In the quiet of the morning in Tswalu game reserve, the sky plays tricks on bleary eyes. As the rumble of our Land Rover Defender rudely interrupts the chatter of sociable weavers in their nests, the first breaths of the sunrise bathe the horizon in a raspberry-ripple glow, a rich vein of purpley pink that slowly gives way to burnt orange, copper and gold. Closer to Earth, the silhouette of the Korannaberg Mountains is still in darkness as we scythe through endless swathes of blackthorn and camelthorn. The beam of our tracker Thembele’s lamp, moving like a lighthouse beacon across the undergrowth, startles a grazing oryx before it flashes us the whites of its behind and it darts from view. Later, a tower of southern giraffes eye us suspiciously as we crawl past. The whole scene plays out like one of those 3D motion ride simulators you might find at a theme park; such is the staggering beauty of the surroundings, you’d be forgiven for assuming the whole thing was projected onto a green screen.

Then comes the money shot. We climb upwards through a narrow slip in the valley that leads us to heaven itself. “This is Slaughter’s Neck,” our guide Riaan proudly announces as he kills the engine and waits for us to hurriedly pull camera phones out of pockets. “This right here is my favourite spot on the whole reserve.”

Jeeze, Riaan, I wonder why? Before us, the semi-arid landscape of the southern Kalahari spills out to infinity in all its savage beauty. The tangle of spiky brush, silver plains of Bushman’s silky grass waving in the breeze, and rivulets of brick-red sand roads leaching out in all directions, everything shimmers in the golden glow of the dawn. It’s a breathtaking scene, enough for even the most begrudging morning person to agree that the 4:30am wake-up call was worth it.

It’s impossibly clichéd, I appreciate, but I find myself recalling that famous line from The Lion King’s Mufasa: “Everything the light touches is our kingdom.” And in some sort of sense, it is ours, for a few days at least. Everything in front of our eyes is Tswalu game reserve, a monstrous 114,000-hectare wildlife conservation area just south of the Botswana border, owned and operated by the billionaire Oppenheimer family (of De Beers diamonds renown as opposed to Cillian Murphy), but for the length of our stay, this hyper-exclusive safari experience belongs to just a handful of guests, each chaperoned by their own personal tracker and guide in a private vehicle, and led on an adventure of their own making.

Exploring Tswalu game reserve in a private SUV vehicle
Exploring Tswalu game reserve in a private SUV vehicle

Speak of Tswalu to veteran safari goers and you’ll be met with knowing glances: there are few destinations on the planet with quite as lofty reputation among those in the know. This, the single largest private game reserve in South Africa, isn’t your typical safari. The drives are long and the animals elusive, which means that this experience isn’t quite right for first timers, but the reward for your patience is witnessing animals in one of Africa’s last remaining wildernesses – the natural habitat of black-maned lions, the lesser-spotted brown hyena, and the desert black rhino.

Despite covering 440 square miles of Kalahari, Tswalu boasts just three small luxury camps, quite comfortably the lowest ratio of beds to real estate anywhere in South Africa: the original Motse camp, the private homestead Tarkuni, and the brand-new Loapi camp.

The latter, comprising just six private tented safari homes sprawled out along a sheltered nook in the valley, opened in July 2023 and offers arguably the most luxurious accommodation you’ll find on any reserve anywhere on the planet.

Each home, or ‘micro camp’ if you will, comes with a dedicated homathi (butler) and private chef, who will ensure you are suitably nourished and hydrated for the duration of your stay – no matter the time of day. The cornerstone of South African hospitality is a nigh-on maternal need to fatten you up and make you happy, and as such there’ll scarcely be a moment in your abode where the offer of high tea, a cheese and charcuterie board, or even a second dinner isn’t suggested with the kind of teasing insistence that leads to you caving to such suggestions.

Before us, the semi-arid landscape of the southern Kalahari spills out to infinity in all its savage beauty… everything shimmers in the golden glow of the dawn

Kalahari gin and tonics, filled with fresh berries and thyme, are provided as if on tap, while a proudly South African wine list is at your disposal in a fully stocked wine fridge just a few steps from the living room, and boasts a thoughtful selection of some of the most highly rated offerings from Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and beyond. The Glenelly Estate Lady May 2017, for example, is a Bordeaux-blend from Stellenbosch that was awarded 97/100 by South African-wine expert Tim Atkin.

But this is how it goes at Loapi, every decision has been made with the utmost sincerity to place you at the heart of one of the world’s most awe-inspiring locations and find every conceivable means to make your stay better. After a day’s safari, in-camp spa treatments are on hand for guests requiring rejuvenating after the morning’s exertions. The skin exfoliation treatment, including products from the South African-owned Katavi and Just Pure brands feature bespoke scents created from plants indigenous to the Tswalu reserve – a deft touch that, again, serves to centre you in your natural surroundings. Your clothes are also laundered and returned neatly folded in your dressing room the following morning, while little things like lens cleaners for your lotion-smudged glasses, caps, and a personalised water bottle leave no stone unturned in your experience.

Meaning ‘the space below the clouds’ in the local language Setswana, Loapi is a masterful exercise in cohesive sustainable luxury. Each exclusive-use micro camp is raised off the ground as a stilted pavilion to minimise the impact on the environment – should one day the owners wish to return the area to nature, the footprint left behind will be almost negligible, as if the structures were nothing more than a mirage in the savannah grasslands.

Inside Loapi Camp, Tswalu Game Reserve, southern Kalahari, South Africa
Inside Loapi Camp, Tswalu Game Reserve, southern Kalahari, South Africa
Inside Loapi Camp, Tswalu Game Reserve, southern Kalahari, South Africa
Inside Loapi Camp, Tswalu Game Reserve, southern Kalahari, South Africa

The camps are a marriage of glass and steel, dressed in neutral-coloured canvas and dark wood panelling to ensure the camp hunkers down into its local surroundings. Inside, the space is a stylish amalgam of comfortable living and what I’m dubbing ‘Kalahari chic’. The Cape Town architectural firm GAPP Architects has carefully matched the colour palette to the world just outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as infusing the space with a South African heart in the form of the tasteful selection of art pieces and the stunning engraved wood panel wall that separates the living quarters from the bedroom.

The pavilion is a modular design that comprises several distinct areas, a living and dining area complete with an open-plan kitchen, a fully stocked pantry and bar; a series of shady decks that feature daybeds, a plunge pool and a firepit; and a canvas-covered bedroom that hints at the notion of tented living without spoiling the notion with any of its hardships. It’s quite simply the best accommodation I have enjoyed anywhere on the planet – such is its unique sense of place and the care that has gone into every aspect of its construction.

The camp features a host of eco-friendly design solutions to ensure your stay has the smallest possible impact on the area, including the latest in solar power and water recycling tech, energy-efficient air conditioning, and a solar pool pump. The great privilege of Tswalu is visiting such untouched natural beauty and knowing that you aren’t leaving a mark – in fact, you might in some minor way be playing your own part in the reserve’s vision to protect vital habitat and restore biodiversity.

There is a pace to life out here in the Kalahari Desert. You wake just as the animals rouse from their slumber and move with them in search of breakfast; you seek shade in the heat of the day just as they do (though your watering hole is a darn sight nicer); and as the shadows grow longer and the moon rises from behind the mountains you venture out once again into the desert undergrowth as they seek food and shelter. It’s a beautifully cyclical routine.

You wake just as the animals rouse from their slumber and move with them in search of breakfast; then seek shade in the heat of the day just as they do

Wrenching oneself from the comfort of Loapi’s exceptional mattress takes a superhuman effort on the first day, but by the end of your trip your circadian rhythm aligns with nature. You can almost chart the day by the position of the sun or the stars in the sky – and you do find yourself looking upward, especially around dawn and dusk, if for no other reason than the lack of light or air pollution makes for as clear a sky as you’ll ever see.

It’s easy for one’s mind to drift to the wandering Bushmen, the early human inhabitants of this land whose faded petroglyphs from about 500AD can still be found on the mountains, and you can almost imagine what it might have been like for those hunter gatherers, but it is true that the outside world melts away and you’re left with little more than the earth and the mountains and the scrub and the sky that surrounds you. It’s quite comforting to feel infinitesimally small in the ground scheme of the universe. The vastness of the Kalahari has this wondrous ability to swallow you whole; you are nothing out here in the middle of nowhere.

At its heart, Tswalu is a pioneering conservation project first and a luxury destination second, and to that end its Tswalu Foundation is dedicated to ground-breaking research intended to inform and educate the wider world about the Kalahari’s magnificent indigenous species and its fragile ecosystem. All told, there are approximately 85 different mammal and 264 bird species roaming across the diverse terrain, including precious populations of aardvark, bat-eared fox, Temminck’s pangolin, and African wild cat, with researchers and conservationists from across the world staying onsite to study them among this dramatic landscape.

In contrast to the handful of guests, there is a veritable army of scientists, geologists, climate experts, anti-poaching teams, and security, who ensure every facet of this game reserve is operating at its most optimal levels. They do not interfere in the circle of life, the natural order of life and death between the animal populations, but rather they preserve the surroundings, are actively involved in rewilding projects, and the rehoming of animals, to ensure that nature can take its course. The result of this is a number of notable conservation success stories, the reintroduction of indigenous Kalahari species such as two prides of black-maned lions, that have once again had cubs this breeding season, and one third of South Africa’s desert black rhino population, listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red Data Book. It cannot be overstated how important Tswalu has become to the Kalahari’s ecosystem and the protection of such rare species.

Indeed, as wondrous as the sunrise is, our early alarm was dedicated to a far more exciting cause: tracking one of the most charismatic animals in the Tswalu reserve, its 15-strong pack of African wild dogs, one of the world’s most endangered mammals. A couple of years ago, the pack was decimated by the actions of a lone professional hunter, after the dogs strayed onto neighbouring farmland in search of an easy meal. Only the alpha male and female, and beta female survived the encounter. Against the odds, however, mum and dad have since raised 12 pups into adolescence, and are once again thriving in the reserve. The only trouble is finding them: wild dogs cover an extraordinary distance on a daily basis and catching up to them in the endless Tswalu reserve can be a fool’s errand.

“If you just want to see animals, go to a zoo,” Riaan laughs, as we twist along yet another trail in search of tracks. We pass the blackened burnt husk of a tree and I ask about forest fires in the region, but the cause is in fact lightning. The red sand in these parts is rich in iron which makes it a fantastic conductor of electricity – and any tree a potential lightning rod. Note to self: don’t get caught in a storm.

There’s hubbub over the radio as we zero in on the dog’s last known location – tracks have been spotted a little further south and we race along the dirt and the sand to try and get there before they make a dash for it. As the sun rises higher in the sky and the heat of the day begins to close in, we’re running out of time to find the pack before they seek shade in the depths of the undergrowth. In spite of their colourful mottled coats, which has given them the nickname ‘painted dogs’, these endangered mammals are exceptionally difficult to spot once they bed in for the afternoon.

In our haste, we very nearly drove straight past a white rhino bull, brushing his way through the thicket. Riaan approximates his age to be between 30 and 40 years old, and his two beautiful horns are perhaps the largest I’ve ever seen, in person or on TV, curving majestically backwards towards his enormous head.

Incidentally, the name white rhino has absolutely nothing to do with the colour of his skin, it’s actually a mistranslation from the Afrikaans word for wide (‘wyd’), referring to its wide square lip. Both white and black rhinos are in fact grey – the black rhino is a slightly smaller animal with a pointy upper lip, and a “bad attitude”, according to Riaan – but the name stuck.

Back on the road again, we zig and zag along perpendicular paths as the net draws closer on where we hope to find our prize.

The dog pack can bring down an animal as large as a water buffalo, unflinching in the face of its size, and will dispense with its flesh in a matter of minutes

And then all of a sudden the Defender is taking a path directly through the brush and there in the dappled shade of a shepherd’s tree, we see the first few dogs digging into the ground in search of cool sand to rest upon. Success at last.

They are wonderful creatures. Tongues lolling out and mouths panting in the blaze of the morning, they tumble around with each other, kick sand in each other’s faces, and whine for their mother. The colours of their coats is an indeterminable melange of blonde, brown and white, with deep amber eyes that stare at you in curiosity.

African wild dogs aren’t dangerous to be around, especially after a fresh meal, but they are formidable hunters, especially as a team. The pack can strategically bring down an animal as large as a water buffalo in the right circumstances, unflinching in the face of such size and bulk, and will savagely dispense with its flesh in a matter of minutes. Much like the Kalahari, they are beautiful and brutal in equal measure.

We sit with them for a while, marvelling in the stoic gaze of the alpha female and the strength of bond amongst the young. Yes, they are not a member of the Big Five, but it’s worth remembering that seeing animals in their natural habitat is the reward, not the guarantee, and as we say our goodbyes to the dogs, you can’t help but smile at your privilege to have experienced such candid moments. There are much smaller reserves for those looking for easy sightings of big mammals. But where’s the fun in that? The best safari, in my view at least, is about the journey not the destination: the call of the wild, the sense of adventure, the ‘what if’s?’ and Tswalu offers this in a manner of which I simply hadn’t imagined until now.

There were so many precious moments like this during the five game drives we enjoyed throughout our stay at Loapi. Tracking lionesses through the undergrowth as they sought out their two-month-old cubs; getting within a few metres of Stumpy and Pretty Boy, the black-maned lions who oversee Tswalu’s northern pride; young cheetah siblings racing each other along the sand dunes at dusk; and the dazzle of Hartmann’s mountain zebras (yes, a dazzle of zebras – save that for your next pub quiz) crossing the road in front of our car.

Stargazing at Tswalu game reserve, southern Kalahari, South Africa

There’s more to tell. In 2021, Tswalu teamed up with the Michelin-starred chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen to create a culinary spectacle quite unlike anything you would expect to find in the Kalahari. Restaurant Klein Jan is dedicated to the culinary traditions and regional produce of the Northern Cape, but it is so much more than simply a seasonally focused menu. In fact, I don’t intend to spoil the surprise, should you happen to visit, other than to say that in all my years of eating in the world’s best restaurants, I have never experienced a dining room quite like this. It’s unique in almost every sense.

But every adventure is different, just as every day in the southern Kalahari beats to the rhythm of its own drum.

I can make no guarantees that you might see the animals that I saw, nor that the sunrise over Tswalu will have quite the same profound impact upon you that it did to me. The only certainties I can give to you are this: the Loapi camp is without a shadow of a doubt the most exciting safari experience to be launched in quite some time, and the Tswalu game reserve is one of the great wonders of the natural world.

Rates for Loapi private tented camp are ZAR 46,700 (approx. £1,953), per guest per night including full-board with a private butler and chef, complimentary safari activities, a dining experience at Klein Jan, and a private 4×4 safari vehicle with a guide and tracker. Chartered flights to Tswalu’s private airstrip are ZAR 23,600 (£988) return from Joburg, or ZAR 26,800 (£1,121) from Cape Town. For bookings and special offers, see