This is a very special camp, not only because of the excellent game viewing, but also because of the people running it. An intimate tented camp with some fabulous views, it offers charming accommodation, a highly relaxing setting and a high quality of food for both couples and families. Tanda Tula is not the place for those looking for the height of luxury and multiple additional facilities but it is nonetheless a complete bush experience and offers excellent value for money, with service and friendliness their trump card.
Tanda Tula is built on the banks of the Nharalumi River bed in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, which makes up part of the Greater Kruger National Park. One of the advantages of the lodge is that it is relatively isolated, there being just 8 camps in the 120,000 acres of bushveld. The closest main airport to the lodge is in Hoedspruit which is served by twice daily flights from Johannesburg (one hour) and a twice weekly service from Cape Town (two hours 40 mins). The road transfer from Hoedspruit is around 45 mins. Alternatively you can arrange a private charter to the Rock Fig Airstrip, just five kilometres from Tanda Tula. If you are coming in from Nelspruit (served by most major South African airports) then the road transfer is around three hours, although private charters to the local airstrip can also be arranged. If you are arriving by road from Johannesburg expect the journey to take you roughly five and a half hours. You should enter the reserve via the Timbavati Control Gate where you will need to pay a small fee for your vehicle's entry and then follow the signs to Tanda Tula.
Tanda Tula camp is the oldest in Timbavati, a reserve with a low rate of commercialisation founded in 1956. The lodge has the fantastic luck of serving as the core territory of the Machaton pride of white lions, the first to produce cubs since being discovered in the late 70s. Spotting one of these beautiful creatures is (unfortunately) a rare privilege as their bright colour leaves them susceptible to attack by other predators.
Also somewhat of a privilege is the presence of the Save the Elephants non-profit organisation on-site. Founded by the leading expert on African elephants Dr. Iain Douglas Hamilton in Kenya in 1976, it has operated out of Tanda Tula for a number of years looking at migration of the animals in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Guests are invited to visit the research centre, headed up by Dr. Michele Henley, and to join the staff in the field. In addition to this worthy cause, Tanda Tula also supports the under-funded local Tintswalo Hospital and the Hlokomela HIV Aids Clinic. They also train and educate their staff and locals alike, giving them literacy and conservation lessons.
While viewing is good all year round, the dry winters lend themselves particularly well to sightings as less plant life means less chance of the animals being hidden. And remember, you should not walk around the site unaccompanied at night as you never know what beast is lurking around the corner. If you need to move around, call a torch-bearing member of staff who will gladly escort you where you wish.
After wiping the dust from your face with the refreshing, scented face towel presented to you as you get down out of your vehicle at the Tanda Tula entrance, your greeter will show you to the main lodge where, while the formalities are put to one side, you will be offered a drink. This space is divided into two parts: to the right a lounge area and to the left a dining area (see 'Food and Drink') for when the weather doesn't permit al fresco eating. The former is not the most impressive living space, but it is comfortable and cosy and its atmosphere is brightened by the infectiously jovial staff (Thabo, for example, and his impressive paunch). The two back-to-back seating areas feature wingback chairs and sofas befitted with traditional covers and cushions with piles of books on the coffee tables between them. A small library is available for guests and a couple of fireplaces are lit when then nights start to become a bit nippy. On the walls are a few sketches and paintings of animals you may well see out in the bush while a few other traditional artefacts are dotted around the place.
Out in front of the main lodge is a pristine lawn bordered by tall trees at the end of which is the pool. Surrounded by decking on which are a series of sun loungers and parasols, the view from here is fantastic with a watering hole just metres away meaning you can watch various animals taking a drink aright up close. Perfect for a post-lunch siesta, the pool is both clean and extremely tranquil. The lodge does not have any fitness or wellness facilities on-site however there are some additional activities which can be undertaken besides the game drives. Each day, guests (of over 14 years of age) can choose one of three bushwalks as an alternative to taking the 4x4. One leaves at sunrise and lasts for three hours, culminating in a bush breakfast, while another, slower paced one, leaves a little later and lasts for one hour. The third overnight option includes a 10-12km walk plus bush meals and accommodation in the Machaton Hide (see 'Accommodation').
The lodge is kept very well and is clean and orderly throughout. Access to the tents, along brick paths, is easy and clearly marked. The staff is an absolute joy to be around and goes above and beyond the call of duty to make guests feel at home. Our ranger and tracker were truly remarkable, not least for the fact that Scotch, our ranger, has spent years working his way up to the job after teaching himself English in his (little) spare time! We didn't even realise that he was not brought up speaking the language! While there is no wifi service, there is a small room with a computer available for guests to surf the internet.
Unlike some other self-proclaimed tented camps whose accommodation simply has canvas roofs, the rooms at Tanda Tula are veritable, large-scale tents (although the bathrooms do have solid walls). There are 12 rooms in total, all identical, but spread out for a high degree of discretion. Guests enter through a zipped entrance which must be kept closed at all times to discourage animals, especially baboons from entering. At the centre of the room is the king size bed dressed in good quality linen, blankets (it can get nippy during the winter nights) and matching duvet and cushions. Around the bed are various occasional tables, desks and storage units on which you will find such things as complimentary sherry, walkie talkies to communicate with staff, a torch, emergency air horn and a dressing mirror. The lighting is fairly low as it comes from several table lamps around the room, however it is adequate and lends a rather soft feeling to the room. As this is a tent structure, there is no air conditioning so a fan is placed in the corner of the room in case of warm nights. The spacious bathroom is located at the back of the tent and has solid walls made from mud and straw. Just inside the door you'll find a small hanging storage unit with extra blankets, bathrobes and slippers, a couple of kikois (traditional piece of fabric used as a skirt or kilt) and a safe. A claw foot bath stand in one corner of the room while just the other side of the sliding glass doors you'll find the outdoor shower. Nice little touches such as the leaf on the bath mat, the face towels tied up in straw and the candles complete the picture.
There is actually one more option on the accommodation front, namely the Machaton Hide. Set out in the bush on the banks of the River Machaton, the hide can be, for no extra cost, your room for the night. After your evening game drive you'll be escorted to the private location where oil lanterns shine brightly around your camp bed from where you can watch as animals come to drink from the dam. The following morning you will be taken directly on your private game drive.
Guests at Tanda Tula will be treated to a quite excellent range of meals in a number of different locations throughout their stay. Breakfasts are taken either on the main lodge's deck overlooking the garden and watering hole or out in the bush in a great little spot by the river bed. On offer is both a continental spread and several hot options which are served up by the sweetest of kitchen staff. The deck is also the location for lunch, unless it is taken by the pool, and is presented by the adorable Ryan, the camp's talented chef. He'll go through the menu with you and make sure that you're dietary needs are taken care of too. Dinner is rotated through a few different locations including the river bed, the deck and the boma. This latter can take the form of a buffet, an à la carte menu or a traditional braai. Assuming you stay for the usual two to three nights then you should experience each of the dining locations and at least one dinner accompanied by your ranger. If, however, you feel like a private romantic dinner in your room or on your terrace or a bush picnic, this can also be arranged with prior notice and at no extra cost. If you happen to be the only family/couple at the lodge, it is more than likely that the staff will ask you when, where and how you would like to eat! In addition to the main meals, you will be given hot drinks and a snack during the morning game drive and a tipple and another snack during the evening drive.