Cheetah Plains: Inside South Africa’s Most Exclusive Safari Adventure

Sunset at Cheetah Plains Safari

Sunset at Cheetah Plains Safari

Murky green water ripples as two fluttering ears emerge from the depths. It’s the tell-tale sign of a hippo; the animal’s enormity—and ferocity—hidden beneath the surface. On the nearby shore, two crocodiles chase each other with a splash, their intentions as murky as the waterhole itself. Within half an hour, they’re replaced by a herd of passing elephants. Each family member gingerly reaches for a drink, while the calves are less graceful, spraying water with their trunks like unruly toddlers playing with their food.

Airlpane landing while safari crew look on from a small vehicle.

The best part? I haven’t even left the lodge yet. I’m staying at Cheetah Plains—one of South Africa’s most exclusive safari experiences—located inside Sabi Sand Nature Reserve. The oldest private concession in the country, The Sands offers best-in-class game viewing, minus the crowds of its better-known and busier public neighbor Kruger National Park. (The two share a 31 mile unfenced border; it turns out free-roaming lions and rhinos can’t tell the difference). In Sabi Sand Nature Reserve, sightings are capped at three vehicles, and guides have permission to drive off-road in order to track animals, affording travelers rare, up-close encounters.

Cheetah Plains takes this intimacy to another level, immersing guests directly in the business of the bushveld. Their Mapogo Villa, named after a famously powerful coalition of lions that once reigned supreme in the region, provides a unique vantage point over the dam, which serves as a lifesource for animals with a near constant hum of activity. Here, I drink an espresso—with a dash of Amarula, perhaps—next to the bubbling hippos before jumping into an electric Land Cruiser for our morning drive. A pioneer of the silent safari, Cheetah Plains’ unobtrusive electric vehicles—some of the first on the continent—make it easier to approach animals. The lodge is also carbon negative, thanks to its use of solar power, water to waste management, and recycling initiatives.

In addition to its celebrated wildlife, Sabi Sand has earned a prestigious reputation as the destination with the country’s most luxurious safari lodges and camps; think of it like the Fisher Island of South African safaris. With a private airstrip here and an infinity pool there, each property is more spectacular than the next. The idea of “roughing it” in a tent seems as far away as home.

Among Sabi Sand’s most discreet and sophisticated hideaways, Cheetah Plains exists in a bubble all its own. Accommodations consist of three self-contained villas, each boasting four suites alongside an expansive main house with a formal lounge, living and dining room area, swimming pool deck, entertainment lounge, wine gallery and boma for braai dinners under the stars. Because each villa can welcome a maximum of eight guests, they’re perfect for a family vacation or group of friends. (Unlike many lodges, Cheetah Plains has no minimum age requirement for little ones).

Two children and two adults pet a rhino on a safari

A welcome departure from traditional safari decor, the main house and suites are refreshingly modern, decked out in tech-forward touches like mosquito nets that close with the push of a button and iPhones that are preloaded with staff contact numbers and nature-themed apps. The indulgent bathroom, equipped with two rainfall showers and perhaps the deepest tub I’ve ever soaked in, sits in front of floor-to-ceiling glass windows. If you’re lucky, perhaps an impala or another wild resident will join you, nonchalantly grazing outside while you enjoy the feeling of bathing en plein air. Enchanted by the sights and sounds of the bush, I made a habit of leaving my blackout shades open during the night so I could wake up to greet my new friends.

You’re likely to spend much of your time in the spectacular main house, where the view is even grander, looking out over a grove of cathedral Tamboti trees or, in my case, in Mapogo’s infinity pool: a front row seat at the buzzing waterhole. Contemporary paintings, photography, and sculptures from emerging and established South African artists, such as William Kentridge, Loyiso Mkize, and Walter Oltmann, lend the space a sense of local culture and vibrancy. Many of the works, which are available for purchase, are curated by the renowned Goodman Gallery, which has represented African artists whose work have inspired social change since 1966.

rather than going on a safari, this woman is receiving a massage
Eagle sighting on a safari

Of course, each villa doesn’t come empty. What truly makes it special—and what you will remember most when you leave—is the dedicated hospitality team consisting of a host, private chef, sommelier, spa therapist and butler, as well as an expert field guide and tracker. These are the people who lovingly transform Cheetah Plains from a chic bushveld hideaway into the sanctuary of your dreams. Staying there is akin to fantasizing you own a house in South Africa; every creature comfort is catered to. Do you prefer a six-course fine dining menu with ostrich and filet or stone-oven pizza for dinner? Either is fine—make yourself at home.

Bushwalks end in restorative massages and lazy afternoons become even lazier thanks to expert-led wine tastings. Cheetah Plains’ remarkable cellar possesses an impressive range of South African wines from vineyards such as Paul Clüver, Allesverloren and Mullineux & Leeu, many of which are limited editions. At the onsite Shari’s Boutique, guests can even schedule a personalized consultation with a qualified gemologist and jewelry maker to create a one-of-a-kind piece with ethically-sourced loose diamonds. A percentage of the proceeds from every diamond sale is donated to the local Lezagwa Utah Community Crèche, a Cheetah Plains-sponsored facility that cares for over 60 children from the nearby communities.

Offroading on into a lake on a Safari

The advantage of experiencing safari on my own terms soon became obvious to me in the field, where the guiding team empowered our group to choose our own adventure on each outing. I was never disappointed with the outcome. One morning, our masterful tracker Victor—who has spent his entire life connecting with nature—delivers the near impossible baby rhino sighting I had (half-jokingly) requested. Later that evening, we decide to forgo a formal sundowner in favor of chasing down a leopard. We soon find our prize. To our delight, it’s a beautiful eight-month-old cub, lapping up water from a puddle—a fair trade for a gin and tonic.

On our final night, seated around the warmth of the boma beneath twinkling lights, we savor an opulent South African braai to the sound of whooping hyenas. We fill our plates with grilled beef sausage, garlic bread, chakalaka (a spicy tomato bean relish), BBQ chicken, cheesy pap and potato salad. Malva pudding is for dessert, but one of us has a sweet tooth and a personal request: s’mores. They’re the best I’ve had since grade school. This is safari, our way.

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