Traveller Story

Thornybush Game Lodge Review

Andre Van Kets 23 September 2021

About the trip Thornybush Game Reserve has been on my safari bucket list for many years.  After a long winter without much travel (and spending lots of time indoors with our two toddler daughters), my wife and I decided to leave our kids with their grandparents and book a few nights at Thornybush Game…

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About the trip

Thornybush Game Reserve has been on my safari bucket list for many years. 



After a long winter without much travel (and spending lots of time indoors with our two toddler daughters), my wife and I decided to leave our kids with their grandparents and book a few nights at
Thornybush Game Lodge for a child-free romantic safari getaway.

This is our first-hand experience.

Getting there

We flew from Cape Town to Hoedspruit with Airlink. A two-hour flight, then a 45-minute road transfer to the lodge. The latter half of the transfer with East Gate Transfers & Safaris is beyond the Thornybush Game Reserve gate. 

So our game viewing started with elephants, giraffes, zebras and warthog before we’d even checked in. Other options to get to Thornybush Game Reserve:

Wildlife

We had high hopes of seeing lots of wildlife, after learning that Thornybush Game Reserve dropped its fences to the rest of the Greater Kruger Park area in 2017.

And our expectations were met and exceeded, with us seeing the Big Five within our first two game drives. 

Our Big Five highlights included: 

  • A playful pride of lions with nine cute cubs aged 2-5 months playing and tumbling all over each other; 

  • A male large male leopard hunting impala (the impala got away); 

  • Two “crashes” of white rhino (yes that’s their collective nouns); 

  • Multiple herds of very calm elephants, enabling us to get close and comfortable;

  • And on our last day a large herd of Cape buffalo with a few calves, one of which was an albino. Very unusual to see.

Other memorable wildlife sightings were a 3-metre python lounging in a tree by a dam, a hyena ‘kill’ shortly after dark, a wobbly-kneed two-week-old giraffe calf, hippo at sunset, one lonely crocodile and plenty of birds.

Time of year

We travelled in the last week of August, towards the end of the dry winter season. The grasses were relatively flat and the bushveld bare. 

This made for fresh mornings and excellent wildlife spotting. 

Game Drives

Like most safari lodges, Thornybush Game Lodge offers two safari activities per day at a fully inclusive rate. 

Most safaris are done from their 9-seater safari vehicles: one starting at dawn, the other kicking off at 3.30 pm, roughly 3-4 hours each.

At most, we had 3 couples in our vehicle. So each couple had a row to themselves, much more comfortable than sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, which can take away from the game driving experience. 

We went on 5 game drives over our 3 days, choosing to sleep in on one of the mornings.

Guides

The Thornybush guides are qualified to take guests on walking safaris. 

We walked in the wild on our second morning. We encountered elephants and nyala on foot, explored an old giraffe skeleton and learnt about the local trees, plants, animal spoor and tracking. 

Our safari guides were ranger Tracy and tracker John. 

Together, they guided us expertly through the terrain, pointing out wildlife, birdlife and plant life, answering our questions with patience and enthusiasm. 

Their deep knowledge and a real passion for the wilderness was apparent and felt 100% authentic.

Service

The reception staff, waiters, servers, butlers, cooks, barmen and housekeepers were warm, welcoming, polite and at times, gamesome. 

We’ve stayed at lodges where people are “just doing their jobs” or on the other end of the spectrum: are over-familiar. I find both approaches to degrade the luxury lodge experience. 

“At Thornybush Game Lodge, the staff struck the balance just right by making us feel special while allowing us to relax and simply be ourselves.”

Thornybush Game Reserve

After a tough 18-months of lockdown, travel restrictions and operational challenges, the Thornybush staff expressed their gratitude that we were staying with them. They were excited to be running at full capacity once again. The guest mix was roughly 70:30 (South African to International), more international travellers than I expected which I was quite happy to see.

Rooms

We stayed in one of the lodge’s 18 standard suites. Spacious, pleasantly cool (in temperature) and warm (in ambience). A large king-size (or maybe even bigger) bed was draped with an even bigger mosquito net, completing the safari feel. 

All the expected amenities like mini-bar, safe, dryer, writing table, couch, etc with glass sliding doors that open onto a raised wooden balcony. 

By day, we saw elephants, giraffes, bucks, monkeys and birds from our balcony. And at night, we heard the scops owl, a giggling pack of hyenas and lions roaring in the distance. 

The bathroom was possibly the stand-out feature of the suite: double vanity, large bath, both indoor and outdoor shower and magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows looking out across the wide dry river bed where you watch animals, large and small passing by. 

The lodge has two family rooms, each with its own plunge swimming pool (see note further below about families and younger guests). 

Dining & Meals

Our meals at Thornybush Game Lodge were varied, plentiful and delicious. 

I’ve stayed at lodges where the food is exquisite, creative and on par with the finest restaurants in the world. I won’t put Thornybush in this category.

Rather, Thornybush meals were wholesome, fresh, varied (some a la carte, some buffet), plentiful and very importantly: offered generous times to eat. During our 3-days at the lodge, we never felt rushed to get to a meal. 

The wine list had some of our favourites (Tokara, Springfield) and was reasonably priced. 

Communal Areas (and the lodge “feel”)

Thornybush Game Lodge has a traditional safari lodge feel: a large raised open wooden deck, with a stilted thatch roof, trees breaking through the deck offering extra shade. Plants throughout blending the structure into its environment. 

There is a calm, colonial feel, with modest modern touches. 

The main large deck consists of the dining area, multiple open-air sitting areas, two fireplaces, the bar, and a swimming pool with sunbeds. 

The outdoor reception lounge is flanked by a curio shop and library. The lodge also has a spa. 

Covid Experience

Thornybush requires a short and easy online Covid health screening questionnaire before arrival. Temperature checks and a few health questions upon check-in. Sanitiser stations throughout. Staff were exceptionally diligent with wearing masks at all times, and correctly. 

The only time I saw a mask come off, was on our walking safari when Tracy our ranger removed hers to ensure she could communicate clearly with us while out on foot. Perfectly understandable.

All activities and meals are outdoors and our rooms were prepared with a “clean seal” sticker across the doors upon arrival. Although we weren’t 100% sure, it felt like our room had been well-ventilated before our arrival. 

Guests’ mask-wearing appeared to be at their discretion. But with all meals, activities and communal areas being outdoors, this felt completely safe and suitable. We simply donned our masks if entering the curio shop, spa, etc. 

I heard during our stay that Thornybush was preparing to offer on-site vaccinations for all staff within the entire reserve (neighbouring lodges too) in the coming weeks. I was delighted by this news knowing that guests, lodge staff and their families would soon have this extra layer of personal health protection.

Insider Tips

A few things we discovered during our stay at Thornybush Game Lodge:

  1. Although afternoon game drives do typically drive through the dark for the last hour or so, Thornybush Game Reserve does allow “proper” night drives. You do need to request in advance and then you could experience some of the magic that happens after dark in the bush. This is something I’ve done in Kenya and which I’d love to do in the Kruger region next time.

  2. You can do a yoga class with an instructor (also request this in advance).

  3. Thornybush Game Lodge is family-friendly. During our stay, we met a family with grandparents, parents and grandchildren all on safari together. It was lovely to see young children out on safari learning about the wild with happy parents and grandparents.

    (If you’re after a more intimate, romantic safari without kids being kids around the lodge, then check-out Thornybush’s sister lodge Saseka Tented Camp which is slightly more up-market and usually does not have families with young children)

  4. And lastly, if it’s your birthday or a special occasion, don’t be surprised if you get a special treat or experience from the wonderful team looking after you at Thornybush Game Lodge. 

Overall, we enjoyed a 10 out of 10 safari experience at Thornybush Game Lodge.

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