A Gem on the Eastern Cape of South Africa
Following an incredible few days in and around Cape Town, the next leg of our South African excursion led us to the Eastern Cape. We were initially drawn to the region due to its location on the Garden Route, the presence of the “Big 5”, and the fact that it’s malaria-free. Since we were planning on driving the Garden Route anyway, it made sense to add a couple nights of safari in the Eastern Cape to the itinerary. From our research, we determined that Kariega Game Reserve seemed to be the best option…we were not disappointed.
Kariega is a private game reserve that spans over 25,000 acres of lush, mountainous landscape and is home to lions, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and pretty much every other South African animal you might hope to see on safari. The terrain is much different than what you would encounter in the northeastern section of the country, but in many ways it is even more beautiful. We spent two nights in Kariega and our only complaint is that we didn’t have more time there.
Kariega is about a 1.5 hour drive east of Port Elizabeth. Regardless of which lodge you’re staying at, you’ll start off driving east on the N2 from Port Elizabeth before getting on the R72 at the Port Alfred turnoff. The entrance to Settlers Drift will be on your left 6 miles (10 km) after passing through the town of Alexandria. If you’re staying at River Lodge, the entrance is another 3 miles (5 km) beyond the entrance to Settlers. If you’re staying at any of the other lodges, you’ll follow the R72 to Kenton on Sea, where you’ll get on the R343 heading north. The entrance is about 8.5 miles (14 km) north of Kenton on Sea.
Since we were staying at Settlers Drift, we were transferred to the lodge via riverboat. While the boat transfer is an efficient way to get from point A to point B, it was also a ton of fun and helped build the anticipation for what was to come on our adventure at Kariega. When we arrived at the dock, they had cold drinks waiting for us before the boat pulled up to carry us to our accommodation. It’s almost embarrassing how excited we were as we zipped down the river towards Settlers Drift. Everything about the boat transfer felt like we were entering Jurassic Park.
Settlers Drift is the newest and the most luxurious lodge in Kariega. Before our arrival, we were fully aware that the 5-star lodge would be impressive, but we were still speechless when we walked into our suite. We’ve stayed in countless hotels, lodges, and Airbnbs, but this was easily one of the nicest. The high tented ceiling gave the space the feeling of being in an isolated safari camp, while the rest of the suite was the epitome of 5-star luxury. The king size bed was directly across from the viewing deck that overlooked a grassy plain where giraffes, warthogs and impala grazed throughout the afternoon. It’s hard to envision a more relaxing setting. In our time between morning and afternoon game drives, we sat out on the deck for hours watching the animals walk by…well one of us did, while the other one of us napped. We’ll let you guess who’s who in this situation. Oh, and we almost forgot to mention the wood-burning stove. The suite is heated, but we put the stove to good use anyway because you can’t have a wood burning stove in a tented suite on safari and not light it. All part of the experience.
The bathroom area also exceeded our lofty expectations. Both the tub and shower had floor-to-ceiling glass sliding-doors that allowed for an incredible indoor-outdoor experience. No monkeys invaded our suite while the glass doors were open…although we were secretly hoping they would.
There are nine suites in Settlers Drift and they all access the lodge area via a well-lit boardwalk. The entire area is surrounded by an electric fence, so even though you can watch animals from the comfort of your suite, you don’t have to worry about getting trampled or eaten on your way back from dinner.
The lodge area is just as luxurious as the suites themselves. Each morning, we started our day with coffee on the lodge deck overlooking the plains, and each evening ended with drinks around the fire before having dinner in the very Game of Thrones-esque dining room. There is also a full bar, multiple dining areas, a spa and an infinity pool with a view. Since this is a popular spot for honeymooners, they also have a private dining area reserved for romantic candlelit dinners.
Not only are the facilities themselves nice, but the service was second to none and the food was incredible. From the moment we arrived at the all-inclusive lodge, we were greeted with warm towels and welcome drinks and our wine glasses were never empty for the duration of our stay. The management and staff at Kariega takes pride in the experience they create for their guests and they do an impeccable job from the moment you arrive until your final departure.
The Other Lodges
Settlers Drift is certainly the most up-scale lodge in the reserve, but that doesn’t mean that the other options aren’t also good places to stay while on safari. We had the opportunity to visit the other four lodges, and we can honestly say that they were all beautiful. Each lodge has a swimming pool, bbq area (“boma”), phenomenal views, and excellent service. Settlers is in a league of its own, but you really can’t go wrong anywhere at Kariega.
As the name suggests, River Lodge is located on…the river. There are 10 thatched suites on site and the main dining area is located directly overlooking the water. One of the nice things about being on the river is that you have the option of taking a boat ride down the river to the ocean where you can spend some time at the beach.
Main Lodge is the best options for families visiting Kariega and is also the most affordable. The log chalets are large enough for most families and each include a private viewing deck and some have private pools.
Ukhozi Lodge is located directly adjacent to Main Lodge, but is a bit more up-scale and is a better option for couples rather than families. The price point is the same as River Lodge, so sometimes visitors will spend a couple of nights at River Lodge and a couple of nights at Ukhozi, since both offer a similar level of luxury in totally different settings. The highlight of the rooms are the plunge pools overlooking the valley.
The Homestead is by far the most unique place you can stay in Kariega. This secluded private lodge consists of seven spacious bedrooms, a private swimming pool, dining room, lounge, bar, and a boma. What makes the Homestead unique is that it is rented out to groups of up to 14 people. So they often have families, groups of friends, or companies rent out the facility. If any of our friends or family are reading this and want to plan a trip, just let us know. When you rent out the Homestead you have a dedicated host, ranger, and cook, so all of your meals and game drives are taken are of just like at the other lodges. If you can assemble a crew of 14 people, the price ends ups being shockingly affordable on a per-person basis when you consider everything that it includes. Just keep in mind that the safari vehicles hold up to 10 passengers, soil your group exceeds 10, you’ll have to split into two vehicles.
The Game Drives
As amazing as Settlers Drift was, Kariega is all about the game drives. You can find luxury resorts all over the world, but the ability to go from relaxing in a palatial tented suite to being surrounded by giraffes in a matter of minutes is what makes this experience special.
When you stay in Kariega, you have the option to go on two daily game drives – one in the early morning and on that leaves in the afternoon and returns for dinner. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and are will make sure that you not only see tons of animals, but also learn a thing or two while you’re at it. We can now tell you all sorts of extremely useful information like that elephant poop can be used to filter water and termites taste like oregano (yes we know this from experience).
Like we mentioned, Kariega is home to the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo) and you’re almost certain to see 4 of those 5 (the leopards are extremely elusive). Not only will you almost certainly see these animals, but chances are you’ll see them up close. We were literally within arms length of lions and elephants and it was just as incredible as it was terrifying.
Towards the end of the evening game drive, you find a place with a nice view of the sunset to get out and have some drinks and snacks. It’s the ideal way to wrap up a successful safari.
Kariega is really a magical place. The combination of the amazing facilities, the friendly staff and guides, the beautiful scenery, and of course the wildlife, made us never want to leave. While our two nights in the reserve was enough to see everything, we would recommend at least three nights. This gives you enough time to go on at least 5 game drives and also have two full days to enjoy the lodge and and maybe take part in some of the optional activities like a guided bush walk or using the spa. For anyone that is planning a trip to South Africa and wants to go on a safari that can be easily combined with a trip to Cape Town, Kariega is the perfect option. We really cannot speak highly enough of our experience at Kariega, and we’re already thinking about coming back someday… and hopefully renting out the Homestead if we can find enough friends to join us.
Disclaimer: We were provided with a complimentary stay in exchange for our honest review. All thoughts and opinions expressed herein are our own and not influenced in any way by Kariega or its affiliates.