Safari Sarah: Private Villa Living at Tswalu Kalahari

August 1, 2013 3:19 pm

In a little over a year, bulimics I, buy more about Sarah Khan, gonorrhea dedicated city girl and animal- and nature-hater extraordinaire, managed to up my running safari tally from 0 (and none planned in the immediate forever) to three. With more to come, I hope. That’s but one of the many transformations I’ve undergone recently as a New Yorker turned South AfriKhan.

You may recall that, against all odds, I actually found myself loving the safari experience. First up was the girlfriends safari, and then I went on a multigenerational family safari. I recently joined a luxe company retreat in the bush, and I was more than happy to clamber onto a private jet for my third go as Safari Sarah.

My weekend at Tswalu Kalahari was a completely different endeavor from my other trips, not least of all because it’s set in a semiarid region to the north with a landscape that’s a world away from the dense jungles of Kruger National Park and Phinda Private Game Reserve. This was my first time staying in a private villa, a concept I’ve been intrigued by ever since I got a tour of Royal Malewane‘s sumptuous Africa House.

Many lodges offer these massive residences — often the private homes of the owners — for an even more exclusive and opulent stay, with numerous bedrooms, expansive living areas, gourmet kitchens, private game vehicles, and a full staff, complete with a chef. It’s a great choice for families who want to stay together (and not in the standalone suites that make late-night hangouts difficult, since you usually don’t want to leave your room lest you get eaten by a lion craving a midnight snack), and for A-list types seeking the ultimate in seclusion. These villas are usually set far apart from the main lodge, and with a full staff and all lodge amenities at your disposal, you can easily go your whole visit without seeing another guest.


Tswalu’s private villa is called Tarkuni. It’s about a half-hour drive from the main lodge, Motsi, and is actually the residence of the lodge’s owner, Nicky Oppenheimer. Yes, as in those Oppenheimers. No, the house was not studded with diamonds. (I checked.) Tswalu is popular with the likes of Bono and Drew Barrymore (she was there the week before we were), and I imagine many of them choose to stay at Tarkuni. I was told Leonardo DiCaprio slept in the very bed I occupied. With which supermodel is unclear.


Tarkuni is made for entertaining. There’s a nice long table for convivial family meals, a loft area with a giant TV and games for late-night gatherings, and an airy living room with couches beseeching you to sink into them. You can play Oppenheimers for a day, pretend you’re their fabulous friends over for the weekend, feasting on decadent meals, playing backgammon, and just being rich. My favorite spot was the fireplace — nothing like relaxing in front of the fire after a long, cold day of game-viewing.

interiorThe outdoor areas were the crowning glory, though: huge wraparound decks with a bar, countless comfortable nooks and crannies to relax, read, or gaze at the animals gathering at the water hole right in front — and, of course, a pool with stunning views.

outdoor spaceThe one feature about Tarkuni I simply could not get behind, however, was the shower situation. Most safari lodges give you the option of a luxurious, fully-tricked-out indoor bathroom, or a rustic shower on the deck. I’ve always considered the outdoor shower more of a novelty than anything I’d actually like to use in practice. But at Tarkuni, the choice is made for you. If you’re a shower person, you’re going to have to go ahead and take one outdoors, no matter how cold it is, no matter how many bugs there are, and no matter which animals are lurking around waiting to sneak a peek of you in your birthday suit through the fully exposed entrance to the wild. I’ve previously harbored fears of encountering a leopard at close proximity while on safari; now I have a newfound fear of doing so in the buff.


I’d prefer not to speak of this experience ever again, so I’ll move on to the rest. As I mentioned, Tswalu’s setting is incredibly different from what most people might expect from a safari, with a lot less vegetation and more open areas. That means the wildlife is different, too. Some of the staples are here (you may recall my awesome video clip of a lion roaring), including four of the Big Five (elephants are absent). You can head to the stables to go on a horseback safari, where you’ll also find a mountain zebra just chilling amid the horses. Be careful, though, he can bite. The local meerkat population have become global celebrities: we found a documentary crew taping them around-the-clock for a meerkat reality show. They even have names, like Cleo, Xena, Zeus, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert — I am not making this up.


But at 100,000 hectares, Tswalu is the largest private reserve in South Africa, which means the animals have that much more room to play — and are that much harder to find. If you’re on a mission to cross things off your checklist in two days, this may not be the reserve for you. But if you’re willing to spend some time, be patient, and soak in the ambience without rushing, you may be rewarded with a spotting of the elusive pangolin (we weren’t).

If your travel plans and budget allow you, a private villa definitely is an amazing way to experience the bush, surrounded only by your nearest and dearest (and a few thousand wild animals). Just make sure you inquire about the shower situation first.

Tswalu Kalahari
Kuruman, South Africa

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