There are distinct advantages to spending a week at a safari camp in a private nature reserve. At Rukiya Camp (located near the town of Hoedspruit, South Africa) these benefits included waking up to incredible wildlife sightings less than 50 feet from the front of our luxury safari tents.
In addition to game drives within the Wild Rivers Nature Reserve, we got a chance to visit several private game reserves nearby, where we saw Lions, Cheetahs, Elephants, Rhinos and more. There was also a chance to help Project Rafiki with Spotted Hyena conservation, and to learn about Leopards from INGWE.
All in all, our time at Rukiya Camp proved to be one of the most memorable aspects of our South African Wildlife Conservation Experience. Here’s a look at a few of the reasons why Rukiya ultimately proved to be my favorite safari camp I’ve ever visited…
The Setting at Rukiya Camp
Rukiya Camp offers proof that, when it comes to lodging, location is everything. It’s set right on the beautiful banks of the tranquil Blyde River, near its juncture with the Olifants River. You’re surrounded by well-shaded riverine forest, which stays lush and green even during the dry season (when we visited). The dynamic peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains loom large on the horizon, making for stunning sunset drives through Wild Rivers.
The camp is basically brand new: Co-owners Conraad Loubser and Lily Jackson had it constructed late last year and opened in April 2016. The decor when you walk in the lobby is simple yet tasteful, with comfortable couches all around the open heart fireplace and traditional African art sprinkled throughout. The dining room table and chairs (where our group of 14 would gather for all meals) are all made sustainably from wooden pallets.
Their 6 luxury tents (including two large enough for families) are surprisingly plush, with hot running water, flushable toilets, hardwood floors, and electricity and Wifi available 24 hours a day. There’s a fan for when days get too warm, and hot water bottles for when nights get too cool. Their beds proved so comfy and cozy, I slept better than I usually do at 4-star hotels.
Arguably my favorite features among Rukiya’s Camp’s amenities were the infinity pool and the gorgeous deck and railing, which were made from recycled wood and driftwood. We’d spend most of our afternoons sitting outside on the lounge chairs, soaking in the stunning scenery and the peaceful tranquility of being at one with nature.
Wildlife Around Rukiya Camp
The photo at the beginning of this story should give you a pretty clear idea of just how close the camp is to the banks of the Blyde River. Fortunately, there are large trees on the ground to clearly mark how far back from the edge you should stay while viewing the wildlife that congregates around this vital water source.
Every morning we would wake up early and head down to the river to see what we could see. Every afternoon when we returned to camp for lunch, we would do the same. Rarely did the wildlife sightings disappoint.
Baboons and Vervet Monkeys were a daily presence. Several times we woke up in the morning to the sounds of them chattering in the trees across the river from us. We often saw 1-2 Crocodiles on the opposite bank, sunning themselves in the afternoon light. There was a Duiker (small antelope) that would graze at night, and one day we returned to camp to find Warthogs hanging out on the lawn. Vultures and Woodpeckers nested on the property, while Eagles, Kingfishers and other birds flitted about.
The most impressive wildlife sighting at Rukiya Camp was a pair of Hippos who remained submerged most of the time. Only their eyes, ears and snouts would peak out above the water’s surface. But we could often hear them grunting and snorting at each other when we were in our tents. And on the last night, Conraad’s camera trap footage revealed that one of he Hippos had come up to eat grass on the camp’s lawn while we slept!
Wild Rivers Nature Reserve Game Drives
The energy in Rukiya Camp always changed right before Conraad or his young British protege, Elliott, loaded us up in the safari vehicle for a game drive through Wild Rivers Nature Reserve. Part of the Blyde Olifants Conservancy, the 6,523-acre reserve is prime Lowveld territory just outside the greater Kruger National Park area.
From our first game drive to set up our camera trap in a high-traffic clearing to our last one to view the sunset over the Drakensberg, our wildlife sightings in Wild Rivers were impressive. Giraffes, Warthogs, Zebras, Impalas, and Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbills were common sightings. On our first night, we stumbled upon a Black-Backed Jackal running down the road. On our last night, I managed to spot a rare Caracal (a medium-sized wild cat with long, tufted ears) crossing the road about 75 yards ahead of us.
One day Elliott and Conraad (who also trains guides for a local company) spotted fresh Leopard tracks on a dirt road in Wild Rivers. Conraad got out on foot to try to track it through the dense, dry brush. Elliott, who also works with INGWE, said the NGO’s research suggests the reserve has around 10 Leopards living within its boundaries. Despite the fact that we didn’t see one that day, the energy was positively electric as we waited to rendezvous with Conraad.
But my favorite Wild Rivers wildlife encounter came the second day, when we helped Project Rafiki bait two Hyenas who had somehow gotten poachers’ snares wrapped around their necks. The plan was to use a rotting Baboon carcass to draw them in, then get a local vet to dart them so the wires could be removed. That night we waited to see if they’d take the bait, and the sounds of Hyenas all around us cackling and howling was almost overwhelmingly intense.
Perhaps the greatest praise I can give Rukiya Camp and Wild Rivers is something my 14-year-old daughter said the day we arrived: “I think I could live here.” It’s a magical sort of place where time seems to shift, and our departure came all too soon for me. –by Bret Love; photos by Allie & Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.