When I was looking into which safari excursion to take, instead of spending HOURS researching online, I decided to ask my South African coworker, who told me he used &beyond’s Ngala reserve. When I first looked at the price, I was a bit shocked. I knew a safari lodge would be expensive, but man, $800 a night for my wife and I seemed like A LOT. And it’s not like I could have used points for the stay, so I decided to just pony up and book it.
They do have 2 options – the cabins and the tents. The tented community is adults-only and a bit more private and also more expensive. We decided to just go for the lodges; when we were there, we were surrounded by families as well as couples. A couple of times we were annoyed at the teenage boys running around the lodge, but for the most part, it was fine. You can decide which option to pick.
When I emailed them asking about dates and availability, they did tell me that they were running a promotion whereby I would get 25% off if I booked 4 nights. PERFECT! Four nights was what I was going to book anyway.
Best time to go and duration of stay
I had booked this trip for late June. Later I learned from my coworker that the best time to go to South Africa would have been in February/March, where the weather is nearly perfect. However, because it’s spring time in Feb/March, that means safari won’t be as great because the grass would be high and it’s harder to see the animals. If I went during the winter months (our June/July), then it’d be the middle of winter, and while it’d be cold, it’s a better time for safari viewing. Well, if I’m flying half way across the world for safari viewing, so I’ll put up with the cold weather.
I also later learned during my stay that most people average 3 nights at the safari lodge. We chose to go for 4 nights, which I think was perfect. If you go for 3 nights for your first time, you may miss one of the ‘big 5’ animals (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo.) As I’m writing this, after just leaving the lodge, 4 nights is PERFECT. If you want to do longer, I suggest you move to different regions/lodges so that you may have a higher chance to see different animals (especially rhinos due to all the poaching)
Another note – when you are booking a safari, you should look for private reserves. The reason for that is because if you go to a national park like Kruger, you will not be able to go off-road. Going off-road is important if you want to watch a lion stalk it’s prey or something. Other people I talked to also recommended doing a private reserve, so whether you choose Ngala or not, just make sure you ask them if they are able to go ‘off-road.’
Getting to Ngala
When you email &Beyond, they will give you options on how to get to the game reserve. We could have chosen to take a private plane to a landing strip that is about 10 minutes away from the game reserve. That option was a bit too expensive for us, so we just booked with South African Airways to go from JNB-HND. We also could have driven from Joburg to the game reserve, but that would have taken 6-8 hours, which is a good portion of our vacation. We were also going to Cape Town afterwards, so we booked as our itinerary JNB-HND-CPT and that cost about $500 per person. Expensive, I know. There was no Star Alliance availability either, so I just used my Barclay’s Arrival on it. By the way, as an unexpected surprise, I was able to redeem Arrival points for the safari reserve stay.
We were also able to arrange with &Beyond an airport transfer from the airport to the game reserve. We could have rented a car, but it was fairly cheap to reserve the transfer, and I didn’t want anything to do with driving, so I decided to book the transfer as well.
Arriving at Ngala
The airport transfer to the reserve was very nice. The airport is the smallest airport I’ve ever been to (even smaller than the one on Bora Bora). Once we stepped outside, our guide was there with a sign for the lodge. We waited for our bags to arrive, and he loaded it into the van. We were the only ones on the van even though our flight was 100% full. In the van were drinks in a cooler to refresh us for the 1 hour ride to the reserve.
Once you arrive at the reserve, you are welcome with hot towels and a complimentary drink. This is where you meet Connie, aka ‘mama,’ who is the nicest woman you will ever meet. She will give you check-in instructions and introduce you to your butler, who will help you with your bags to your room. Once in the room, he will go over the details of the room with you. There are no keys to the room; the only thing you have is a safe to keep your valuables. I wasn’t sure how I felt about not having a room key, but after the first couple of days, you realize that you are in a very trustworthy environment. I still would have preferred room keys (sorry, I’m paranoid like that,) but all in all, you should be fine. The most important thing your butler will tell you is that you must latch your door every time you leave or come back since the baboons know how to open doors, and they will tear up your room!
Did I mention that the reserve is in an open environment? You must have a security guard walk you around at night since the wild animals have been known to walk around the reserve. While we were there, there were sightings of a female leopard around the camp. They have a watering hole in camp, where you can see water buffalo, deer-like animals, and even elephants come to drink. Thus, it’s cool to see and safe during daylight hours, but at night, you are best staying in your room.
The schedule at camp during the winter months was this:
- 05:30AM – Wake up call
- 06:00AM – Coffee and snacks before going out on the game drive
- 06:00AM – Game drive. During the game drive, they will pack snacks and drinks for a mid-morning picnic
- 09:00AM – Arrive back and eat breakfast buffet (you can also order ala carte hot items like eggs)
- 01:00PM – Lunch buffet
- 03:00PM – Game drive. Once again, they will pack snacks and drinks
- 06:30PM – Arrive back at camp
- 07:00PM – Dinner (3 courses) or buffet, depending on day of week
The Game Drive
The game drive consisted of a ranger, who would drive the car and a tracker, who would sit at the front of the vehicle looking for tracks on the ground. Since Ngala is a private reserve, it’s not fenced in. Therefore, animals can roam off of the property and back on. However, Ngala is MASSIVE, and so you are sure to see at least 4 out of the ‘big 5’, with the rhino being one of the tougher animals to see due to poachers.
The animals, while they are wild, are actually accustomed to the green safari vehicle. It’s not uncommon to have a lion walk within a few feet of the vehicle. Even when the loud engine noise comes on, the animals sometime don’t even react to it. Some animals will even use the shadow of the vehicle as a resting spot like a wild dog did once on our drive. Of course you are instructed to never feed the animals and to keep all of your appendages within the confines of the vehicle. Once, our ranger was off the truck looking for tracks when all of a sudden, a lion walks by the truck 30 feet away. When the lion saw the ranger, it actually ran away.
On our game drive, we went off-road a couple of times. One time, it was to follow a pride of 4 lionesses and 7 baby cubs. The lionesses were on the hunt since they were clearly hungry. We followed them through some shrubs and bushes, and we could tell they were stalking prey. We even got close to one of them while it was waiting for its prey. All of a sudden, we saw 4 deer-like animals run by, and the lioness took off. Unfortunately, she and the pride were not able to secure a kill. That was the only kill attempt we saw. With the people we talked to, seeing a kill is pretty rare and depends on luck. It’s hard enough to find the lions in the first place, but to find them while they are on the hunt instead of sleeping 16 hours a day, is a stroke of luck.
Every time we got back from a game drive, there was someone there with a hot towel and drinks to freshen you up. One of the managers (?), Steven was always at breakfast, lunch, and dinner just to check up how you were doing. We have been to 5 star hotels before and never once have we seen a manager constantly walking around and checking up on you. He even helped make an ala carte salad one night; he was very hands-on, and we really appreciated his attentiveness.
The cleaning staff cleaned our room every time we went out on a game drive. They will even do your laundry for free! There was no TV in the room, and really, there wasn’t a time when we wished we had a TV. If you wanted entertainment, just look out on the reserve. Due to our jetlag and the fact that we woke up at 5:30AM every day, we promptly fell asleep after dinner.
The reserve has 5 chefs that rotate on meal cooking. Every meal was slightly different and good. There wasn’t a single meal that I thought wasn’t good. On our first and 3rd nights there, we had a 3 course ala-carte menu where you chose a soup or salad and a choice of meats. On the 2nd and 4th nights, it was more of a buffet style dinner. On these dinners, your ranger ate with you, which was great since they could share stories with you.
You have a personal ‘butler’ who mostly waited on you at meals. Our butler Noel was very nice and remembered our drink orders.
On one lunch, the reserve held it out in the “wild.” We thought it was a nice touch instead of eating at the same lodge back at camp. I think it’s these little touches that made the safari great.
Did I mention the entire safari was open-bar? Liquor, beer, wine… there was never a time where you were thirsty.
On our last dinner with our ranger, he said that he actually drove Justin Bieber around when he visited years back. That’s how you know you’re in a “baller” safari. If you have the budget for it, I would highly recommend &Beyond and this Ngala safari reserve. I don’t get any kickbacks for this review; I just loved my stay and would recommend it to all of my friends and readers.