Travel Report Balule (South Africa)
Located west of Kruger National Park, the 40,000+ hectare Balule Game Reserve covers most of the Olifants West Nature Reserve (OWNR). Balule, along with Timbavati, Umbabat and Klaserie, is part of the Greater Kruger National Park – in addition to the park’s two million hectares, hundreds of thousands of hectares of South Africa’s private reserves, with open borders, extend the wildlife habitat.
At the award-winning Pondoro Game Lodge, guests can expect an intimate and luxurious safari adventure like no other.
Where is Balule Game Reserve located in South Africa?
How to get to Balule
The journey usually takes place by plane from Johannesburg. By plane it is the airport of Hoedspruit (about 50min flight time). This can also be approached directly from Cape Town (approx. 2.5h flight time).
Alternatively, you can take the car from Johannesburg and then it is 5-6h driving time,
The airport is cute little and the luggage is still delivered by hand.
Pondore Game Lodge in Balule Game Reserve
Pondoro Game Lodge is located in the Balule Game Reserve. The reserve is located north of Timbavati and the journey takes about 2 hours. Balule is still little known and little developed, although over 30 years old. The entrance gate is so inconspicuous that one could drive past it quickly. On a mogul road, which demands a lot from our SUV, we reach the lodge after just under 16km, which is located directly on the Oliphant River. We have booked the Watersuite and find this, next to the Earth and Tree best. The Watersuite has the best bathroom and the best view of the river, but the furnishings are rather cool.
In the lodge you can move freely during the day, in the evening only guided.
The suites are very large and spacious and you also have a Jacuzzi on the terrace. Also the interior, like the whole lodge is colonial African and you immediately have the feeling of being on safari.
The main lodge has a viewing deck where meals are taken, a library and bar lounge, a pool area and also a spa area. The lodge is about 25 years old but in very good shape and the food is also very good, as you would expect for a 4 star lodge.
The safari drives are done with Land Cruisers and with max 6 people per vehicle. Unfortunately, the cars themselves are no longer the most modern and on the very bumpy and stony roads you notice the not so good damping. But our guide Sam and the tracker Dun are very experienced and do their best.
The game viewing itself is very good and the area nicely varied.
Overall a great situated lodge, with lots of privacy, very good food, friendly staff and great game drives, where a lot of effort is made to give the guests an exclusive safari experience. The spa treatments are also good and priced OK.
Sample itinerary for 14 days on safari with various Private Game Reserves at Kruger Park.
The lodges that we present you in the following for the Sabi Sands and Timbavati you can then simply exchange in the proposal, as well as the number of nights vary:
- 1 night in Unembeza Hoedspruit
- 3 nights in Pondoro Game Lodge (Balule)
- 3 nights at Makanyi Lodge (Southern Timbavati)
- 2 nights at Nkorho Lodge (northern Sabi Sands)
- 4 nights at Inyati Game lodge (southern Sabi Sands)
- 1 night Protea by Marriott Kruger Easgate
What to remember when traveling to Kruger Park South Africa:
Local currencies: South Africa = ZAR (South African Rand), but even here USD are gladly taken in the lodges. On the other hand, credit card payments work everywhere without problems.
Vaccinations: Coming from Germany, no vaccinations are required except COVID-19 – not even yellow fever. However, the standard vaccinations are recommended, so follow suggestions from the Foreign Office. Malaria prophylaxis is valid for the Kruger Park South Africa, i.e. here everyone must weigh for itself whether or not.
Helpful: A small pocket knife and a strong flashlight with spare batteries are often very useful. The cell phone flashlight does it in a pinch, but often does not shine far enough.
Clothing: In the lodges in Africa you can usually have your clothes washed for free or for a small extra charge. I.e. you can save a lot of luggage. In any case, choose muted colors and preferably functional clothing, as it can be very cool in the morning and warm to hot during the day.
What photo equipment should you take with you?
The least you should have with you is a smartphone with a good camera. Even if you don’t believe it, for many animal encounters the photo but especially the video qualities are more than sufficient,
For the ambitious photographer this will not be enough. So at least a DSLR or one of the newer mirrorless cameras it should be then.
You can see our camera choice at the end of the article but basically you should have at least a telephoto lens and a wide-angle with you and who can afford it, gladly also Lichtstark.
For example, the Nikon 200-400 VR II is the lens of our choice. It’s a real heavyweight (over 3kg) and you carry a lot around with it. Walking around all day with it, no chance. But in the safari van, it’s a different story. Fast focus, super sharp, great contrast and built like a tank.
Before the trip think about which animals you want to focus on and choose the lenses accordingly
I would also call the Nikon 200-400 f/4 queen of twilight. Especially early in the morning or at dusk, which are usually exactly the times of animal observation on safaris. This is where the Nikon 200-400 VR II with its f/4 aperture clearly shows its true strength. So much light comes through the monstrous front lens that the AF always hits, even when you feel it’s already dark. ISO rarely needs to be higher than 3200.
At many lodges you can also rent these lenses and it doesn’t cost much (with pre-order before arrival from Africa Photographic Services).
For most Private Game Reserves (e.g. Timbavati, Balule, Madikwe or Marataba) 400mm is sufficient, because you can drive “offroad” and get very close to all animals. For this reason, you should consider well before the safari in what kind of area you will be on the road and plan your lenses carefully.
How do game drives work in the different safari lodges?
The safari days basically all run according to the same pattern. 05:30am wake up, 06:00am the first game drive, with breakfast coffee. Here, the cocoa Amarula coffee should be mentioned as a highlight. Then at 09:30am breakfast, 13:00 noon, 15:30 high tea and at 16:00 departure for the evening game drive. Times vary slightly depending on the lodge.
Return then around 19:00hrs (depending on what you have just discovered) and then straight to the bar for the exchange of the day with the other guests. At good lodges, the menu is presented by the “chef” personally, including wine recommendation (at Makanyi a highlight) and after dinner it usually goes directly to bed.
The time between the game drives you have for yourself, you can do sports, sleep, relax or whatever. As a photographer, of course, you also use the time to take pictures around the lodge, because there is also a “wildlife” here.
Tips for choosing lodges
We always rely on AST travel agency here when it comes to South Africa, Botswana or Namibia. The travel agency has an employee on site (the enchanting Mrs. Csar), who knows most of the lodges and is always available with advice and support. When choosing a lodge, you should ask not only which lodge you like, but also how big the driving area is, if there is a tracker and a ranger per vehicle, what the maximum number of guests per vehicle is and if the lodge is specialized in photographers (e.g. Makanyi is such a lodge).
Good if the guide knows something about photography
This way you don’t have to constantly explain to the guide why the light is better coming from “behind”, if possible. Also important, although not easy to find out, is the density of wildlife and whether private vehicles are allowed to drive in the area, which is not the case in the Tegel at the Private Game Reserves, dadruch these are “quieter” but also significantly more expensive.
What to watch out for as a Safari newbie
For the safari novice all these points are less important, because it is always exciting to see wild animals for the first time. This excitement does not diminish with increasing experience, but one becomes more demanding in terms of good game drives and lodges. Therefore another tip. Good lodges are not cheap, but it makes a huge difference whether you sit in the car with max. 6 people or with 10 people.
How to recognize good lodges
Good lodges are organized in such a way that there are never more than 2 vehicles per sighting and allow the guests enough time for observation. In addition, the guides are top trained and respond to the wishes of the guests. You never have the feeling that you are being dispatched.
Maximum 3, maximum 4 nights stay in a lodge
With the experience we have made, you should stay max 4 nights in a lodge, because you have usually explored the area sufficiently after 3 days. Of course, exciting things can still happen on day 4 and 5, it is wildlife, but for you it is simply more exciting to discover new things and usually most of the other guests are only there for a maximum of 3 nights, so that the lodges have adjusted their program to this.
Order calendar from our photo trip?
What photo equipment for South Africa?
The photo equipment we took to South Africa is listed below. In addition, you have the possibility to order your photo equipment directly via our Photo-Store and to request further technical details. There you can also find a lot of extras.
- Z7ii (Nikon)
- D850 (Nikon) mit Batteriegriff
- Iphone 12pro
- 200-400mm f/4 (Nikon)
- 24-70 f/2.8 (Tamron)
- 70-200mm f/4 (Nikon)
- FTZii Adapter