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LUXURY RESORTS: Royal Malewane, Thornybush Reserve Hoedspruit
Scene: Opulence in the bush
Seen in the lobby: Well pressed, well-heeled Americans, A-list celebrities
 
One of Elton John's favourite places on earth is the Royal Suite at Royal Malewane. So you can imagine that we're not talking your average common or garden safari destination here. We're not even talking your average five star luxury safari destination. This is a safari camp with bling. All be it bush bing of a very sophisticated variety.
What you'll encounter here is opulence. Opulence in the middle of the dry African bush. It's a tantalizing combination. They don't do things by halves at Royal Malewane: think exotic Persian carpets, antiques, Chinese vases, wide wooden verandahs, four poster beds draped in snowy white and claw-footed baths in bathrooms as big as most  New Yorkers' whole apartment, and (in the case of the two top suites) shower recesses large enough to park a safari jeep in. Think gourmet food too as the lodge boasts a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Blazon for cuisine. No wonder Elton John and his partner David Furness have been frequent visitors
 

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royal malewane royal suite deck
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Royal Malewane is in the heart of Thornybush Reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park in the Limpopo Province,  yet it is also home to one of the most extravagant spas in Africa. The kind of palatial spa you'd expect to see in a five star luxury resort, not in the bosom of the bush. It was voted one of the 101 Best Spas in the World by Tatler UK (2008). So at the end of a day bouncing around in the back of a 4WD you can ease those dusty, dirt road-weary limbs with an indulgent treatment or ten. There is something surreal about relaxing on an open-air massage bed with the roar of lions in the distance.
 
Given the high standard it is no surprise that Royal Malewane is brought to you by the people that also run the luxurious La Residence in the heart of the Franschhoek wine valley and the much-awarded Birkenhead House on the coast road between Hermanus and Cape Town.
 
This is a safari camp with BLING, all be it  bush bling of a very SOPHISTICATED variety
 
                                                                  
However for all its luxury connections and elegant excess you still feel part of the surrounding bushveld here. Decks are open and shaded by Acacia trees and the main restaurant is built over a busy waterhole, although the elephants have been known to reject it in favour of the fluid they can suck out of the Royal Suite's swimming pool.

The guides at Royal Malewane aim to please. We all know that going on safari is not about seeing particular animals, it is about letting the game drive unfold, nevertheless it is a mark of a good guide and tracker is when they try and accommodate their client's desires. So once we bemoan the fact that we haven't yet seen any elephants close-up they bush bash into the scrub and bring us face to face with an impressively large bull elephant. Then, knowing cheetah have been spotted at the furthest reaches of the reserve we belt along sandy tracks to be rewarded by the site of two graceful slender animals padding through the bush. On the way back several giraffes sail across our path, swaying gently as if blown by a gentle breeze. I can't help wondering as we bounce along the dirt track what Elton wore on the drives; a rhinestone studded safari suit perhaps or a touch of leopard print?

The day we leave the Limpopo I am sitting on the deck minding my own business when a long wrinkled trunk curls over into the pool and sucks. I am not about to argue with a creature that weighs up to 6,500 kilos and is known to intimidate lions and I'm not about to go for a swim either. There is such a thing as getting too closed to the wildlife and this elephant is wild, not a circus trickster. Instead I sit enthralled and very, very still; too scared to back off. I am so close I can see its eyelashes and the grain of its wrinkled skin.

David Furness wrote "bliss, bliss, bliss" in the Royal Suite's visitor's book after one visit and I'm inclined to agree. I wonder as I idly flip through the exalted names running through its pages if Elton will ever stop on my name and exclaim in delight at the prospect of having shared an experience with me? Somehow I doubt it.

Check in: Royal Malewane, P.O. Box 1542 Hoedspruit 1380, South Africa. Tel: +27 (0)15 793 0150, reservations@theroyalportfolio.com
Ultimate Luxury: Sinking into a clawfoot bath in a bathroom the size of Liechtenstein in one of the two top suite, Royal or Malewane.
Most Indulgent Moment: Having a treatment at the palatial spa in the heart of the African bush.
Insider Secrets: So many celebrities have stayed here it is easier to spot them than leopards.
The Little Things: Silver and crystal in the dining areas.
Junior Luxies: Families do stay in the top suites away from other guests and have their own private guide and vehicle but really children would have more fun elsewhere - think of the Chinese vases.
Dress code: Pressed safari gear from the best US outfitters with American-style zips and pockets. Khaki is de rigueur here and people do change for dinner.
Perfect luggage: Ralph Lauren designer leather. Sandstorm Deluxe Adventurer Travel Bag hand made by Luo tribesmen from Lake Victoria in Kenya (well, it's a talking point).
Dent in the platinum:
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Hilary Doling 30/3/10
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