Reviewed: South Africa’s most luxurious safari

The colonial grandeur, blissfully remote Owner’s House, set amidst the indigenous tamboti (morukuru) trees along the banks of the Marico River on Madikwe Game Reserve, has become the diamond in the Morukuru Family’s tiara. An unforgettable destination and adventure to top your wish list with silver service all the way, this is a truly passionate place – both in the way it’s run and the way guests keep coming back over and over again. No travel bucket list is complete without this lavish reinvention of a much-loved location that’s just a four-hour drive from Joburg. 

The family-friendly Owner’s House, part of the Morukuru Family’s collection of stylish exclusive-use safari houses and understated boutique lodges, welcomes children of all ages – even on safari. The two-bedroom house, alongside the camp’s other two equally spectacular accommodations – the three-bedroom River House and five-bedroom Farm House – has been recently renovated with lashings of elegant East African colonial-era style. Check-in is an informal chat with your team of eight dedicated staff, including your own private host, guide, tracker, chef, butler and housekeeping. You’ll get the feeling that everyone is extremely proud to work here. 

Each of the three free-standing luxury villas are uniquely designed. Gazing out over what appear to more abundant animals and plains than anywhere else, at Owner’s House, boundaries between outside and inside are blurred thanks to large sliding doors. Expect a classic safari vibe with inspiration from the famous wild dogs of the area, Tswana basket weave and dense riverine forest: Clean-lined, minimalist wooden floors; bookshelf-lined walls; mustard accents in throws and cushions; a mix of African collectibles and European antiques; gallery-quality artworks; the best of South African-designed pieces; as well as a custom-made mustard leather and bead chandelier above the dining table that makes a strong contrast against the enormous stone fireplace and the natural texture of the thatch roof. The house flows effortlessly from one exquisite space to the next – there are two spacious en-suite bedrooms with a charging station of device-friendly plugs and connections plus a living room with books and boardgames, dining room, wine cellar, library, complimentary Wi-Fi and a digital entertainment system. Step off the wraparound outside deck, which connects you to the Marico River, onto the treetop sala, built-in firepit, outdoor bath or private pool that’s big enough – and deep enough – to swim short lengths in. 

The best feature is the main bedroom. It channels the comforts of home, though the thatched roof and views will remind you how far away home is. Filled with contemporary furniture and art, and lavishly layered with a hand-woven headboard, plump cushions, rich, textured fabrics and hand-blown glass bedside lamps sourced from a young local artist – it’s hard to believe you’re in the bush. In a cosy, classy room this size, with masses of functional storage space for everything including travel bags, you could easily hole up all day. There’s a woodburning fireplace for stormy days and a sliding door opening up onto the outside deck, which means panoramic sweeps of the Madikwe plains merging with the horizon from the bed or bathtub. Although, really, the best feature is the walk-in en-suite bathroom with black steel accents, mottled marble vanities, locally produced Africology bath potions and vases of statuesque botanical beauties – proteas. It leads past a deep tub out onto the deck to an outdoor shower that feels super-private. 

What we love the most is that days unfold as leisurely or energetically as you want, with surprises orchestrated with meticulous attention to detail in the background by the fabulous staff. The house’s designer interiors are wonderfully distracting, but it’s the game viewing that demands attention and exploration. The Big Five is the big draw in the bush, but here you’ll spot the Magnificent Seven – adding cheetah and African wild dog to lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. Beyond game drives, your host is also happy to arrange loads of activities tailormade to your preference with no fixed time schedules – birdwatching, fishing, starlit sleep-outs in an open-air bed, mountaintop or riverside braais and guided Big Five bush walks (or nature walks in a safe and enclosed area for guests under 16). Definitely book a skin-quenching facial or full-body massage using Africology products enriched with African plant extracts and essential oils, too. 

Ingenuity and variety spring from the kitchen controlled by chef Thabiso Letshwenyo. Everything is included except vintage wines, and it feels like you’re eating in a different restaurant every time. Fresh, wholesome meals, of up to three courses if you fancy, are kicked off with local gin cocktails and served in unique, last-minute surprise locations such as sundowner snacks under a tree in the middle of the reserve or romantic plated dinners fireside on your private deck with sherry and port in crystal decanters. Think pan-fried baby sole in a lemon-butter sauce, perfectly roasted lamb shanks atop a bed of mash, simple seared salmon paired with summer vegetables or a tagliatelle pasta salad packed with duck breast, crisp vegetables and bocconcini mozzarella balls. Regardless of what you’re served for dessert – dark chocolate brownies or pistachio parfait – end the night with your choice from the wine cellar, which includes some stellar South African labels and one of the best whisky selections in the bush. 

A special mention should be made of the bush dinners at Morukuru Family owners Ed and Anka’s special places, which are part of the experience. They’re arranged at the discretion of your host who tends to work out very quickly if you like surprise meals away from the comfort of the house or not. Always with a surprise element like cooking stokbrood over a fire or a beautiful showpiece bar for interesting cocktails, it’s magic over the savannah – you’ll even spot elephants. Like with the rest of the staff, chef Thabiso is extremely kind and has a can-do approach to everything, so it’s also easy to stick to gluten-or dairy-free or vegan diets. He loves nothing more than inviting guests into the kitchen, and will even set time aside to teach you how to make your favourite dish – sushi or patisserie-worthy macaroons perhaps, or pizza for the little ones.

If there’s anything we’d change, it would be the rough access road beyond the gates of Madikwe Game Reserve. A 4×4 SUV is best for getting there, or you can take it very slow in a car. The reserve is also accessible via Federal Airlines’ daily shuttle service from OR Tambo International Airport. There are two landing strips within the reserve – you’ll land on the one closest to Morukuru Family and a game vehicle and ranger will transport you directly to Owner’s House. So, is it worth it? Absolutely – not only is it fully inclusive, it’s also as if owners Ed and Anka Zeeman have taken the best of everything they’ve learnt over the past 15-odd years and distilled it into the refreshed and updated house. 

Madikwe Game Reserve 

011 615 4303 

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