I recently wrote about my Kruger safari experiences, specifically self-drive versus private game lodge, and wanted to follow it up with an in-depth review of my full service lodge experience – and one of the best travel experiences I’ve had to date.
Many of us think of a safari as a once-in-a-lifetime event that costs tens of thousands of dollars. While those budget-blowing safari experiences are available – and are likely mind-blowing – more affordable options do exist. I came across Naledi Game Lodge when looking for a slightly more budget friendly option, but still a high end experience, during peak season over Christmas and overlapping local school holidays.
Tucked within the vastness of the Greater Kruger National Park is Balule Nature Reserve. Rugged, fertile and seemingly endless, Balule attracts a diverse range of animals, thanks in part to the lack of fences between it and Kruger proper. Just a stone’s throw from Hoedspruit Airport, Balule is inhabited by two dozen or so lodges including Naledi Game Lodge, which is comprised of two properties: Naledi Bush Lodge and Enkoveni Lodge.
Across both its properties Naledi offers 11 rooms, making it a relatively small operation. Enkoveni is the larger lodging of the two, while the Bush Lodge offers a more intimate experience with just three rooms on site. During my trip I stayed at Enkoveni so the following reflects that property exclusively.
Enkoveni is situated on the banks of the Ollifants River, a long stretch of water that transects Balule Nature Reserve. As a major source of water in the area, animals can often be seen along the banks of the river looking for a drink. The grounds of the lodge are stunning, with a large wooden deck overlooking the river and a swimming pool that offers a refreshing escape from the scorching afternoon heat. A few comfortable loungers are the perfect spot to hunker down with a good book.
The rooms are quite spacious, even the most affordable option, and many can fit upwards of five guests. The beds are large and comfortable, the bathrooms are well appointed with touches of luxury and each room has either a private patio or balcony. Even though you don’t end up spending a whole lot of time in your room, it’s so lovely that you kind of wish you could.
Hospitality is front and centre at Naledi Game Lodge. From the moment you arrive you’re instantly welcomed. The small team on staff are incredibly welcoming and go above and beyond to ensure your experience is the best possible. Everyone I encountered during my stay was friendly, accommodating and seemed genuinely delighted we were there.
The guests at Naledi are highly international with people coming from around the world to experience a Kruger safari. During our trip there was a mix of families and couples of all ages. You spend a lot of time with your fellow guests, both during shared meals and on safari, which generates a social atmosphere where everyone gets to know each other. The day’s safari sightings and other travel stories are shared at the dinner table each evening, a favourite conversation topic.
The meals, which are included in the nightly rate, are superb. The cooking staff take pride in the quality of the dishes, offering something different each day. Some are influenced by local flavours while others borrow from far off cultures. Meals are eaten communally, and the location and setup changes each time keeping it interesting from day to day. Further, each dinner is hosted by a member of staff such as the lodge manager or safari guides.
Naledi’s safari experiences are world class and the guides are phenomenal. The vehicles are open air and comfortable, seating up to nine guests, a driver and a tracker. The morning game drive begins at 6am after a quick coffee and a small snack. For three hours you’re transported throughout the nature reserve, while the guides work tirelessly to bring you face to face with the local inhabitants. They’re experts in the wildlife, birds and plant life that exist here, which adds an appreciated level of context to what you’re seeing. After a full breakfast you have a few hours to do what you’d like, with activities ranging from safari walks to spending the afternoon in a bird hide, or of course, just relaxing by the pool. After a filling lunch, you’re back in the safari vehicle at 3:30pm, and spend over four hours driving the rugged terrain. With the setting sun you stop at a scenic spot for a sundowner – a small snack and a drink – enjoyed off of the vehicle. Heading back once it’s dark, lit torches line the entrance to the lodge, dramatically welcoming you back. A five star dinner is presented shortly after, and after such a long day sleep is usually not too far behind.
Naledi excels on every front, from five star food and service to exciting game drives and other activities. If you’re keen on experiencing a safari in Kruger at a luxury private lodge, you can’t go wrong with Naledi Game Lodge. Next time I find myself in South Africa, it’ll be top of my list again.
Naledi Game Lodge photos by JP Bervoets and Lauren Barth