safari
I flew from New York to Johannesburg on South African Airways and continued on via another South African Airways flight to Durban, a lively little beach town just a few hours by car or bus from Thanda.
Johannesburg is a 15-hour flight from New York; it’s about 20 hours from Los Angeles. No matter how you slice it, that’s a long time to travel. Build in a day or two in Durban either before or after your safari to offset the long travel time. I stayed at the historic Oyster Box hotel, right on the Indian Ocean, where the sunrise views were a great way to cap a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Best Places to Go in Africa (and What to Do There)
- 7 Once-in-a-Lifetime Safaris That Aren’t in Africa
- iPhone, Galaxy, Lumix: Which Is the Best Camera for Travel?
Executive Editor Josh Roberts believes the best trips involve long hikes and muddy boots. His life goals haven’t changed much since he was a kid: He still wants to be Indiana Jones when he grows up. Follow him on Instagram at @jauntist and on Facebook @JoshRobertsBooks.
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