Written by: Nikki Meyer
South Africa boasts an array of incredible lodges in stunning settings, and at Rhino Walking Safaris and Rhino Post Safari Lodge in the Kruger National Park, we frequently hear: “There are so many stunning lodges on the internet, how is a person supposed to choose?!”
We recommend that you think of choosing a lodge in the same way as choosing a wife or a husband. There’s more to life than looks – though they sure do help for that first spark of attraction! There’s personality, financial status, reputation and, most importantly of all, compatibility.
So here is seven things to look for when choosing the right lodge for you:
Certain styles will naturally resonate with you, and the internet is a visual medium. Are you into opulence or simplicity? Beware of photographs depicting arrangements of fresh flowers as few, if any, lodges use fresh flowers outside of advertising shots. Furthermore, if it is the rose petals in the bath and on the floor that draw you, then be sure when booking to ask whether these will be available as they are also often done only for publicity shots or for honeymooners.
2. Personality and ambience
Look at the guest reviews on the lodge’s website. What is it that people praise most about this lodge? The lodge owners or managers choose which reviews to post on their own sites, so you will get an idea of what is important to them. Is it food, friendliness, the wine selection, game viewing, pampering, spa therapies, technology or luxury that is high on their list? What are your three most important criteria and in what order? Would you prefer the formality of a lodge where waiters wear bow ties and call guests ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’, or the informality of a communal table where staff and guests are on first name terms and dine together?
3. Game viewing
The lodge isn’t everything; the other important factor to consider is game viewing. Are you focused on seeing the Big Five and not that concerned about smaller things, or are you really looking for a bush experience with the time to absorb everything, but it would be nice to see the bigger animals too? Look at how much emphasis the lodge website puts on the ‘Big Five’. If they’re any good, their guides should be aware of the marketing and will work in accordance with it.
Consider the conservation policies of the lodge as most will advertise these on their website if they are important to them. Off-road driving is the ultimate game drive for some, but extremely offensive to others. Ask the lodge or your agent about their stance if this is important to you, because it could make or break your safari.
Is value for money important to you or do you want the best that money can buy? There are some fabulous lodges for the über-wealthy, but there are also some that offer almost as much for a fraction of the price. Remember that lodges in remote areas are expensive to run as much of the budget goes to providing basic services, which are available for next to nothing in town. This means that you cannot compare the price and level of luxury between a city hotel and a game lodge.
You can do a self-catering safari fairly cheaply, but if the price is too low for a fully catered safari, you run the risk of quality of meals, vehicles and room amenities being skimped on. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t take advantage of some of the great specials that even the best quality lodges run during the traditionally quiet months, but look at the normal rate of a lodge to get a general idea of standards. Do a little extra homework if a rack rate is less than ZAR1,500 per person sharing per night.
For those who don’t have an endless budget, the best value for money combined with luxury is to be found in the range from ZAR3,500 to ZAR6,000 per person per night. If drinks are not included (and at anything over ZAR6,000 we feel they should be), you should feel comfortable to drop the lodge an email and ask them to forward you a copy of their wine list, laundry prices or even the massage menu.
There are many independent sites such as www.tripadvisor.com where travellers give candid reviews. Read what people have to say and whether the lodge cared enough to respond to negative reviews. If so, did they do so politely? Look at the number of ‘Excellent’ reviews, ‘Good’ reviews and ‘Poor’ reviews. Don’t be fooled by the number but rather look at the ratio and whether it is well stacked in favour of ‘excellent’. A lodge may only have a few reviews simply because it is new.
You need to consider why you are going on safari and whether this lodge is going to give you what you want. For example, if you want to impress clients then consider famous names and places frequented by the stars. Look at rates of ZAR10,000 per person sharing and upwards. However, if you want an authentic bush experience then consider a smaller unfenced lodge, which can provide the option of walking safaris or even a camp-out night. On the other hand, if it’s a pampered holiday that you’re after, consider a lodge with a butler, spa and private plunge pool. And if you want to see the Big 5 in the shortest time possible then consider a bigger lodge in a private reserve where many vehicles traverse a limited area and guides can call sightings in to each other to get you quickly from one to another.
Whatever you’re looking for, please consider marrying your needs with good conservation principles and ethics. There are a few gems that manage outstanding environmental ethics, great game viewing, style and comfort as well as a reasonable price range.