Ulusaba literally means ‘place of little fear’ in the local Shangaan language, and whilst this is certainly true, after our visit we like to think fondly of it as ‘Ulusaba – where everybody knows your name’. Either way, it’s a really special place and certainly somewhere we’ve left a little piece of our hearts.
Ulusaba occupies a vast swathe of the western flank of Sabi Sand Game Reserve in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, and as we discovered, is the perfect place for safari excitement and a bit of pampering (ok, a LOT of pampering!).
Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve
If you’re after a luxurious safari experience you can’t go far wrong with Sabi Sand Reserve. The 140,000 acres form part of the greater Kruger National Park wildlife enclave, with an open border between the two areas allowing animals to freely roam from one to the other. However, being a private reserve Sabi Sand doesn’t have the same restrictions as the national park thus enabling visitors to enjoy night game drives, bush walks and even off-road jaunts to get up close to the animals for some fabulous and uninterrupted viewing. Another advantage over the Kruger is that being relatively small in comparison, Sabi Sand has greater concentrations of wildlife making game viewing much easier.
Sabi Sand Game Reserve is divided into 18 private areas, and most lodges have traversing agreements with their close neighbours, giving flexibility when important sightings occur just across the border. You can only visit the reserve as a lodge guest, which ensures the experience really is private, almost like having the entire area to yourself!
Sabi Sand is great for:
- Top end luxury safari lodges
- Almost guaranteed leopard sightings
- Seeing the big 5 in a short space of time
- Over 530 bird species
- Off road game drives, night drives, and bush walks
- Being relatively convenient to Johannesburg, with easy land and air access
And it’s not so great for:
- Those without generous budgets
- Guests looking for a true wilderness experience or tented camp
There are numerous luxury lodges to choose from, but for us Ulusaba was an easy choice since we’re rapidly becoming fans of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Ltd Edition properties, having experienced their top-notch hospitality at both Kasbah Tamadot in Morocco and Mont Rochelle in Franschhoek. My only concern prior to our arrival was its location at the edge of the reserve, but with bush as far as the eye can see it feels no less wild for its relative proximity to the outside world.
We were desperate to see a leopard and Sabi Sand is reputedly the most reliable place in the country to spot these magnificent animals, as well as endangered and rare species such as the Wild Dog and Grey Hooded Kingfisher. Although we didn’t expect to see any of these, we thought the anticipation would be fun.
Ulusaba has 21 rooms spread out over 2 lodges and it’s a nightmare (albeit a rather lovely one) choosing between the two.
Safari Lodge is thrillingly immersed in the bush on the banks of a dry riverbed, whilst Rock Lodge perches like a lofty sentinel looking down on the vast but distant plains below. I have to be honest, I was so glad we went for Safari Lodge. For us it felt much more like a proper bush experience, being able to watch game from wherever you were in the lodge, and the thrill of the slight danger associated with such a location.
We visited Rock Lodge for afternoon tea one day and it felt very detached from the landscape, quite compact and really much more suited to sole hire, such as weddings or family gatherings. I felt it could be quite a lonely place for independent guests and despite being antisocial travellers, hubbie and I much preferred the vibe down at Safari Lodge where you could have as much or as little company as you desire.
Safari Lodge – which room?
Once you’ve chosen the park, the reserve and the lodge, your decision making is not yet over. The most important question still looms…which room to call your home for the next few days.
Safari Rooms – these more simple rooms are very close to the main lodge and aren’t particularly private. Yet standards remain high and you’ll still be in for a stylish and comfortable experience.
Elephant Rooms – being a step up from the Safari Rooms these are more private but still near to the main lodge. This may be a positive thing as it’s closer to the bar should you run out of minibar drinks. Which you won’t. Pretty decent views of the bush from the large viewing decks here!
River View Rooms – these are best rooms (a fact reflected in the price), and are rather brilliantly accessed by rope bridges giving a real Tarzan experience (even more thrilling after a bottle of wine!). All the tree-house style rooms have excellent bush views and being more secluded are perfect for a little romance. River View 1 is closest to the lodge and main walkway and didn’t feel that private. It also doesn’t have a rope bridge for access which kind of takes the fun out of it. River View 2 was in a great position and has a private plunge pool, although it is right next to River View 3.
River View 3 (our room!) has a great bush view and but didn’t feel totally private as the large picture windows faced the bridge walkway and although this was screened, anyone coming to the door of the room would be able to see through to the entire room. I felt I had to get dressed in the bathroom or with the curtains closed! Apart from that we loved it. River View 4 in my opinion would be the best as it’s a little further along, totally private and has its own plunge pool. Next time!
Treehouse Suite – supposedly the best of the bunch and popular with honeymooners, I was surprised that this suite was part of the same structure as the hippo pool hide used by other guests throughout the day, and therefore not as exclusive as I would have hoped. We could see onto part of the suite veranda from the deck. It is also a 10-15 minute walk back to the lodge so factor this in when getting up early for game drives or going for meals.
Feasting like kings
I’ve already mentioned breakfasts in an earlier post, and it seems dining here is just as high on the agenda as the activities. Indeed we felt some guests had come especially for the all-inclusive element with the game drives just an added bonus. Everything is included in the package price so despite still being full from multiple breakfasts, we felt obliged to sample the lunch menu.
Hubbie continued his mission to sample burgers from around the world, and my duck salad (which I’d opted for as it sounded small and light) was a meal in itself. And of course it would’ve been rude not to try the chocolate orange cheesecake, not worrying about how on earth we would squeeze in afternoon tea before the 4 p.m. game drive, complete with sundowners and bush snacks.
Dinner is different each evening, sometimes in the boma, sometimes out on deck under the stars and sometimes at the enormous dining table in the lounge. We particularly loved the braai buffet affair in the boma on our first evening.
The fire pit was ablaze, some of the staff had turned into entertainers and were regaling us with cheerful local songs and dances, and the smiley chef personally ensured each guest knew exactly what every dish was, and that we were all having a good time. Mission accomplished.
We even surprised ourselves by enjoying the communal aspect, chatting to the others about their wildlife sightings and slowly realising we were the only ones who hadn’t been to Ulusaba multiple times before. A fact which speaks volumes for the place.
The reason you’re here in the first place is of course the bush! And you can read all about game drives and bush walks in my article on Ulusaba’s Big Five.
There is a fair amount of relaxation time too, which is much-needed after the early morning starts and all the eating you do here. For those who can’t sit still, there is a pool and a gym (if you really must), and plenty of comfy seats in the poshest wildlife hide I’ve ever seen, overlooking the hippo pool.
What we loved
- The personal touch. Each and every staff member, whether we had been introduced or not, knew not only our surnames but our first names as well. I have no idea how they manage such a lovely and impressive gesture but it was truly appreciated. Top marks!
- Being treated like real people as well as royalty. Ulusaba is luxurious yet has no pretensions. We loved it and didn’t feel at all out of place.
- The loyalty. All the other guests were returning customers and we just know if we ever go back it will be like going to stay with old friends.
- The comfort. The safari vehicles are incredibly luxurious, with mega comfy seats, plenty of space and leg room, and each guest has a rain poncho and water bottle in the pouch in front. They think of everything.
What wasn’t so great
- Communal dining. You either love it or hate it, and whilst we’re normally in the latter camp we did appreciate the friendly boma dinner on our first night. Yet the second night it was a different story. We were seated at the end of a long table surrounded by a tour group from Germany, all of whom completely ignored us the entire evening. Not exactly the vibe we’d expected, and we left as soon as we decently could after dessert.
Private dining in the wine cellar is an option but cannot be requested prior to arrival (something I thought a little odd) and had already been booked both nights for couples celebrating anniversaries or birthdays. I’m sure the staff would have arranged a separate table for us had we asked, but not wanting to seem unsociable we just stuck it out.
Best time to visit
Sabi Sand Reserve is an all year round safari destination, and each season has its merits.
Spring and Summer (October – April) This is the rainy season which means the bush will be green, lush and awash with new-born animals. So if you want to see a baby rhino tottering about or an infant zebra learning how to use his legs then this is the time to come. It is also the best time for bird watching. We visited during November and loved that the place was so full of life. Animal spotting was still very easy and we only had a couple of light rain showers that didn’t even warrant one of the thoughtfully provided ponchos. Days are very warm, and afternoons can be positively sweltering, but you’ll need a jumper on evening game drives.
Autumn and Winter (May – September) During this period the bush is dry and less dense, making sightings even easier as animals frequent watering holes and rivers more often. The days are warm but early mornings and evenings can be rather chilly.
Sabi Sand is 500km from Johannesburg on decent roads, taking about 6 hours depending on your overtaking skills. The terribly rutted dirt road off the R536 up towards Newington Gate and then through the Reserve to Ulusaba (about 30km in total) is do-able in a normal car, but really not advisable. We did it in a saloon and spent the whole 1.5 hour off-road journey wishing we’d forked out for a 4×4…we were right to worry. We ended up with 2 punctures on the way out. Make it easy on yourselves, pay a little extra and don’t arrive stressed like we did! Alternatively you can arrive in style at their private air strip. Now that’s what I call an entrance.
Read my tips on how to survive self drive in South Africa.
There is a small entry charge at Newington Gate (ZAR 190 per vehicle and ZAR50 per person) where officials will also ask to search your vehicle. Access is restricted to lodge guests, so don’t turn up without a reservation. Ulusaba is fully booked year round so you need to plan way in advance anyway!
Some useful documents
Good to know
Sabi Sand falls within a malaria area so antimalarial drugs are recommended, particularly between September and May.