When planning for our honeymoon, we were bombarded with information. We knew we wanted to do a private game reserve by Kruger National Park but which reserve to we go to and which game lodge? There are so many choices but thankfully a friend recommended Elephant Plains Game Lodge. I still did my research before booking it but the big draw was that this was located in the world-famous Sabi Sands Game Reserve and the prices were much more reasonable compared to the competition.
Having stayed there for 3 nights at the end of October, I am oh so glad we had the experience we had at Elephant Plains. The funny thing is that my wife and I talked about what our favourite part of honeymoon was between safari in South Africa, Cape Town, Seychelles, and Istanbul, and we continuously come back to Elephant Plains as our top choice despite it being literally the first thing we did on the trip.
Thinking back on the trip planning process, there were a lot of unanswered questions that I wish I knew beforehand so let me spill everything I know about the game lodge to either help you make a decision to stay here for an upcoming trip or to help inform you of what to expect and help you prepare for your vacation.
ABOUT THE LODGE
For those that don’t know too much about Elephant Plains, this is a game lodge located within the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Why this is important is because Sabi Sand is directly adjacent to one of Africa’s largest game reserves, Kruger National Park, which is home to a high density of wild animals including the Big 5. More importantly, the fence that was there to divide the grounds was dropped in 1993 so animals are now able to roam freely. There are currently 23 private lodges on this piece of land including Elephant Plains.
Family owned and run, this lodge caters to travellers that want an authentic safari experience with the luxuries of comfortable accommodations, excellent food, beautiful grounds, and professionally operated game drives. The lodge is perched next to the dry Manyeleti riverbed which gives it an awesome vantage point of the open savannah and watering hole. The max capacity for the lodge is 24 guests.
Guests are able to choose between five rondavels, six luxury suites and The Manyeleti which is the honeymoon suite.
We stayed in the honeymoon suite which was both appropriate for the type of trip we were on but also because all the other suites were sold out for our dates. Sure there was extra cost but it was certainly a luxury that we thoroughly enjoyed while we were there.
This suite was ridiculously spacious. With its open concept, the room was broken into the living room, bedroom, bathroom, and deck. The living room comes with two single sofa chairs, dining table, mini-fridge, and fireplace. As part of the bedroom, you have a giant king-sized bed with the convenience of clothes hooks, a wardrobe, and small office desk.
And then there’s the deck which is the most impressive of all. Complete with an infinity pool and several lounge chairs and bed, this is a great place to watch animals below, cool off, or just relax outdoors. The best part is that the deck is completely out sight from any of the other suites since it is on the far left side of the property and so it is very private.
There’s honestly nothing bad I can say about any of the meals that we had at Elephant Plains. Every meal had something different to offer whether it was Western food or local dishes. I also very much appreciated the wait staff and the kitchen chefs that came out who were all very proud of the food. You have to remember that supplies are difficult to come by in this region and so they have to be very creative.
Meals are always served inside the dining hall which has a number of tables that can be set up for couples like us or large groups. Seating isn’t assigned so it’s really first come first serve. I wouldn’t say that there’s a better table or another.
What I did like though was the chance to sit outside for breakfast and lunch on sunny days. This is also first come first serve but I always found it preferable to bask in the sunlight and have my eye on fantastic view of the watering hole. There are 3 tables on the deck by the pool from what I remember.
Always one of my favourite meals of the day especially because you wake up so early for the morning drives that by the time you get back to the lodge, you’re extremely hungry.
The buffet table offers many options for all types of diets. The table spread will have everything from toast, milk, yogurt, cereal, fruit, and deli meats. On top of that, there’s also made-to-order food whether you’re interested in something like an omelette or one of their daily Ranger Specials.
The lunches at Elephant Plains are buffet style and so you get to take your pick at what’s available at the table. There’s usually a good assortment of food here including salad, meat, fish, fruit, and dessert.
All meals start at a specific time but I’d say that dinner is one where you don’t want to be late for because it’s a multi-course meal. This means that they try to coordinate the serving of courses for all the guests.
On most nights, dinner is served in the dining hall and so there is the buffet table open if you want to pick up a plate of salad let’s say. One night of the week, they also host a dinner outdoors in a round courtyard which I thought was special as you get a totally unique dining experience under the stars.
Is there a dress code?
Lastly, there isn’t really any dress code enforced at the lodge but we typically changed our clothes to something a bit nicer than our casual outdoor gear that we typically wore during the day.
If I’m being completely blunt and honest, I thought the food was good overall but it’s not Michelin-star level so I think if you go in with the right expectations you’ll be quite happy with the meals.
TIPS – Additional beverages other than coffee and water are extra. This means that if you order a drink for one of the game drives or at any of the meals, those will be added to your check-out tab.
THE GAME DRIVES
The main you reason you come to Elephant Plains is for the game drives and they surely didn’t disappoint.
We might’ve missed the briefing prior to our first game drive but what happens is that there are typically three trucks that head out for every drive. Each truck is driven by a specific team. We of course show up a tad late and get on the first truck we see and that turned out to be the driver/guide and tracker team – Morné and Dion. These become your permanent guide and tracker for your entire stay.
At first I was thinking it would be interesting to try different trucks but we learned that it was beneficial for us to stay with one team since you do build a relationship with them and they get to know what you’re interested in seeing and have a better idea of exactly what you’ve encountered during your stay.
Each game drive, Morné would always jokingly ask us what’s on the “menu” for the day and this is when we’d list out the wildlife that we’d like to see or haven’t seen yet. I’m not sure if this played a part in what we’d go after for that drive but for us it kind of worked out that we saw practically everything we wanted to see across the 4 days.
We were incredibly lucky with them because we saw the Big 5 in a matter of two days. I don’t have enough experience to say whether that’s normal or not but on our first night we encountered a pride of lions learning how to hunt and a lone male lion roaring into the night.
As advertised, we encountered several leopards during our trip including one that had a kill tied up in a tree.
Other memorable sightings include a family of hyena, hyena eating a fresh kill, baby white rhino with parent, and close encounters with elephants.
The beauty of the lodge is that you don’t necessarily have to drive very far to see animals but if they hear something from one of the neighbouring lodge and their trucks, they’ll make a call whether to head out there to see something a bit more elusive.
For some reason I had it in my head that safari trucks would be more like the ones we ended up seeing at Kruger but these are open top trucks that have three staggered height levels of three seats each. That means that each truck has a maximum capacity of 9 passengers. There are railings on both sides so it is quite safe.
There are some common sense rules around not standing or jumping out but overall I always felt extremely safe in these trucks. Even though we were able to drive right up to some of these animals, even the predators seemed to heed no attention to us when we were around.
There’s no fixed seating on the truck and for us was more or less a free for all. If you got there earlier, you’d try to sit closer to the driver and if you showed up late, you’d likely get the back row.
TIPS – Back row or front row? We debated this for a bit as we had a chance to do both. The advantage of sitting in the front is that you’re much closer to your guide which means you can ask all the questions you want and typically your line of sight for animals is close to what they’re seeing. On the flip side of things, if you’re on the back row, you will often have a more elevated view which could have its benefits but we did feel like the back row was a bit more bumpy than in the front. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a big difference between them as nobody’s view is really obstructed and the guide will always try to make sure that all sides (left, right, front, and back) can see.
Morné and Dion were an awesome team. Whenever we stopped to watch any animal, Morné would drop knowledge on us about what we were looking at and always encouraged us to ask questions which we certainly did. Dion didn’t speak to us often in English but we could tell his laser-tight focus was on spotting animals in the distance which was always spot on.
Are there breaks?
Each game drive is roughly 3 hours in length and so might be wondering as I was whether there are breaks in between or what if you really need to pee.
Well yes, luckily, during the game drive there is usually an opportunity to get out of the vehicle for light snacks and refreshments. Now at first I was a bit hesitant about getting out of the vehicle but we were always in an open space under their watch and of course each vehicle is equipped with a rifle in case.
For the morning drive, it’s usually hot chocolate or coffee that’s served and South African rusk biscuits. For the afternoon drive, the guides will usually take your order at lunch for what kind of beverage you want (beer or other) so those are served on top of snacks like mini bite-sized pizzas.
The only time this is skipped is if there’s a sighting that takes up a lot of time or if the weather is poor like our first day when it was pouring.
What about the bushwalks?
Bushwalks are a great way to explore the reserve on foot with a guide. They are of course armed with a rifle but as they reaffirmed us, they’ve never had to fire one.
The trail isn’t fixed but you never have to walk that far from the lodge so I wouldn’t say that it’s strenuous at all. What you see and learn along the walk is different from day to day which I enjoyed. For example, on one walk we got to learn a bit more about the plants that elephants like to eat, while on another we followed blood trails left behind by hyena dragging a kill.
You aren’t going to see anything big (nor do you want to) but this is your chance to take better stock of the smaller creatures and plant life that make up landscape.
WHAT’S A TYPICAL DAY LIKE?
Being at a private game lodge like this is very similar to the type of program we were on in the Peruvian Amazon. The program is fixed per day and in the case of Elephant Plains, every day has the same drives, walk, and meals. What changes of course is what you see out in the savannah.
You get your wake up call in the morning and it’s time for your morning game drive. When you return, you go straight to breakfast. After breakfast you might have a short break to clean up before the bushwalk starts.
The bushwalk time I found changed day to day because it depends on how long the morning game drives are but is supposed to be around 9:30AM. There’ll be a break after you come back as lunch is served at 2PM.
After lunch, most people ended up taking a nap or you can take the time to explore the grounds and take advantage of the pools, game room, the reading room, or lounge.
The afternoon game drive starts at 4PM when the animals come back out again. This is a drive that eventually turns into a night drive. When you return, it’s pretty much time for dinner at 8PM.
Now one thing you soon realize after two days is that the other thing that changes day to day are the people that are with you. This is a small lodge and so you see everyone at some point during the day whether they’re on your game drive truck or in the dining hall. The first day you’re the newbie at the lodge and by days two and three you end up being the pro. This doesn’t change the experience too much unless you get stuck with guests that are annoying. Typically we found that most people stay 2-3 nights and move on.
WHAT ELSE IS ON THE GROUNDS?
The lodge is more than just the dining hall and suites that I’ve talked about so far. While not enormous, the grounds of Elephant Plains houses quite a number of things from what you’ll find in the main lodge to the buildings on the right side. The main lodge has the reception, dining hall, bar, lounge and wine cellar, as well as a small library and souvenir shop.
On the main deck in front of the dining hall is a swimming pool. There is also a second pool if you go further right on the grounds. To round things out, they also have an African Health Spa, a gym, conference room, and games room. The games room has a pool table, fooseball table, and darts.
SERVICE AND QUALITY
I’m not sure why I have this section here but we were the high level of service, quality, and attention to detail all around during our stay.
Every staff member always had a smile on their faces and would always warmly greet us. Our room was kept super clean on the days we requested service, and I already mentioned how good Morné and Dion were.
Celebrating your honeymoon?
On our last night at Elephant Plains, the staff surprised with a bubble bath, flower petals on the ground, and a free bottle of champagne. I know I had mentioned it in my booking but I totally forgot about it because we were having such a great time there.
Okay beyond , there’s also and . I didn’t really think about this too much before my trip but I think it’s worth noting here so you go in as prepared as possible.
The Manyeleti suite is outfitted with South African plugs only. These are the curiously large outlets with 3 circles. I would highly recommend that you pick up at least one or two adapters before you go on your trip.
Luckily, Elephant Plains is nice enough to include a power bar underneath the desk which has European two circle-pronged outlets so if you forgot to pick up South African adapters, you’ll hopefully have at least Euro ones.
You can only get wifi from the lounge/bar room and surrounding areas. This means that there is no wifi in your suite. Also, to start, you only get 100MB of wifi through a paper access code (per person). Once that runs out, you can purchase more in 500MB increments for 50 RAND ($4.25 USD).
From the lodge, you surprisingly get decent 3G-only signal. It was certainly good enough to tether when I needed to or do my daily social media. This is also the reason why I ended up burning a lot of data on our Vodacom plan.
There is of course no signal when you’re out on the game drive.
The below is a more comprehensive gallery of the types of animals that you might encounter during your stay at Elephant Plains. Of course, every guest is going to see something different but it gives you an idea of the variety of wildlife you’ll see and how close you can get to them.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEOGRAPHY
My tips are applicable for any safari experience you have but I wanted to share with you my experience from shooting at Elephant Plains whether on the game drive truck or the bushwalks.
- You need serious zoom – I had the Olympus OM-D EM-1 MK2 + 40-150mm combo for practically all of my shooting. This gave me an effective range of 80 – 300 mm. When lighting was good (anytime except the latter part of the afternoon game drive), I sometimes also had the MC-14 extender on as well. What I learned though is that even this isn’t necessarily enough. I totally thought I had enough reach but I was wrong. If you really want to capture shots where the frame is just an animal’s face, you need even closer to 500mm.
- Lots of batteries – I have a rotation of 4 batteries for my OM-D and even still I had a hard time keeping up every day. That’s because you underestimate how much power you end up using on these drives. When
- Fast memory card – You’re going to be firing off a lot of shots especially if animals are on the move and you want to make sure you capture the right moment. For that the speed of your card matters. There was a significant difference in the 300mb/s SDXC card vs my older 95 mb/s cards in how quickly a card would hit buffer. This is when you camera can’t save your images fast enough and it’ll stop taking photos until it can clear the images in the buffer.
- Mount points – The truck itself had a few mount points available on the railings that weren’t covered by padding. I essentially used these to use my GoPro Hero 5 with jaw clamp.
- Thoughts on the DJI Osmo+ – My initial thought was that the Osmo would be a great way to capture moments at a wider angle with the benefit of stabilization and some zoom capability. However I found that in most cases for the videos I put together for the Honeymoon Vlog, I did not use too much of the footage. I didn’t like how the video colour was rendered and the sharpness.
- All-in-one is better – The truth is, it was a pain in the butt to do photo and video all at once because there’s just so much action happening at the same time. And while it was nice that my wife was there to operate the Osmo exclusively and capture some video that way, I found it to be far more effective that I had the amazing OM-D EM-1 MK2 that could excel at both. What I would do is essentially snap photos and then immediate switch to video for those 10 second clips and then switch back to photo. Image stabilization built into the body is so key. No need for a gimbal or anything.
WHAT YOU SHOULD PACK
Aside from the standard the usual travel essentials, let me highlight a few things that I think you should think about that are relevant for Elephant Plains.
- Binoculars – Obvious I know but it sure was handy to have for the both of us especially since I was the only one with the zoom lens. We had this one with 10x magnification.
- Kruger animal guide book – I was lucky enough to be able to borrow one from my friend Andrea of Wandering iPhone but this actually turned out to be super handy when wanted to remember what the heck we saw each game drive.
- Bug spray and after bite – The great thing about going in October is that bugs aren’t really an issue since it’s still cold but you will get the one odd bite
- Layers and comfortable clothing – In October, mornings were still quite chilly and so I had to wear up to 4 upper layers to stay warm. I was certainly not prepared for that. The other thing I’ll note here is that you seriously don’t need your stereotypical safari clothes. Wear whatever you want. Nobody enforces the “neutral coloured” clothing rule either. It’s suggested and maybe it helps with prevent scaring away animals but even if you do, someone else is going to have something bright coloured in your truck so seriously no need to buy special safari clothes. That said, buy those loose fitting clothing safari clothes because they ventilate well and are comfortable like these from Columbia. What did come in handy was the SCOTTeVEST for the bushwalk when I didn’t want to carry a backpack and could throw things in the gazillion pockets it comes with.
- Water bottle – I found having our own water bottle was nice during the game drives. You’ll likely be occupied but if you’re thirsty you can sip from your own bottle instead of waiting for the break. I brought a small Hydroflask 12oz for our trip.
- Sunglasses strap – Yes the ultimate in dorky but it makes things easier when you’re fumbling between different devices and the fact that you can’t shoot with your sunglasses on if you use a viewfinder. The ones you see me using in the videos are by Croakies.
- Moisturizer/chapstick/eye drops – Again this might be the season we were in but it was incredibly dry here so be prepared.
- Headlamp – I saw other people carrying around flashlights but you know I’m a big fan of the headlamp. Useful during the night drive and walking around the lodge after dark. This one by Black Diamond is pretty good.
What you don’t need to bring:
- Mosquito net – This ended up being a non factor because of there weren’t many mosquitos to begin with but our suite had a built in mosquito net so no need to buy one.
When booking directly with Elephant Plains, there are a couple of steps involved that’s a little different from your standard hotel.
- Make an online booking – This is essentially a form you submit and someone will manually reach out to you
- You will be required to fill out a credit card authorization form
- The remaining balance will be taken from that same credit card approximately one month prior to you stay
This comes straight from their website and e-mail correspondence.
- If the cancellation of a booking, or any part thereof, is received 31 days or more prior to arrival, the 25% deposit will be forfeited.
- If the cancellation of a booking, or any part thereof, is received between 30-8 days prior to arrival, 75% of the total accommodation fee will be forfeited.
- If the cancellation of a booking, or any part thereof, is received less than 8 days prior to arrival, 100% of the total accommodation fee will be forfeited.
Other fees to consider
When entering the Sabi Sand Private Reserve, there is a main entrance gate run by the park office. You’ll be required to pay R 250 per vehicle and R 110 per person.
There is also an additional fee of R 57 per person per night that’s part of the check-out bill as part of the Guest Conservation Contribution Initiative to support anti-rhino poaching initiatives.
As I mentioned, beverages other than water and coffee from the machine are included but if you want to order juice or alcohol, those will be added to your bill.
We were not provided an envelope during our stay but we definitely wanted to leave something for the incredible staff so we asked reception for tipping envelopes. We gave it to reception on our last day to distribute to the folks labelled on the envelope. The general rule of thumb is:
- $20 a day for the guide
- $10 a day for the tracker
- General tip for the remaining staff
DRIVING TO ELEPHANT PLAINS
This is probably something that deserves its own post but I’ll try to be brief here. We opted to rent a car from Avis and drive up ourselves because we knew we’d be doing the Panorama Route after and of course we wanted to do self-drive in Kruger National Park. I suppose we could’ve flown into Mpumalanga International Airport or one of the other smaller airports but driving was the most cost-effective way for us that afforded us some flexibility.
It’s a long drive – From Johannesburg, you’re looking at roughly 5.5 hours just to get to Acornhoek. From there, it’s another 1.5 hours. That makes a total of 7 hours of driving that you need to account for there and back.
You can’t rely on GPS – As specifically instructed by Elephant Plains, once you get to Acornhoek, you can’t really rely on the GPS. Instead, they have a pretty basic map that you follow which is a collection of turns at designated landmarks. GPS is not recommended because it doesn’t have all the dirt roads to get to Gowrie Gate.
Road conditions – The roads are amazing along the N12 and N4 which are fast multi-line highways/freeways. Once you get on the R roads, they’re typically down to one lane and mostly all paved but past Acornhoek, that’s when the roads get more and more sketchy with potholes galore so you have to pay attention. Pay attention when passing as well. It’s dirt roads once you turn towards Seville and when you get into the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, expect it to be 30 minutes of continuous rumble strips.
There are tolls – I can’t remember exact remember where they are but I believe they were on the N highways. I didn’t know this but our car came equipped with a tag that allowed us to drive through the tolls. They charges get collected by the car rental company and billed later (i’m sure at a markup). Normally I would want to pay on our own but since we didn’t carry too much loose change, this made our lives a lot easier.
TIP #1 – Recommend that you take a rest stop at Alzu Petroport in Middleburg for break and supplies as it has clean and safe facilities
TIP #2 – There are a ton of speed traps with traffic police along the R roads. Be careful of coming down hills and as you approach small towns, go to 80 then immediately 60 km/h. If you get stopped and they want to give you a ticket, take it and say you’ll pay at the police station. Report these to Elephant Plains when you arrive.
TIP #3 – If there is a traffic light sign that isn’t working (we encountered 1 along the way), make sure to treat it as a stop sign.
PRIVATE RESERVE VS. KRUGER NATIONAL PARK?
This was one of the fundamental questions I had as I was planning the trip that I didn’t have a good grasp on when I was trying to figure out how safari worked in South Africa.
Why Private Reserve?
It simply comes down to this – with Elephant Plains, you’re getting a more intimate experience with a smaller group where trucks can go off road and get closer to animals, you get the benefit of having your own guide and tracker, and ultimate the chances of spotting the more elusive animals is higher. Having a professional guide also means that you’ll learn much more when you’re out there. Instead of just watching animals, you can ask questions and they’ll tell you to pick up on behaviour and surroundings that you wouldn’t know to pay attention to if you were on your own.
The private reserve experience at a game lodge is also a much more of an all-inclusive experience where you’re taken care of all the way through. You get amazing accommodations, food, and service as I’ve covered. You don’t have to worry about anything.
All of this of course comes at a cost and you are ultimately paying a higher price for an experience like this.
Contrast this to the self-drive in Kruger, you’ll have the freedom to choose your own route but the spotting will be completely up to you. Now that said, Kruger covers a much larger area that spans more types of terrain and thus has the sheer numbers of more animals to spot. One thing I did observe while I was there is that the geology and overall landscape of Kruger can vary significantly depending on where you go which I quite liked whereas at Elephant Plains, it’s more or less all the same kind of African bush which was very yellow and barren trees that look like they were all struck with lightning.
At Kruger we met many experienced self-drive safari travellers and I was amazed to hear their stories of ridiculous moments such as seeing a kill happen in front of them. Of course at the end of the day, it’s all luck (and possibly how early you wake up) and how sharp your eyes are.
The downfall is that you can’t go off-road and you’re limited to what is close to the road but you will have the freedom to follow whatever interests you for as long as you want whereas private game lodges follow a fixed program (i.e. daily morning drive, bushwalk, and afternoon drive).
Kruger is really for those that want that “choose your own adventure” type of experience. You might look at the sightings board or you’ll meet people along the way but ultimately you get to decide what roads and sideroads you want to take.
The guided drives that are offered by Kruger are decent but unfortunately pale in comparison to what’s offered by Elephant Plains.
You can also do Kruger on a tighter budget. At the cheapest end, you can camp or find a cheaper hut that has shared facilities. With supplies you bring in from the city, you can also cook yourself or be on a basic diet of granola bars and sandwiches. Kruger is unquestionably cheaper.
So which is better?
If I was forced to choose, I’d say I enjoyed Elephant Plains over Kruger. While expensive, I feel like we were able to save money with Elephant Plains over other lodges while still getting a superior experience over doing it ourselves at Kruger.
We had many special moments at Kruger but on the balance, we saw so much more at Elephant Plains.
As a first-timer, I’d recommend doing both to get both experiences and deciding for yourself!
As you know, we booked the honeymoon suite aka Manyeleti. At the time of booking in 2017, here is how all the costs added up for our 3 nights at Elephant Plains.
- Honeymoon Suite – R30,000 (R10,000 per night)
- Tips – rounded to R1,200 (Rule of thumb: $20 a day for the guide and $10 a day for the tracker – for two)
- Gowrie Gate entry fee – R360
TOTAL: R31,560 (roughly $2,210 USD)
At the time of booking, 25% deposit is required and it is easily payable by credit card (you fill out a form and email it to them – sure not the most secure but there wasn’t much choice).
The 75% remaining balance is required 30 days prior to arrival and is deducted in the same way as you paid for the deposit.
For the Gowrie Gate entry fee, make sure you have cash on hand for that.
For tipping, I already mentioned above that you have to remember to ask for envelopes on your last day so you can give them to your guide/tracker.
So what are you waiting for? If you’re reading this, you’ve most likely booked a private reserve safari but if you haven’t, I highly recommend Elephant Plains if you haven’t figured that out yet ;)
I’ve seen better deals come through on Booking.com at times so make sure you check direct and Booking.
BOOK WITH ELEPHANT PLAINS
So what are you waiting for? If you’re reading this, you’ve most likely booked a private reserve safari but if you haven’t, I highly recommend Elephant Plains if you haven’t figured that out yet ;)
I’ve seen better deals come through on Booking.com at times so make sure you check direct and Booking.
So that rounds out everything that I wanted to share in this guide. If there’s anything I haven’t been able to answer, feel free to drop a comment below and I’ll get back to you ASAP.There’s more on our honeymoon to South Africa and beyond. Make sure to check out these posts!
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