A stay at one of these top South African lodges makes for an experience of a lifetime

Posted by Emma Odendaal on 28 October 2014

If you haven’t visited Zululand’s battlefields, gazed at San rock art or watched a rare leatherback turtle lay her eggs in the dead of night, you haven’t experienced the best South Africa has to offer. Sure you can take in all of these without busting your budget at a luxury lodge, but we can all dream can’t we? Here are six unmissable encounters, in no particular order.

 

1. Tswalu,
 Green Kalahari

Find aardvark in the Kalahari

There’s only one way to arrive in the Green Kalahari – by air.

Sure, you could drive via Kuruman, but arriving by private jet does two things: it allows you to take in the terracotta tones of the Kalahari desert sand splashed with rich emerald greens, and it sets the tone for a lavish break.

The region is home to Tswalu, South Africa’s largest privately owned game reserve. At more than 100 000 hectares, it dwarfs other private reserves – and you have this pretty much all to yourself. There are just nine suites (including three family suites) at The Motse, one villa (sleeps 10) and no neighbouring lodges.

‘If you see another Land Rover, complain!’ says owner and business tycoon Nicky Oppenheimer.

There’s no question, Tswalu is high-end. Rates include all meals, beverages, every activity imaginable and a personal Land Rover, guide and tracker for your stay. Having the undivided attention of your own ranger means that you really can do just about anything you fancy – spend the entire day on safari with a picnic lunch, track black rhino on foot or idle by the pool.

Although you’ll encounter many of the animals typically seen in bush reserves, in the desert you’ll see things that you won’t see anywhere else: Kalahari lions, habituated meerkat colonies, bat-eared foxes and pangolins. Tswalu is also one of the best places in the world to see the elusive aardvark. For this reason, night drives are big, but sightings are still rare – go in winter when they’re more active for the best chances.

Back at the lodge, after a game drive and dinner on lantern-lit Kalahari dunes, heavy wooden doors open onto mammoth-sized suites. Double-volume thatch ceilings, high-backed wicker chairs, a casual leather beanbag and a centrepiece of ostrich eggs make them luxurious, although not ostentatious. The ochre-red of the Kalahari is brought inside in details such as glass bowls filled with sand and oversized white candles, rust-coloured statement walls and screed floors. A large wooden deck with a day bed overlooks a small waterhole frequented by warthog and eland.

Rates: From R38 000 a person for four nights, including air transfers from Joburg or Cape Town, all meals, beverages and activities. Tel 053 781 9331, www.tswalu.com

Book now

 

2. Thonga Beach Lodge, Maputaland Coast

Track turtles

‘Clear your mind,’ commands a sun-bleached wooden signpost outside Thonga Beach Lodge. And that’s exactly what you’ll do given a few days in one of South Africa’s last coastal dune forests. It starts when you leave your car (and civilisation) at a nearby macadamia factory. A 4×4 transfer takes you towards the Maputaland coastline and, by the time you’ve arrived at the lodge, you’ll have lost cellphone reception and a sense of time.

Thonga is one of just two accommodation options on Mabibi Beach (the other is Mabibi Campsite) and walks along kilometres of swathes of sand are disturbed only by an occasional fisherman and the balletic coupés of ghost crabs. More importantly, this stretch of coast is one of few significant nesting grounds for loggerhead and leatherback turtles.

In summer (roughly November to February), lodge activities are centred on the rare reptilian giants and late-night, low-tide beach drives take guests on a careful search for laying moms and their hatchlings. When we visited towards the end of the season, a German couple spotted a leatherback just metres from the lodge’s walkway in broad daylight. We weren’t as lucky – she was gone by the time we’d rushed to the beach. Later, our night drive, which kicked off at 2am, yielded spectacular stargazing and steaming Amarula hot chocolate, but no turtles.

Outside of breeding season, the best time to visit is April when the water is just shy of 30 degrees and the sultry summer humidity drops. There’s kayaking to be done on Lake Sibaya, Southern Africa’s largest fresh-water lake, walks through the dense red milkwood forests and dunes (highly recommended for twitchers), ocean excursions on a rubber duck, snorkelling and scuba-diving in some of the best warm-water reefs in the country and sundowner drives to the lake.

Twelve thatched rondavels rest on stilts away from the beach to minimise environmental impact and are connected by raised wooden walkways. Each has a balcony, some with sea views, although many are obstructed by the encroaching milkwoods (because Thonga is situated in the Coastal Forest Section of iSimangaliso, natural vegetation may not be cut back). Rooms are simple: pastel colours, bleached wood, screed floors, exposed beams, thatched ceilings and reed blinds give a kick-off-your-shoes vibe.

Rates: From R2 845 a person a night, including meals and certain activities. Tel 035 474 1473, www.isibindiafrica.co.za

Book now

 

3. Forest Lodge at Grootbos, Walker Bay

See whales and fynbos

Roll down the windows as you drive up to Forest Lodge. Take a deep breath. Smell the camphor-like wild rosemary? It’s just one of the 765 species you’ll find on Grootbos’ 2 500 hectares of coastal and mountain fynbos.

Hugging the curve of Walker Bay between Gansbaai and Hermanus, the lodge sits among the silvers, greys, coppers and myriad shades of green bossies, and behind it are the magical thickets of an ancient milkwood forest.

Suites are dotted across a ridge, their decks melting into the land as it slopes towards the sand dunes and sea. Whether you’re lying on a deck chair, in your canopy bed, the capacious bath, or on a couch in front of the log fireplace, you’ll be looking out through floor-to-ceiling glass windows onto a carpet of fynbos buzzing with bumblebees and the bay just beyond.

Inside, bright orange pincushion proteas permeate the decor, from vases of flowers and photos on the walls to scatter cushion prints. Rooms are minimalist and contemporary, with retro touches and splashes of burnt red and auburn. Paths between the suites meander through thickets of gnarled, mossy, twisted milkwood branches. The overriding sense is that it’s quiet here. There are no kids (children are permitted only in the nearby Garden Lodge or villa) and no rowdy tour groups.

Many travellers visit Grootbos for the fynbos, which can be explored on foot, a 4×4 safari or, better yet, on horseback. But because of the lodge’s position in Walker Bay, it’s also a prime destination for whale watching – and a flip in a Cessna175 is one of the best ways to view the endangered southern rights without them knowing you’re there. Grootbos pilot Evan Austin has flown everyone from honeymoon couples to National Geographic photographers, and (if you can stomach it) will get you the perfect angles for your own pics.

Can’t choose between whales or fynbos? Visit in August when whales can be spotted in the bay and slopes are alive with colour.

Rates: From R2 490 a person a night, including meals and most activities. Tel 028 384 8008, www.grootbos.co.za

Book now

 

4. Makakatana Bay Lodge, St Lucia

Wake up on Lake St Lucia

There’s only one privately owned lodge on the banks of Lake St Lucia, and there isn’t ever likely to be another. Makakatana Bay Lodge was built a year before the iSimangaliso Wetland Park was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, protecting Africa’s largest estuarine lake system from further development.

Owners Hugh and Leigh-Ann Morrison trace their family’s roots in the area back to 1918, and there are few people who are as closely connected to the land and its recent history. A subtle crab theme runs through the lodge in tribute to the old commercial crabbing station built by Hugh’s grandfather in the 1930s (used to store crabs caught in the lake that were destined to be sold in Durban). While crabs are still prolific in the lake, today the old concrete crab house is a wine cellar and venue for special dinners. Also take a moment to look at the black-and-white family photos in the living rooms and artefacts such as a bread knife dating back to the early 1900s.

There are just six luxury wooden cabins, each with large sliding doors opening onto verandas concealed by indigenous dune forest. Three suites (including the honeymoon unit) have views through bush thickets onto the lake, while the others look into the forest – room one has been known as the leopard room ever since a guest woke up to find a leopard gazing at her metres from her porch.

But don’t visit Makakatana to tick off big game. Although iSimangaliso is home to the Big Five (lion were introduced in December 2013), they’re rarely seen here on the Western Shore. Game drives are best for bird spotting (particularly waterfowl) and a stop at the new uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk for views over Lake St Lucia’s narrows as far as Cape Vidal in the north and Maphelane in the south.

Makakatana Lodge also has exclusive access to a six-kilometre stretch of private beach on the Eastern Shore – after a morning safari, spend the day here with a picnic lunch. But there’s no topping a cruise to explore the waterways spotting wallowing hippos and crocs.

Rates: From R5 400 a person for a three-night stay, including all meals and one wetland game drive a day. Tel 035 550 4189, www.makakatana.co.za

Book now

 

5. Isibindi Zulu Lodge, Zululand

Visit the battlefields

Thousands of European tourists travel across the world to the site of some of the greatest battles – and greatest defeats – in British military history. Yet few South Africans would spend a couple hours in a car to do the same.

It’s a shame, since the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War is a defining moment in our nation’s history and appreciating the magnitude of the battles can’t come without sitting in Isandlwana’s shadow, surveying the fields and hills of Zululand or visiting the museum at Rorke’s Drift.

There are a handful of lodges in the vicinity, but Zulu Lodge in Isibindi Eco-Reserve near Rorke’s Drift has a twist. Rooms are inspired by Zulu architecture, in the traditional beehive shape with high, domed, thatched roofs, and this theme permeates the details: Zulu beads on bathroom taps indicate hot and cold, and shampoo and conditioner is found in traditional pottery.

Don’t come expecting opulence – the rooms are simple – but sleep with the door open and you’ll wake to the sound of nyala nibbling the bushes around your room and drink tea on the porch that overlooks the river valley below and Rorke’s Drift hills in the distance. Book room four for the best views.

Dinner is served either in the main lodge or in the boma of a Zulu village a short walk away, where you’ll be entertained by Zulu dancing (the real deal, not the choreographed shows put on at some cultural villages) and stick fights, followed by a tour of the huts, a sorghum beer tasting and a dinner of samp, beans and mutton stew.
As for the battlefields, guide Mike Nel (082 366 2639, www.zululandtours.co.za) picks you up at the lodge after breakfast and tailors the tour to your interests; anything from an overview of the battles to tours that focus on the involvement and movements of a single soldier. Even if you aren’t one for guided tours, trust us when we say book one. You’re guaranteed animated accounts of love stories, gruesome deaths and sheer terror. Sitting in camping chairs shaded by a thorn tree, with Isandlwana looming behind, it’s easy to imagine 40000 Zulu warriors racing down the valleys and spilling over the ridges towards 1700 red coats to a cacophony of battle chants and cannon fire. You can see it and hear it, and it’s as fascinating as it is chilling.

Rates: From R1 495 a person a night, including meals and activities. R900 a person for a full-day battlefield excursion. Tel 035 474 1473, www.isibindiafrica.co.za

Book now

 

6. Bushmans Kloof, Cederberg

Gaze at rock art

A string of prestigious awards can mean little more than good PR in the five-star lodge business. But Bushmans Kloof, which has been on Condé Nast Traveller’s Gold List on numerous occasions, among National Geographic Traveler’s 25 best eco lodges and even won a Diners Club Diamond Award for its wine list (to name but a few), couldn’t be more deserving.

The guest rooms punctuate the rocky landscape with white walls and dark thatched roofs that mirror the original 1843 manor house. ‘Decadent’ is an apt description of the interiors: plush, rich fabrics, oversized couches, romantic lamps, a log fireplace and Victorian bathtub.

Even if you’re not much of an artist, you’ll be tempted by the watercolour paints and sketchbook on your coffee table. Or the yoga mat may encourage you to get up with the sun and sit contemplatively overlooking the rock pools. And just as it seems the team at Bushmans Kloof has thought of everything, you’ll find the water bottles left in your car for the drive home.

You could visit for the romantic suites, the serenity, the food, the hiking or mountain-biking trails, or to see the endangered Cape mountain zebra, but we highly recommend you come for the rock art. A short hike brings you to a large overhang that shades an eight-metre long sequence of Bushman paintings. Thought to be an ancient ceremonial site, this is one of more than 130 rock art locations on the property, but according to our guide Simone Wood-Callander, it’s the best for its variety and size. Archaeologists aren’t sure of its age – parts could be up to 10000 years old (additions were likely made over the course of generations) – and there are various interpretations of the likely meanings of the man with blood seemingly pouring out of his nose and the trail of dots at the elephant’s feet, for instance.

After a morning of walking through the Cederberg searching for rock art, spend the afternoon munching on a tea of mini quiches, watermelon wedges and salami with rooibos chutney under a giant fig and the watchful eye of klipspringer grazing on the lawns. A game drive follows and when you arrive back at the lodge, lanterns light the way to sundowners on the river.

Rates: From R1 885 a person a night, all meals and activities included (valid until end August, based on a three-night stay). Tel 021 437 9278, www.bushmanskloof.co.za

Book now

 

This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Getaway magazine.

Photos by Cameron Ewart-Smith.

 






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