If the idea of falling asleep to the sounds of the wild and under a blanket of stars tickles your fancy, travel writer Jared Ruttenberg shares four of South Africa’s most enticing sleep-out options.
Samara Private Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
The star-gazing journey begins in the Karoo, half an hour’s drive from the pioneer town Graaff-Reinet. Samara Private Game Reserve is the fruit of a two-decade conservation project to rewild a significant part of the Karoo to its former glory, through the restoration of the land and the wildlife that once roamed freely.
Today an impressive 28 000 hectares of land where goats and sheep once grazed, is now home to free-roaming elephant, cheetah, and rhino. Unlike many other lodges that are built and then have a conservation project added, with Samara you’re welcomed to a conservation project that always has, and always will, take first priority.
In addition to witnessing this conservation feat, I was also visiting to experience Samara’s luxury star bed. On an elevated platform, secure from the roaming wildlife, a four-post bed with mosquito net sits waiting to welcome guests to the wild side. With the Milk River to the right and Milky Way above – a setting embracingly close to nature.
We arrived at an impressive picnic-style dinner, along with a bottle of bubbly to sip through the sunset. If there were adverse weather conditions, you could simply return to the comfort of your luxury chalet (a two-way radio is left to contact the lodge should the need arise).
Once we’d made our way through the dinner, it was time to bask in the wonder of the sunset, stars, and most importantly – glorious seclusion.
On the eastern flank of Limpopo’s Waterberg region, you’ll find the little known Marakele National Park. The area’s unique topography creates a spectacular meeting place of both mountain and plains; only three hours from Johannesburg and yet it feels like a whole other world.
Part of the park is a private concession, operated by Marataba Luxury Lodges. While Mountain and Safari lodges both offer inviting stays, I’d come chiefly for their Thabametsi Treehouse – one of South African’s most luxurious sleep-outs.
The solar-panelled treehouse features an upstairs deck with a large lounge and dining area, and then a magnificent four-post bed that stares directly into the mountains. On the lower level, there is a glass-fronted bathroom with a hot-water shower. Since this is a free-roaming Big 5 game reserve, I kept my eyes peeled on the bush only a meter away, hoping that a lion would slowly saunter by.
At sunset, the African magic-show begins. The mountains begin to blush as they reflect the pink sunset hues. Later, the wild begins its nocturnal orchestra of laughing hyenas, whooping owls, and other distant growls. Night sightings are possible with the torch alongside your bed, and there’s even an iPad with apps for identifying birds, mammals, and stars. This is secluded Africa, all to yourself.
Heading eastwards along the Waterberg to the Vaalwater region, Bushwa is a smaller 4-star reserve that offers a rather romantic semi-outdoor experience. In addition to the tents and luxury chalets, the property features a stand-alone treehouse on the bank of a waterway, about 10-minutes’ drive from the lodge.
From its high-pitched position, there are gracious views over the surrounding bush. The treehouse also encompasses a small deck on the water’s edge. Being a nature reserve, you can safely walk around the base of the treehouse and enjoy the deck – the only dangerous game is the reserve’s resident Buffalo, so after a quick check of the surrounds, it’s safe to savour the sunset. Hopefully with an animal or two who’ve also come for a sundowner.
Since the treehouse is fully enclosed and roofed, the experience can be enjoyed all year round. On our visit a rather tempestuous Highveld storm was hurling all its fury down on the land around – a sight to behold from the safety of the treehouse with a mug of steaming coffee.
Breakfast and dinner are served at the lodge, and lunch can be enjoyed at the treehouse if desired. A hot shower and bathroom are a short walk away from the treehouse itself. Less than three hour’s drive from Johannesburg, this is a bush-break worth adding to the wish list.
Three hours northeast of Cape Town, adjacent to the Cederberg, you’ll find the mountainous landscapes of the Koue Bokkeveld. Hidden in these rocky ridges lies the 4-star Kagga Kamma Nature Reserve, home to two unique sleep-out options: the star suite with an outdoor bath, shower, and a natural rock pool, and the sky suite with a wood-fired hot tub.
A stay in one of Kagga Kamma’s star beds is an invitation to experience something of what the San, South Africa’s earliest inhabitants, might have experienced. After all, their rock art is to be found all around. Although this is a rather plush reimagining of the experience (with the added luxuries of hot water, a comfy bed, and dinner delivered without having to catch it), it’s the same night sky and the same call to sleep with the stars.
Part of the allure of these star beds is that since Kagga Kamma is also a nature reserve with no dangerous predators, you drive yourself to the star beds by quad bike. After a short lesson you’re off, and the next morning you drive yourself back to the lodge for breakfast.
Shortly before sunset I poured myself a glass of wine and took a short walk to the little stone koppie nearby. As I sat watching the sky settle through various shades of purple, I heard movement on the nearest koppie. Looking across I noticed a solitary male baboon also seeming to enjoy the sunset. Noticing me he quietly scurried off, leaving me alone to drink in the unforgettable bucket-list African experience.