The River Lodge: Where Elephants Wander

* This article originally appeared here on Mzanzitravel magazine

It had only been a day and already I’d become accustomed to the sight of animals passing by the river bed before my suite. For a Capetonian accustomed to years of drought, the best place to watch this unfold was from the raised bathtub, indulging in both the luxury of bath and view. My attention was suddenly piqued as I noticed a herd of elephants move in the direction of the main lodge.

These sagacious creatures often visited the main pool, even drinking from it provided they didn’t feel threatened. Finishing my bath, I walked over to the lodge and my jaw dropped seeing them around the pool which is safely elevated two meters above their level. I slowly climbed in the pool and as the pachyderms accustomed to my presence, several returned to drink.

I’d had a rather tumultuous few weeks preceding my visit, and strange as it may sound, one of the elephants held my gaze in a manner in which I could only interpret as her somehow seeing right through me. Some of the pain and anxiety that had made a home in my heart began to melt. Somehow, it seemed as if she wanted to both settle and reassure me. She wouldn’t leave until I’d actually said out loud, ‘yes it will be ok’.

Only once they’d all left did it feel like I could begin to breathe again. A bucket list experience, fully natural, and fully wild. These kinds of wild encounters are hardly ever a mere visual spectacle. They have a more profound and deeper effect that is difficult to express.

I was visiting the Kruger National Park for the first time as an adult – my one previous visit as a child was brief, and we hadn’t seen much game, so as I boarded my CemAirflight from Cape Town to Hoedspruit the expectations were running high. A short flight and I found myself landing in Hoedspruit, only minutes away from some wild experiences at The River Lodge.

The River Lodge

The 14000-hectare Thornybush Private Nature Reserve annexes the Kruger National Park, and since the historical dropping of fences in 1991, Thornybush is now incorporated into the large park. JB Burger, the operations manager, told me with the dropping of the fences “the impact on game viewing has been incredible with the free-flow of animals in and out of Kruger. One of the biggest impacts has been the elephants into the reserve. Previously we had around 60 on the reserve, and now at any stage we could have up to 400.”

The Thornybush Collection encompasses eleven private lodges, and I was about to get close and personal with the wilderness at The River Lodge. With a total of only 6 suites at the lodge, the sense of being invited into someone’s home rather than a large lodge is immediate. The intimate level of service may also leave you feeling like royalty. It was no surprise when I learned later that the lodge has been a favourite for foreign royalty.

The décor is luxuriously colonial, with hints of modern and eclectic elements tastefully incorporated. The suites are discreetly positioned, and among the most spacious I’ve experienced, inviting you into a luxe sanctuary in-between safaris and meals.

Wild Moments

I’d heard that Thornybush had exceptional game viewing, and it was time to explore the reserve. Very soon I was reminded of the wild unpredictability of the bush. You enter not on your terms, but rather hers and accept whatever she has to offer, and in the case of Thornybush I was not disappointed.

On our first game drive we met one of the resident lion prides, which had two litters of cubs, both sets under a year old. The weather was surprisingly cool, and the low-hanging clouds even contributed a gentle drizzle. This seemed to spur the cubs on, and for around half an hour we were able to watch them playfully interact with each other and their surroundings. This included two of the males fully embracing their inner-feline, trying to climb the adjacent trees.

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My final safari also did not disappoint. Sitting safely in our game-viewing vehicle an almost incredulous and wild drama had unfolded itself before us. A juvenile male leopard had crouched in the bushes only meters from us and was hardly impressed. His half-eaten impala had been stolen by a pregnant hyena, and she wasn’t going to relent. To add to the excitement, a second hyena arrived, dividing her time between harassing the already provoked leopard, and challenging the first hyena for remains of the kill.

Just another afternoon at Thornybush.

A Home in the Wild

Later, over a cup of coffee, a flash of pride raced across JB’s eyes as he spoke of The River Lodge: “The pure luxury of the lodge, but also the intimacy that you experience at River Lodge – it’s more like a home, as opposed to some of the larger commercial lodges. Combined with the personal service and eclectic homely atmosphere it’s a very special place.”

Not only had this first experience of Kruger as an adult made up for my disappointing first visit as a child, but thanks to the dedication of the River Lodge family, the prolific wildlife sightings, and unparalleled luxury of the lodge, my stay exceeded every expectation. After all, who wouldn’t want to make their home where wildlife wander past your doorstep, and lions climb trees?

Travel Tips

  • How to get there: For a personal and easy transfer to the reserve, Cemair flies directly to Hoedspruit from both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Alternatively, you can hire a car and drive yourself all the way to the lodge
  • When to visit: the dryer winter months generally provide better game viewing, as the bushveld foliage isn’t as thick as summer, and less water means higher game-viewing at the watering holes. You also then avoid the harsher summer temperatures. The Kruger Park is however, an all-season destination so you can go at any point during the year.
  • What about malaria? It’s recommended to take Malaria prophylactic drugs when visiting the park, and your GP will be able to suggest the best course of action.

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