Travel – Roughing it safari style in KZN

2012-11-09 10:38

Janine Stephen takes a getaway with it all: lively war stories, wide open spaces and some wild encounters.

It was better than a deluxe episode of Generations. Mr and Mrs Panthera leo had already streaked past us – roaring, mind you – to see a sulky teenage daughter off their turf.

Back they came, swishing through neck-high grasses, ignoring our game-viewing vehicle like A-list celebrities brushing off the paparazzi.

Four tubby youngsters surrounded them admiringly, rubbing heads and noses. The lions stretched and gossiped until the parents noticed the errant daughter had crept up behind them – upon which, with more roars, the drama began again.

Lion sightings don’t come much better than family squabbles early on a spring morning. We’d rolled out of luxurious linen when the sun was just a smudge above the savannah, and set out in search of game.

Blankets tucked under noses as protection from the dawn chill, we’d feasted on a selection of vistas: thornveld-covered hills and valleys, dotted with aloes and mountain rhebok, and sweeping grassland punctuated by classic acacias.

After our lion soapie, we were deposited next to tumbling cascades of water for a slap-up brunch in riverine bush.

Hidden gem
Nambiti Private Game Reserve, just past Ladysmith in the KZN Midlands, has remained somewhat under the radar on the safari circuit, but its place in the sun is assured.

It’s well positioned for a combined Drakensberg or battlefields adventure, and en route to Durbs for Gautengers.

Since its opening in 2000, the 8 900 hectare property has developed 10 independent lodges catering to a variety of budgets, but all insist you park your car and enjoy being driven around its lovely landscapes.

Leopards are elusive, as always, but game is plentiful for a reserve of this size and age.

There is a herd of elephants, and the BFE, or ‘Big Friendly Elephant’, is a regular on some lodge paths.

At dinner one night, Wade Kerdachi, director of the Nambiti board, told me that the reserve’s carrying capacity is way over that of Eastern Cape reserves (and evidently twice as high as Botswana).

Many of the lodges are unfenced, allowing animal encounters from deck or window.

And the air is filled with birdsong: more than 280 species, including bald ibis, can be spotted.

Communal land

Nambiti is also proud of its community engagement. Following a land claim, amiably settled in 2009, the land is leased from the Zulu Senzo’kuhle Nkos’unodada community, now represented on the reserve’s management board.

Some 60 locals have jobs thanks to the reserve, says trainee manager Njabulo Hudla, meaning they don’t have to leave their families in search of work in the cities.

Njabulo himself had headed to Johannesburg after school, and at first his city friends teased him about coming back to the rural areas.

‘They’d ask me how it’s going on “the farm”,’ he says. ‘But now, wow! My friends and family respect me. I’ve touched an elephant; I’ve handled a lion…’

Later that sun-drenched day we climb the steps up to a monument in memory of those who’d lost their lives at the Battle of Elandslaagte in 1899.

Clarke Smith, chairman of Nambiti, talks us through the encounter between Boers and Brits as smoke from bushfires billows evocatively in the distance.

This was one of the last battles to see the English ‘Redcoats’ still decked out in scarlet tunics, and the drama included a captured train, copious looted whisky and a nasty cavalry charge.

The entire area is an oasis for history fans. Nambiti’s general manager now lives in a hospital where doctors once treated Boer and English soldiers, side by side.

There’s nothing like listening to a honey-tongued guide bring the past alive, and Rorke’s Drift, Isandlwana and Spioenkop battlefields are all an easy drive away.

Dundee even has an annual ghost walk, where you can follow in the footsteps of British soldiers, munching bully beef sandwiches should you desire.

Another bonus is the wild cat rehabilitation centre on Nambiti itself, with cheetah cubs to stroke, two servals named Rocky and Winter, and a rambunctious young leopard called Vega.

For all the extra pleasures, Nambiti’s big skies and spaces are the main attraction.
 
On a drive one evening, well-oiled on sundowners and with the stars shining above us, it’s difficult to imagine that only 12 years ago this wilderness hosted more cattle than game.

And then the headlights illuminate a ghostly white rhino, and the transformation is complete.

» The writer was a guest of Nambiti Private Game Reserve. She flew 1Time (www.1time.co.za) and was transferred to the reserve from Joburg by Hertz (www.hertz.co.za).

Need to know
Nambiti is a malaria-free Big Five reserve. It’s three hours’ drive from Durban, or four hours from Gauteng.

Book directly with any of the 10 lodges that suit your tastes and budget.

Prices per night, including meals and game drives, range from R1 095 per person sharing to around R2 595 for the top options; honeymoon suites cost more.

Winter specials can make visits even more affordable, and there is a self-catering option. Contact 036 631 9026, www.nambiti.com


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