“May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white…”
Merry and bright were for certain, but we’d traded a white Christmas in bitterly cold Germany for the equatorial climes of South Africa. We arrived Christmas morning at O.R. Tambo International Airport, where the silver trees bedecked in orange and blue beaded ornaments seemed completely at odds with the 85-degree (F) temperatures outside. Coming out of a 12-hour flight (preceded by a 9-hour airport layover), we wanted to kickstart our vacation with both comfort and adventure. A friend recommended staying at Tava Lingwe Game Lodge, which means Noah’s Ark, a private lodge and game reserve just beyond the Vredefort Dome. Drunk on sunshine, we made the two-hour drive, jabbing our fingers at the window when we spotted ostriches and springbok.
We booked a two-person chalet for one night, opting into both the evening game drive (which began at 16:00) and the sundowner. Our afternoon was slow and languid—though the bed in our thatch-roofed cabin looked beyond tempting for a nap, the pool had a louder siren song. Walking along the property, I wished we could stay longer. The property was dotted with sand volleyball courts, two pools, and a large clubhouse with an open-air game room, where we could already hear the tell-tale bip-bips of a ping-pong game in progress.
After a quick but refreshing swim, we got dressed for our first African game drive. We were a group of about 11—two couples and one larger family. I wish I could fully capture the moment: the way the warm, dry wind moved across the skin, the heat of the afternoon sun, and the feeling of being so exposed in the open Land Rover led to a kind of a giddy freedom that strongly reminded me of childhood.
That feeling intensified as we saw our first animals—first giraffes, and then a herd of zebras. As the Land Rover trundled along the rocky paths, we spotted kudus, elands, and springbok.
Rounding the bend, we saw the pride of lions that is the reserve’s pride and joy. Like many smaller reserves, the predators are kept separate. Tava Lingwe’s stud lion is named Tao—a hulking, black-maned, good-looking guy. They’ve also got several younger lions, (engaged in a standoff with a ballsy little dog—see video), and currently, a few several months-old cubs who were too cute for friggin’ words.
After the game drive, we were driven to the top of the property’s hill for a sundowner, a concept I quickly came to appreciate. It basically entails having a cocktail and light eats while watching the sunset—and on our first night in Africa, with a stunning view over the low rolling hills and the grumbles of the lions at our feet, the experience was the perfect Christmas gift.
If you’re traveling to South Africa around the holidays, make sure to plan ahead, as lots of places get booked very quickly. Locals have an extended holiday as well, and many places were full through mid-January. Lodges like Tava Lingwe, which have small kitchens and braai areas, are great for budget-minded travelers, or for remote areas where outside restaurants are hard to come by. We can also wholly recommend the lodge restaurant, which served up a sumptuous Christmas dinner for two.