DAWN is breaking across the Thanda game reserve and the chill is bracing – but you won’t hear a word of complaint from us.
We’re trailing a large pride of lions at 6am and the exhilaration numbs the cold.
“There’s been a kill,” says our twinkly-eyed guide Christian Sperka. “It sounds like it could be big — perhaps a giraffe.”site: the s
Moments later, as our Land Rover halts, we watch on in awe as tumbling lion cubs pounce, paw and nuzzle each other.
It’s the stuff of Attenborough documentaries, but the only people watching the cubs scuffle are in our 4×4.
While the Kruger has long been South Africa’s most famous safari spot, this more magical destination is now just as achievable for Brits hoping to spot the Big Five.site: th
British Airways is opening up KwaZulu-Natal to UK travellers, launching their first direct flight to Durban tomorrow. The link from Heathrow will operate three times a week.
Flight time is 11 hours, then it’s a three hours on the N2 motorway to reach Thanda’s safari heaven. Our fabulously quirky guide Christian is an opera-loving German, a “reformed” IT worker who found his way to South Africa via Nashville and Singapore.
He gives us a lesson in “poo-ology” – rifling through recent dung, explaining how subtle differences can reveal which animal you’re chasing. The grassy example, he declares, is a white rhino.
Soon a rhino mother and calf emerge, trotting from the bush.
Over breakfast back at Villa iZulu, Thanda’s rhino monitor Daniel Macdonald explains that most of their animals are dehorned to protect them from poachers.
More than 1,100 rhinos were killed for their horns last year, compared with 60 in 2006. With an intimate knowledge of every rhino on the 35,000-acre reserve, Daniel strives to ensure that none of his animals meet a grisly fate.
The initiative is a passion project of Thanda’s owner, Swedish tech billionaire Dan Olofsson. He built Villa iZulu in the early 2000s as a winter refuge for his wife Christin and their three children.
Now the luxury lodge serves as the perfect getaway for groups or those requiring complete privacy.
For couples and solo travellers, Thanda’s 15-unit tented camp or one of the nine luxury bush suites in its heavenly main lodge are more suitable.
Thanda is Zulu for “love” and makes the perfect wedding or honeymoon spot. Our clever car, with kneeling spaces for taking low-level pictures, helps you finish afternoon safaris in style, as the back folds out into a full bar.
Martinis, G&Ts and cool beers are dispensed under the star-packed African sky.
All this luxury doesn’t come cheap, but those on a budget can stay comfortably at the Falaza Game Park & Spa in nearby Hluhluwe.
There’s even more wildlife to discover 90km away in St Lucia. Here, boat tours sail binocular-wielding tourists through the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, home to bobbing hippos and Nile crocodiles. The trip costs as little as £13 and lasts two hours.
Durban’s warm Indian Ocean waters and stunning golden beaches are also quite the draw.
Recently voted the best hotel in South Africa, The Oyster Box is tucked behind the beautiful beach front of Umhlanga, a 15-minute drive from Durban town centre. As we enjoy the hotel’s sensational curry buffet, we are treated to the majestic sight of whales swimming along the horizon, their heads glistening in the sun. Dolphins are also regular visitors.
Head to the famous Victoria Street Market, where spices scent the air and dealers in everything from traditional Zulu jewellery to carved ornaments hustle for trade.
Then take a stroll along the Golden Mile, named after its shimmering beaches.
In the early evening the promenade is buzzing with local life as laughing children splash around in the choppy waters and lovers walk hand in hand.
As the sun sets, the city’s famous Florida Road springs to life, with trendy, bustling bars and a thriving restaurant scene.
The food is an intoxicating mix of African and Indian fare, best symbolised by Durban’s signature dish “bunny chow” — a spicy, thick curry served in a carved-out bowl of bread.
It’s believed it was invented by Indian labourers who arrived in South Africa in the 1800s to work on sugar cane plantations.
Over “bunnies” in the spectacular Fairmont Zimbali Resort, South African Masterchef contestant Claire Allen, 31, explains the cultural significance of the dish.
“The Indians working on the sugar fields didn’t have any Tupperware so improvised and used a carved-out loaf of bread to carry their meals instead,” she says as the steaming dish is served.
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“Durban curry is very different to British and Indian curries, which are cooked with lots of dairy and cream. Ours have lots of tomatoes, cumin and chilli and are obviously very spicy and delicious.” That’s Durban all over.
From its fiery curries to its rugged coast line and magnificent beasts, everything packs a punch.
GO: DURBAN SAFARI
GETTING/STAYING THERE: British Airways flights, Heathrow to King Shaka International start from £461return (ba.com/durban).
Five nights at the 5* The Oyster Box is from £999pp on selected dates in June, flying from Heathrow if booked by October 31 (ba.com/southafrica).
An all-inclusive stay at Thanda Safari is from about £390 per night.
In May to August book a four-night stay, get a fifth night free (thanda.com).
The 3* Falaza Game Park & Spa, Hluhluwe, has rooms from £121 per night for two people sharing. Visit falaza.co.za.
Rooms at Fairmont Zimbali Resort from £152 per night. Go to fairmont.com/zimbali-resort.
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