I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again): there is no better place to see animals that in the wild. I’ve been on wildlife safaris in the past in Sri Lanka and India, but going on a game drive on the continent of Africa has always been something I’ve long dreamed of.
Earlier this year, we journeyed along South Africa’s Garden Route and spent our last few days at Bukela Game Lodge in the private Amakhala Game Reserve. Believe me when I tell you that it was a life-changing experience that I will forever remember as an all-time highlight of all of my travels.
Not only were the game drives absolutely incredible (we spotted all of the Big 5 except for the elusive leopard), the property was possibly one of the coziest places I’ve ever stayed at and the staff made us feel at home from the moment we set foot on the game lodge.
If you are planning on going on an authentic African safari and want to experience eco-luxury at its best, you need to visit Amakhala Game Reserve and stay at Bukela Game Lodge. Read on for everything you need to know to plan your ultimate Garden Route safari experience!
About the Amakhala Game Reserve and Bukela Game Lodge
Amakhala Game Reserve is a private 18,000-acre game park located in the malaria-free Eastern Cape of South Africa. There are 10 different luxury hotels spread out within the game park, each of which offers a slightly different experience – there are tented camps, safari lodges, “glamping” tents and country houses.
Bukela Game Lodge is 1 of the 10 accommodation offerings within the park, and we opted to stay here for its beautiful glamping tents, amazing common areas (including a viewing platform with a clear view of a popular wildlife watering hole) and the fact that it was highly recommended to me by a friend who had visited a year prior. Which reminds me, I owe her a drink (or 5) for her amazing recommendation!
Click here to check availability and current rates at Bukela Game Lodge along the Garden Route in South Africa or click here to check out some of the other hotels in the Amakhala Game Reserve!
The rooms at Bukela Game Lodge
Bukela Game Lodge currently offers 4 thatched suites and 10 luxury safari tents, all connected by a wooden walkway and offering the ultimate African luxury experience. We visited the lodge right before it closed for renovation – it will reopen in early August 2018 as they’re adding on even more of these beautiful tents! Click here to book yourself into one of these luxury glamping tents at Bukela Game Lodge!
Each room is incredibly spacious and includes a lounge area complete with a sofa and fireplace for those cold evenings; large, en-suite bathrooms and a bathtub as well as an indoor (or outdoor) shower; private wooden deck to watch the warthogs grazing; air-conditioning unit and the most comfortable beds that will send you into the deepest slumber. There is wifi available in the rooms, but don’t expect the most stable or strong connection – head to the common areas if you desperately need to be connected.
For those chilly nights, the staff provide a carafe of sherry to warm you up, or you can ask for any wine or spirits to be brought to your room. There is a Nespresso machine as well as a well-stocked mini bar – all local wine, spirits, soft drinks and juices are included in your room package rate – so drink up!
Because the hotel is a part of the game reserve, don’t be surprised if you wake up and find that there’s no water – it just means that the cheeky elephants have stopped by overnight, damaged the plumbing and helped themselves to some fresh water! The hotel generally has the water back up and running by the time you get back from the morning game drive. At night, a ranger will also escort you back to your room from the dining room…just in case you run into some animals in the dark.
The game drives at Bukela
Amakhala Game Reserve is home to the “Big 5”: lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo and leopards. There are also plenty of giraffes, cheetahs, zebras, wildebeest, hyenas, and a variety of antelope species spread across the 18,000 acre reserve. During our 3-night stay at Bukela we spotted all of the Big 5 with the exception of the extremely elusive leopard, and even had a rare sighting of a cheetah with 3 of her 2-week-old cubs. We were the 2nd group on the reserve to spot the cubs, and it’s one of those things you don’t believe actually happened until much later!
Every day, your dedicated ranger takes a group of 8-10 people out for 3-hour long game drives across the reserve. One of the most incredible things about the game drives within Amakhala is that you hardly see any other jeeps during your time out in the reserve; this is because the rangers keep in close communication with each other over the radio and try to avoid being within each other’s line of sight. This is in order to not only provide the best experience to the guests, but also to minimize the level of intrusion on the animals. Occasionally you will see 1 or 2 other jeeps, but the rangers have either agreed for another jeep to join them or asked for permission first.
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The rangers at Amakhala Game Reserve are incredibly knowledgeable and respectful towards the wildlife. During our time there, we went on drives with both Jean-Luc and Roan – both knew everything there was to know about the animals and their behaviour, could spot wildlife a mile away when all we saw were dots on the horizon, and were truly passionate about showing us the best of what South Africa had to offer in terms of wildlife. Make sure you follow their instructions: keep your limbs in the vehicle, don’t use flash when taking photos, turn your phone to airplane mode, and stay quiet around the animals.
Amakhala has a dedicated ecology team which was formed to monitor and “manage” the flora and fauna within the reserve, as well as an elite anti-poaching unit to protect the animals. The small number of rooms and hotels within the reserve means that they are able to limit the number of people and jeeps, so that you can experience the most exclusive safari drive and not overwhelm the animals.
Bring warm clothes for the morning and evening drives, as the temperature fluctuates dramatically and the drives can be blistering cold. Bukela provides blankets and ponchos (great for blocking the wind), but make sure you wear plenty of layers, scarf, beanie and gloves. During some morning drives I found myself losing feeling in my face, fingers and toes, and was kicking myself for not being sufficiently prepared.
Remember: South Africa is in the southern hemisphere, which means that its winter months run from June through September!
Also make sure you bring a good camera as your smart phone isn’t going to cut it. I used my Canon 6D with a 75-300 mm lens, but I would recommend an even more powerful zoom lens – 400 mm and above.
Ready to see the Big 5 in South Africa? Click here to check availability and current rates at Bukela Game Lodge!
The facilities & activities
The main lodge at Bukela comprises of a reception, dining and sitting area with a central fireplace, library area with a variety of games and books, a small outdoor seating area, pool and undercover viewing platform. This viewing platform is where you should plan on spending your afternoons – set yourself up on one of the plush couches, order a cup of tea (or wine – no judgment here) and watch the warthogs, giraffes, monkeys and sometimes elephants make their way to the watering hole for a refreshing sip of water.
Meals are served in the dining area and are plentiful and extremely hearty. It’s not what I’d necessarily call “fine dining”, but you’ll never go hungry at Bukela Game Lodge. The kitchen offers a range of different options and can alter the dishes if you have food allergies or dietary requirements. I still dream of the eggs benedict with biltong!
Can’t sit still? There are also a number of additional activities on offer if 2 game drives a day isn’t enough – try your hand at archery, go birding or on a bushwalk with a qualified ranger, try your hand at fishing, or opt to go on an additional night drive to view nocturnal animals. If you prefer to stay at the lodge, the staff can bring in a spa therapist for in-room treatments.
A typical day at Bukela Game Lodge
6 AM (October to March) or 6:30 AM (April – September): light breakfast, coffee and tea in the dining room
6:30-9:30 AM (October to March) or 7-10 AM (April to September): morning game drive
10 AM (October to March) or 10:30 AM (April to September): breakfast/brunch
Free time: nap, go for a swim (during the summer months) or lounge around at the viewing platform with a hot cup of tea or coffee
3-6 PM (April to September) or 4-7 PM (October to March): afternoon game drive
Around 7:30, 8 PM: dinner
We stayed for 3 nights at Bukela Game Lodge and went on 6 game drives, but if you have the time I would recommend staying a minimum of 4 to 5 nights.
How to get to Bukela Game Lodge
The Amakhala Game Reserve is under an hours’ drive away from Port Elizabeth. You can either fly to Port Elizabeth (plenty of flights each day from Cape Town) or end your Garden Route road trip here. We flew into Cape Town, drove through Wilderness, Knysa, Plettenberg Bay, Jeffrey’s Bay and ended our road trip at Bukela Game Lodge. Afterwards, we drove back to Port Elizabeth Airport, dropped off our car and flew back to Cape Town with FlySafair for approximately $100 USD per person for a one-way flight.
We rented our zippy little Hyundai (extremely gas-efficient) through Avis. We paid a fee to drop off the car in another location (picked up in Cape Town, dropped off in Port Elizabeth) and the car was equipped with a handy bluetooth safety function which offered a panic button for emergencies as well as access to a 24-hour call centre.
If you do not plan on self-driving, you can fly into Port Elizabeth Airport and airport transfers can be organized at an extra cost.
Looking for the best prices for rental car companies around the world? Click here to book your rental car ahead of your trip. Bookings can be cancelled or amended if your plans change!
Pricing and packages
The staff at Bukela could not have made our stay any more enjoyable, and they are a large part of why I would love to return one day. No request is too big, and no request is too small. Most of the staff have been working at the lodge for years and years, and they take an incredible amount of pride in their work – the dedication is unparalleled! If you feel the same way, you can show your appreciation by leaving a tip; most people recommend approximately 7-10% of the bill to the staff (front and back of house), and a separate tip for your rangers (US$10 per person per day, double for private game drives). This is entirely at your discretion.
The package at Bukela Game Lodge was incredibly reasonable, and the hotel occasionally offers early bird offers or “stay 3 pay 2” deals. We stayed in one of the deluxe safari tents for about $400 USD per night. Now before you go, “oh my gosh that is too pricey,” hear me out: all of our meals as well as local wine and spirits were included, and twice daily 3-hour game drives were also a part of the package. The hotel is being renovated until early August 2018, but you can click here to check availability and current rates at Bukela Game Lodge or click here to check out some of the other hotels in the Amakhala Game Reserve!
I couldn’t have imagined a more extraordinary experience to pop my African safari cherry. If you’re dreaming of seeing lions, elephants, rhinos and cheetahs in the wild then add Bukela and Amakhala to your South African bucket list, pronto!
Have you been on a safari in South Africa? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section below!
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Just so you know, we were paying customers at Bukela Game Lodge. My focus is on providing the best hotel and travel recommendations to you based on my personal experiences, and as per usual, all opinions are my own. You can always expect candid and honest feedback from me (regardless of whether a trip was sponsored or not).
This post does contain affiliate links. If you choose to book using these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my website by using these links, I only recommend products or services that I have had positive personal experiences with and think you would love too.