Not only is Pioneer Camp, by a whisker, our personal favourite of the five Londolozi lodges, it is also one of our preferred camps full stop. The principal reason for this is thanks to the way in which it manages to marry contemporary design with history and combine both the qualities of a camp for families with those of a camp for lovers. Intimate, stylish and infinitely homely, it boasts a fantastic open-plan kitchen too which is great for kids. The spacious rooms, great service and fantastic game viewing make this the ideal up market safari lodge for everyone visiting South Africa. One of the finest bush experiences you could wish for.
Pioneer Camp is located roughly in the centre of the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve, which shares an unfenced border with the Kruger National Park to its east. Set on the banks of the Sand River, its position gives guests that extra opportunity to view the areas animals. Londolozi has its own airstrip which is served by a daily flight by Federal Air from Johannesburg as well as by short flights from Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA) which in turn receives scheduled flights from Cape Town and Durban. Coming by road from KMIA takes around two and a half hours, while expect to be in the car for between five and six hours if you're coming from Jo'burg. Getting to Founders from Hazyview and Nelspruit will take roughly one hour and two and a half hours respectively. You should enter Sabi Sands via the eponymously named gate where a small entrance fee will be applied to each vehicle.
Londolozi has a rich history going back 85 years. Starting out as a family estate, after precarious beginnings in the safari industry, it has today become the blueprint for private game reserves all over the continent. Meaning 'protector of all living things' in the Zulu language, Londolozi more of a vision than a simple safari experience. In fact Nelson Mandela described it as "a model of the dream I cherish for the future of our country." Brothers Dave and John Varty's goal was to prove the viability of wildlife paying for conservation in a country whose land was once torn apart by racism, fences and division. But it is not only the animals which are central to the dream. Londolozi also invests heavily in people, specifically those from the surrounding communities. Their Learning Centre provides locals with the skills necessary to fulfill their potentials and become part of what is called the Londolozi family. The lodges also work with charities such as The Good Work Foundation and Save the Rhino Trust investing in both the South African people and its wildlife. You can read more about the fascinating history of Londolozi in Dave Varty's book 'The Full Circle'.
While viewing (especially of leopards) 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.
The Pioneer Camp can be taken over as a private bush home for family groups of up to eight adults and six children.
As you arrive at the top of the path leading down to the lodge, you'll notice an old wagon in the car park, a nod to the bygone era to which Pioneer pays tribute. The welcome desk to which you are led by one of the delightful staff members is a sturdy piece of furniture, again, showing signs of workmanship which are becoming less common in our day. On the desk is a smart lamp and egg timer while behind on the wall are some black and white shots of scenes and characters from days gone by, including Harry Kirkman, one of the legendary rangers of the area. A display cabinet containing some polo tournament cups, books and African carvings stands nearby while a gramophone sits elegantly next to it. Opposite is a seating space featuring a zebra skin bench and some more traditional wingback chairs alongside a table showcasing some jewellery. Another cosy relaxation area comes between the main entrance and the lookout deck, while curving off to the right is the stylish stone marble-topped bar with an innovative chrome glass holder above. Then comes the unique aspect of Pioneer, the large, fully-equipped open-plan kitchen which as well as being a venue for some meals, is also a place where kids can learn some cooking skills and pass the time baking and decorating their masterpieces.
Perhaps the hub of the camp is the fine lounge which is separated from the rest of the lodge. The space is littered with fascinating objects such as old maps on the wall, battered trunks (one of which contains fancy dress for the kids), African jewellery, beautiful horns and two old wooden and leather folding chairs. Other features include a wide seating alcove, a fireplace and wine shelves with a good selection of bottles. Outside, the long, slightly winding, infinity swimming pool is nestled in between the bushes and features a small deck on which are positioned sun loungers and parasols. There is not much exposure to the sun so the pool can prove to be a great place to cool down after a day under the sun viewing game.
Many of the other facilities available are to be found over at the Varty Camp. First of these is Londolozi Life, the wellness centre, situated right next to the camp's tranquil pool. Designed by a holistic therapist to be in harmony with the elements, it combines philosophies from east and west and offers various massages Swedish, Thai), aromatherapy and Reiki healing. Therapies can equally be taken within the privacy of your own room or on your deck. Right by the massage centre is the yoga deck where every day at noon a free yoga class is held for guests at any of the Londolozi lodges. If you prefer to have a private session, as well as pilates, this can also be arranged. Those who feel the need for a workout can take advantage of the small fitness room at Varty Camp, which has both cardio machines and free weights.
The Londolozi Cubs programme, also open to guests at any of the Londolozi lodges, is based too at Varty Camp. The youngest kids (those under the age of six who cannot go on game drives) are kept busy in The Den with a wide range of activities including baking, bird watching and singing and dancing while the older kids are taught about such things as plants and their medicinal uses, weapons and our place in nature. The kids programme at Londolozi is without a doubt the finest there is. Aside from the twice-daily game drives, which are carried out by some of the most enthusiastic, knowledgable and genuinely lovely people who could wish to meet, additional activities for adults include film viewing in the John Varty Cinematography Centre, local village tours, tracking, fishing and much more. Varty Camp is also the location of the shop, Londolozi Living.
The most secluded of the Londolozi lodges, Pioneer benefits from a tranquil ambiance and beautiful setting. As such, the spaces are beautifully kept and clean and tidy throughout. The staff is as friendly and dedicated as you could wish for and will go out their way to accommodate your needs.
Pioneer is made up of three vast independent suites. Each has a small entrance hall in which is a powder room and chaise longue which leads through to the bright living room. This latter's main feature is its large picture window (known here as nature's TV) framing the wilderness outside. So as to be able to take in the view, an L-shaped sofa, complete with plump cushions, is placed before the window, while, on a seagrass rug, a glass coffee table with books fills the gap between the two. If you're going to be installed for a long time then help yourself to a drink and snack from the minibar at the back of the room. A glass-topped desk with leather chair also faces the picture window while a collection of black and white snaps from the Varty's early years on the camp are displayed on the wallpapered wall. The main bedroom, off to the right, contains one of the only beds in any of the lodges we visited with a mosquito net surrounding it. Occupying the centre of the room, it is dressed in high quality linens and behind it can be found a large storage area and coiffeuse. The rooms all contain safes, telephones and hairdryers. The spacious bathrooms boast his and hers contemporary sinks with a low white seat on the centre on which are placed the bathrobes. There is a deep soaking tub complete with sea salts and a huge walk-in monsoon shower. But the bathroom extends outside with another, even bigger, shower tiled in black and white. The 1926 Body Range is the name for the personalised toiletries found in the bathrooms. Named after the year in which the Vartys arrived in the area, it has as its main ingredient avocado oil and is bottled in recyclable amber glass. The generously-proportioned deck features a private plunge pool complete with loungers and parasol and a set of table and chairs for contemplating the bush or even taking a meal. Altogether, some of the finest accommodation to be had in Sabi Sands.
The standard of the cuisine at the Pioneer Camp, as with everything else, is of an extremely high standard. Every possible effort is made to use locally grown ingredients, free range game and herbs from the kitchen garden. Many of the recipes used have been handed down by past Varty generations and the inventiveness of the others is to be admired. Breakfast, which comprises both a large continental spread and a hot option, is served on the deck meaning you can look out over the bush while you eat; a fine way to relax after your morning game drive. There may, however, be a surprise at the end of the morning drive with a breakfast in the bush with tables laid out smartly in the open. Lunch will be back at the lodge on the deck or under the thatched roof of the seating area if the weather isn't up to much while dinner is sometimes taken in the open-plan kitchen. This last venue is one of the most convivial of any lodge thanks to its originality (and proximity to the bar!). On occasions, and if agreed upon, some dinners are taken communally with the rangers and/or managers joining in. If, however, you feel like eating in your room, on your terrace, privately in any of the locations or have special requests, dietary or otherwise, the staff will be delighted to cater to your wishes as best they can. Indeed, 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.