This is a difficult experience to rate – the facilities and food, and rangers and game hunts were first rate, but the management was distinctly sub-par. If your trip comes off without a hitch, you will have a fantastic, five-star experience; if you have problems and have to deal with management, you may leave with a sour taste and questions about what others lies have been told to you.
To get the negative out of the way, it started with the inexplicable policy that a thirteen-year old child had to have their own room, even though they allow two and even three younger children in the parents’ room. We agreed to pay the significant cost increment because we were promised adjoining rooms. However, when we were shown to our rooms, one was upstairs and one down, and the manager told us that we had not reserved adjoining rooms – he changed his story only after we showed him the email from reservations. Ironically, the proposed solution was to put the thirteen-year-old into our room, which we initially were told was impossible.
I wouldn’t even be mentioning this glitch except for the dishonesty that presented itself at checkout. As we were checking in, I asked if our invoice could be split into rooms and board on one hand and the safari on the other – we were on an R&R trip and the employer only reimbursed room and board. The manager assured me that he could provide me with that split. And at check out, as the van was loading and others were waiting, he handed us an envelope that he said contained the split. We checked before boarding, and discovered it was nothing of the kind. When confronted, the manager simply said that he wouldn’t satisfy my request. It seemed like he had my money, so he couldn’t be bothered to even apologize.
Moving on, we were at the Gondwana Lodge, and the rooms were very pleasant – spacious, lovely decorations, and a bathroom that I’d like to have at home. The deck had comfortable chairs and a hammock, and a great view over the veldt and lake, with mountains in the background. The food was always good and sometimes fantastic – the eggs benedict were a bit dry, but the kudu was sublime. Service was friendly and attentive.
Our “ranger,” Anthea, was superb. She was knowledgeable, friendly, great with the young children sharing our vehicle, and very good at finding game to view. The lodge managed the game viewing very well – each ranger reported what they had located, but that did not produce a hoard of other vehicles. I don’t think we ever had more than one other vehicle with us when we were stopped, so we never felt crowded. The roads are very rough in some places, and there’s little to be done about that, especially when you’re dropping into the riverbed or looking for hippo in the reed beds upriver. It was chilly this time of year, so we were provided with blankets and, in the morning, hot water bottles. Each time we returned, we were greeted with warm towels to wipe the dust off, and, in the evening, with port or sherry, or hot chocolate, to help transition to dinner.
The game diversity is impressive, especially since much of the range was goat farm just over a decade ago. They’ve made mistakes – we didn’t see one kind of antelope because the few left are hiding high in the mountains after being decimated by the lions – but they seem to be working hard at understanding the limits of the range and balancing wet and drought years. Of the bigger animals, we saw white lions, a jackal, and cheetahs up very close – they couldn’t be bothered to divert around our vehicle – springbok, rhino, zebra, and African Buffalo from a few yards away; elephants at more of a distance; and eland, Oryx, and red hartebeests at more than a hundred meters. We were not able to find the hippos, and leopards and hyenas are just too uncertain to spend time searching for them.
It’s hard to image another lodge doing a better job in most areas, but the management culture needs some refinement before it can earn the five stars that many of the pieces deserve.