THE BLOG
07/28/2014 03:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Enjoying the Wilds of South Africa at the Umlani Bushcamp

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(View of my front door and the dining area and boma in the background)

In June, I had the great pleasure of exploring the Timbavati game reserve in South Africa, a ruggedly beautiful region about six hours northeast of Johannesburg by car. I was traveling with a company called Wild Eye known for its intimate photographic safaris led by some of the industries leading wildlife photographers. We stayed at the Umlani Bushcamp, a quaint and comfortable all-inclusive lodge that caters to families and small groups. Tucked within towering trees and thick bushes, the rooms were simple, circular thatched roof and reed-walled rondavales built in the style of the local Shandaan tribe architecture.

#4

My room (#4) was spare but perfectly agreeable and without electricity or heat. At night it was lit by oil lamps that gave off a warm romantic glow I rather enjoyed.

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(#4)

A swinging door led to my open-air, en-suite bathroom and shower which I imagine is delightful in warmer weather but since I was there during a particularly frigid winter -- I could see my breath -- it proved a bit challenging in the early morning and evening. Though I have to admit, if you need to wake up early, and we did, putting your bum on a freezing toilet is a brilliant strategy.

The wall separating the bathroom from the main room was half the height of the towering thatched roof overhead, effectively making the entire space open-air. If you're going to stay there during the winter you'll want to be prepared. I wore two to three layers of clothing to bed each night depending on the temperature. One evening it was so cold I wore my jeans and a hat to sleep!

The camp provided a very thick, heavy blanket (however, when I requested a second I was told that there wasn't an extra available), and hot water bottles which are very cozy until 3am when they lose their heat. Half of our nights at Umlani the bedding was perfectly sufficient, but when it was unseasonably cold it was less than fun.

(Tip: I found that if I put the clothes I planned to wear the next morning in bed with me, they were body temperature in the morning. Everyday I changed under my blankets -- it took a little practice but it was worth it believe me. Emerging from my warm bed fully clothed made it easier to face the brisk morning air.

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(Umlani's pool, the dry river bed and the watering hole at the top of the hill beyond)

Located in a shaded area at the top of a hill, #4 overlooked a small naturally landscaped pool and the wide dry river bed next to where the camp was based. Across the river bed and up a steep hill was a watering hole that was at eye-level with Umlani's guest lounge and lunch deck. Elephants, buffalo and impala were seen visiting the watering hole during our stay and it was always exciting.

There was an open-air dining area and boma (a fenced in meeting place) where we spent a lot of our time sitting by the fire before and after our game drives. A small curio shop with the only electricity in camp was a regular destination for our group and where we charged our computers, smart phones and camera batteries.

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(The view from my room to the main dining area and the fenced in boma to its right)

The Umlani Team

The camp's staff couldn't have been nicer. Tembe, who greeted us upon our arrival, was incredibly sweet and had a radiant smile. Morné, the camp's manager, was always available to answer questions about Umlani and the animals in the surrounding area which made for interesting conversation. Everyone, in fact, was delightful.

The Cuisine

Breakfast was straightforward and served in the dining area immediately after we returned from our morning game drive which took place from 6am-10am, depending on our sightings and travel time. Cereals, fresh fruit, yogurt, granola and toast were staples. Hot options were limited: eggs either scrambled, fried, poached or boiled. Sides of sausage, bacon, beans, mushrooms or tomatoes would rotate depending on the day.

By the third day we all knew the egg choices by heart and our waitress knew we knew but she dutifully recited the list day in and day out like a trooper. It became a joke between us and she would invariably giggle as soon as she got to our table, prompting our laughter as well.

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(The view from the guest lougnt to the lunch deck that overlooks the watering hole)

I ate the same thing everyday: Yogurt with granola, scrambled eggs piled high on a piece of toast topped off with a little Tabasco and a can of Diet Coke. Yum! (Seriously, I looked forward to it.)

Lunch was served at 1pm on the main deck overlooking the river bed and announced with a hearty drum solo by one of the staff. It too was an uncomplicated affair with mixed bean salads, and other dishes. To be honest, I stuffed myself at breakfast and rarely ate lunch, so I'm not sure what all the choices were, opting to sit in the curio shop to deal with a computer and Lightroom issue that plagued me for most of the trip, or take advantage of the warmer afternoon temperatures to snag a shower.

Dinnertime was my favorite. While enjoying drinks by the fire, Goodness, the camp's chef, would appear after a hearty drum roll and say, "Good evening. My name is Goodness. I am a chef. Tonight we have..." and she would proudly describe the night's meal. Goodness would end every menu with "...and fresh brrrrrread rolls," pronounced with a masterful roll of the tongue. The others in the group preferred her lamb with mint sauce, but I loved her beef fillet with roasted potatoes, mixed vegetables and green salad. All in all the food was quite good.

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(Our view on day from the lunch deck: three bulls making good use of the watering hole)

Inside the dining area the tables were beautifully decorated with table-top arrangements that changed nightly featuring napkin origami mixed with fresh greens. The oil lamps lit the dark room like a restaurant frequented by lovers conducting torrid affairs. It was great.

For those who weren't dead on their feet by 9pm -- our days began before sunrise -- a return to the adjacent boma and the fire was the ticket. I always went to my room to ready my gear for the next day and grab a quick read.

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(Guests cozy up to the fire in the boma)

Animals visited the camp regularly including a friendly nyala -- a gorgeous antelope -- that found the leaves outside my room particularly gratifying and three bull elephants that made themselves at home at the watering hole. Buffalos meandered through the camp on night, blocking the path to some of our rooms which kept us in the boma until they moved. Another morning we found leopard, genet and porcupine tracks in the sand outside my door.

(Tip: I prefer open camps, but for those who may want animals to keep their distance, there are plenty of fenced camps available throughout Africa.)

On our final evening, the group gathered in the boma and the Umlani team treated us to a wonderful Shandaan dance to say farewell.

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(Oil lamps cast a beautiful glow over the dining room)

A version of this article first appeared on The Insatiable Traveler

For more posts on my trip to Timbavati including the amazing array of wildlife click here

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