I decided to get out of my comfort zone and do a self-drive road trip in KwaZulu-Natal with my mom and son. I’m the first to admit I’ve never been very good with direction. I get lost coming out of my en-suite bathroom back into my bedroom, so this was a new sort of challenge for me. But I had learnt to drive in the snow so how hard could it be!
The hire car was delivered to my hotel in Durban, and it was a very simple process. It took a while for me to get my head around the fact that the key didn’t actually go into the ignition. All I had to do was push a button to start the car, but once I got over that small detail, we were ready to roll!
It is a 3-hour drive from Durban to Thanda Private Game Reserve, our home for the first 2 nights. It is literally one “straight” road all the way north and it was a smooth beautifully tarred road. I am not sure asphalt has ever been referred to as beautiful before, but there is a first for everything.
The reason I am harping on about driving is that I am not very confident behind the wheel. My GPS is permanently set to avoid highways as I feel a speed wobble anytime I go over 100km an hour. Friends refer to me as Driving Miss Daisy and I am that person that needs to turn down the music when I don’t know where I am going! But this was an absolute breeze. It was not quite the open road, wind in my hair, Thelma and Louise scenario. More like the “mom are we there yet?” type of journey! But I highly recommend travelling around KwaZulu-Natal this way.
I also want to give some insight into how much fun it is travelling with a 7-year-old and a 67-year-old on the same trip. Multi-generational travel should be a rite of passage for all families. In my case, I was fortunate (or perhaps not?) that the grandmother and grandson in question are as thick as thieves.
We arrived to a warm African welcome at Thanda Safari Lodge. As we walked through the reception another family with 3 kids came screeching past us. My mind was instantly put at ease. I knew that regardless of how gorgeous the lodge was, we were going to feel right at home. I could keep my dagger eyes at bay if my offspring happened to get a bit rowdy because kids were truly welcome here!
Our first game drive was uber eventful. The little Austrian boy who we had run into earlier and his dad were on the vehicle with us. Despite a language barrier, Travis and Noah became fast friends. The things that amuse 7-year-old boys are indeed universal! I happened to be the one who spotted the lions (don’t you love it when that happens!) They were very, very (very) well camouflaged in the long golden grass. We counted around 18 of them and they kept us enthralled for the longest time. Granny couldn’t believe how close we were to them and the boys were in awe too!
Our suite was sumptuous, and we had our own private pool. Noah came back for a while to swim with Travis and they had a fabulous and very noisy time in the water. Granny got some relaxing downtime on the day bed with her cuppa and latest gossip mags. As for me, well I was elated to be on safari with 2 of my favourite humans and to have safely driven us there!
The following day we came across a different pride of lions. They were sleeping in the middle of the road, as they tried to absorb the heat from the warm ground. Travis had clearly seen enough lions the previous day. He preferred to focus on a bee in the bush on the other side of the vehicle with great enthusiasm! (Insert eye-roll!). When we pulled up to the waterhole a herd of elephants had decided to take a swim. We sat transfixed for the longest time as they dunked each other and had as much of a ball of a time in the water as the boys had the day before!
That night we were treated to dinner in the boma. A boma in literal terms is an enclosure for animals. At a safari lodge, it is a rustic outdoor dining area. It is a magical place where people come together to share stories around a fire. It is the essence of dining in the bush. The food was outstanding, and the local Zulu dancers and singers gave a spectacular performance. Totally random but worth noting is that the muesli at Thanda is the best I have ever tasted! I am not the only person to say so! (Google it!)
Next up was the recently opened Umfolozi Big 5 Game Reserve where we stayed at Mmbathu Lodge for 2 nights. The drive was also around 3 hours from Thanda, and at times it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Well, actually we were. It was breathtakingly beautiful. We were surrounded by rolling green hills, dotted with little Zulu huts. At times I did second guess myself and wondered if I was going the right way. But I didn’t have to stop once, I never turned around or went the wrong way. So, I was pretty chuffed with my navigational skills. Admittedly when leaving the lodge, I did drive on the wrong side of the road for about 1km. But let’s call it a rookie mistake after driving on the right for the last 4 years! In my defence, even granny didn’t notice this faux par. She does like to remind me of it now though!
Certain places just get everything right and Mmbathu Lodge is one of those places. From the incredibly friendly Scottish manager, (right up grannie’s alley as they could reminisce about bonnie Scotland together), to the décor, the cuisine, and the views, it was perfect. But what stood out high above everything else were the guides we had. These 2 gents completely made our entire stay. Being a relatively new reserve, the game, although there, was not yet in abundance. There were times we went out on game drives and didn’t see very much wildlife. But as much as I was hoping to see leopard and all other manners of creatures, we still had an amazing time. Artist our guide and Musa our tracker were both informative and entertaining. They also went completely out of their way to make sure Travis had the best time. He got to sit upfront with them in the game vehicle. They allowed him to radio back to the lodge to say we were 5 min away, and when he nodded off on the evening drive, Artist whipped off his fleece and put it under Travis’ head as a pillow! Although granny is very young for her age, (I’m not getting paid to say that!) and pretty sprightly, game drive vehicles are quite high and require a bit of climbing to get into. The lads were always on hand to help mum in and out the vehicle and also had a small step on the ready at each dismount. She felt a bit like a queen stepping out of her carriage!
We had one of the most remarkable sightings at Umfolozi Big 5 Game Reserve. We had stopped in the Hluhluwe National Park at a hide for our morning coffee break and to stretch our legs. We were standing around the vehicle, enjoying the warm sun whilst feasting on homemade rusks, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted (okay I lie, I didn’t actually see them first), 2 magnificent white rhinos grazing less than 200 metres away from us. Once I had gathered my composure, I was completely mesmerised by how oblivious these prehistoric mammals were to our presence. As it turns out Rhinos do not have good eyesight. They do however have an acute sense of smell. The wind direction was in our favour and they did not pick up our scent so they continued to graze as if we weren’t there. The peace was almost shattered by Travis who appeared as if he was about to dart off to give the rhinos a closer inspection! Luckily, we managed to stop him! It was a good opportunity to remind my wannabe ranger about how we respect wildlife and the dangers of approaching animals.
The following morning, we set off for Makakatana Bay Lodge, situated in the World Heritage Isimangaliso National Park. This delightful and unpretentious lodge is owner-managed. Their personal touches give a real warm and homely feel. I was particularly impressed by Leigh-Ann’s artwork adorning the walls and in the gift shop. This area is also unique as it is home to a range of biospheres and lies right on the coast. I wasn’t expecting the amount of wildlife we saw in the park. Another huge highlight was to see hyenas on our night drive. One of the hyenas was separated from the pack and had an injury on his hind leg. This upset Travis to no end, and for weeks after he kept talking about it and saying he hoped he was going to be okay. (Be still my beating heart!).
We headed out the following morning on a cruise on the estuary. There was not a breath of wind and we had an incredible skipper who let Travis take the helm. Kids don’t know how lucky they are! No-one ever asks an adult if they want to drive the boat or radio back to the lodge! We lost count of the number of hippos we saw, as well as many crocs and incredible birdlife. Granny although not a huge fan of water and boats, felt safe and relaxed on the pontoon.
Worth noting, when undertaking multi-generational trips is that not everyone has to take part in every activity if they don’t want to! If the grandparents would rather do some armchair game viewing from the comfort of their deck, while the adult kids go out on a bushwalk and the young’ uns prefer to hang in the kids’ club it is all possible and acceptable! There are no rules when it comes to the perfect holiday for the whole family. Many interests can be catered for at the same time!
We spent our final night at the Fairmont Zimbali Resort. This was luxury on a much larger scale. Think 5 pools, golf course, tennis courts and spa in the serene confines of a tranquil forest reserve. We had some cheeky breakfast guests as we ate outside the next morning. Vervet monkeys were awaiting any opportunity to grab some fruit off an unsuspecting diners’ plate! Although I know they can be a headache for hotel staff, they are ever so cute and kept the kids highly amused.
While I was working, (because someone has to), Granny and grandson befriended one of the golf cart drivers who took them to the various pools and playground areas. They both took great pride in being the ones showing me around the resort the next day as that is usually my forte! We managed to squeeze in some beach time on the gorgeous stretch of golden sand. The sea is very rough along this rugged coastline so we only dipped our toes. We had a last swim or 7 in the many pools before we had to head back to King Shaka Airport. We dropped off our trusty steed at the car hire depot – again an effortless procedure, and checked in for our onward flight.
Although we were a group of only 3, so could all comfortably fit in one suite, we have done other larger family trips. The great thing about so many Africa properties is that they can be booked on an exclusive basis. Meaning your family group can take over the whole lodge privately. There are properties with as little as 3 or 4 rooms which are ideal for smaller groups. But regardless of how many in your party, exclusive use can easily be arranged. Many establishments have private family villas with interconnecting rooms. Although they are still part of the main property they come with added benefits. Private game vehicles, guides and personal chefs, all offer so much more flexibility. You still have access to all the facilities of the main lodge, but should you choose to dine on your own you can!
You would be excused for thinking that having a private villa would cost a small fortune. But for a family group, it can more often work out as a more affordable option than individual hotel rooms!
We have a heap of suggestions when it comes to planning extended family trips in Africa. Encouraging togetherness and inspiring a sense of wonder are just a few ways we aim to make every moment count.
Tips for Self-Driving in South Africa
- Don’t skimp on your car hire by getting the cheapest and smallest vehicle. Rather opt for an SUV with air-con and an automatic vehicle if you are not used to driving stick.
- Make sure you read the small print and are aware of all the insurance clauses, liabilities and excesses. It is better to have cover and to not need it than to be under-insured and end up in a fender bender! It’s a sure way to ruin any road trip!
- Check the vehicle thoroughly for any dents and scratches before you head off and take photos with date stamps if necessary.
- Don’t follow the directions on the GPS. Always follow the directions given to you by the lodge. ALWAYS!
- Take regular breaks. On average you should be stopping every 2 hours if driving long distances. Stretch your legs, refuel – both yourself and the car and whatever you do don’t speed. The fines will find you, even if you live on another continent!
- Always remember a big part of the fun is actually in the getting there. So, take the scenic route, look out the window, play eye-spy if you have to but enjoy the journey!