Review: Singita Lebombo, Kruger National Park

Singita Lebombo

Singita Lebombo, Kruger National Park
Room type:
 Suite
Duration: 
7th > 10th September, 2017
Booked with:
 Dorsia Travel

Pre-sales

Such in awe at the wildlife, the Singita reservations team were entranced and completely unable to respond to our enquiries.  After further chasing, one of the directors got involved to apologise and takeover the booking.  Things started to move in the general direction whereby you offer something and we pay for it.  Thousands of years of commerce and we’re still just scratching the surface of what can be achieved.  One day we will crack it.  One day…

Getting there

You’re not going to pop down to your nearby Domino’s Pizza store, take the wrong turn and end up at a Singita lodge.  In the case, it involved flying from Cape Town to Nelspruit, then getting on a plane that stopped at the Sabi Sand Singita lodges, before taking off again to take us to Singita Lebombo in the Kruger National Park.  There awaited paradise.

Oh wait.  And then it was a 45-minute car journey, described as a “short journey”, as they always are.  Total journey time: over 7 hours.

If you have a fear of flying, you will probably find yourself screaming the entire flight and praying for aliens to abduct you.  At around an hour in length, that probably gives them enough time to find you, so cross your fingers and relax your anus.

Upon landing there is a small lodge with some drinks and snacks, along with a bathroom that had sun and mosquito spray.  My goddamn nemesis were already clearly aware of my arrival and had planned a welcome ceremony, but this time they came with a malaria warning on the packet.  With a 6am wake-up, and a journey lasting even longer than Leonardo DiCaprio did in Titanic, I was rather hopeful of something more substantial would await me, although the pain was short lived upon the euphoria of seeing a giraffe, elephant and cheetah within about 5 minutes of the drive.  Apparently giraffe meat is rather tasty, so I was hoping one would be willing to sacrifice itself for me, but evidently it had not read the Singita customer service guide.

I would have fought this dude for just a scrap of meat.

Arrival

So here we were, first time on safari, arriving at a new lodge where the cost per night is greater than the black market value of most of what you’re going to see.  Excitement was high.  As was the staffs.  They had a new member to Club Singita.

The intro involved lots of people lining up to greet us, who wished to shake our hands, smile and then vanish without as much of a hint as to who they were.  Maybe they just won a competition to meet me; I will never know.  Some chap, who may or may not have worked there, then reeled off an encyclopaedic amount of information on the lodge, not limited to what to do in the event of a deadly virus outbreak on the nearby primates, but not including anything I can actually remember.  He would make a great flight attendant.  I shall call him the Grand Master.

Deciding that walking to show us anything was for wimps, he instead decided to point at things and impress us with his great knowledge of our Ellerman House stay list.  Bravo, sir.  Brav-fucking-o.  Except you then immediately start asking what wine I like.  Rule #1 of hospitality: don’t murder your guests; Rule #2: don’t put people in charge that aren’t sure what they’re talking about.  Singita was so close to perfection, but charged head first for the 50m and straight into the hurdles.

Yet more people just kept on appearing.  They were relentless.  The assault on my hands was never-ending.  By the end of it, I was shaking hands with my girlfriend as muscle memory.  It’s taken me 2 months to stop shaking her hand and standing there in silence every time I see her; it began to feel normal.  As the disciples appeared, introduced themselves and then allowed silence to creep in, we began to wonder what the next steps of our initiation were.

Oh bugger, it was worse than I could ever have imagined: have dinner with some strangers you’ve never met.  They’re going to want me to cut my hand and shake their hand in a blood bond, aren’t they?

The sacrificial area, aka bar

Setting

Africa.  Kruger National Park.  The N’Wanetsi River.

Awesomeness.

Stay List

Apparently someone at Singita knew what they were on about, as I cannot fault them in any area regarding this.  Every single detail was taken care of, except my never ending request for all bugs to be killed prior to my arrival, and a sympathetic monkey waiting in the room.  A monkey looking for a friend.  A monkey who’s favourite film is the infamous action-comedy Every Which Way But Loose and is desperate to remake it with me as the lead.

Give me a great room setup so I’d be relaxed and off-guard.  I’m onto you, Singita.

Even the view was exactly as I requested.

Rooms

The room is normally one of the key focuses of the hotel, but not whilst on safari, as you will likely spend more time in a vehicle than in your room.  Still, when you’re paying Singita rates, you may want to have something better than a cardboard box.  Fortunately, Lebombo manages to deliver with their contemporary design.

All but 1 of the 13 suites are elevated above the river.  Ours, #5, had the best views available of the river, yet was such a distance from the main area that I bothered to time it, just to see if it was as bad as I thought.  3 minutes – which is a coincidence, as that’s 2 minutes longer than it takes me to make love.

You are not allowed to walk by yourself at night – you must be supervised.  Kinda like they’re watching you; kinda like they may be seeing if you try and escape.  That’s a long time to make conversation.  Anything could happen.

The rooms are all designed to feel like they were always there and blend into the surrounding areas.

Although I am not sure the US Army will be hiring them to assist with improving their camouflage

They were designed so that you can be as close to the elements as possible, without losing any of the luxury you may require.  And for the most part it worked.  The room felt classy, spacious and just the right hint of rustic that makes it bearable for my tastes.

I was grateful for Internet that gave 1Mb, but just like my mood, it was very up and down.  Your room is protected from monkeys breaking and entering using a touch-key system, and as our room was so far to walk to, there was zero chance anyone would bother making the long, treacherous walk to steal anything.

What I was less keen on was the rather liberal use of glass when it came to privacy.  Your toilet could see through into your shower, which is a more sophisticated method of the peep hole.  The shower is entirely glass, so those perverted hippos will be all over this, or the other guests, as there’s no TV to entertain them.  Whilst on the subject of the shower, I found it interesting that they are an eco lodge, yet their shower head is too small for two of you to use at the same time, so you need to use even more water to shower separately.  The fan sounded like it was selected by the intern who wanted the loudest one, as loudest equaled best, yet apparently not as we both slept very badly every night; I always woke up too hot, even though the AC was set cool.

The bed having no headrest was once again strange.  You have such beautiful views right from bed, but cannot sit up comfortably to see them.  They do have mosquito nets up around the bed, but they also put the one and only telephone there, so if someone calls it takes you 5 minutes to get it.  All small details that could easily be improved to make it better.

Room #5, yet without any of the moves of Jagger.
Living room
Living room
Bathroom
Balcony
Bedroom

Amenities

  • Two swimming pools
  • Spa ad gym
  • Bar
  • Boutique
  • Some kinda multi-media room
  • Wine studio
  • Rooftop viewing area

Spa

There are no spa facilities, unless you count their poor changing facilities, so I cannot add much into this area.  My partner had a massage and described it as “good, but not excellent”.  Singita did come directly after the indescribable Ellerman House, so it was only going to lose.

Activities

This really is the only reason you’re here.  I think you should reconsider your life priorities if you decide to come on safari and then spend it in your room the entire time.  The thought crossed my mind for comedy purposes, but it exceeded my threshold for price-per-laugh. Going to a Singita lodge and not going on safari is like marrying Donald Trump and not getting access to his money; it takes a lot of effort and has absolutely no payoff.

So safari we went.  And what an amazing experience it was.

Probably explained during part 3, chapter 9, book 8 of our introduction, but something I completely missed, we were given the same driver and tracker for our entire stay.  Singita also pair-up groups for the stay, so you can be sociable and enjoy the company of your fellow travellers, or as I see it: get indoctrinated into Club Singita.  Spend time with another human being?  No, thank you very much.  I’m here to see lions destroy some zebras, which is far more civilized than a conversation.

Or these guys take revenge and hunt poachers.

Singita own a concession within the park that is entirely private, but it is near public grounds.  If animals cross over into the public areas of the park they are not allowed to off road, so they leave them alone and the sighting is lost. It is worth being aware of this, as we did up end having to stop tracking a pride of 20+ lions.

Less than 20 lions.

Each vehicle has seating for 6 people, so whilst you’re spending your entire pension pot on going here, you also have to experience someone else’s holiday and do what they want too.  Fortunately each vehicle has USB and plug chargers, so can take you iPad along and watch The Punisher on Netflix should your fellow travellers bore you to death with their love of bird watching.

The experience itself was a joy to behold.  We saw everything we wanted to see, although they did not deliver on a leopard riding the back of a hippo and attacking a pride of lions, as I requested.  Even having to get up at 5am every day, to come back around 11 and go back out around 2 and get in around 7, was not an issue.  It was worth every penny and I cannot wait to do it again, as each safari will bring a different experience.  The final highlight was getting out of the vehicle and walking near some elephants.

Let’s just say my experience was better than yours and leave it there.  Competing with me would be like trading food stories with Hannibal Lector over a nice chianti – there’s only one winner.

Or wrestling this bad boy

Food

Let’s try and put the first evening behind us, which had the feeling of a holiday camp with everyone at the same place and the staff feeling the need to start conversations and put people in groups and being given no choice on the starters and the main courses being a buffet and it feeling so creepy I thought it was only a matter of time before we started singing “The Circle of Life”.  Just forget about it and move on.

The food was actually, for the most part, good.  Well, let me expand.  It started off good, yet then suddenly became average and in some cases poor.  I will always fondly remember their feta cheese, olive oil and lemon snacks, yet salivate less at the burger my partner sent back twice as they couldn’t cook it to the standard required where you do not get ill.  On my final night at Lebombo I didn’t have dinner, as I didn’t like anything on offer and they could not prepare me anything else.

You are given your own waitress that remembers your preferences, but when she was not around, it became the usual farce that I came to expect.  We went star gazing at night for a special dinner and no one showing up to take our order, so coming down, mentioning it to the Grand Master and not even receiving an apology.  We just went to eat in the normal restaurant instead and it was treated as if it was perfectly normal.

It is fair to say you will not go hungry here, as they are not mean with any of the portions.  They mentioned that on safari it only feels like you eat, so they have changed it to more tapas style – yet their dessert offering was enough for 16 people. We expected them to tell us we were only meant to take a slice and pass it on, not eat the contents of a sugar factory.  I was one satisfied customer that day.

My dentist will not be happy with me when I return.

Service

Let’s split this up into two areas: our guide and everyone else.

Our guide was the best.  He could beat up all your dads at the same time; he once donated his organs to science whilst conscious and still survived; he arm wrestled a blue whale and won.

I only only offer praise for him and would highly recommend him.  Even being American/French – which just sounds to me like a science experiment in arrogance gone wrong – could not hold him back.  He was (but probably is not anymore after 4 days with me) in fact a wonderfully humble, thoughtful guide that offered not only an incredible tour, but also took note of our preferences and ensured things were in our lodge on our return, as well as modifying the snacks he bought on our drives.  He must have seen everything a thousand times, yet still maintained the same levels of excitement that we did.

Then you have everyone else.

Time to take off your robes, strip naked, grab that goat, a knife, bucket and dance around the fire.

I had to do a double take on it after the opening night and wonder if I had joined a cult. Maybe Singita spelt backwards was the name of the devil in some ancient language.  The staff were so unbelievably laid back that it felt like a reenactment of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where everything was totally radical and chill.  I was expecting them to have made us friendship bracelets.

Yet the issue was how it felt – entirely disingenuous.

Everyone wanted to talk to us all the time about banal points in order to make conversation, regardless of what that conversion was about.  It was like they were not listening at all and just asking questions for the sake of it.  At one point I was asked “how did you meet your fiancé?” and then “how long have you  been married” by the same person in the same conversation, not 2 minutes apart.  This happened throughout the entire stay.

The over-attention at Lebombo was completely counterintuitive and removed any sense of a personal touch at all, as we just had 5 people asking the same question all the time, with no care at all about the answer. It felt like they were going around ticking boxes to say they had spoken to the guest, rather than wanting to engage in conversation. Robots could have done the same job. My partially deaf dog would have made better conversation.

The auto-pilot continued when they paired us up with another family for dinner on the first evening, even though we had not been out on a drive and had never met them.  Imagine going on a blind date, but your ultimate prize is a 2 hour long meal with your testicles playing a game of Russian roulette with a mallet.  We politely declined.  It felt a bit like we joined a new school, but came a week after everyone else; we were the new kid.

It was the first time I’ve ever experienced anything like this, and just shows how well companies like Aman manage it with a single member of management going around and engaging in meaningful conversation, vs the Singita approach of everyone disrupting your meal every 60 seconds to ask you questions about nothing.

What may have not helped was the drinking culture here.  Creating a bond is a wonderful thing, so I have no issues with the staff joining in with drinking with the guests, but there is a limit, and I’m certain some of the staff were clearly over the limit.

Information was not passed around and autopilot kicked in, whereby we were asked 10 times by different staff members the same question.  We did not go on a drive one day, yet every member of staff asked us what we saw.

It was fortunate that we decided to visit Sweni afterwards, as otherwise we would not have discovered this was not a universal Singita issue.  Even though they are a 3 minute drive apart and even share the same GM, the service was completely different and did not experience the same issues.

The GM approached us to ask for feedback, whereby we spent a long, nearly 2 hour chat discussing all of these points.  Godspeed if you return, as I hope it has resolved itself.

Departure

Our guide and tracker showed up to wish us well.  Or maybe protect us from the other staff (members), who must have grown suspicious of our awareness of their activities by now.  I guess everybody else were all too busy getting pissed.

The assistant GM made a dash for it as we were already in the car, to shout her goodbyes, or recite some Black Sabbath lyrics.  No food or drink was provided in the car, but it was likely to avoid us soiling the plane for our 2 hour flight back to Johannesburg on a plane about the size of a Mini Cooper.

Soiling yourself is part of the safari experience.

Worth Knowing

Private vehicle hire is $950/d and you must take it for the entire duration of your stay.  Alternatively, be a massive dickhead and you may end up with it for free.  Welcome to our club if you manage the latter.

Singita would not have been the same without a private vehicle.  I would only ever go on safari again if we could have one. We went cage diving with great white sharks a few days prior to arrival and took out a private boat.  Instead of 33 other people on board, it was just us and some guys from the Discovery Channel. It was absolutely worth it for the one-on-one attention and ability to do as we wished. At Singita, it gave us the same opportunity.  We got to see every thing we wanted to, and also got to engage in some great conversations with our guide and tracker.

Singita Lebombo pool

The Good

  • Excellent facilities
  • Full-service – everything taken care of

The Bad

  • Impersonal service

The Luxurious

  • World class tour guide
Even animals have taken to posing for Instagram.

Conclusion

Let me be clear: we had an absolutely amazing time. However, this was entirely down to our guide.  Without him and a private vehicle; I am not sure whether I would have enjoyed ourselves enough to decide safaris were for me.  The great experience with our guide was not only how brilliant and enthusiastic he was, but also down to how well we got on with him – to the point we ended up having most of our meals with him and leave with an actual friend.

Was Singita everything I hoped it would be?  Absolutely not.  It was far from perfect and was underwhelming in several areas, most notably the bizarre staff interactions.  I will be interested to see how it compares to Wilderness Safaris camps in Botswana, Rwanda and Kenya next year.

Having said all this, nothing was ever too much hassle, the room setup was amazing, the rooms have everything I could have asked for, the views are incredible, the food offering was (sometimes) immense and we had a brilliant time. It was an absolutely amazing experience.  I do not want to take this away from them.  You do not go on safari to sit in your room watching TV, nor discussing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave with the staff, so their short-comings can be avoided.  Perhaps it could just be experienced under better circumstances elsewhere.

Kruger National Park

2 Comments

  1. <>

    I’m surprised to hear this, as Lebombo is supposed to have the best F&B out of the Singita lodges. On our trip, we split between Singita Boulders and Royal Malewane. Although game viewing was more enjoyable at Boulders, Royal Malewane definitely had better F&B and service. We didn’t have the same service mishaps you experienced at Lebombo, but Boulders just didn’t have the same warmth or genuineness of Royal Malewane.

    I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of Mombo since Botswana is also next on our safari list.

    • I felt it worthwhile to add some additional comments into my entry regarding the food, just to make it even more clear where it went wrong.

      I will definitely do write-ups on Botswana, notably Mombo. We will be there for the reopening in February, so hopefully I can be one of the first to review it.

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