8 blissful bush breaks in Bela-Bela

Posted by Pippa de Bruyn on 23 October 2019

This gateway to the Waterberg offers a subtropical climate and bushveld experiences just an hour or so from Pretoria. Here’s where to check into a bush lodge of your own.

Deep in Mabula Game Reserve, KwaFubesi tented camp offers an authentic bush experience, with a touch of luxury.

What we found about accommodation here

• Previously known as Warmbaths, Bela-Bela in Limpopo is an unprepossessing town with no attractions apart from the Forever Resort hot springs. This then is about the surrounding bushveld, and its proximity to Gauteng’s cities is remarkable: within two hours you’ve swapped traffic jams for dirt tracks, slowing down for a literal zebra crossing.

• As a region rather than a town, it is difficult to research, with long distances between destinations listed under Bela-Bela. (Follow your host’s directions rather than relying on GPS.) The 12 000-hectare Mabula Reserve lies an hour east of town, Thaba Monaté Game Lodge is an hour north; Mabalingwe is the closest – the main gate is 30 minutes from town.

• Mabula and Mabalingwe are the major reserves, both vaunted as Big Five (though lions are in separate camps). Mabalingwe is remarkably pretty, too, encompassing mountains, a hippo-filled lake and classic African bushscapes over 12 500 hectares.

• I focused most of my research at Mabalingwe, avoiding the timeshare chalets in favour of privately owned homes (called ‘lodges’). Most come with a game-drive vehicle for guests to use (around R800 a day). For the largest rental pool of self-catering places, contact Lynette van Schalkwyk (waddem.co.za). Pickings are slim for catered options, but I did find two good-looking, good-value choices.

• Prices drop during the week; outside of school holidays, rates are open to negotiation. Aim for low season – busy roads and noise can be an issue over the festive season.


1. Best Luxury Villa

Stone Lodge  (Not on Tripadvisor)

Ex-restaurateur Petro Teixeira is a seasoned traveller with an eye for detail – from the monogrammed towels and the ‘welcome’ spelled out in pebbles on each extra-length king-size bed (dressed in Egyptian cotton), to the slippers, dressing gowns and branded toiletries, this feels more like a luxury guest house than self-catering home. Petro has another house up in the hills of the Idwala section of Mabalingwe, but when she found a herd of buffalo grazing on the Stone Lodge building site, she couldn’t resist. ‘It’s just so serene here,’ she says. ‘Animals like it a lot. The birds too. And at night you can hear the lions roaring from the nearby camp.’

It has three generously proportioned bedrooms – each is 50 square metres, with an en-suite bathroom that has a stone bath and indoor and outdoor showers, as well as doors leading out onto the deck. The enormous kitchen is well equipped, and the outside area is very inviting, with daybeds and loungers overlooking the pool and bush, and a built-in semi-circle of seating around the adjacent firepit.

Room Tip
The bedrooms are equally luxurious, making this an easy house for adults to share. The third bedroom also has a single bed to accommodate a child.

Cost From R4,000 a night (sleeps six).

Contact 082-554-6995, airbnb.com

2. Best for a group

Milkwood Safari Lodge  (Not on TripAdvisor)

Milkwood combines lodge luxury with the pleasure of outdoor living. A spacious open-air entertainment area with large comfortable sofas around a stone fireplace is shaded by thatch, and connected via a timber pathway through the bush to a pool and outdoor dining table. Another pathway leads to a large boma area with a firepit and built-in braai. The bedrooms are also off a separate pathway, each with a private entrance. Milkwood’s sprawling layout encourages both hiving off and gathering together, making it an ideal house to share. Owner James Bravery specifically wanted this sense of space rather than a house up in the hills of Mabalingwe, where outdoor living is determined by deck size. It was bought for pleasure but according to James, the return on investment has been excellent. ‘Six years ago I was told I was crazy to sink so much money into a property in the middle of nowhere, but I love waking to find elephant or buffalo in my driveway. You can’t put a price tag on that.’

Room Tip Two identical en-suite bedrooms have four-poster beds and an interleading door to an en-suite twin-bed room. These have slide-out beds for extra kids, or can be made into double beds, so it’s a very flexible space.

Cost From R4 ,000 a night (sleeps 12).

Contact 079-588-5394, waddem.co.za

3. Best Glamping

KwaFubesi Tented Safari Camp  (TripAdvisor No. 2 of 5 Speciality Lodgings in Mabula Reserve)

There’s something very romantic about sleeping on a comfortable mattress under canvas. Located on the edge of the Mvubu Plain, deep in the reserve, this tented camp is the least-developed option and as such offers the most authentic safari experience. Guests are picked up from Mabula Lodge and transferred in open game-viewing vehicles to what feels like a world away. It’s intimate (maximum 10 guests), geared to adults (no children under eight) and surprisingly luxurious, with each East African safari tent furnished as comfortably as a hotel room, and en-suite plumbed bathrooms that feature stone tubs and showers. Meals are prepared over open fires and served in the thatched lapa, on the deck or under the stars in the boma. There’s a pool and comfortable open-air lounge; game viewing is apparently excellent – according to reviewers, sightings of lion, cheetah, brown hyena, aardwolf, rhino and buffalo are common. Bush walks and horseback safaris are also available.

Room Tip The five tents are identical. They have limited solar power; if you’re wanting luxuries like air con, rather book at Itaga (see below). No kids under eight.

Cost R2,830 per person sharing, including three meals and two game drives a day.

Contact 011-516-4367, kwafubesi.com

4. Best-value luxury lodge

Itaga Luxury Private Game Lodge  (TripAdvisor No. 1 of 58 Specialty Lodgings in Bela-Bela)

Trundling along the dirt track that leads to Itaga Lodge, located in Mabalingwe Reserve, you feel the city stress evaporate even before you’ve reached a gate that glides back to reveal well-groomed lawns and trees surrounding peaked thatch roofs. It’s a warm welcome and a cold drink, then step into the airy lounge-dining area and bar. If it’s evening, the eye-level central fireplace will be crackling, with candles and lanterns casting a soft glow on tables draped in white – très romantique. Twice-daily game drives are on offer but it’s equally inviting just to stay put, wandering around barefoot between the bar and pool, and watching birds and game from the garden bench. There are great facilities: a small gym, spa, viewing deck overlooking a small floodlit waterhole, cosy bush boma and DStv loft lounge. Given the inclusions, this is an all-round great-value safari-style experience.

Room Tip The eight rooms are clustered in units of four. If you prefer being in a room that no one is going to walk past, book either number 1, 4 (particularly private), 5 or 8 (best outdoor shower). Note that superior rooms come with late checkout at 1pm – worth the extra R150 per person.

Cost From R1, 895 per person sharing. This includes a welcome drink plus breakfast, high tea, three-course candlelit dinner and one game drive per day.

Contact 076-043-6856, itaga.co.za

5. Best for two couples sharing

Feeskraal  (Tripadvisor reviewed, not rated)

Hendri van Dyk fondly compares his wife Liezl to Mowgli, thanks to her half-feral childhood in the Kruger (she is the daughter of Lynn van Rooyen, one of SANParks’ most feted rangers). With the arrival of their children they, too, wanted a bush bolthole. With just two en-suite bedrooms and a loft room, Feeskraal is smaller than most Mabalingwe lodges, making it a great option even for a solo traveller or one couple. Given that Hendri reports that the Wi-Fi is pretty strong, this is also a tempting option for a midweek working break. Designed in conjunction with bush-lodge specialists Global Property Developers, it’s relatively contemporary (screed cement floors and countertops rather than tiles), with slide-and-fold doors disappearing to create a seamless connection between the open-plan living-kitchen area and deck with firepit and pool. Great views too.

Room Tip The two double en-suite bedrooms are similar in size and facilities and privately located (one can be accessed only from the deck), making this an ideal house to share. The loft has four single beds and its own bathroom downstairs.

Cost From R3,500 a night (sleeps eight).

Contact 079-588-5394, waddem.co.za

6. Tree Tops View

Not on TripAdvisor 

A box-like structure with a sloping tiled roof and floor-to-ceiling glass that allows the light to flood in, the Dutch owners appear to have slipped this contemporary design through the standard brick-and-thatch template that reigns supreme in this area. (No thatch makes it ideal for those with allergies.) The four bedrooms, upstairs in two wings – with a bathroom per wing, are identical. The open-plan, uncluttered living area has stackable doors that create a seamless flow to the outside deck with a braai and (regrettably small) pool. Note that the road to the nearest property runs next to the house, so it’s not as private as others on these pages.

Room Tip There is also a self-contained cottage on site, ideal for a couple in your party requiring more privacy.

Cost From R3 ,500 a night (sleeps eight, or 10 if the cottage is available).

Contact 079-588-5394, waddem.co.za

Worth a Look

7. Klip & Kristal

If you do need to stay in town, this is the best guest house, with five comfortable en-suite rooms and a pool.
R635 pp sharing B&B. klipenkristal.co.za

8. Valley Lodge

A self-catering option for a big group in the Shakama reserve, an hour north-west of town.
From R5,200 for eight, plus R650 per person extra (sleeps 18). shakama.com

Don’t Miss This

• Nylsvley Reserve, a major Ramsar wetland and seasonal floodplain.
• Day hikes – two circular trails at Wag ’n Bietjie/Oshoek farm, and nine at Bateleur Nature Reserve (anvieventures.co.za).
• Tracking ground hornbills at Mabula’s conservation project (083-289-8610).
• The views from the Waterberg Zipline.
• The hot springs (escape to the Hydro for spa pampering).
• Local produce at Geluksfontein Goat Cheese Farm (on R33), L’abri Fountain Brewery (off R516) and Rocking Horse Ranch Nursery(on R101).
• Fun with the vervet monkeys at Bambelela rehab centre (booking essential 014-736-4090).

Expert Revies by Pippa De Bruyn
Photographs by Jotham Van Tonder

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