I am fortunate enough to have traveled all around the world. From India to Australia to Turkey to France to Belize, I’ve touched many parts of our beautiful planet and have fallen in love with each and every place in different ways. I , however, have never fallen for somewhere as much as I did Ulusaba Private Game Reserve. Ulusaba is part of the Virgin Limited Edition family, owned by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson. Ulusaba is one of nine Virgin Limited Edition properties around the world (I’ve also visited Mont Rochelle), each offering a sense of style, luxury, and exceptional personal service. When my family and I decided that we wanted to go on a safari, Ulusaba kept coming up not only in our online research, but also in conversation. A few friends who had visited before unanimously agreed that they’d return again soon.
Located in Sabi Sand Reserve outside of Kruger National Park, there a few ways to get to get to Ulusaba. There is a 1 hour and 20 minute flight from the international airport in Johannesburg (OR Tambo International) flying by small twin-engine aircraft, or 30 minutes from Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA). Ulusaba has their own private airstrip and there are daily scheduled and charter flights available. Another option is to drive from Johannesburg, which is about a 4-5 hour drive.
Once I stepped foot off the plane, I knew I was in for something special. My family and I were greeted by our friendly ranger, Pierre, who would be our guide for the entire stay. He welcomed us with a smile and of course, mimosas, checked us in, and drove us to our lodge in the Land Rover Defender that we would call home for the next five days.
Ulusaba has 21 rooms and suites spread over two lodges: Rock Lodge and Safari Lodge. My family and I were planning to stay in the Safari Lodge, which is built along the banks of a dry riverbed, complete with swing bridges between the exquisite tree house style rooms, but when we arrived we had a surprise lodge and room change.
We were taken to Rock Lodge, which is perched on the top of a koppie with panoramic views over the 33,000 acres of bush below. There are 8 rooms at Rock Lodge, including the Master Suite, Makwela Suites, Rock Cliff rooms and the two bedroom Rock Suite, some of which have private plunge pools. We were taken to stay in the Cliff Lodge room, which is a palatial private two bedroom suite with a pool, jacuzzi, kitchen, living room, and expansive viewing deck.
Ulusaba offers two game drives per day for guests, one in the early morning (5am wake up call) and the other in the late afternoon (4pm.) You are assigned to a guide and tracker, who become like your family as you’re with them for many hours per day. My family and I loved our guide, Pierre, and tracker, Paulee so much that we even spent may meals with them, and never missed a game drive (we went on 10 total.)
The experience of going out “on safari” is unlike any experience I have ever had. Propped up in an open, no-roof Land Rover Defender (with extremely comfortable seats) you are up close and personal with the terrain and wildlife. Each seat in the vehicle offers an unobstructed view of the adventures ahead.
What makes the Sabi Sands Game Reserve so unique is that it was pioneered by local landowners in the 1950s, and shares a border with the world-renowned Kruger National Park. Today, many of these families are now third and fourth generation land owners, their legacy being the successful conservation of the highest density of big game in South Africa. Even though there is a 50 kilometer unfenced boundary with Kruger National Park, wildlife in the Sabi Sands Reserve is well habituated resulting in extraordinary close encounters and prolific, diverse sightings. The Sabi and the Sand Rivers run through the reserve, which add further dimension to the bio-diversity of the area.
Each drive is an entirely new experience. Many people come to South Africa to view the Big 5 (African Lion, African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, African Leopard, and Rhinoceros) however, there are so many other amazing animals to be seen as well (Leopard, Giraffe, Zebra, Cheetah, Wild Dog, and more!) There are optimal times for viewing each different kind of species, some are more likely to be spotted in the early morning hours and others are more apt to the evening.
I gained so much knowledge about the wildlife on every drive, thanks to our more than well-informed guide and tracker. I learned so much, but one of the most interesting pieces of knowledge I took home was how to spot the animal footprints, decipher which kind of animal they belonged to, how fresh they were, and how to figure out where they were headed. It was mind-blowing! My favorite footprints to look for were the baby lions, mainly because I couldn’t get enough of them! We kept running into the same pack of lions, which consisted of six playful baby cubs, their mother, and aunts.
One of my favorite parts of the day (after the game drives) were the incredible gourmet meals. Ulusaba is a friendly, collaborative atmosphere, so breakfasts are shared with your guide after morning drive, and dinners are held at a long communal table with all other guests after afternoon drive. Each dinner offers an entirely new menu consisting of super fresh ingredients, which is explained personally before dinner by one of the talented chefs (the chefs rotate.) It was such a pleasure to get to know people from all over the world, including the incredible staff (if you visit please say hi to Robyn Mack, the General Assistant), and share our experiences and stories from the drives each day. Not to mention, the food and wine was some of the best I’ve had.
Aside from enjoying my favorite things in the world (eating wonderful food and game-viewing rare animals,) there is a plethora of other things to do on the expansive property. You can relax by the pool, enjoy a spa treatment with an unbeatable view, visit one of the other lodges, shop at the boutique filled with local artisanal goodies and souvenirs, stargaze at the private observatory, wine taste in the private wine cellar, play tennis, go on a guided safari walk, or even volunteer with their impactful organization, Pride N’ Purpose.
After spending five magical days at Ulusaba, it came as no surprise to me that in 2016, Ulusaba was voted number one amongst all top resorts and safari camps in Africa by Condé Nast Traveler, and ranked the third best resort in the world by readers of the US edition of Condé Nast Traveler. Those awards are meaningful not only because of the prestige of the publication, but because actual travelers who have visited do the voting.
If you are dying to go after hearing about my once-in-a-lifetime experience at this world-class hidden retreat, check out Virgin Limited Edition’s “Winelands & Wildlife” offer available, where you can recreate my unforgettable experience at both Ulusaba and Mont Rochelle.