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From my private deck, I watched a family of elephants frolic in front of me on the sands of the Sabie River. That was just during the first 15 minutes of my stay at Lions Sands Private Game Reserve, located on the border of Kruger National Park in South Africa. I had never been on safari before so, more than anything, I was excited to go on my first game drive that evening. However, when I got to my room and saw the elephants at play, listened to the hippos splashing in the river and watched a monkey swing from the branches above me, I wondered if the game drive hadn’t already started. It seemed as if all the animals in Africa were right on my doorstep, but I soon learned that that’s business as usual at Lion Sands, where all guests — even the wild ones — are made to feel right at home.
Lion Sands was established in 1933 by Guy Aubrey Chalkley, and it has been family-owned ever since. Today, Nick and Robert More, Chalkley’s great grandsons, are the current owners of the expansive property and have transformed their family camp into a world-class safari destination.
At Lion Sands, guests have the choice of staying in three different lodges: River Lodge, Ivory Lodge or 1933. Our first night was spent at River Lodge, which just underwent a $1.8 million renovation. At once, the lodge was warm and inviting, and a friendly staff awaited to greet guests. Eighteen thatch-roofed, luxury guestrooms make up the lodge, as well as several public areas, including a private lounge and bar with a fireplace; an outdoor safari lounge; two swimming pools that are heated in the winter; wooden viewing decks; a secluded bird hide; a spacious outdoor deck located on the banks of the river; a conference room; a curio shop; an indoor-outdoor dining area; a gymnasium; and the Lalamuka Health Spa.
Rooms feature a king-size bed with mosquito netting, an en-suite bathroom, an outdoor rainshower, an indoor shower, a soaking tub, a private viewing deck, air conditioning, a minibar, a safe and a telephone. Notably missing from the rooms are televisions, which the owners felt took away from the natural surroundings.
By far, the River Lodge is the most social of the three lodges. For morning game drives, guests gathered in the lounge to drink tea and coffee before leaving. Afternoons can be spent spotting wildlife with other guests from the riverside deck. And conversation flowed freely during mealtimes and cocktail hour.
In contrast, Ivory Lodge is a private sanctuary. It is comprised of six private villas, each with a separate living room, a heated swimming pool and a private viewing deck. The open floor plan with en-suite bathroom and an enclosure for an outdoor shower is appointed with African accessories. The decor blends the Old World with the new to create an Afro-Euro chic design. Each villa features views of the Sabie River, which has flowing water year-round, and can be viewed through the suite’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
Ivory Lodge has its own private bar and lounge area with a fireplace, but it shares many other public spaces with the River Lodge. Couples often prefer to utilize the resort’s in-room dining services rather than dining in the lounge. A unique hatch that opens onto the outside of the villa allows guests to receive room service without even opening the door.For families and small groups, Lion Sands’ 1933 lodge is a secluded retreat that truly makes guests feel at home. This private home features four spacious suites, each with its own view of the Sabie River. Bathrooms have a double vanity, as well as elegant baths and outdoor showers. There is also a children’s dormitory, capable of sleeping up to eight children, with a his-and-hers bathroom and an adjoining bedroom for an au-pair. The lodge’s floor-to-ceiling windows, unique sliding doors and muted colors mirror the surrounding landscape and create a seamless, indoor-outdoor flow. Timber, thatch and screed flooring add earthy charm to the interior and, in the lounge, guests can relax in oversized chairs and take advantage of an open fireplace. The kitchen opens onto a dining area that’s equally suited to informal family meals or a banquet affair. All of the public areas open onto a large, wraparound wooden deck and a lap-size swimming pool.
Game DrivesNot only does Lion Sands offer luxurious accommodations, but its private reserve features excellent wildlife-viewing opportunities. Lion Sands’ field rangers are all professionally qualified by the Field Guide Association of Southern Africa and registered with the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. Its location, which is set adjacent to Kruger National Park, with the Sabie River as its only barrier, means that wildlife is free to roam the plains. During our four game drives, we viewed the Big Five and more. Although gruesome, we watched vultures descend on the carcass of a water buffalo while a pride of lions slept off its feast. We saw a hippo peak out from below his watery home, and we got stuck in an elephant traffic jam. Our final game drive was possibly the most spectacular. A leopard was spotted sauntering along one of the main roads. From the comfort of our Land Rover, our group followed him as he marked his territory, played in the bushes and tracked the scent of possible prey.Regardless of how many animals we saw on each game drive, the experience of driving through the African bush in the early morning and the evening was just as peaceful as the nights that I spent lounging on my private deck, gazing out at the Sabie River from the comfort of my room.