Leaving the N2 highway behind and its slow moving trucks laden with a variety of goods including sugar cane and coal, there is only one last town before my next destination Bonamanzi Game Reserve. Hluhluwe is buzzing with people going about their daily business. Shoppers are stocking up with provisions, staples of maize meal and samp & beans from local stores. The market is lit up by colours from vendors selling clothing and sub-tropical fruits. The barbers, operating from tents hand painted with the latest hair styles, are busy with clippers and customers. Local taxi’s are everywhere, collecting people, queuing through the main street for passengers and for fuel, music playing through their open windows.
The contrast from the journey on passing through the gates at Bonamanzi Game Reserve is monumental. The only sounds here on the entrance road are the noises of tyres on sand, the breeze passing through trees and bird calls. It’s amazing how the mind immediately adjusts and relaxes within a matter of meters and minutes.
After a friendly, very helpful and speedy check in, I head to my room. There are plenty of choices here on accommodation, but I have opted for the main Lalapanzi Camp. My thatched building houses a double bed, fridge, television, tea & coffee station and en-suit bathroom. The thatch overhangs a patio area and this, to my right, looks across at the main dam, complete with huge resident Nile crocodiles.
I am surrounded by gardens with indigenous trees including various palms, aloes and fever trees. Vervet monkeys, impala and nyala antelope wander freely around the gardens. On a neighbour’s patio lays a warthog and her four siblings taking shade from the warm winter sunshine. The swimming pool, restaurant, bar and dam viewing deck are also a very short walk away.
I alternated strolling around and sitting under my thatch taking in my surroundings. It was tempting not to venture too far but as relaxed as I was here, my need to explore kicked in. The reserve offers guided game drive’s but it was self-drive for me. Maps in hand I set off across dirt roads, grass covered tracks and sand roads. I was warned to be aware that my little hire car would struggle in some sections of sand roads. And it did. Note to self: Listen to the advice of those that are in the know. Getting stuck is far from ideal when game abounds, including elephant and buffalo. Luckily, I managed to escape the deep sand and drive most of the reserve.
The rewards of exploring include sitting amongst herds of impala, an implausibility of wildebeest, towers of giraffe and dazzles of zebra. Every now and then I would startle family groups and lone bull nyala antelope as I crept along in low gear. I was startled myself as a red coloured squirrel jumped out in front of me, foraged amongst fallen monkey apples, then disappeared back into the undergrowth. I am still wondering what ‘type’ of squirrel it was.
Bonamanzi Game Reserve: was declared a natural heritage site in 1995. There is a huge amount of flora & fauna biodiversity. Sand forests and savannahs meet, offering a variety of habitat, trees and bushveld. Views across the neighbouring False Bay Floodplains, part of the iSimangaliso Wetlands Unesco World Heritage Site, are another reward for explorers of the reserve.
Sitting back under my thatch I am delayed for dinner. Large flocks of starlings, noisily, come into roost and fill just about every surrounding tree top. As dusk fast approaches bats appear. Dozens of them flitting around the trees and feeding over the dam. Above me on the wall are two geckos waiting for darkness and hunting insects.
I met Shona from the Bonamanzi Game Reserve: management team at the bar as we had arranged to have dinner together in the Lalapanzi Restaurant. Despite the natural distractions I was not late. We chatted about the reserve, the neighbouring attractions and the province as a whole. Listening to Shona I learned a lot. Our conversation became more general and she was amazed that, in my day to day life, I am a supplier to Dr Martens Boots. The four course meal was very good. I am always nervous of ordering steak but here it was cooked to perfection. I am also not a dessert man but the crème brulee here has made me think again.
Bonamanzi Game Reserve is many things. A game reserve and birding hotspot. It has camping facilities, self-catering units, fully catered units and even tree houses. There are guided walks on offer. Game drives available both within the reserve and to neighbouring reserves. Family breaks with children’s activities included. It’s a conference and team building site. It’s a wedding venue where the bride & groom can take their vows on a small island on the main dam. And for me, it was my first time visit, and not my last.