About the trip
Thornybush Game Reserve has been on my safari list for many years.
After a long winter without much travel (and spending a lot of time indoors with our two little girls), my wife and I decided to leave our kids with their grandparents and book a few nights at Thornybush Game Lodge for a romantic safari getaway without children.
This is our direct experience.
We left from The cap to Hoedspruit with Airlink. A two-hour flight, then a 45-minute road transfer to the lodge. The second half of the transfer with East Gate Transfers & Safaris takes place beyond the gate at Thornybush Game Reserve.
So our game viewing started with elephants, giraffes, zebras and warthogs before we even checked in. Other options for getting to Thornybush Game Reserve:
We had high hopes of seeing lots of wildlife after learning that the Thornybush Game Reserve had abandoned its fences on the rest of the Greater Kruger Park area in 2017.
And our expectations were met and exceeded, with us see the Big Five during our first two safaris.
Our top five strengths included:
A a playful pride of lions with nine cute cubs aged 2 to 5 months playing and rolling over each other;
A male a large male leopard chasing impala (the impala ran away);
Two white rhino crashes (yes, these are their collective nouns);
Several very calm herds of elephants, allowing us to get closer and feel at ease;
And on our last day, a large herd of Cape buffalo with a few calves, including an albino. Very unusual to see.
Other memorable wildlife sightings were a 10-foot python lounging in a tree near a dam, a hyena “killed” shortly after dark, a two-week-old giraffe with wobbly knees, a hippo with sunset, a solitary crocodile and many birds. .
Period of the year
We traveled the last week of August, near the end of the dry winter season. The grass was relatively flat and the bushveld bare.
This made for cool mornings and excellent wildlife viewing.
Like most safari lodges, Thornybush Game Lodge offers two safari activities per day at an all-inclusive rate.
Most safaris are from their 9-seater safari vehicles: one starting at dawn, the other at 3:30 p.m., approximately 3 to 4 hours each.
At most we had 3 couples in our vehicle. So each couple had a row to themselves, much more comfortable than sitting side by side, which can detract from the game’s driving experience.
We did 5 game drives over our 3 days, choosing to sleep in one of the mornings.
Thornybush guides are qualified to take clients on walking safaris.
We walked in nature the second morning. We encountered elephants and nyalas on foot, explored an old giraffe skeleton, and learned about local trees, plants, animal tracks, and tracking.
Our safari guides were ranger Tracy and tracker John.
Together they expertly guided us through the terrain, pointing out the wildlife, birds and flora, answering our questions with patience and enthusiasm.
Their extensive knowledge and genuine passion for the wilderness was evident and seemed 100% genuine.
The front desk staff, servers, butlers, cooks, bartenders and housekeepers were warm, welcoming, polite and sometimes playful.
We’ve stayed in lodges where people were either “just doing their job” or, on the other end of the spectrum: they were too familiar. I find both approaches degrade the luxury lodge experience.
“At Thornybush Game Lodge, the staff struck the right balance of making us feel special while allowing us to relax and just be ourselves.”
After a difficult 18 months of lockdown, travel restrictions and operational challenges, Thornybush staff have expressed their gratitude that we are staying with them. They were excited to be able to operate at full capacity again. The guest mix was around 70:30 (South Africa to international), which was more international travelers than expected, which I was very happy to see.
We stayed in one of the lodge’s 18 standard suites. Spacious, pleasantly cool (in temperature) and warm (in ambience). A large king-size bed (or maybe even bigger) was draped with an even larger mosquito net, completing the safari vibe.
All the expected amenities like minibar, safe, dryer, desk, sofa, etc. with sliding glass doors that open onto a raised wooden balcony.
During the day we saw elephants, giraffes, deer, monkeys and birds from our balcony. And at night we heard the screech owl, a pack of hyenas and lions roaring in the distance.
The bathroom was perhaps the highlight of the suite: double sinks, large bathtub, indoor and outdoor shower and magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the wide dry river bed from which we observe the passage of animals, large and small. .
The lodge has two family rooms, each with its own swimming pool (see note below regarding families and younger guests).
Catering and meals
Our meals at Thornybush Game Lodge were varied, plentiful and delicious.
I have stayed in lodges where the food is exquisite, creative and comparable to the best restaurants in the world. I wouldn’t put Thornybush in that category.
The meals at Thornybush were quite healthy, fresh, varied (some a la carte, others buffet style), plentiful and, most importantly: they offered generous dining times. During our 3 days at the lodge, we never felt rushed to have a meal.
The wine list included some of our favorites (Tokara, Springfield) and was reasonably priced.
Common areas (and the ambiance of the lodge)
Thornybush Game Lodge has a traditional safari lodge feel: a large, open, raised wooden deck, with a thatched roof on stilts, with trees crossing the deck providing additional shade. Plants everywhere integrating the structure into its environment.
There is a calm, colonial atmosphere, with modest modern touches.
Lounge area at Safari Lodge
The large main terrace includes the dining room, several outdoor seating areas, two fireplaces, the bar and a swimming pool with deck chairs.
The outdoor reception lounge is flanked by a gift shop and library. The lodge also has a spa.
Thornybush requires a short and simple online Covid health screening questionnaire prior to arrival. Temperature checks and some health questions during check-in. Disinfection stations everywhere. The staff was exceptionally diligent and wore masks at all times and correctly.
The only time I saw a mask come off was on our walking safari when Tracy, our ranger, removed hers to ensure she could communicate clearly with us while on foot . Perfectly understandable.
All activities and meals take place outside and our rooms have been prepared with a ‘clean seal’ sticker on the doors upon arrival. Although we weren’t 100% sure, we felt like our room had been well ventilated before we arrived.
The wearing of masks by guests appeared to be at their discretion. But since all meals, activities, and common areas were outside, it seemed completely safe and appropriate. We simply put on our masks as we entered the gift shop, spa, etc.
I heard while we were there that Thornybush was preparing to offer on-site vaccinations to all staff across the entire reserve (neighboring lodges as well) in the coming weeks. I was delighted with this news, knowing that guests, lodge staff and their families would soon benefit from this added layer of personal health protection.
A few things we discovered during our stay at Thornybush Game Lodge:
Although afternoon game drives typically take place in darkness for about an hour, Thornybush Game Reserve allows “real” night game drives. You need to ask in advance and then you can experience some of the magic that happens after dark in the bush. This is something I did in Kenya and would like to do in the Kruger region next time.
You can take a yoga class with an instructor (also upon request in advance).
Thornybush Game Lodge is family friendly. During our stay we met a family with grandparents, parents and grandchildren all on safari together. It was lovely to see young children on safari experiencing nature with happy parents and grandparents.
(If you’re looking for a more intimate and romantic safari without the kids being kids around the lodge, head to our sister lodge in Thornybush. Saseka Tented Camp which is a bit more upscale and generally doesn’t have families with young children)
And finally, if it’s your birthday or special occasion, don’t be surprised if you receive a special gift or experience from the wonderful team who look after you at Thornybush Game Lodge.
Overall we enjoyed a Safari experience 10 out of 10 Thornybush Game Lodge.