This was my first trip to South Africa, and it far exceeded my expectations. I spent three days at the Thornybush Game Lodge and went on six amazing safari game drives. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would see so many animals so up-close.
The animals were everywhere — they were unfenced, free to roam, and mostly oblivious to us camera wielding tourists. I loved seeing the big 5 animals, but there are many reasons to visit South Africa.
Thornybush Game Drives – One For The Bucket List
How To Do a Thornybush Safari
Every morning, beginning at 5 AM, and every evening, beginning around 4 PM, we headed out for 2-3 hours in a totally open Toyota Land Cruiser driven by a ranger and guided by a tracker. The Land Cruiser really was totally open: no doors, no windows, no roof, and no roll bars. We had a completely unobstructed view.
Our guide quite frequently went off road into the bush over trees and logs and down dry riverbeds. More than once, we were completely surrounded by elephants as they paraded in front of us and circled around behind us. I don’t have the words to explain how incredible this was, and, except for one cranky bull in musk, the elephants ignored us.
Chasing The Big 5 Animals In South Africa
Elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, and Cape buffalo are the Big 5. This term is from the bad old days, when South African animals were frequently hunted for sport; these were the most prestigious to kill because they were the most dangerous to hunt. Although most of us only shoot with cameras now, the term is still used in safari ads.
We saw all five at Thornybush, and we also saw much much more. There were several varieties of antelope (including impala, wildebeests, and kudu), several varieties of birds, baboons, crocodiles, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, monkeys, wild dogs, and zebras.
Thornybush Game Reserve and Lodge
The Story of Thornybush
Thornybush Nature Reserve was originally created for big game hunters, but now it’s strictly for viewing and photography. The reserve is in the Lowveld savannah adjacent to Kruger National Park. Thornybush Game Lodge and other lodges in the area are private eco-lodges and are essential to supporting the animals and the reserve they thrive on.
Thornybush Game Lodge:
Thornybush Game Lodge overlooks the seasonally dry Monwana River. The rooms are individual bungalows that line the riverbank like a string of pearls. The bungalows are large, plush, and comfortable, and they have beautiful views of the riverbed and the animals, especially a cheeky troop of baboons, who hangout there.
The food at the lodge is really great too with lots of dishes prepared using fruits and vegetables from local community gardens. This is another win for the game reserve because local growers sell their produce to the lodges and the lodge guests get wonderfully fresh food.
Thornybush Game Lodge costs several hundred dollars per person per night, so it’s expensive. I’m normally a budget traveler, but I found it easy to rationalize the cost. The game lodges support the reserve and provide good jobs for the local people. The reserve provides safe habitat for the animals and protects them from hunters and poachers. The animals are here in abundance and are free to go where they please. The price included a beautiful and spacious room, all of our food and drink, and two game drives each day. This is truly the adventure of a lifetime, and, for me, it was well worth the cost.
Can You Do Thornybush Without a Tour?
There were independent travelers, including families with children, at the lodge who had driven there on their own. There were also other lodges in the reserve that appeared much more rustic and are likely less expensive.
I traveled on a tour with my Alumni group, so all of my transit and lodging arrangements were prearranged. We flew from Cape Town to Hoedspruit and then traveled by van to Thornybush Game Lodge. The van ride took about an hour and much of it was on gravel roads. An alternative would be to fly into Hoedspruit or Johannesburg and rent a car.
Note from Corinne: As you know, Jim and I have been on numerous self-drives and safaris in different parts of Africa. Check out these posts if you are interested in safaris in Botswana, Zambia, or Uganda.
Have you ever been on a safari searching for the big 5 animals of South Africa?
Pin Thornybush Game Reserve for later planning!