Travel Report Timbavati (South Africa)
The Timbavati Game Reserve in South Africa is definitely our favorite game viewing area in South Africa, closely followed by Sabi Sands, see other travel report.
The approximately 53,000 hectare Timbavati Game Reserve is part of the Greater Kruger Area. Since the entire area is unfenced, the resident wildlife, including the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant) can move freely between the reserve and the Kruger National Park. Game viewing at Timbavati Game Reserve is among the best in southern Africa.
The Timbavati Game Reserve is pleasant in every way. It is much less “crowded” than Sabi Sands, the roads are easy to drive, making the drives more pleasant, and the sightings overall are very good.
Which lodges do we recommend in the Timbavati Game Reserve ?
We have done several trips to the Timbavati and have visited all the lodges listed. We recommend not more than 2 lodges per visit in one area and these should also be further apart so that you cover different driving areas. So e.g. one lodge in the south and one in the north during one visit. This can then be perfectly combined with other areas like Sabi Sands or Balule.
We only recommend lodges that we have visited ourselves. In the Timbavati these are the following, which we describe in detail below:
- Kings Camp
- Tanda Tula
- Rockfig Safari Lodge
- Makanyi Safari Lodge
- Thabamati Lodge
- &Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge
Where are the safari lodges located in the Timbavati Game Reserve?
Arrival to Timbavati
The journey usually takes place by plane from Johannesburg. By airplane it is the airport of Hoedspruit approx. 50min flight time). This can also be approached directly from Cape Town (about 2.5 hours flying time).
Alternatively, you can take the car from Johannesburg and then it is 5-6h driving time,
The airport is cute and small and the luggage is delivered by a tractor with trailer.
Sample itinerary for 14 days on safari with various Private Game Reserves at Kruger Park.
The lodges that we present to you in the following for the Timbavati you can then simply exchange in the proposal, as well as the number of nights vary:
- 1 Night Protea Hotel Kruger Gate – Protea Hotel Kruger Park by Marriott
- 3 Nights Inyati Game Lodge (Südliches Sabi Sands) – Inyati Safari Lodge
- 4 Nights Rockfig Safari Lodge (Nödliches Timbavati) – Rockfig Safari Lodge
- 3 Nights Pondoro Game Lodge (Balule) – Pondoro Safari Lodge)
- 3 Nights &Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge (Ngala Reserve) – &beyond Ngala Safari Lodge
What you should think about prior departure to Makanyi in South Africa:
Local currencies: US dollars are widely accepted. If possible, take small USD bills for tip, which is expected in USD. South Africa = ZAR (South African Rand), but here too USD is welcome in the lodges. Otherwise, credit card payment works smoothly everywhere.
Vaccinations: Coming from Germany are no vaccinations – even yellow fever not – prescribed. However, the standard vaccinations are recommended, see suggestions Foreign Office.
Luggage: When traveling by small african aircraft, you should pay attention to “soft” luggage (i.e. sports bags) and the weight limit. The photo equipment should definitely be taken on board (!)
You need a Visa
Visa: Can be bought at arrival at the airport
Helpful: A small pocket knife and a strong flashlight with spare batteries are often very useful. The cell phone flashlight does it too, but often does not shine far enough.
Clothing: For South Africa, we used functional clothing and sturdy shoes, although this time we decided for slightly less warm things. In most lodges in Africa you can usually wash your clothes for free or for a small additional charge.
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 truth. 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 car, 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. Sabi Sabi, Madikwe or Marataba) 400mm is sufficient, because you can drive off-road and get very close to all animals. For this reason, you should think carefully 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.
Die Zeit zwischen den Game Drives hat man für sich zur Verfügung, kann Sport machen, Schlafen, Relaxen oder was auch immer. Als Fotograf nutzt man die Zeit natürlich auch, um Bilder rund um die Lodge zu machen, denn auch hier gibt es eine „Tierwelt“.
Travel to Timbavati via Hoedspruit
Hoedspruit is a city in the South African province of Limpopo. It is situated at the foot of the Little Drakensberg Mountains, the northern foothills of the Drakensberg.
Hoedspruit is the ideal starting point for a safari in Timbavati Game Reserve.
The town has grown steadily in recent years. Hoedspruit is also home to the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate, where our first lodge proposal is located. Unembeza. Ideal to relax and first “arrive”.
Unembeza Boutique Lodge & Spa
Unembeza Boutique Lodge & Spa has a total of 13 luxurious, well-appointed rooms that provide a modern African feel. Amenities at the lodge include an open fire pit, an elevated viewing deck, and a large pool with sundeck.
n the Unembeza Bush Spa, guests can relax with a traditional African massage and enjoy the tranquility of the African bush. In addition, the lodge offers both indoor and outdoor dining areas where a hearty breakfast is served in the morning, a light lunch at noon and an excellent 4-course dinner in the evening.
The lodge offers various activities, such as horseback safaris, hot air balloon rides and excursions to the Panorama Route.
The 13 rooms at Unembeza Lodge all have en suite bathrooms and offer private balconies and/or terraces with beautiful views. They are also equipped with air conditioning, a mosquito net, a coffee and tea maker and a safe. The lodge also offers free Wi-Fi.
Best Lodges in Timbavati
Kings Camp in the northern part of the Timbavati Reserve
Kings Camp is the “mother” of all safari camps in the Timbavati and was one of the first camps ever. Here you still experience the colonial flair of the last century and if you think of a safari, here it comes true.
Kings Camp is situated on a waterhole overlooking an open savannah plain, frequented by a variety of wildlife during the day and night. The newest highlight is a state-of-the-art “hide” that allows photographers to shoot from a low angle right at the waterhole. Unique to Timbavati.
Managers Warren and Lisha Moore have been running the camp for over 30 years and if you want to call a lodge “home” it is Kings Camp.
The main camp consists of six luxury suites, one luxury family suite, and two honeymoon suites, all offering modern amenities and magnificent views of the African bush. The luxury and honeymoon suites each have private plunge pools and comfortable outdoor lounge areas.
Additional Info for the Hide, The Kings Warrenm as it is called:
The Kings Warren offers comfortable seating for up to 10 people, air-conditioning, power outlets for charging devices, a refreshment station, large windows with single-sided photo glass, and two cameras broadcasting to flat-screen TVs to alert photographers of approaching wildlife.
The food is excellent and both breakfast and dinner are often eaten in other locations (e.g., the boma or in the middle of the bush).
Rockfig Safari Lodge im northern Timbavati Reserve
Rockfig Safari Lodge is a small and exclusive lodge with only 6 suites and max 16 guests. The safari cars are occupied with max 4 guests (!) there are Land Rovers and Land Cruisers used – which is very rare. Rockfig Safari Lodge is rather modern, offers all the luxury you could wish for and has an infinity pool. Since all suites are in the “protected” area you can move around freely at night and don’t have to be escorted to your room. We had Martin as driver and Isac as tracker. Both very experienced. Martin is also the manager of the lodge.
Breakfast is served daily at a site near the lodge and this is right after the Morning Game Drive. A great experience.
The lodge is absolutely Spirze and is definitely one of our favorite lodges along with Makanyi. Due to the intimacy and closeness, you feel like you are with a family and that makes it very pleasant.
During the morning and evening trips, care is taken to make sure that the stops for coffee and sundowners are in beautiful places.
The food is of a very high standard and different every day. Sometimes buffet, sometimes seated and you sit either with the other guests or alone, just as you like. At the boma in the evening the safari experiences are exchanged.
Overall, 5 out of 5 stars and a big thank you to Martin and the entire team for an unforgettable stay.
Thabamati Luxury Tented Camp in southern Timbavati, near Makanyi
Thabamati Luxury Tented Camp is part of Shindzela Tented Camp and is their newest camp. Both camps are owned by the same family.
Thabamati, which means “mountain and water”, became a reality in 2019. The camp consists of 4 luxurious and spacious en-suite safari style tents, each overlooking a beautiful dam and stunning views of the Drakensberg Mountains beyond. The elegant, intimate tented camp accommodates only 8 guests, which is an added attraction.
The tents offer every luxury imaginable however no air conditioning, only fans. Since the tents are “open” ma not only has a great view, but also hears the jungle sounds at night, as if you were sleeping under the open sky.
The food is top notch and you eat on the pool terrace with a great view. Since there is only a maximum of 8 guests, the lodge has the only safari vehicle with 8 seats in 4 rows. The last row practically “floats” behind the car. A bit hard to get used to, but also OK.
In this lodge you can combine rest, pool vacation and safari experience and switch off completely. A unique experience with excellent hosts who make it hard to say goodbye.
Makanyi in the southern Timbavati Reserve
Makanyi is one of the top luxury lodges in the southeastern Timbavati Game Reserve. From the airport it is about 1h drive by car or transfer.
Makanyi Safari Lodge is a gracious but understated sanctuary of tranquility that rivals the magic of the bush that surrounds it. Seven huge suites and one magnificent family suite blend seamlessly into their surroundings, providing the space and time to fully relax. 2 suites have their own small pool.
The safari vehicles are luxurious and there is a maximum of 2 people per row in the vehicle, which seats a maximum of 6 people.
&BEYOND Ngala Safari Lodge at Kruger Park South Africa
Ngala Game Reserve is actually a game reserve in its own right, but is counted as part of the Timbavati. The special feature is that this reserve is only accessible for guests of the &Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge (where we booked) and the even more exclusive &Beyond Ngala Tented Camp. The drive from Orpen Gate takes about 45min. The lodge offers accommodation for 44-50 guests, which is clearly too big for us.
For guests with a lot of safari experience the lodge is something only because of the possibility to see the only free living white lions, otherwise rather not. The rooms too much hotel, no view, dark, the neighbors can look in. Food is good but well below the level of all other lodges visited. The staff is very accommodating.
The guides are very particular and the trackers jump in the car at every sighting, which is sold as “&beyond standard” but we have never experienced it that way. This means that you often miss the opportunity to take good photos at the sightings.
For safari newcomers, one can easily recommend &beyond Ngala safari lodge, they explain every stick and stone and are very concerned about the welfare of guests. The roads are on the level of a road and you literally glide along. Ngala Safari Lodge itself is getting on in years. Well maintained with flaws (stains and holes in the towels and in the rooms clear signs of wear). Overall significantly over rated for the price and if it wasn’t for the elephants and white lions it would definitely not be a recommendation.
Also, the fact that Ngala fills up its also aging Land Cruisers with up to 9 people does not necessarily speak for the &Beyond Group.
We had promised ourselves a lot from &beyond, but in the end it was unfortunately the worst of all lodges, if you subtract the white lions, the first-class pool deck and the elephants coming there to drink.
Tips to select your lodge
We always rely on a travel agency AST, when it comes to South Africa, Botswana or Namibia.
The travel agency has a local employee (the enchanting Mrs. Csar), who knows most of the lodges and is always on hand to help and advise. Some things you may ask before booking: how big is the game area belonging to the lodge, do they use a tracker and a ranger per vehicle, which is the maximum number of guests per vehicle.
Some Lodges are special for photographers
You can also check, whether a lodge has specialized in photographers (Makanyi, for example is, because every ranger at the same time is a photographer – at least as a hobby and you can borrow equipment, you could even photography classes).
Also you do not have to constantly explain the guide why the light is better from the “back”. Also important, although not easy to find out is the wildlife density and whether private vehicles are allowed to drive in the area, which is usually not the case in the Private Game Reserves, which is why these are “quieter” but also significantly more expensive.
If it is your first safari
Good lodges are not cheap, but it makes a huge difference, if you have 4-6 people or 10 people sitting in the car.
Great lodges are organized in a way that there are never more than 2 vehicles per sighting on site, leaving enough space for the animals and time for guests to observe. In addition, the guides are top trained.
You never have the feeling that you are being processed. To our experiences one should stay max. 4 nights in a lodge, since you have discovered the area after 3 days.
Of course something new can happen on day 4 and 5 too, it’s wildlife, but for yourself it’s just more exciting to discover new things elsewhere and usually most of the other guests are there for a maximum of 3 nights too, so the lodges have adjusted their programs accordingly.
Many lodges, especially those that have discovered photographers as safari participants for themselves, now install so-called “Hides” (observation stations at ground level) near your water holes. For the ambitious photographer this is top (see my pictures from Mashatu in Botswana).Kings Camp also has an absolutely perfect Hide since 2023. Definitely worth a visit.
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Which Photoequipment for Timbavati South Africa?
The photographic equipment that we brought to Timbavati South Africa can be found below. In addition, you have the opportunity to order the used photographic equipment directly through our photo shop and to request further technical details. There are also a lot of extras.