Lion Sightings in the Lap of Luxury at Thanda Safari

by | Feb 2, 2022 | KwaZulu-Natal, Lodging, Parks/Nature Reserves | 20 comments

A couple of weeks ago, I complained to a friend that I never have good big cat sightings when I go on safari. (I know it’s an absurd thing to complain about. But I’m a travel blogger in South Africa, after all.) The very next day, I received a last-minute invitation to Thanda Safari, a five-star game lodge in KwaZulu-Natal.

It’s a sign, I thought to myself. My bad big cat luck will end now. And it did.

Lion cubs at Thanda safari
We saw this litter of lion cubs during our first game drive at Thanda.

With or without the big cat sightings, a media invitation to Thanda Safari is a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to visit Zululand, the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal and the ancestral home of the Zulu nation. It was more beautiful than I could have imagined, especially at this time of year.

Green hills of Zululand
There’s been a lot of rain throughout South Africa this summer. The Zululand landscape was literally fluorescent green.

Thanda is one of the most luxurious game lodges I’ve ever visited. The service was impeccable, the food was delicious, the weather was perfect. And we got to stay at Thanda for three whole days, which meant six game drives — an incredible luxury for a safari holiday of this caliber.

I apologize in advance: This is going to be one of those posts in which I gush on and on about how great the trip was and show you a million photos, none of which do justice to the real thing. I have no choice though; this was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience and I must document the hell out of it.

My Stay at Thanda Safari

The Thanda reserve is about 14,000 hectares (nearly 35,000 acres). It was just us (a group of six journalists), the Thanda staff, a couple of other guests, and the animals on the reserve. I stayed in a luxury “bush suite” only slightly smaller than my entire house in Joburg, with my own plunge pool, spectacular indoor and outdoor showers, and a boardwalk leading out to a huge daybed overhanging the emerald green hills of Zululand.

Entrance to Thanda Safari Lodge
The entrance to the main lodge, which leads into the lounge area and the restaurant.
Entrance to my suite at Thanda
The entrance to my suite with a couple of nyala (a baby and a full-grown male) out front. There are always a few dozen nyala hanging around the lodge; they’re beautiful and totally harmless.
Bedroom at Thanda suite
The bedroom.
Thanda bathroom
This is only half of the bathroom.
Thanda plunge pool
While I have seen many photos of personal plunge pools, this was my first time actually experiencing one. (This picture also shows the boardwalk leading out to the daybed.) I cannot explain how nice it felt to take a dip in this pool in the heat of the afternoon. It was pure bliss. I wanted to marry my plunge pool.
View from the Thanda daybed
View from the daybed area, which I also loved.

Thanda has nine bush suites in the main section of the lodge, as well as a luxury tented camp and family-style villa (currently unoccupied) in other sections of the reserve. And there is a spa, of course. I had a fantastic massage there.

I would have been more than happy just to spend the days hanging around my gorgeous suite, eating gourmet meals and sipping great wine at the lodge, getting spa treatments, etc. But the Thanda game drives were another level of spectacular. We had fantastic guides — Ephraim, Ronnie, and Ben — who know the reserve like the backs of their hands and tracked down all the best animals for us every day. Ephraim and his crew, as well as the animals themselves, felt like family by the end of the trip.

Our head guide, Ephraim Mathe, shows us a rhino dung midden. Ephraim was a rockstar and I was even more star-struck when I learned he used to work as a game tracker for Lawrence Anthony, the Elephant Whisperer, whose book I just read.

The Animals of Thanda

We had so many amazing wildlife sightings on this trip: lions, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and many more. (Thanda has the Big Five and we saw all of them except a leopard.) I’ve tried my best to whittle down the photos but there are still a ton, especially of the elephants and lion cubs. I’ll break them down into sections so you can scroll past your least favorite animals, if you so choose.

Lions

Cubs! I think Ephraim said they’re about four months old.
Thanda lion cub
Thanda lion cub
We couldn’t get enough of these cubs and they seemed to enjoy looking at us, too (unlike the adult lions, who pointedly ignored us).
Note the uninterested lioness in the background.
Yawning lion cub
Is there anything cuter than a yawning lion cub? I think not.
Lion cub llitter
My only shot of the whole litter.
Lioness in an abandoned building
During a later drive we caught a brief glimpse of this regal lioness, grandmother to the cubs, in an abandoned building on the reserve.

Cheetahs

There are five cheetahs on the Thanda reserve, all of whom are collared as part of a conservation program. (Cheetahs are critically endangered.) We saw the same pair of brothers twice.

Cheetah brothers at Thanda
Like the adult lions, the adult cheetahs were supremely uninterested in us.
Cheetahs
It had been a while since I’d seen cheetahs up close. I had forgotten how beautiful they are.

Giraffe

Giraffe
I took many giraffe pictures but this one is my favorite.

Rhinos

Thanda has both white and black rhinos (black rhinos are quite rare in South Africa, and I was excited to glimpse one from a distance), also part of an active conservation program. Most of Thanda’s rhinos are de-horned to discourage poaching.

Rhinos at Thanda
Most of the rhinos we saw at Thanda were pretty far away, but we saw three white rhinos up close on our last morning.

Zebras

Zebras at Thanda
Baby zebras are freaking cute.

Elephants

There is no better game drive sighting than a big herd of elephants and we were lucky to visit two large herds, complete with several tiny, insanely adorable babies.

Male elephant at Thanda
We saw this guy, recognizable because of his uneven tusks, several times during the trip.
Male elephant
Same guy.
Elephant bathing in grass
The grass was so tall that the elephants were bathing in it. They all seemed to love doing this.
Herd of elephants
Frolicking young elephants at golden hour.
Young elephants playing
These two…
Baby elephant
Baby elephant holding grass
Elephant butts and tiny calf
Not a great photo of elephant butts but I had to include it because of the tiny calf, which Ephraim said was just a few weeks old. I had never seen a baby this small. (Newborn elephants are tricky to spot and photograph because the adult females tend to keep them close underfoot for safety.)
Baby elephant
Baby!

I’ve flooded you with too many words and photos. But I still don’t feel like I’ve sufficiently communicated how much I loved staying at Thanda. I am very, very lucky to be a travel blogger.

And thank you, Big Cat Gods, for ending my bad luck sighting streak.

Male grown lion

My trip to Thanda was courtesy of Thanda Safari (thank you thank you thank you), Ford South Africa (who provided a comfortable Ford Everest for our seven-hour drive to Zululand), and Theresa Gibbon PR. Opinions expressed are mine.

20 Comments

  1. Albert

    It looks like a wonderful trip and so lush and green!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes. It was hard for my eyes to comprehend that level of green-ness.

      Reply
  2. Rosemary Jamieson

    Wow! Thank you so much for sharing

    Reply
    • 2summers

      It’s a total pleasure.

      Reply
  3. Ruth

    You clearly had such a wonderful time there that I can’t even be envious!! Thank for the blog and the great photos! Mind you – can we have another one about the food please?? 🤣

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hahaha, the food was fantastic! I just wasn’t happy with the photos I took of it and didn’t want to overload my post with too much description. But the menus were all a la carte, with a choice of starter and main and one dessert for each meal. The thing I liked most was that there was nearly always a fish offering, and I took that every time because I LOVE fish.

      Reply
  4. Wendy Isabelle

    What a wonderful post! Feel so grateful to have spent 13 years in Zululand xx

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I had never been north of Durban before this. It was so pretty! Already mentally planning my next trip there.

      Reply
  5. dizzylexa

    What a great opportunity, your photos of the lion cubs are awesome.

    Reply
  6. Anneliese Cianfanelli

    hello Heather, thank you for bringing this wonderland and experience into my very own home to enjoy, I totally share your enthusiasm. I would like to encourage you to keep up this special and important work you do. Thank you

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks so much, Anneliese. I hope you’re doing well.

      Reply
  7. Enrique

    Fantastic photos and great write-up of a well-deserved safari. Zululand is amazing. If you have a chance, try to see the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi reserve, Cape Vidal/iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and the Kosi Bay and lakes area. Truly some of the most spectacularly beautiful parts of South Africa.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks Enrique. Yep, those places are definitely high on my list! I’m looking forward to going back to that region very soon.

      Reply
  8. Nancy McDaniel

    Looks like a wonderful safari camp and the green, yay! And those cubbies are completely adorable – wonderfully close too (as well as the baby ele). Looks like a great trip – so happy for you (did poor Thorsten have to stay home?)

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks Nancy! Yes, Thorsten had to stay home 🙁

      Reply
  9. AutumnAshbough

    Well. I know where I want to go on safari now. Is this the best time of year?

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Well, it depends on what you like. Winter (in this part of South Africa) is actually better for spotting animals because there is less vegetation for them to hide in (and they have to go to the big water holes to find water. But the lush green is so beautiful!

      Reply
  10. Hitekani Mbatsana

    Reading this, my wanderlust reminds me it’s been way to long since I’ve been on Safari. Beautiful photos.

    Reply

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