The Greater Kruger Area is probably the most visited destination in all of South Africa. The region, known as one of the best safari destinations in the world encompasses an area of 3 000 000 hectares and prides itself in being home to the Big Five as well as hundreds of reptile, bird and mammal species.
During our visit, we discovered that the Greater Kruger Area consists not only of the famous Kruger National Park, but includes a number of private game and nature reserves, including the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, Umbabat Wildlife Reserve, Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, the Timbavati Nature Reserve.
Our visit to the region began in the Timbavati Nature Reserve, where we spent 3 nights on a safari with Umlani Bushcamp.
Timbavati Nature Reserve
Formed in the 1950s, the Timbavati Game Reserve is an unfenced wilderness area located on the western boundary of the Kruger National Park. The reserve is privately owned by 48 individual members and offers visitors a vast area of more than 10,000 hectors of unspoilt African wilderness.
One of the major benefits of a safari in Timbavati Game Reserve is that guests can get an opportunity to get up close and personal with wildlife. Unlike in Kruger National Park, where cars must stay on marked roads, certified jeeps in Timbavati can go off-road and get as close as 6 meters away from the animals.
Low density of lodges and camps in Timbavati ensures that each section of the park is serviced by no more than 3-4 camps and lodges, so there are never more than a few cars at each sighting.
Inside Umlani Bushcamp
Umlani Bushcamp is one of the few camps in the central Timbavati region, founded in 1989 by Marco and Marie-Louise Schiess. The vision of Umlani was to blend in with the environment, so the camp is built from natural materials in a traditional African style.
Umlani is not a luxurious lodge, but a simple, yet comfortable bush camp, offering comfortable accommodation, great meals and a chance to reconnect with nature.
The camp consists of eight thatched-roof huts, a bush bar, a boma and restaurant area, a curio gift shop, and a pool overlooking the Nhlaralumi river.
The watering hole across the river (which stays dry outside fo the rainy season) offers wildlife a much-needed reprieve from the heat of the day and provides all-day entertainment to guests at camp. Elephants, baboons, and zebras are regular visitors. The bush bar and deck overlook the watering hole so you don’t have to wait for a game drive to experience some wildlife sightings.
Umlani Bushcamp is completely off-the-grid and operates on 100% alternative energy. But don’t fret, solar panels, lanterns and candles, provide sufficient light, hot water, and power to charge electronics while creating a romantic intimate atmosphere after dusk.
Inside the Huts
There are 3 types of huts at Umlani Bushcamp: Double Huts, Family Huts, and an Eco Hut. The huts are pretty minimalistic but offer all the comforts you need for a stay in the bush. Each hut has a double bed (the Family Hut has two additional single beds) with a mosquito net, a built-in closer/dresser, and an outdoor shower. Biodegradable natural refillable toiletries are also included as a part of room amenities.
We found the beds to be very comfy and the sounds of nature outside served as a perfect soundtrack to lull us to sleep every night.
One of the coolest features of the Umlani Bushcamp is also their Treehouse, located a few kilometres outside of camp at another watering hole. The treehouse is equipped with 2 double beds, a compostable toilet and mosquito nets and offers a unique sleep-out experience that’s available to guests at no extra charge.
The treehouse has to be booked in advance (and it’s popular), so we didn’t get a chance to spend a night there, but heard stories of amazing wildlife encounters experienced by some of our campmates that braved it out and spent the night among the animals.
We got a chance to spend an afternoon at the treehouse and loved the experience. There is something so exhilarating about observing wildlife from the treetops. In just a few hours at the treehouse, we enjoyed visits from impala and a bull elephant.
Food At Umlani Bushcamp
Despite being off the grid and located deep in the bush, Umlani Bushcamp serves great dishes as a part of their all-inclusive full board package. Each day we were treated to morning tea before our game drive, breakfast, lunch, a sundowner with our evening game drive and dinner in the evening. We loved that the restaurant didn’t use any individual packaging like sugar or butter to cut down on waste.
All meals consisted of a set buffet menu inspired by home-cooked South African cuisine. However, the chefs Monashe, Lineth and Dumsile, were more than happy to accommodate our vegetarian requests and other dietary needs.
There was no time to get bored at Umlani. Each day we were treated to a morning game drive which began at dawn and an evening game drive just before sunset.
Afternoons were spent enjoying the watering hole in front of the bush bar, or the pool overlooking the river. Some guests also opened to join a walking safari with a local guide and park ranger. There was no guarantee of seeing the wildlife of these walks (the animals rarely come out during the heat of the day), but these walks offered an interesting way to learn about animal tracking and the local flora.
The game drives were the highlight of every day. We shared the vehicle with other guests ( another great way to reduce congestion inside the park) and were accompanied by an experienced ranger with unsurpassed knowledge of the area and its wildlife, as well as a highly-skilled tracker, whose job was to keep an eye on tracks and animals hiding in the bush.
It took us just a few game drives to see the Big Five and lots of giraffes, zebras, impalas, and wildebeest. We were lucky to spot some unique, rare animals, like wild dogs, honeybadgers, and steenbok.
The highlight of our wildlife experience was a rare sighting of a large pride of lions feasting on a giraffe kill. We came across this scene on our first day at Umlani and had an opportunity to come back to it for the next 3 days and witness the slow disintegration of the kill first by lions, then hyenas and vultures. What a fascinating sight!
Conservation & Sustainability
We were pleased to learn that responsible tourism is at the heart of operations at Umlani Bushcamp. The camp is a Fair Trade Certified property with significant initiatives to minimize the impact on the environment and to empower the community at large.
Over 80% of the staff at Umlani Bushcamp comes from the local community and many have been employed at Umlani for decades. Training programs like the Ranger and Tracker apprentice program empower locals and allow them to step into employment opportunities previously unavailable to the local population.
Aside from the positive community impact, Umlani Bushcamp works hard to minimize its footprint on the natural environment. In addition to operating on 100% alternative energy sources and using 100% non-toxic and biodegradable toiletries and cleaning products, the camp also uses low-flow showerheads and toilets for water conservation, purchases all fresh, mostly organic, produce locally, recycles all waste and composts all organic waste on-site, and more. The staff also plant and maintain five indigenous trees per month in partnership with Greenpop.
We loved our time at Umlani Bushcamp and found it to be the perfect blend of comfort and bush experience. The opportunity to get as close as 6 meters away from wildlife provided us with some amazing sightings and a true appreciation of the incredible flora and fauna within the Greater Kruger Area.
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Disclaimer: We were guests of Umlani Bushcamp during our time in Timbavati Nature Reserve, but all opinions in this article are our own and have not been influenced by Umlani or their staff.