Over the years I have often driven through Zululand and seen the signs for Babanango. For me it’s a name that just speaks of Africa, it sounds African. I have said the name in my head and out loud many times on my travels. That’s probably one reason why I tend to travel alone. Who wants to listen to me repeating “Babanango, Babanango, Babanago”? Translated from the Zulu language into English it means, father there he is. The name may come from a small Zulu boy shepherding livestock in the mountains during the Anglo-Zulu War. He spotted English soldiers, red coats, and alerted his father to their presence?
Babanango now boasts a game reserve. A vast area under conservation bringing together private investors and most importantly supported and backed by local communities. Where once cattle grazed and peopled paid to hunt, there is now twenty-two thousand hectares of land under protection. It is re-wildling on a grand scale. To give you some idea of scale the land equates to nearly fifty-five thousand acres and that is the equivalent of twenty-five thousand soccer pitches or over eight hundred thousand tennis courts. It’s difficult to comprehend the sizes here but it’s big and it’s ambitious and most importantly it’s working. Already many endemic species have been reintroduced to the reserve. These were species that once roamed freely here. Plus, along with the reintroductions other species have naturally returned to the area. It has quickly become a safe haven for wildlife.
When out on game drives exploring the reserve there is a real wow factor to the scenery and topography. We drove through open plains, mist belt grassland and thornveld forests. There are rolling hills, leading to mountains that give way to ravines and vast valleys. Each of these features provides unique ecosystems where flora and fauna will begin to, and already is thriving.
The open areas of the reserve have provided an excellent home to the newly reintroduced cheetahs. They have become specialist in hunting red hartebeest, a good-sized, fast-moving antelope. We were also very fortunate to see a white rhino moving between thorn thickets, occasionally grazing, but notably wary of our presence. Giraffes, far more relaxed, browsed on the best leaves available in many of the forest sections that we passed by. There were large herds of the afore mentioned red hartebeest, wildebeest, zebra and eland. On the slopes of one valley intermingled amongst the boulders and tree aloes wildebeest with many calves grazed with zebra and eland. This could be safety in numbers but all three graze on the same grasses but eat different parts of the plants.
The mighty White Imfolozi river runs through the reserve. Heavy summer rains meant it was running deep, wide and fast on its journey to the Indian Ocean. We enjoyed an early morning coffee, with a splash of Amarula, on the riverbank above the rocky rapids. There was no shortage of water on the reserve and at one water hole we were greeted by a pod of hippo. Through gaping mouths and grunting they were keen to let us know that we were in their territory.
My spectacular base for my stay in the reserve was Zulu Rock Lodge. The main lodge and its guest rooms, constructed from locally sourced stone, are modern, sleek, and finished to a very high standard. Traditional and local are represented mixed in with some great artwork. My room was generous as was the bed. Glass doors and windows allowed natural light to flood in. There was a built-in fireplace, bath and separate shower. The veranda provided a spectacular birds eye view down and across the reserve.
The food was amazing, and I was lucky enough to be able to thank Tembe, the chef, for providing some very high-class food. The tomato, basil and mozzarella tart was divine as was the vanilla panna cotta. The pan seared beef fillet served with creamed spinach, charred onion petals and peppercorn sauce was perfectly cooked. This came with a potato cigar, and I can honestly say, as a potato lover, it was exceptional.
Please keep an eye on Babanango Game Reserve, watch it evolve, welcome new wildlife, elephants and lions are due very soon, and plan a visit. Do not think of me repeating Babanango to myself. If you want to listen to Babanango then listen to the late great Johnny Clegg and the band Juluka singing it. Their lyrics say so much more. “I’m travelling light, I’m going to Baba Nango, I’m leaving tonight, I’m going to Baba Nango”