Escaping to the bush might be something we take for granted as South Africans. But it's a world-renowned experience, drawing bush lovers from near and far.
And our choices are plentiful.
However, early morning game drives, sipping coffee laced with Amarula, close-ups with a pride of seven lions who have just quenched their thirst and boma bushfire dinners all swirl together to create an authentic Mzansi safari experience at Makalali Game Reserve in Limpopo.
Nestled beneath the majestic Drakensberg mountain range and just 80 kilometres from Hoedspruit, this 26 000 hectares of bushveld lives up to its Shangaan name. It is the place of rest.
Makalali reserve is about five hours from Johannesburg by car and about two and a half hours from Nelspruit. There is also an airstrip on the property if you prefer to fly from OR Tambo.
I recently visited the Makalali Main Lodge and River Lodge, part of the aha portfolio, and while there are similar elements to both stays, visitors are likely to get a very different experience at each.
Main Lodge is more communal, centred around an open-plan reception area and infinity pool, River Lodge is bespoke and exclusive in its design. But whatever your preferred ambiance for your stay in the bushveld, both these experiences are hinged on the natural and wildlife attractions of the reserve.
The game rangers go out of their way to ensure visitors get to see the reserve’s wildlife. Both lodges offer morning and evening game drives. Over the two days I went on two of each.
All the rangers keep each other informed via two-way radios, to ensure all sightings are called in so that visitors don’t miss out. Sometimes the afternoon game drives can be a bit dry of animal sightings due to the heat. To keep up visitors’ interest, rangers will point out interesting birdlife or speak about various plants and their uses such as the acacia tree. In some cultures, this tree’s thorns are used to treat toothache.
However, we got to see lion on two different occasions. The first time we came across two older male lions sleeping near the airfield. The second time our rangers Sifiso and Richard tracked down a pride of 7 lions after they had finished drinking at the waterhole.
We spotted rhino and elephant, as well as encountered buffalo at the one waterhole. The only one of the Big 5 that we did not see was the leopard, which isn’t to say it wasn’t checking us out.
There were plenty of giraffe sightings as well as zebra and wildebeest and various buck such as the waterbuck, nyala, kudu. The one water hole is teeming with hippo, which you can see up close. There was also a crocodile sunbathing near the edge of the water.
All drives either have a coffee or sunset drinks stop experience for guests. A special gin tasting can also be arranged during your evening game drive, at an additional fee, for groups of 10 or more.
The highlight of the one-morning game drive was the dedication of Sifiso and Richard to get us close to the African wild dog. There is only a pack of three in the reserve, so they are generally quite difficult to see, especially at the moment as rains have provided a thick undergrowth.
The pack was hunting impala and our rangers followed them through as they ran up and down in the veld, trying to catch their meal.
Makalali Main Lodge
A 5-star lodge, completed in 2017, it boasts 30 rooms which are housed in blocks near the reception area. The reception area is open plan, providing a view of a bush where guests can relax on the couches, or by the infinity pool. There is also a small library for those who want to catch up on some reading. Breakfast and lunch is served in the dining area, which is open to the surrounding nature but can be closed off when it rains.
Meals are buffet-style and a wide selection is offered. Besides the normal offerings of meat and fish, guests are treated to venison if they so wish. On the first night of the trip, kudu stew was served. Dinner is a lavish affair with two starters, main meal and a dessert. If you have any requests such as vegetarian, halaal or kosher meals, the lodge will ensure your requirements are met as long as you alert them before your arrival.
One concern though was the lack of understanding from the kitchen about what it does mean if someone is intolerant to certain foodstuffs. However, the chef was generally accommodating.
The rooms though simply decorated in a rustic feel have a few smaller touches such as jars filled with jelly beans along with the tea and coffee offering. The lodge also thoughtfully provides an insect repellent, as it is located in a malaria area. The other highlight of the rooms is to be able to get in touch with nature with an outdoor shower. For those who prefer to rather stay indoors, don’t panic - there is an indoor shower as well as a large tub. Rooms also have inter-leading doors, for families travelling together.
Another delightful touch was the bedtime story every night placed on the side-table as part of the turn down service along with a piece of fudge.
One of the stories was about how the baboon outwitted the leopard.
The story goes that the baboon and the leopard were once friends, but that friendship was destroyed after the baboon allowed the leopard’s planned meal of hare to escape from its burrow.
As the leopard prepared to tuck into the baboon instead, the baboon told his ex-friend that the best way for him to die was if she threw him into a tree whereupon he would fall and break into many small pieces. The baboon, of course, escaped after the leopard threw him, and since then the baboon and leopard have remained mortal enemies.
Makalali River Lodge
Situated on the banks of the Makhutswi river, it is made up of three camps containing six units each. Unlike the main lodge, units are free-standing with its own deck, therefore providing more privacy.
If you want romance, this is the place. Rooms are all geared for love, with a large bed, covered in a mosquito net and bathtub supplied with a variety of bath salts and foams. There is also an outdoor shower provided beside the one situated inside. If guests want a romantic lunch set up on their porch, this can be arranged. If you want to dial up the romance, even more, a request can be made for a romantic bath complete with bath petals to be drawn in your unit.
Here the touches are a little more special.
When guests return from dinner, a tray of sherry and fudge awaits (that’s if you still have space). Besides a bedtime story as part of the turndown service, guests are also treated to a gift of a small ceramic animal made by Gala Star. The mementos come in a small box, which is each inscribed in one of the country’s seven languages and provides a bit of information on the country’s ethnic groups. I received a zebra. If a guest is staying longer, they will go home with a rhino, lion, cheetah, leopard, elephant or giraffe.
The focus at the reserve is about conservation.
The lodges have phased out plastic straws and you won’t find plastic shampoo and body wash bottles in your rooms. Instead, you will find glass bottles.
Rudzandri Stoltz who is aha’s marketing manager says there is a move to phase out the plastic water bottles but this has its challenges, especially when taking glass bottles on game drives.
“The initiative was recently undertaken but we have a phase-out approach. This will probably take a year or two to happen,” she says.
The lodges also have created an initiative where they send old linen from the lodges to a small business based in Diepsloot called Basadi Women which makes laundry bags from the material. aha is hoping that other lodges in the country will come on board with this initiative and do away with plastic laundry bags.
*Disclaimer: News24 Deputy News Editor Vanessa Banton was hosted by the aha group during a media tour of Makalali Main lodge and River Lodge.