News & Reviews Africa South Africa Review: Tswalu, South Africa

If first impressions were the only impressions, Tswalu would be the best safari camp I’ve ever visited.  Shall we leave the review there?

Not having to visit the depressing O.R. Tambo Airport puts me in a very fine mood indeed.  Instead, you go to a private terminal owned by Tswalu’s sister company, where it’s private jet levels of service and efficiency.  Met by name at the terminal door, taken through to the VIP area, offered a lunch menu and even an opportunity to use a conference room or their gym.  I’m used to calling a luxury safari lounge somewhere with a toilet; this is what we call a bit of an upgrade.

Eighty minutes later, I landed at Tswalu’s airstrip, and within twenty minutes, I was at the lodge, in my room, admiring the lengths they went to create the perfect room setup.

You want a giraffe staring into your room?  You got it

The key question of “why Tswalu” is actually a very simple one: over the 280,000 acres of private land it owns, you experience such a dramatic change in scenery that you feel like you’re moving between countries whilst witnessing animals you are unlikely to find anywhere else.  Tswalu is so close to Botswana and Namibia and so large that you are almost across countries.  It is the largest private game reserve in South Africa.  At the time of writing, there are only nine rooms, plus an exclusive use villa, although, within a matter of weeks, a new camp by Tswalu called Loapi Tented Camp will open, adding a further six rooms.  It is a massive conservation and education project that happens to have a resort attached to it, owned by the Oppenheimer family – not that one in that upcoming Christopher Nolan movie, the one involved in De Beers.

The scenery and wildlife – the experiences it offers – are phenomenal.  The resort is just fine.  The safari pecking order goes Singita numero uno, Wilderness rebuilt camps sniffing at their heels whilst submerged in quicksand, and then there’s a significant drop to everyone else.  Tswalu is more like a Great Plains property – nothing terrible, but nothing extraordinary.  It’s comfortable, not beautiful.  It’s practical, not desirable.  It’s more Ted Bundy than Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy.  As I learnt recently at Ol Jogi, and as weird as it is to talk about it on a luxury travel blog, a lot of this doesn’t matter to me anymore when the experience makes up for it so significantly.  That’s not to say I’m going to start sleeping in a tuk-tuk converted into a hotel so I can swim with some orcas, I’m still expecting five-star luxury, but there are different levels of it.  We can all be realistic when we say that Tswalu offers a lot, but Singita competition it is not.

Room and Facilities

They put me in a Family Suite for unknown reasons, even though I was travelling solo.  Maybe to remind me I have a family back home who was making sure I wasn’t having too much fun.  But I was.  You enter into the living area, with its absurdly tall ceilings, where the usual minibar, coffee machine, seating area and views out onto the deck are present.  None of the rooms at Motse have pools, although realistically, pools are almost always useless anyway, as they’re not heated and tend to be large enough for a small squirrel.  It had all the usual outdoor shower that I’ll never use, but it did have air conditioning, which I definitely did use.  And light switches with no labels, leaving me wandering around trying to turn everything off, only to find the lamps where you need to do it too.

The room is fine.  It’s a bit dark in places, but it, well, it was fine.

As I go through and mention the facilities, you’ll nod and think it all sounds good, and once again, it’s fine.  It’s all about the context, right?  They have a spa, and I had a lovely massage there, but it’s just some rooms with a treatment bed.  I think it summarised the place that there’s nothing fancy about it, they just do it very well without any glitz.  The gym is decent for a safari camp.  There are two pools, neither heated, with the lower one giving you views of the watering hole.  I was rarely in camp, but in the short time I was, I saw some giraffes come for a drink and not one person trying to get a selfie – glorious.  They also have a very simple library room, a boutique and a gallery for printing or framing images.

Internet was slow (2 down, 7 up), but you could get 4G in many places, which would always catch me out when messages would be coming through just as I was about to take a National Geographic quality picture, only to lose concentration and produce my usual turds.  Then there were the beloved power cuts overnight that woke me up from the air con coming back to life.  That’s a South African issue rather than a Tswalu one: regular power cuts and irregular internet.

Service and Food

The service was excellent; they get that right here.  They are very attentive, very familiar with preferences, and they even have useful turndown gifts – in my case, a hat and some socks.  Can’t get enough socks as I get older.  The only slip-up was asking someone to take me to the spa, and they didn’t know the way but started walking me around anyway.  Maximum points for confidence though.

I never had lunch at Tswalu because we were out so often, so my review is a bit unfair based on two dinners and breakfast.  However, it was fine.  The first night was a buffet by the boma, which was nothing remarkable, but some decent dishes.  Their bush breakfast was amongst the best I’ve ever had, with a chef coming out and doing a great job, particularly as we showed up almost two hours late.

Then there’s Klein JAN.  It’s a nice fine-dining restaurant which opened a few years ago.  People seem to lose their shit over this place.  It could not be a bigger contrast from the camp, even though it’s a mere five-minute drive away.  It’s one of the most impressive settings I’ve ever had for a meal, and that’s nothing to do with the surroundings; it’s all to do with the property itself.  I wish I had bothered to bring my camera and secondly that the rest of the property was like this because I cannot emphasise enough how different it is.  Imagine Tswalu’s designer was a five-year-old ape, and now imagine that serum from Planet of the Apes is real, and said ape was given it and decided rather than smashing human faces in, he would gain a PhD in architecture and come back and give it another shot.  That’s Klein JAN.

Now, regarding the food, I left hungry and didn’t think much of it.  It felt extremely over the top with the storytelling, but that’s exactly what people are there for.  I can’t call it pretentious, as that’s like complaining an art gallery is too arty.  Let’s just say I’ve been to hundreds of Michelin-star restaurants over the years and am now at the point in my life where I’d prefer they threw it at me, and I had to scoop it off the floor with my bare hands rather than give me an art presentation around it.  All the same, everyone else I spoke to really appreciated it, so my Neanderthal-ness might need to be ignored.

Setting / Viewings

Unless you’ve misread the brochure, the safari is why you’ve come to Tswalu. If the sun is out, life is good.  In my case, if the blood is spilling on the land, life is awesome.  I came here expecting to see animals you rarely see elsewhere, like meerkats and pangolins, which I did.  Yet at the beginning of every safari, they always ask what you want.  Blood, thank you very much—lots and lots of blood.  From reputation, I was not expecting that to be delivered at Tswalu, but statistically speaking, I’m 80% wrong 90% of the time.

We had some epic sightings, including a complete, successful cheetah hunt across the foot of a hill; wild dogs with pups barely three weeks old; a night walk to find pangolins; coming across a brown hyaena dangerously close to four cheetah cubs and lions having a little breakfast.

The viewings make the experience, but the guide significantly impacts the stay, and Nic was a legend.

The Good

  • Service
  • Klein JAN

The Bad

  • Facilities
  • Room design

The Luxurious

  • Unique wildlife
  • Flexibility
  • Nic, the guide

Rating

Good

Conclusion

The enjoyment from the safari is, of course, going to impact the joy of the entire stay.  If you go on a holiday to spend all day on the beach only to find it’s next to a sewage drain that dumps turds on you, it doesn’t matter how good the food is.  Tswalu delivered on the safari, the service and the guide was world-class.  I had a blast.  There are better safari camps out there, but I consider Tswalu a good option to combine with another camp because of how different it is.  Go here first, go to one of the South African Singita’s, and that’s a great trip.  Just make sure you do it that way around.

Their new camp opens in a few months and offers a different take, with isolated, self-sufficient rooms and no central area.  I took a sneak peek, and they’re looking good, although I’m not so sure how keen I would be on being completely isolated.  Sometimes it’s nice to speak to other travellers and just occasionally drop in, “Oh yeah, my morning was rubbish; I only saw a 90-minute long cheetah hunt; how was yours?”.  I would miss that affectionate interaction.

Whilst Tswalu is not the best camp from a luxury perspective, it is worthy of being considered amongst the best camps for the experience.  I would return.

Room type: Family Legae When: May 2023 Rates: 77,550 ZAR

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 25th May '23

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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