Certain rarefied destinations do have it all—a dazzle of skeptical zebras; a pride of lions at rest after a fresh feast; a whimsical quiver tree, stretching upward beside a luxuriant, low-impact accommodation; a Michelin-starred chef serving astonishing splendors in a subterranean cavern, surrounded by nothing but nature; a conservation organization with superb anti-poaching units. All of this and more is found at Tswalu, a private wildlife reserve across 280,000 acres on the red sands of South Africa’s Kalahari desert. From industry-leading pangolin research to sunrise game drives across neighboring biomes, Tswalu exceeds the high expectations of a safari experience.
An adventure to Tswalu begins the moment one arrives at an executive airport in either Cape Town or Johannesburg. There, Fireblade Aviation waits to escort guests to the remote reserve in a propeller plane. For anyone traveling continents beforehand and concerned about emissions from flights, Tswalu incorporates a carbon offset cost option when booking. Ultimately, the scenic sky-born experience concludes on a small airfield in the Kalahari, where guests are greeted by a team who whisk them away in Land Rover Defenders (either 10-seaters or two-row four-seaters). Everything, moving forward, is conducted in the open air.
When traversing Tswalu in a Defender one thing becomes immediately evident: aside from the abundance of animals, there’s no one else around. In fact, in limiting the number of vehicles (to six) with guests across the sprawling reserve it becomes very unlikely one couple, family or group of friends will cross the path of another outside of their accommodations—and even less so if they are staying in a lodge.
Right now, Tswalu is in a state of re-wilding after 100 years of agriculture. Pockets of a woodsy savannah biome yield to baboon-populated rocky cliffs, grassy desert-like conditions and even rolling sand dunes in the distant corners. Initially established in 1995, the property was acquired in 2000 by the Oppenheimer family who began to shift its attention to preservation and implement changes advantageous to the land and its animal life. By 2010, there were almost 12,000 different types of wildlife documented. As the Oppenheimers proclaimed Tswalu as a protected zone, they now must undergo approval to make any changes. It was a thoughtful move and as much as it has benefitted those who call the Kalahari home, it’s also influenced a natural design language to the built environment.
Guests (or groups) at Tswalu are paired with a guide and a tracker; the former shares information, anecdotes and enthusiasm, the latter keeps an eye out for spectacular creatures everywhere. For groups who book a remote lodge—as we did with the transfixing, multi-bedroom Tarkuni (which comes complete with its own swimming pool for people and watering hole for animals)—a chef is also part of the allocated staff. For those in one of the constellation of villas around Motse, dining can occur at the central restaurant beside the shared pool. In addition, glamorous campsites exist for those interested in exquisite isolation and stargazing.
Everything surprises at Tswalu, but nothing quite like Klein Jan. This 20-seat restaurant welcomes guests 27 days out of the month. Those staying at Tswalu are offered reservations. Individuals interested in dining but not staying can book certain lunch reservations—many fly in for the day to do so. That’s because there’s really no other easy way to get there, and because it’s simply worth it. Opened April 2021 by chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, the first South African chef to obtain a Michelin star, Klein Jan is one of the most thoughtful, theatrical and satisfying dining experiences the world over.
A meal at Klein Jan is a three-hour experience that disappears in minutes because of the literal movement undertaken by guests. It commences at a small home, built in 1918, in the middle of a field. A first course, and perhaps a lavender fever berry bush beverage, is served. Guests are then escorted through the one-room building and then out back into the water tower and down three meters under the ground. Courses prepared with local, seasonal produce unfurl at various stops until one reaches the modern subterranean dwelling where most of the meal is served. The menu has changed eight times since opening and van der Westhuizen often finds ways to weave in components from the Kalahari.
Adrian Davidson, the lead architect from Savile Row Johannesburg, brought the fantastical building to life, where today’s delightful dishes and eccentric embellishments (like breadsticks served upright among stalks of wheat) are made of dreams. From the nostalgic entryway to the dramatic spiral downward and an underground passage through all the ingredients, the meal is a journey both figuratively and literally. To leave, after dinner, is to return to a desert at night with owls hooting and leopards stalking.
Quintin Rutherford, our guide for three days, undeniably influenced the magnificence of the trip. His comparative insight also affirms our personal takeaways. “Before Tswalu, I worked in the Sabi Sands,” Rutherford tells COOL HUNTING. “Tswalu is distinct from other reserves. It is owned privately by one family; this allows Tswalu as a reserve to run all priorities into the preservation and conservation of the Kalahari, whereas other nature reserves may have a conflict of interest with multiple private owners.”
“What also makes Tswalu distinct,” he continues, “is that you may be out for the entire day and not see another safari vehicle. That exclusive feeling of being the only people out on safari—surrounded by a never-ending landscape—is a unique sensation that is hard to achieve not only while on safari in Africa, but in today’s world.”
Rutherford and our eagle-eyed tracker, Piet, brought us to lazing lions and cheetahs and in close proximity to zebras, jittery giraffes and rhinos. On foot, they walked us toward a family of gallivanting meerkats. We startled and were startled by bounding kudu and impala and beastly buffalo, by day and night. Throughout, Rutherford identified birds and plants and instructed us on the nature of animal tracks and scat. It was informative and emboldening. “The goal I try to achieve on safari is to introduce my guests to a greater understanding of the natural beauty around them,” Rutherford says. “Understanding that everything is connected—the plants, birds, mammals and ourselves the humans.”
“When being out on safari, I try not to be a tour guide one would get in a history museum,” he says. “Most things I can teach you are easily found in books or even while on safari on their phones. I try to teach people to look at the bigger picture by reading the signs the animals leave behind, the clues we have to put together in understanding why the animal is there, why the animal is behaving in a particular way and most importantly, how special it is that we can see these animals in their natural habitat.” Rutherford does not treat guests like strangers, but rather friends who happen to be “exploring the beautiful Kalahari that I get to call home.”
Much of the joy we’ve described thus far can be attributed to the nuance and magnitude of our personal experience. Though many members of COOL HUNTING have been on safari—and we’ve even organized two as part of our CH guided travel division—Tswalu was this writer’s first. Outside of the physical experience and the linger afterthoughts, Tswalu drew our attention for its standards. Their rhino-notching program is world-renowned and aims to keep these endangered animals safe from poachers. Their artist-in-residence program frequently infuses Tswalu with new creativity. The researchers housed through the Tswalu Foundation arrive with a purpose and leave with world-changing data. To plan a safari is to address many questions, both personal and global, and Tswalu has answers that are beneficial to humans and animals alike.
Hero image courtesy of Tswalu