For the perfect marriage of luxury and nature. Watching wild giraffes graze from the trees surrounding your room’s balcony while you cool off in your outdoor shower or private plunge pool—it’s an experience that’s unmatched.
Set the scene
Thanda, meaning love in Zulu, is certainly love at first sight. As you enter the gates of the property, you’re met by safari rangers, warm smiles, and cool drinks—certainly a joy after the three-hour ride you’ve taken from Durban. The game reserve is in the middle of nowhere, but that’s one of the most tranquil environments to be in, and makes the star-gazing otherworldly. After checking in you’ll be whisked away by open-air jeep to either the main lodge, a tented camp, or Villa Izula—all of which are spaced out significantly across the property (it’s more than a 10-minute drive between each), so make sure your entire group is booked in the same accommodation. Guests are avid animal enthusiasts, adventurous families, or honeymooners popping in for a unique addition to their South African holiday. Since you’re out in the bush, attire isn’t expected to be fancy: For the twice-daily game drives, most are seen in khakis or linen chinos with safari-style button downs to match. It gets very dusty out, so sunnies and even a neck garter or scarf are recommended to protect your eyes and nose. In the evenings, guests will be a little more casual for dinner (or a night cap) at the main lodge’s bar. If you’ve ever heard someone rave about a ‘Zulu sunset,’ you’ll get to witness it first-hand here, and it literally looks like a painting you find in a store. The locals play a vital role in the cultural experiences offered at Thanda, with Zulu dancers providing traditional shows a few times a week during dinner.
Thanda is owned and founded by Swedish IT entrepreneur Dan Olofsson, who fell in love with the people and wildlife of Africa during his early visits to the area. He launched his hospitality group under the same name in 2002, and today it is made up of three unique experiences—Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve, Thanda Cruise (a private cruise experience along the Indian Ocean), and Thanda Island Private Marine Reserve located off the coast of Tanzania. Thanda Safari and Thanda Island are also members of the Leading Hotels of the World group, which is made of more than 400 luxury hotels worldwide.
There’s no bad room at Thanda. Whether you opt for the tented camp or you go all out at the Villa Izulu, you’ll get the full luxury experience. Rooms are very spacious and come with two twins or one extra-large bed. Typically, the max number of adults per room is two, but children are also welcome. If traveling in a larger group, the Villa Izula may be your best option, with five private suites under one roof. Every room across the property is outfitted in safari chic—think custom wood furnishings and earth tones, with accents of Thanda’s signature red hue throughout. The bathrooms are the real winners: Most have large soaking tubs, indoor rainfall showers with a gorgeous view of the bush, and an outdoor shower. There are plush robes and slippers in each room and the lodge offers same-day laundry services for a fee. You’ll find touches of Zulu culture in the decor as well, from bold prints on accent pillows to hand-beaded wall art. Be sure to spend some time relaxing on your balcony or patio— depending on your room type—as you never know what animals you’ll spot during your stay. There are no TVs in the bedrooms, but there is a small library at the safari lodge, a pool table and music room at Villa Izulu, and a Hemingway-style lounge at the tented camp. Each accommodation type has its own pool.
Food and drink
The lodge, Villa Izuli, and tented camp each have their own dining room with an in-house chef who tailors the menu to your liking, and you can guarantee South African wines will be served. Worth mentioning is the nighttime Braai (South African barbecue) hosted fireside at the main lodge: Expect an assortment of unique game meats like warthog sausage, as well as a spread of fresh salads and vegetables. While wine is typically the drink of choice for most when visiting South Africa, there is a small full bar inside the main lodge, and the other accommodations have spirits and mixers available for those who prefer something a little stronger.
One word, Zululand. Thanda is located at the base of the Zulu tribe’s village, which is built along the hills of a steep mountainside. Otherwise, you’re completely surrounded by nature. As far as the eye can see there’s nothing but trees, greenery, and watering holes. The game reserve is massive, made up of 14,000 hectares within a fenced border. If you’re out on a night drive, you’ll be able to see constellations from your safari vehicle.
Thanda’s staff is very attentive. Within hours they’ll know your name and your favorite wine to take with meals. Someone will always be just a call away, whether you need fresh towels in the morning or someone to escort you from your room at night (venturing out alone isn’t recommended, since animals roam more at night). The hospitality goes above and beyond, and there’s the option to book off-site cultural experiences by a private Thanda vehicle, which will take you to the homes of local Zulu people for intimate experiences. With the help of a translator you’ll get a glimpse into daily Zulu life, as well as learn a little more of the tribe’s history and how it made its way to the area.
Families are welcome, although it may be difficult to take smaller children out on game drives since you’re sitting in a vehicle for up to three hours. The property does offer child watch services for an added fee, and there is a small playroom in the main lodge, too.
Thanda’s owner, Dan Olofsson has always ensured that wildlife conservation initiatives are at the forefront of his business model. Thanda is not only a founding member of Project Rhino KZN— an anti-poaching collaboration with local conservation agencies and game reserves— but it was also reclaimed as a protected nature reserve in 2015, one of the first to do so in South Africa. Thanda was originally deemed a protected nature reserve in 1895 by the government, but the status was taken away for unknown reasons in 1907.
The property isn’t the most accessible, so those with mobility issues will have difficulties getting around or enjoying the experience. Most of the accommodations have stairs at the entryway, and even getting into the game drive vehicle requires a slight climb as the vehicles sit high off the ground.
Anything left to mention?
A standout for Thanda is its connection to the local community. Not only are locals employed by the game reserve, but, the camp often gives back financially to the community as well. In addition to the giveback efforts, Thanda’s game drives are top-notch. Rangers are not only knowledgeable about the plant, bird, and animal species found around the property, but they are always ready with a story or joke to make the drive even more entertaining. Expect to see at least four of the big five drives (rhinos, lions, elephants, and buffalo)—the leopards are a little harder to spot. Additionally, you’ll see dozens of nyalas (an antelope species native to the region), giraffes, and zebras roaming around all day—maybe even from your bedroom window.