News & Reviews Africa South Africa Review: Cheetah Plains, South Africa

It’s rare to experience something new.  How often do you see a new market segment created?  Social media.  Cryptocurrency.  Artificial Intelligence that’s already getting their Google overlords fired.  Basically, all the things we can’t get rid of but would be better off without.  Cheetah Plains has tried something different.  They gave it some thought and thought maybe we shouldn’t create a new segment that reigns misery on all those in its path.

After I got over the fact that I saw no cheetahs and the property is anything but plain, Cheetah Plains impressed me – it’s one helluva hunk of a property.  I’d go as far as saying it’s one of the most beautifully designed resorts I’ve ever seen.  Their pitch is quite simple: there’s 3 villas, each with 4 bedrooms, and you have to book the entire villa.  Your villa is entirely self-contained, with the gym being the only shared facility.  And soon to open gift shop, because if we’ve learnt anything as a species it’s that the way to combat our near-irreversible destruction of this planet, it’s to buy more stuff.

It’s what Mr. Fluffles would want

Each villa comes with a dedicated team of cleaners, chefs, waiters, a guide, tracker and a host.  All three villas have identical features, but differs in the layout, view and artwork.  The rooms also follow the same principle, with bedrooms 3 and 4 connecting – ideal if you’re bringing children or throwing a swingers party.

I was in villa Karula.  Of the 3 villas only one has an amazing view – a larger watering hole that offers plenty of opportunity to see wildlife.  It wasn’t mine. Villa Mapogo is where it’s at.  Whilst my room had a view directly onto a small watering hole, the rooms aren’t where you’re going to want to spend your time, because the villa itself is like an art gallery mixed with an alcoholics wet dream. I don’t want to downplay the rooms and make them sound a disappointment, as they contain everything you need.  Each room has a walk-through wardrobe, changing area, large bath, an open planned living/bedroom, plus an outdoor lounger.  They’re very comfortable and come to life with the unique artwork, but it’s not going to be somewhere you’re going to lay on your death bed and recall ahead of your favourite pet hamster.

The rooms are practical, comfortable and elegant, but they’re certainly not the best rooms you’re ever going to stay in.  It would have been completely impractical to do so, as when you’re in a safari camp your room is your hub, but here it’s the main villa, which is anywhere between 5-30 seconds walk from the rooms.  The main villa is where you get to spend time with your friends, family, loved ones, or, in my case, my shadow, as I was here alone, once again doing the tough tasks of the day with my investigative journalism.

I knew it! They’re smuggling animals. Now where’s my Nobel?

Someone at Cheetah Plains loves their bathrooms, as not only do they smell amazing, they are the only property I’ve ever stayed in which have urinals and floor-to-ceiling glass panels that open, so you can really get back to your roots and take a dump surrounded by animals.  I appreciated the heated mattress, wireless charging built into the bedside table, extremely easy to use lighting system and electronically powered mosquito nets and blinds.  However, even though they clearly tried, the blinds are not blackouts, I was woken up  3am by the rains, which somehow turned the dripping noise into a thud that sounded like Big Foot was mating.  The position of the rooms means it’s only getting the morning sun, a similar issue to the villa, and the room is not as private as I would expect, as my guide pointed out when driving back to the property and how he could see what was animals were besides my room.

Stranger Things

After you’ve barely reopened due to a disease ravaging your entire tourism industry, now and again there’s going to be some interesting interactions.

On arrival, the GM meet me at villa and introduced me to the team.  Normal enough.  Except they were all stood about 5m away and we practically shouted at each other whilst discussing the ideal time for the afternoon drive and lunch.  I felt like I was at Downton Abbey and talking down to everyone from my balcony.  It felt great weird.

In a first for me, there was some confusion regarding what I was there to do.  They thought I was here to review it – which I was – but I’m first and foremost staying as a paid guest, so I’m interested in how they bespoke everything to me, but here they decided to leave the alcohol in place so I could see how other guests would experience it.  No one wants to go somewhere to experience it like someone else, that is unless you look like the elephant man, in which case wearing a mask the last two years worked for you.

Not this elephant man

I sometimes felt the host and I were not speaking the same language.  I’d ask for things, but wasn’t filled with confidence on what might come back.  After enduring the severe cold I asked for a hat and gloves and the back and forth on it was a challenge – it would have been easier to get a lifeboat on the Titanic.  They arrived the next day, so we’ll call that a draw.

There is no spa, instead treatments take place in your room, with the intention that you can fall asleep.  That is a lovely idea in theory, but in practice the only way I would have fallen asleep is because I passed out from the pain.  Treatments are free, but I have some history with this not always sounding as good as it sounds.  I requested a 60 minute treatment, which managed to end after 45 minutes, as I guess the therapist was busy with the zero other guests staying with me.

I’ve often wondered why they perform head massages whilst you’re laying on your back.  Now I know.   It felt like being reverse birthed or the rhino scene from Ace Venture, as my round face was forced into the square peg.  If it was meant to be relaxing it was, in that I was relaxed knowing I had more free time as I wouldn’t be having another treatment again. When she finally did flip me over she was holding the towel over my eyes with one hand and the other trying to do the massage, like a drunk driver trying to text and play cello at the same time.

I still don’t fully understand the specifics of their traversing rights and what the limitations are.  You may say, but Tom, aren’t you meant to check these things?  To which I say: screw you, buddy, I don’t get paid for this.  Here’s what I can figure out: Cheetah Plains is in Sabi Sands.  Google fact checked that for me.  You have to be back at your camp by 6:30pm and even before then it felt like we needed to get a permission slip to be on some land.  We were also not allowed out after 9:30am, although my guide never asked, but made sure to get back for 9am, like he was a massive fan of the morning news.

In a complete contrast to Kubili House, there was a lot of vehicles around, which completely limited the viewing experience.  Whilst it was cool to see the pride of 21 lions, and a few rhinos, and have an elephant throw a tree branch at us, and have a hyaena follow us for so long I thought we were going to end up setting up a joint bank account and cohabiting, I really wanted to see wild dogs.

The first instance was around 5:30pm, just as it was getting dark.  The land owner didn’t want us there, so we had to leave.  The second time was a pack of 10, yet we were not even there for 20 minutes, as so many vehicles showed up and we had to depart, plus they were heading onto land that required more permission.  I’m not sure there the guide needs any experience with animals here, they’re just better off becoming a bureaucrat after reading “How to Make Friends and Get Access to their Land”.

Amazing Things

Yet for any fault, just take a look at what’s on offer at Cheetah Plains.  The villas are amazing.  There’s everything you need, and then everything you didn’t realise you wanted.  The central focus is the dining area – all the other rooms connect to it.  There’s a TV room, a living area with a fireplace, and then there’s the wine cellar, which isn’t a cellar, but what else am I meant to call it?  Booze room?  That does start to sound like something an alcoholic would have.  All the same, as someone that doesn’t drink alcohol, I still loved their desire to go beyond the expected and include a room dedicated to making you forget your miserable life back home.  Outside is a large swimming pool and boma.  These brief descriptions completely gloss over the fact that it looks like a masterpiece.  Just take a moment to admire this.

My art skills begun and ended around the time I learnt finger painting, but even I could admire it.

Every single element of the hard product is world class.  From the state-of-the-art solar installation, which has allowed them to use 100% electric powered safari vehicles, to the awesome gym, which uses the latest TechnoGym cardio machines. It did not contain a Peloton, which is probably a good thing as those machines are killing off so many people on TV right now that it’s odds on to be the killer in the latest Scream movie.

It’s hard to understand how big a difference the electric vehicles make to the experience, as they’re near silent.  They also have heated seats, which is awesome.  Don’t base your meteorology from watching The Lion King like I did – it really gets cold in the mornings.

Positioning

Singita are the best safari chain in the world.  They just are.  They have a cheat code that allowed them to become so great – a bottomless pit of money.  Whenever I go to another safari camp and it’s not as good as Singita I have to remind myself everyone else is working within the realms of financial reality.  But somehow Cheetah Plains have created a higher-end Singita.  It even works out significantly cheaper if you come as a group.  It manages to sit right in between Singita and sole-use homes, in terms of price, facilities and luxury.

However, it will never be as good as an exclusive use property.  Whilst Kubili House or Arijiju need to have one amazing chef, one amazing host, one amazing guide, Cheetah Plains needs to do it three times.  What that means is my experience may differ completely to yours if you end up with one of the other teams.  My experience is that the service needs some polishing and the food really needed to improve as it was the worst on this trip.  It’s not that they do anything wrong, with the exception of trying to give me calamari when I have an allergy, and then giving me a bowl of olives when I’m convinced they’re the devils juice, it just wasn’t good enough.

Wild dogs discussing with their lawyers whether they have traversing rights on the upcoming land

The Good

  • Excellent value for money
  • They went for it with personalisation, including pillow cases with initials, which they present as a gift on departure.

The Bad

  • Food
  • Limitations on the conservancy

The Luxurious

  • Gorgeous design
  • Facilities
  • Exclusivity

Rating

Luxurious

I’m regretting these rankings already.  The name of this blog isn’t “The Good, the Bad and the It’ll Do I Guess”.

The answer depends on your question.  If your choice is between here and Singita Ebony/Boulders (also in Sabi Sands, but a fair distance away) then Cheetah Plains is a no brainier – it’s far more luxurious and, for bonus points, will work out cheaper if you’re in a group.  Yet if your question is “I only want the best in Africa” then Cheetah Plains is not the answer.  If you’ve been reading this far, and my god I hope you have otherwise I’m talking to the cat litter tray, you’ll know it can’t beat an exclusive lodge.

So I recommend it for how brilliant the hard product is, and for my hope on how brilliant the soft product will become.  With exception of the food and the masseur, it’s already pretty close.

Put the cheetah in charge of HR and see if results improve

Video

Conclusion

As you’re been reading this, understand I am a huge fan of the property, but my English/Irish gene pool is in frequent imbalance.   The miserable, non-stop complaining, English side of me tends to win. Cheetah Plains is the third most luxurious safari lodge I’ve been to. So just understand that as I inadvertently convinced you otherwise.

Above any other property, it reminds me of Iniala (RIP, you beautiful bastard), in that its going for a unique, modern look in an environment often fixated on tradition, and that it’s trying to sit somewhere between a resort and a villa.  It doesn’t have all the facilities, vastness and feeling of exclusivity that you’ll find in sole-use property, due to one very simple reason – it isn’t one.  I never saw any other guests, but their villas are close enough that I’m aware other people are around.  You’re either in your room or in the villa itself, there is no great spaces to explore or feel like you’re there alone.

These are not criticisms of the property, because they’re not priced at the point where you should expect these.  They say they want to be at the same level of an exclusive use lodge, but I think they’re being unfair on themselves.  They’re not priced like one and they cannot offer the same opportunities.  It’s like bringing a fart to a shit fight.  It’s roughly three times cheaper than Singita Castleton and even if you just stayed as a couple it’s not even double the price of Singita Ebony/Boulders.

It deserves your attention, just not in the same way my face received attention during that so-called massage.

Room type: Karula Duration: 4 June > 7th June, 2022.  Approx. $8000/n

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 28th Jun '22

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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