Big 5 Encounters at Thornybush Game Lodge

After a long journey (read about our self-drive from Cape Town to Kruger) we finally descended through the escarpment and saw the lowveld stretch out before us, a beautiful green carpet of anticipation.

As we got closer to our final destination, Thornybush Game Lodge, my excitement levels were at an all time high, and quite possibly even higher than the kids, although not by much!

Their memories of our safari holidays are vivid and as we reminisced of our past trips on our drive to this one it was evident that the trips we’ve taken to the bush have always been worth it. The memories you make in this part of the world stay with you for a lifetime – just as alive as the moment they happened! We all couldn’t wait to make more!!

Stepping out of our dusty car to be greeted with a warm welcome and a cool drink by the Thornybush was one such moment. This visit, in January, was our first to the area during summer and we were immediately struck by the warm, humid air and threat othundershowers in the atmosphere. The bush a thick vibrant green, bursting with bird song and the promise of new life.

In fact on our drive up we had plenty of time to chat about our ‘wish list’ for this trip and top of mine was the chance to see the babies of the bush. As it turns out, I wasn’t disappointed!

We were shown through the incredible reception areas of the Thornybush Game Lodge where we sank into the comfortable surroundings and marvelled that we had stepped into a dream. After our brief COVID-19 check in and debrief we were shown to our suites overlooking the river bed.

A huge king-sized bed swathed in mosquito netting, a beautiful bathroom and our own private balcony were just some of the highlights of our room, but the firm favourite for us was the outdoor shower! As soon as was decent we dived in to refresh our bodies and awaken our senses to our surroundings…

There are 20 luxurious suites which fan out from the main area, 18 of them enjoying splendid river-facing views and 2 Family Suites. All feel exclusive, luxurious and private – a truly magical place to unwind between the exciting game drives and the indulgent meals!

Fortunately, despite a torrential downpour enroute that delayed us by an hour, we were not late for our first game drive. (I HATE to miss a game drive, the FOMO in me can’t cope!) After a quick change we made our way back to the gorgeous open-air lounge for a quick bite to eat and some teatime treats before meeting our ranger, Enock, and tracker, Freddy.

Jumping in the back of a 4×4 game viewing vehicle has such happiness attached to it for me and I couldn’t wait to get going and head out on our ‘treasure hunt’. The anticipation of never knowing what will be around the next corner is a feeling that can’t be beat.

For many first-time visitors to this part of the world the main aim is to tick off the ‘Big 5’ – lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino – and if it’s your one and only safari then I can understand the pressure. Fortunately we have seen these beautiful beasts a few times over so for us the focus of our game drives is more about the full experience. I love to take things slowly and smell the air, spot an interesting insect and learn more about a particular bird or plant along the way. Yes, the mammals are a highlight, but it’s becoming fully immersed in the surroundings and allowing nature to unfold around you that will stay with you long after you leave.

That being said I never complain at an exciting chase – and right out the gates we heard about something very special that we didn’t want to miss….

And that is how we found ourselves enjoying a leopard sighting as our very first encounter at Thornybush Game Lodge!

Regular bush visitors will tell you that leopard are the most elusive of the Big 5 and many will never have the privilege of seeing one in the wild. We were indeed among the luckiest when a slender young male slinked right past us and then headed up into a thick tree where you would never have known he was perched without seeing him clamber up!

As if one big cat viewing wasn’t enough for our game drive, our incredible tracking team then ensured we also spent some time in the presence of these two gorgeous sisters…

I love spending time observing animal behaviour and having become cat owners in the past year it was incredible to watch their behaviour. These two lazy lions spent time sleeping, playing, play fighting, yawning, stretching, nuzzling. All so familiar to me – because of our Cleo cat!

After these two highlights it was time to slow down and let dusk reveal her delights. As we bumbled along the dirt tracks I was so taken by how different everything felt in the summer. The warm air for one! No freezing cold requiring jackets and beanies, gloves and blankets! In fact we could enjoy our evening safari in shorts and slops.

The bush too felt different. I loved the lush green growth of the foliage which couldn’t be more different from winter’s brown palette. The animals seemed relaxed and happy – well fed to be sure!

We found curious elephants sniffing the air, hippos twitching their ears, graceful zebras wearing their finest finery and weird-looking warthogs. A ‘confusion’ of wildebeest, beautiful bushy-tailed nyala and even a shy rhino who disappeared before our eyes into the bush (all 2 tons of him!)

And all these sightings took place under threatening dark storm clouds that loomed large against the Drakensberg mountains and burst as we bumbled back to the lodge in the dark. Yes, our last 20 mins of our game drive was in the pouring rain! Nothing quite like the large, warm raindrops of the lowveld to wash away the weariness of the world we find ourselves living in!

After an action packed afternoon there was the promise of dinner under the stars so we quickly headed to our rooms to change into something dry before heading back for dinner. Incredibly another creature felt it was a good time for a shower too, in the river just below our rooms an elephant was splashing around!

Our first few hours at Thornybush were indeed memorable – all these encounters were in just a 3 hour game drive on our first day!

If you can believe it, the rest of our stay at Thornybush served up even more memorable experiences….

Read more about our stay at Thornybush Game Lodge:

The call of the wild: Our family safari to Thornybush

Memorable moments at Thornybush Game Lodge


P.S. There are currently some amazing special deals on offer to South African residents. Find out how you and your family can enjoy the magic of the bush at Thornybush!

Contact Thornybush Game Lodge

Thornybush Nature Reserve
Guernsey Road
Tel: +27 11 253 6500

Thornybush Nature Reserve Gate : -24.428404, 31.128351

Kathryn Rossiter

Kathryn is a South African lifestyle blogger and mom of 2 who has been blogging daily for over 9 years! She writes about travel, health, beauty, fashion, decor and family... but not food (unless it's food she's eaten made by someone else) as she is a hopeless cook. She only wakes up early for 2 things... a red-eye flight to somewhere exotic and early morning game drives. She has just finished an extensive home renovation and would prefer to never see another box again. She's never met a chocolate or glass of bubbles that she didn't like!

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