Umlani Bush Camp is one of the last family-owned camps in the Greater Kruger National Park and offers a sense of authenticity and good value that is great for photographers. The simplicity of accommodation is part of its great appeal and so is the guiding and the opportunities to see all of the Big Five with little competition from other vehicles.
How we rate Umlani camp
Umlani camp at a glance
- Umlani at a glance
- The camp has traditional reed and thatch huts with open air bush showers.
- There is a choice between double huts and family huts with 4 beds.
- The Eco huts accommodates two people and is designed to regulate temperatures.
- There is a swimming pool, dining area and viewing deck overlooking the waterhole
- There is also a star gazing platform for sleep outs at a nearby waterhole.
Timbavati Private Nature Reserve is located on the Western edge of Kruger National Park. It was established in 1956 by likeminded game farmers who wanted to protect the area from overgrazing. It now has 50 members who are all committed to conservation and protection of the wildlife which includes all of the Big Five. In 1994 the fences between Kruger National Park and Timbavati came down to encourage natural migration. It is now part of a conservation area of more than 20 000 square kilometres.
Umlani shares traversing with Tanda Tula Game Reserve and guides have access to more than 10 000 hectares of traversing. The area has spectacular sandy river beds and undulating bushveld interspersed with dams which encourage animals to come and drink at all times of the year.
Generally, sightings are very carefully controlled so there are not more than two or three vehicles at a sighting. The area is much less pressured than the Sabi Sands and Big Five sightings are common.
- June to October (winter) is the dry season and best for wildlife viewing.
- November to May (summer) offers wonderful birding, moody skies and lush vegetation. The peak of summer can be extremely hot, however.
The camp can be reached via Hoedspruit which has regular flights to and from Cape Town and Johannesburg. The camp is about 40 minutes away from the airport along dirt roads.
Photographers need to know
The camp has solar power, however there are convenient plug points in all of the rooms. The camp does take kids of all ages.
The good news
Umlani is a family run camp and it’s popularity shows with repeat guests that come back year after year. Some thoughts about Umlani that I wrote some years ago on my first trip may help you understand its special appeal.
A blank canvas for creativity
Huddled close to a hardwood fire, with sparks shattering the darkness as they rose up into the night sky, I celebrated the silence of the bush, the chill of the night, the whisky in my hand, and the dust which coated my skin with its light veneer. In this place, Umlani, far from city comforts, crashing traffic and buzzing noise… I was back to my roots, in the bush, freewheeling in nature. I had a blank canvas for my imagination.
Back in the early 90s, while Timbavati landlords jostled to create the fanciest of lodges on their bushveld land to take advantage of the lucrative tourism boom, the Sheiss family kept things simple. Guided by their motto to find “the fine line between comfort and the true bush experience” their six wooden rondavels were built from natural materials, with reed walls, thatched roofs, simple beds, and rough furniture and floors.
That night as I lay in bed snug under the blankets with my beanie jammed on my head, the bitter-sweet feeling of being really close to nature stayed with me strongly. The sounds of the bush growled, hooted and howled through the thin reed walls of my room. Two broad-chested lions we had seen earlier in the day were prowling and roaring and could, at any time, walk straight through the unfenced camp. My imagination ran free.
I am a photographic guide and my group of six, which included mothers and daughters, single parents, cancer survivors as well as banking executives came together more quickly than I could have dreamed. Sure, people still talked about the economic downturn and other global stuff, but at this back-to-basics camp there was also talk about children, failures, successes and vulnerabilities. Would we have bonded so quickly, discussed such real issues, been so opening to learning, in a more artificial environment? I think not!
Wilderness experts say you shouldn’t be too comfortable in the bush to appreciate its curative properties — and I suspect that creativity, like healing, is unleashed most strongly when the raw, cold, rough, hot, wild and stormy contrasts can be felt most keenly. We did see big game often, but it was the twisted thorns of aloes, blossoms and the shadows created by the trees that inspired us more fully. Nature seemed to be on our side too. We had a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with two sparring white rhino while on a walk!
Without electricity, Umlani provided immense comforts.. There were hurricane lamps for light, and if you needed one, the wood-fired donkey boilers could fill the hot shower in a flash and our cameras could easily be charged from the solar powered batteries.
As a journalist, guide and lodge photographer, I have been privileged to visit some gloriously designed, decorated and discussed places. But, I am refreshed to consider, that it is the simplest of spots that, most quickly, brings out the to essence of me. Umlani has now been going for nearly 20 years, and while the wild aloe garden has flourished, the camp is largely unchanged. Now isn’t that real progress?