This month, Anton and Natasha Schutte visit the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, which is part of the Greater Kruger National Park.
The Xitsonga word, Timbavati, means “the place where something sacred descended from heaven to earth”, and the area is known worldwide, primarily due to the phenomenon of the so-called white lions that naturally occur here from time to time. Although Chris McBride wrote about them for the first time in 1977 in his book, The White Lions of the Timbavati, these unique lions were recorded by local tribes as early as 1938. The lions are white because of a colour mutation, and not albinism as originally believed. This Mpumalanga gem is located on the border of Hoedspruit and Acornhoek, north of the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve on the western edge of the Kruger National Park – about 500km from Johannesburg.
The Timbavati Private Nature Reserve story began in the 1950s when a group of like-minded people decided to save this piece of land from habitat destruction and to preserve the area for future generations. In 1956 a non-profit organisation, the Timbavati Association, was founded by 47 landowners to conserve the unique fauna and flora of the area. Later (about 20 years ago), the Timbavati Foundation was established, focusing on educating the neighbouring communities by offering environmental programmes for young children. The foundation currently supports 64 schools in the area.
Today, the reserve covers 53 000ha and boasts various luxury lodges and some of the best game viewing in South Africa. In 1993, SANParks agreed to remove the fence separating the KNP, thus expanding the area into what is now known as the Greater Kruger National Park. This included the Timbavati, Klaserie and Umbabat Private Nature Reserves, and later the Balule Nature Reserve was added, increasing the area by a further 184 000ha. Recently, the fences on the western border of Timbavati have also been removed, adding 14 500ha and further contributing to the natural migration of species.
The Timbavati region comprises five different landscape types: acacia woodland, open woodland, mopane woodland, combretum woodland and mixed veld on gabbro soil. Unlike granite, gabbro typically erodes to silt and clay rather than coarse gravel, making it less sandy. It is also redder in colour as it is richer in iron.
Spoiled with the best
When South Africans hear “private national parks”, we tend to think these are places aimed at international visitors who can pay in dollars. However, this is not the case as we recently discovered a gem in the Timbavati area when we enjoyed a weekend at Machaton Private Camp. It offered all the amenities of a private reserve without costing an arm and a leg.
The camp, which opened in 2016, is nestled in a private concession in the Greater Kruger National Park area, and the Big Five are so plentiful here you can almost book a sighting! Idyllically situated on the banks of the dry Nhlaralumi riverbed, it is conveniently close to Hoedspruit (about an hour away). In 2021 the camp won a platinum award at the South African Top Travel Awards – indeed a well-deserved achievement!
Another concern we usually have when considering private camps is our campfire. However, do not worry about this at Machaton, as you can light your own fire in the large boma area to braai your boerewors or steak. We were impressed with the tranquillity of the camp, unlike other luxury private camps where one always feels like you are being rushed to the next activity. A relaxed atmosphere is key at Machaton – exactly the way we like to enjoy the bush!
The camp has a main building with a luxury lounge and a kitchen that is fully equipped for groups visiting the camp. An outdoor patio area with a swimming pool and a large outdoor boma makes this the perfect entertainment area. The large Cape ash, weeping boer bean and leadwood trees cast giant shadows over the area, perfect for spending hours with people close to your heart.
Although it is a family and self-catering camp, it can also make for a memorable romantic getaway. There are three luxury units with plenty of space, as well as a private splash pool if you prefer to enjoy some quality time with your better half. These units are located against the riverbed, providing great views with your morning coffee. The outside shower is the perfect way to rinse off the day’s dust, and if you are lucky, an elephant may just stroll past your unit. There is also an en-suite bathroom with a beautiful large shower, bath and washing-up area.
The daybed area in each unit is ideal for some leisure time with your favourite book. Just keep your bird book and binoculars close as there is vibrant birdlife in and around the camp. Each unit also has its own table with comfortable chairs to enjoy your breakfast or coffee if you do not want to use the central area. The coffee machine is convenient for those who need that caffeine kick first thing in the morning. Apart from the neatly furnished accommodation and incredible scenery, Machaton boasts exceptional staff for whom nothing is too much trouble. Upon our arrival at the camp, we were greeted by the friendly main guide, Pieter Kruger, and Rushada Schutte (field guide). We immediately felt comfortable and pampered as our luggage was unloaded and carried to our room while we enjoyed something cold – generously presented by Mildrith and Loyce, with a wet cloth to wipe the day’s dust out of our eyes – while we relaxed and marvelled at the spectacular views.
As we were mesmerised by the beauty of the area from the deck, the guides explained the camp’s layout and the game drive schedule. When booking, you can opt to use the chef’s services or prepare all your meals yourself. The chef is an excellent option for the day of arrival when you are usually tired from travelling. The food was tastefully prepared and served on the deck with a beautiful view over the riverbed. What a treat!
By late afternoon, the safari vehicle and two skilled guides were ready for our sunset game drive. With the cameras and binoculars packed, we were ready to explore the Timbavati. The guides’ passion for the environment was contagious, and their knowledge and insight into the area astounding. Since they knew we were avid bird watchers, they regularly stopped for discussions about various birds as we explored the area.
The area consists of mixed thornveld and mopani, and in addition to the Big Five, you can also see giraffe, waterbuck, nyala, zebra, duiker and hyena. You also hear the hyenas around the camp. The highly endangered African wild dog is also frequently spotted in the Timbavati region.
Bird watchers can look out for Marico sunbirds, whitebellied sunbirds, tawny eagles, little stilts and black-winged stilts. The guides are very knowledgeable birders, and we ticked a few new ones off our list – what a delight when guides share your interest and passion! Rushada later tells us that the dams and rivers attract a myriad of waterbirds and during the hot summer months, it becomes a true birdwatcher’s paradise. There is also talk of a waterhole being planned right across from the camp’s patio area, set to add even more magic to this incredible experience.
Even though it is a self-catering camp, you cannot drive your own vehicle if you overnight in Timbavati. Fortunately, Machaton offers two game drives (early morning and late afternoon) as part of the package. The sundowners at Argyle Dam are a wonderful experience. The beautiful large dam attracts various animals, and the atmosphere is unforgettable. Pieter says they recently saw the shy and endangered African skimmer here – a bucket-list species for most bird watchers! Upon our return to camp, the boma fire was burning high, and a special surprise awaited us in our room. Candles were lit everywhere in the bathroom, the bathwater was poured, and flower petals sprinkled everywhere to create a beautiful atmosphere. What a wonderful treat! This camp puts an incredible amount of effort into their guests, and the little treats and cute extras make it really special. Back at the boma area, the tables were beautifully set, and the lanterns provided the perfect atmosphere under the stars, with the meat sizzling on the coals. Truly African hospitality at its best!
An Ellie invasion
The calls of woodland kingfishers and pheasants wake us for our early morning game drive. And what a magnificent drive this was! Leeupan exceeded all our expectations, and while we were enjoying coffee and rusks, the guides noticed three buffalo and elephant a few metres away from us. As they moved closer, we quietly and quickly packed everything up. One by one, a big herd of elephants appeared out of the mopani veld and trotted towards the water. In the blink of an eye, we were surrounded by a group of 45 young bulls, cows, and elephant calves. Every now and then, one looked up as they scraped past the vehicle, and we spent close to an hour with them. Once again, the guides impressed – they allowed us to enjoy this time but were always vigilant and ensured that we got great angles to capture this memory on film.
The excitement did not stop there. On the way back to camp, we drove through a riverbank area that transforms into a picturesque paradise during good summer rains. Here another massive herd of elephants had taken over – we counted 109 who quietly drank water and took dust baths. I could easily have stayed here for the rest of my life!
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and after two wonderful days of relaxing and recharging, only interrupted by excellent game drives, we returned home with the intent to return. Machaton is a real gem in a special region, and if a visit to the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve is not yet on your bucket list you should make a plan to add it!
Important to know
- A R210 conservation fee is charged at the main gate to Timbavati Private Nature Reserve (there are card facilities).
- The area boasts a landing strip for visitors who want to visit by plane or helicopter.
- When booking, you can request the chef prepares your meals, but you can also bring your own groceries for self-catering.
- All units, kitchens, boma and dining area are serviced daily.
- Hoedspruit is a warm place – so make sure you bring enough ice, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages.
CONTACT: +27 84 662 8424 | firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com | www.machaton.co.za