Manyeleti – Dad and the kids explore the bush

Posted by Mishqah Schippers on 1 July 2020

With Kruger Park family holidays getting increasingly expensive, and good sightings more often than not surrounded by vehicles, Manyeleti is a viable alternative – and it’s still in the Greater Kruger.

Words & Photographs Angus Begg

With wild creatures increasingly under threat, it’s easy to forget how privileged our South African children are to see rare, magnificent mammals such as leopards. Image credit: Getty Images/Alamy

I’m one of those Kruger devotees who believes that Manyeleti Nature Reserve is the holy grail of Greater Kruger (they share a fenceless boundary), mainly because it offers as good a wildlife experience as you’ll get in the park, on passable, dirt roads with virtually no traffic.

In the local context, this is a relative game-viewing paradise, ‘relative’ because not all of us can access Chief’s Island in the Okavango Delta, or Tanzania’s Katavi National Park, but at less than seven hours’ drive from Joburg, Manyeleti is a fine alternative.

Saskia got to sit upfront with veteran Manyeleti guide Mpho Malapane. Credit:Mario and Jenny Fazekas, Angus Begg, Fynn Begg

The real kicker is that at a time when South Africa is chomping hard on the economic bullet, a stay at Manyeleti main camp costs around half the price of Kruger’s public camps. So when the opportunity arose to return to a reserve I first visited 15 years ago, I seized the buffalo by the horns and rode it all the way to Kruger’s Orpen Gate, where I took a right turn into Manyeleti.

Main Camp is well-sited near a dam. It’s populated by a cluster of marula and baobab trees, with the odd hyena sneaking in by night in the hope of snatching one of the young nyala grazing within the safety of the camp.

Back in camp she befriended front-of-house staffer Celebration Mnisi. Image credit: Mario and Jenny Fazekas, Angus Begg, Fynn Begg

It was late August when I visited with my children, 10-year-old Fynn and seven-year-old Saskia. This four-day trip was significant for me, for us. It was, due to the vagaries of South Africa’s family law, our first ‘big’ road trip together.

Main Camp’s rondavel chalets are pleasant, with reddish-brown older ones and 19 newly renovated in traditional white with thatched roofs. These are well appointed and have had an interior facelift that shows the sort of attention to detail you’d expect in a private establishment.

Distinctly Africa offers ‘up close and personal’. Image credit: Mario and Jenny Fazekas, Angus Begg, Fynn Begg

We’d booked into one of these as guests of Leon Plutsick, owner of Distinctly Africa, a private-safari operation. Founder of Shongololo Express, now long sold, Leon saw an opportunity in the Manyeleti, sub-letting from the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA), to provide a pampered experience to his guests at a fraction of the usual private-lodge cost. Fraction? Let’s say a third to half the cost of a lodge in the Sabi Sands, for almost the same experience. It’s a unique arrangement.

Having visited close on 70 lodges over the years, I was keen to see how things worked and what sets Distinctly Africa apart. We quickly learnt how it functioned.
Our rondavel was a little cramped with an extra bed brought in specifically for us, but for a Dad with his two kids on their first-ever family bush trip, it was perfect.

The veranda was similar to a standard Kruger rondavel – big enough for two chairs and the ubiquitous low wall designed for tired feet and a glass of wine at the end of the day, or mugs of coffee and hot chocolate in the morning.

Fynn, an enthusiastic photographer, snapped these cheetah with a camera borrowed from a fellow guest. Image credit: Mario and Jenny Fazekas, Angus Begg, Fynn Begg

Turning right outside took us through camp, past grazing nyala and over thorny devils to a sparkling pool. Turning left brought us to a long canvas tent that served as a communal area for meals, tea-time and general interaction. Next to it at the fence is the braai area, where guests dunk rusks before early morning game drives or share tales of sightings round the fire at night.

The game drives are mostly conducted by Manyeleti legend Mpho Malapane who has been leading walks and drives in the reserve for 19 years. His tracker is the eagle-eyed Reply Mnisi, who belongs to one of the local clans, the Mnisi, with a still unresolved land-claim here.

We woke early on our first morning after the type of jackal-interrupted sleep that only the quiet of the wilderness provides. With coffee and rusks packed, and dressed for the August
chill, we set off into the reserve at 6am. I’d been living in Cape Town a long time, deprived of much real wildlife experience, and was appropriately excited.

Tthe morning game-drive coffee stop – Mpho pours the hot chocolate. Image credit: Mario and Jenny Fazekas, Angus Begg, Fynn Begg

What makes the Manyeleti different from the likes of Sabi Sand and other private reserves, is that you can self drive. Manyeleti’s roads are also traversed by game-viewing vehicles from private lodges in the reserve, including Honeyguide, Koko Moya, Tintswalo Safari Lodge and Pungwe.

There’s a sense of exclusivity and relief in not lining up behind 10 other vehicles to see a lion or buffalo. However, the truth of self-drive is that very few of us have the eyes of Reply and Mpho, and none of us know the reserve like they do. Neither do we know the ‘habits’ of the Manyeleti bush – for instance, which creatures hang out where and when. It’s this insider knowledge and local nuances that make the treat of a guided drive so worthwhile.

A herd of female nyalas checks out a Distinctly Africa rondavel in Main Camp. Image credit: Mario and Jenny Fazekas, Angus Begg, Fynn Begg

‘My favourite camp is Pungwe,’ said Leon, referring to the camp managed by Sabi Sands legend Michel Girardin, as we headed out on our first drive. ‘But Pungwe doesn’t have Mpho.’ Mpho switched on the radio handset and interpreted the chatter that keeps the reserve’s rangers in contact. Then the magical word ingwe crackled from the handset. We soon found the said leopard with her cub and tracked them over a few hours.

Saskia had never been this close to a leopard. Fynn had seen one in a tree with three kills, but he was only three years old then. We’ll also never forget the sight of a scrub hare a few metres from us, dead-still and alert as only prey can be when smelling a predator. And the focused leopard mom, anxious cub behind, crossing the road belly-to-the-ground, glancing left at the ‘bunny’. The wild cotton-tail became a springhare in one move, bounding to safety. Having already had the two felines to ourselves for a while, and tiredness and sun taking their toll after an early start, Mpho gunned the engine, promising to find them again on the afternoon drive.

There’s a good chance of seeing lion without any other vehicles around. Image credit: Mario and Jenny Fazekas, Angus Begg, Fynn Begg

With a couple of decades of Big Five interaction behind me, I prefer observing the little creatures: dung beetles, scrub hares and jackals among them. I love the scent of the grass at first light and pray for the chance to see a pangolin. But Mpho had lion and wild dog on his mind, aware that he had two children to please.

We suddenly pulled up before a low-crowned acacia, under which sat a well-fed lion with a magnificent mane atop a reclining regal head. It was Saskia’s first lion. Fynn soon tired of the big cat in its state of disinterest, and turned his attention to a bateleur eagle, balancing its way across a thermal.

Half an hour later we parked beside a wild-dog pack, newly relocated to their own den in a termite mound. The adults were just back from a hunt and the pups tumbled down the mound in anticipation of their regurgitated treat. Which reminded us that, after three hours in the vehicle, it was time to head back to camp for brunch.

A juvenile Verreaux’s eagle-owl. Image credit: Mario and Jenny Fazekas

On the game drive that afternoon we followed cheetah tracks, cruised past three ground hornbills spearing insects in a patch of grassland, and spent some time with a group of white rhino.

‘There’s Orion’s Belt,’ said Fynn after dinner as he stood beside the fire fiddling with Leon’s laser pointer. Like a conductor, he directed the thin red beam, tracing the myriad constellations above. Leon has a wealth of knowledge about the stars, and clearly enjoys sharing it with children.

The Distinctly Africa game-drive vehicles are permitted to go off-road, and you can leave the vehicle for sundowners and other stops. Image credit: Mario and Jenny Fazekas

The cycle of meals and game drives was repeated over the ensuing days. We saw long lines of buffalo, nesting vultures and a dead impala with leopard in attendance. The latter was a good find by Mpho, away from the road in a donga. It’s the off-road stuff that you can’t do in your own vehicle that makes such a difference with a guided experience.

On our fourth and last night, Fynn was pointing out Antares, Scorpio and Betelgeuse to a new guest in camp. My children were happy – the guiding and game drives had been excellent and the unhurried rhythm of meals, swimming and game viewing just superb. I really like the unfussy and communal nature of Kruger public camps. And I appreciate private lodges for the pampering and good food. Manyaleti had been as good a Kruger experience as I’d ever had. Possibly because it was the perfect combination of the two.

Plan Your Trip

How To Get There

Take the N12 out of Joburg and exit onto the R540 at the Belfast intersection. Drive via Dullstroom, Lydenburg and Ohrigstad, taking the R36 towards Hoedspruit. Shortly after crossing the Blyde River, turn right to Orpen on the R531. Continue past the Klaserie turn-off towards Orpen Gate. Turn left at the Orpen Gate signpost and continue on the R531 until you pass the South African Wildlife College on your left. The entrance to Manyeleti Game Reserve is 50m before Kruger’s Orpen Gate. Main Camp is 15km from the gate. Entry to the reserve is R55 pp. Follow these directions, not the GPS, which has routing problems.

Stay Here
Distinctly Africa has 10 luxury rondavels on the edge of the public camp with its own central meeting area. The camp’s pool is available to guests. Rondavels have television and Wi-Fi. From R3  025 pp sharing, full board. 072-978-0903,

Main Camp offers 34 self-catering, en-suite bungalows of which 19 are newly renovated, as well as 20 campsites with electricity and communal ablutions. Camp facilities are not as well-maintained as Kruger camps, (the renovated chalets are recommended) but are much cheaper. From R740 for a chalet (sleeps two), R250 for a campsite (for two), R350 for a caravan. Game drives cost R350 pp. Book through Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency. 013-735-5556, Private luxury lodges include Tintswalo Safari Lodge, Koka Moya, Honeyguide and Pungwe. From R3 390 pp.

Eat Here
Meals at Distinctly Africa are included and are unfussy, innovative and tasty. Bodum coffee and biscotti greet early risers, followed by full English breakfasts (after the game drive) and the likes of kebabs, beef potjie and braais for dinner. The public accommo- dation in Main Camp is all self-catering. There is a tuckshop but no shops nearby, so stock up en route.

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