CHRISTINE CUNANAN finds luxury in tents in South Africa.

We almost missed the entrance to Bush Lodge on the Amakhala Game Reserve,  just off the N2 highway that runs from Cape Town, all along the coast facing the Indian Ocean.

Expecting something more dramatic with its reputation as the best Big 5 safari camp in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, we drove past an unassuming gate without a guard and then turned back.

Eventually finding our way into the reserve, we stopped in front of a 200-year-old farmhouse just in time to see Rod Weeks, owner of Bush Lodge, stride past in his safari gear, three fierce-looking dogs behind him.

Tent safari at Bush Camp on the Amakhala Game Reserve in South Africa

BUSH LODGE IN AMAKHALA GAME RESERVE

“This is it,” he boomed, when we asked for directions, “you’re here.”

His hearty confirmation prompted me to scan the horizon for the supposed five-star safari tents that had beckoned to me on Bush Camp’s website.

I’d chosen Bush Camp because I wanted to stay in a luxury tent in the wilderness, having had my fill of safari villas and cottages. And now the only thing in front of me was an Out of Africa-style colonial structure.

Tent safari at Bush Camp on the Amakhala Game Reserve in South Africa

Fortunately, this farmhouse was just the venue for check-in formalities. 

So we completed the paperwork and then drove our way to Bush Lodge for a most memorable experience.

Tent safari at Bush Camp on the Amakhala Game Reserve in South Africa

LUXURY TENT SAFARI IN EASTERN CAPE

Bush Lodge is as comfortable as you will get in an old-fashioned tented safari camp; more safari camps were probably like this before commercialism crept into the industry. For one thing, it only has five tents, so there’s a limited number of guests, leading one to expect more casualness in its running. However, everything here is actually organized with almost military precision.

Mealtimes and game drives are set in stone. Breakfast is a heavy event that starts at 9 AM, lunch is a hurried one-course affair at 2 PM, cocktails are at 730 PM around the bar or outdoor fire, and dinner at 8 PM is akin to a formal three-course dinner party that you don’t need to dress up for. 

Tent safari at Bush Camp on the Amakhala Game Reserve in South Africa

Meanwhile, the three-and-a-half-hour game drives set off at 530 AM and then again at 3 PM. Still slightly dazed by jetlag and accustomed to the more relaxed routines of other lodges, the timetables were difficult for us to comprehend at the start, but these were avidly followed by all the guests, including ourselves.

Then there were the little details that were just remarkable, considering we were supposedly camping in the middle of nowhere with wild animals roaming around.

A SAFARI IN WINTER

As it was heading into winter, for instance, there were some freezing nights that might have been deathly cold in tents. However the camp’s diligent staff lit the stove fires all evening, and steaming cups of hot chocolate and daily baths in free-standing tubs awaited us upon our return from the game drives, thus easing some of the chill. There were even chocolates at turndown – a much appreciated touch that helped to sweeten going to bed in the cold.

Much as I wanted to believe I was reliving my Girl Scout days, the Bush Lodge tents were so much more. Aside from the soaking tub, ours had a four-poster bed, animal skin rugs, proper reading lights and lounging chairs around an iron stove.

And, oh yes, it also had a private plunge pool on a secluded terrace and an outdoor double shower that offered the rather surreal feeling of bathing in safety with lions and leopards possibly just meters away.

WHAT SAFARI LIFE IS LIKE

Safari life revolves around game drives and meals. Both of which are very social activities in this small camp, so you know your fellow safari-goers fairly quickly. We ate breakfasts and lunches by ourselves, but dinner was always at a communal table by a roaring fire.

On our stay, we made up a table of six with two ladies from Port Elizabeth; and a young British couple on their honeymoon – thus making for interesting conversation.

TOPICS OF THE DAY

Of course, our dinner conversations always began with animal sightings, a common topic at any safari dinner table. By the time we checked out, however, we had all became good enough friends that the South African ladies took us shopping in their town before our flight to Johannesburg.

Meanwhile the young wife graciously invited for afternoon tea at a fancy place in St. James on my upcoming trip to London.

Tent safari at Bush Camp on the Amakhala Game Reserve

ANIMAL SIGHTINGS AT AMAKHALA

As for the game drives, the Amakhala Game Reserve is a vast estate home to numerous wild animals and splendid scenery. 

I’d skipped out on most morning drives, too lazy to break away from the warmth of the bed. However, on our last day, we’d persuaded Tim, our ranger, to take us out for a short drive after breakfast.  We drove to the top of a ridge that overlooked a vast plain.

“How beautiful,” I remarked to Tim. “There’s so much to see here. I wish I’d done those early morning game drives, after all.”

Tent safari at Bush Camp on the Amakhala Game Reserve

Indeed, the view was as splendid as the game roaming about. I would have wanted to drive to the river and take a boat downstream; to see a proper sunrise over the hills.

The possibilities for animal sightings were endless as well.

Then Tim turned around and said: “You’ve got to leave some things for the next time”. How very true. I was smiling as we drove way back to the lodge.

Read more about luxurious safaris in Africa in Travelife Magazine.