News & Reviews Africa South Africa Review: Waterside Lodge, South Africa

Dorsia Rating:

4.5/5

This will be a short review.  When I say “short,” I usually mean trying to cram Shakespeare’s entire works into a single 3,000-word-grammarless sentence. Then calling it a masterpiece of brevity.  It ends up making even less sense than my other reviews, which seem to only be decipherable by RFK Junior and his pet brainworm.  But this time, I mean it.  Waterside Lodge is so fantastic, there is hardly anything that needs to be said.

Getting there

Whenever flying to Johannesburg, I always opt for the VIP arrival service because that airport is like a zoo – and I’m already heading to the non-artificial one, no need for a preview.  Someone meets me, holds my hand through the airport chaos like the manchild I am, and then I’m whisked to the rather charming Federal Air lounge.  After lounging for about 20 minutes, it’s a quick hop on a new propeller plane for an hour flight to the Thornybush airstrip, followed by a 25-minute drive to the lodge.

Setting

Waterside Lodge is officially “Waterside at Royal Malewane” because it is one of three properties within The Royal Portfolio, located in Thornybush Game Reserve. These properties are all grouped under the Royal Malewane banner, with the original lodge being Royal Malewane itself.  Their other property is the sublime The Farmstead.  These lodges are not like the Singita properties in Sabi Sands or Kruger, which are so close to each other that you can shout across to the next lodge and ask what’s for dinner – it’s a 30-minute drive between Royal Malewane and Waterside Inn. And now there’s a fourth property on the way.  Which brings me to my only complaint: how crowded the conservancy is.

Unlike nearby Singita, this is not a private reserve.  I couldn’t tell if my guide was just really impatient or if we were being stalked by some ancient, time-obsessed Death-like deity, constantly tapping his watch with his scythe.  It always felt like we had to rush every sighting as if the next group was already breathing down our necks like that uncle of yours who stands right behind you and thinks MeToo is a Japanese car manufacturer.   By the time we got back to the lodge in the evening, it was like safari rush hour, with a traffic jam of safari vehicles queued up like we were all trying to score the last parking spot at the public flogging of Justin Bieber.

Sure, it’s useful that other lodges help spot the animals, but do you know what would be more helpful? If they sent me the GPS coordinates and stayed home.  It felt too similar to the Mara, which is as much a compliment as a mum joke.  They limit the number of vehicles to a sighting to two, so you can find yourself in a queue longer than the one to get into your mum.  And at night, you can see the not-so-distant lights of nearby lodges, making the property feel as exclusive as, oh, I dunno, your mum.

Let me just clarify that I’m in Africa five times this year.  Yes, you read that right.  Five times.  Now, I can see you thinking, “Who goes to Africa five times a year?” Well, not you, obviously, cos otherwise, you wouldn’t question it with such fervour.

So, if you’re on the African love train as often as I am, you’ll find it a bit annoying. I’d rather spend hours at a sighting, patiently waiting for that perfect moment to snap a photo I can proudly show off—only to discover later that it looks like Bigfoot took it using a potato.  But if this is your first rodeo or a rare treat, you’ll be just fine. I’ve been on hundreds of safaris, and I know that patience is key. Animals, like humans, aren’t always action-packed.  Imagine filming an orgy and being told to wrap it up after 10 minutes. You’d probably end up with just the PowerPoint presentation on health and safety.  I dunno; for some reason, I was never invited to one.  My invitations must’ve gotten lost in the mail.

Sightings

Despite my complaints about the restrictions, they did not detract from the excellent wildlife viewings.  The usual suspects were all there: majestic elephants, giraffes, zebras, impalas, and of course, the laziest animal of them all: lions.  One of the most memorable moments was witnessing a pride of 19 lions on the move.  Then, they quickly remembered that doing nothing was kinda their thing, so lay-oned down and drifted back to sleep.

My greatest joy, however, came from observing wild dogs. I consider them one of the planet’s greatest animals, perhaps rivalled only by velociraptors and that cutey pie xenomorph from Alien. I was fortunate enough to hang with a pack of seven wild dogs every day, hoping for a chance to watch them kill something in their unique, charming way of eating it alive. It’s enough to make you hungry.

Room

The lodge is beautifully situated beside a stunning watering hole, providing a serene and picturesque setting, with the occasional splash from the resident hippos.  The design of the lodge centres around this natural feature, though some rooms are set back, offering a quieter retreat without much of a view.  What truly stands out is the wildlife: nyala calmly grazing just steps away from you, completely at ease with your presence. It’s remarkable to witness how habituated these animals have become to humans.  They are much calmer around me than most hotel managers.

Liz Biden, the co-owner of The Royal Portfolio, designs all the interiors.  Now, usually, when the boss takes over the decorating, it’s a recipe for disaster—think of it as letting your grandmother pick your wardrobe.  No one dares to tell them they’re not the design genius they believe themselves to be.  But at Waterside, Liz absolutely nails it.  The place is stunning.  I was already a fan of The Farmstead, but Waterside is on another level.  Out with the rustic, in with the modern.

Each suite boasts a distinct colour theme, with mine bathed in a warm, inviting yellow.  As you step inside, you’re greeted by an open-plan living room/bedroom combo featuring a sofa, chairs, and ceilings so high you could host a basketball game.  The expansive glass sliding doors open fully, seamlessly blending the indoors with the outdoor deck area.

Step outside to the pool area, where a heated pool was heated to 34°C for me (or higher if you’re feeling brave). It’s got the same Farmstead vibe with a swinging sofa and shaded area.  The outdoor decked area features two sun chairs, a table with two more chairs, and yet another set of chairs with a table.  Around you, nyala everywhere, the calmest animals you’ll ever meet—they’re practically Zen monks.

The room is brimming with details that add character, making it uniquely charming. It’s not just the design, though (although who doesn’t love leopard print slippers and hot water bottles?); it’s the practical side.  It comes equipped with air conditioning for those hot days and a fireplace in the living area for winter nights. There’s even a TV, which I appreciate for giving me the option to use it—or not.  Thoughtful touches, like the heated towel rack, clearly show they’ve looked at this from a hotel perspective, not a safari lodge.  The bed, a Liz Biden trademark, is so high you might need a Sherpa to reach it.  And at the end of the bed, there’s a lay-down sofa bed, just in case you need a nap on your way to bed.

The separate bathroom is gorgeous, with a large yellow bathtub that looks like it belongs in a rubber duck’s dream home. You’ve got an outdoor shower for when you want to get back to nature and an indoor shower for when you remember you like privacy.

The only things that annoyed me were having to turn off all the lamps individually at night and waiting so long for the hot water to come on in the shower that my stench had already taken a holiday.

Facilities

I gave a wry smile as I approached Waterside and immediately spotted the humongous boutique.  Sneaky.  And guess where reception is?  Right there too.  Double sneaky.

The design and focus on comfort hit you right in the face as soon as you enter. You enter via a floating walkway into a sitting area with stunning views over the water. There’s even a hide with a cosy sofa and comfy chairs for an up-close look at nature. Do you need such a large, impressive sitting area when there’s another just 50 meters away? If you’re the Bidens, absolutely. And I love them for it.

The heart of the lodge revolves around the waterhole, where you’ll find the bar, indoor and outdoor dining areas, a grassy lounging spot facing the waterhole, a library, and their gorgeous, full-length swimming pool with sun chairs.  Little nooks and crannies are scattered around the property, perfect for hanging out if you ever tire of your fantastic room. There’s also a games room with a pool table, an arcade machine, and some games for the kids.  Everything is so well spread out that it feels extremely exclusive and private.

The spa is another highlight, with three treatment rooms and a beautiful hammam.  The glass doors open fully to let in the sounds of running water from the moat around the spa.  The treatment was great—though there were ants in the treatment room.  Can I complain about that in the bush?  Well, it’s me, so yes.

The gym is decently sized with enough equipment: an elliptical, rower, bike, treadmill, and a LifeFitness machine for cables and pull-ups. There’s also a yoga pavilion next door.

And yes, WiFi is available throughout the entire lodge, so you can still read this blog when you’re away. I’m always looking out for you.

Food / Service

The service was spot on, led by their GM, Jon Morgan.  The staff struck the perfect balance—attentive without hovering like a nervous helicopter parent.

The food was superb.  I appreciate that safari lodges are moving away from excess. It’s always baffled me how the industry concluded that sitting on your arse all day should result in eating half your body weight each day.  Here, they really personalise things, presenting a daily menu with your name on it, outlining lunch and dinner options based on your preferences.  The lunch selection was so good I ended up devouring about six courses.  There goes my argument against excess.  But in my defence, it was delicious.  Lunch offered a lot of variety its tapas-esq menu, divided into sections like: air (birds), meat, and “from the heavens” for dessert.  They even offered crocodile carpaccio, which might have been more appealing than the nyala attempting to mate just five meters away as I dined.

The Good

  • Animal sightings

The Bad

  • Overcrowded conservancy

The Luxurious

  • Rooms – perhaps the most beautiful I’ve seen in a safari lodge
  • Food
  • Facilities
  • Lodge setting

Conclusion

Waterside is one of the most impressive safari lodges I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in.  Nestled perfectly by the waterhole, it boasts a serene location with breathtaking design, exceptional food, and a clear commitment to providing an outstanding experience.  It far exceeded my already high expectations, fueled by my love for The Farmstead.

With a perfect blend of luxury, it leaves Singita’s South African lodges in the dust, standing in a league of its own.  Only the exclusive-use properties come close, but even the top lodges, like Cheetah Plains, have their own shared land drama.  Kubili House, possibly the most luxurious lodge in South Africa, is nearby on the same reserve.  However, since Singita owns the land, you’ve got to weigh what’s more important to you: sightings or lavishness.

Some folks might say it’s not authentic.  To them, I say, great, there are a million other lodges that fit that bill, including Royal Malewane. Move along and save yourself a typewriter sprain.  Speaking of which, I did pop by to see their new, epic remodelling of Africa House, which I’ll be happily recommending, too—but that’s a story for another day.

For today, let’s give a slow clap (the sincere kind) to a truly epic safari lodge.

In Summary

  • Best suite

    Waterside House is a four bedroom villa that sleeps up to 8. Children are welcome.

  • Good to know

    Whilst most suites are open planned, they do have an option for a separate living room/bedroom.

Rooms start from an all-inclusive basis from $5,500 per night for two adults

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 25th Jun '24

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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