In late December 2018 during mid-summer in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, my wife Melanie and I headed to the new Mthembu Lodge in the uMfolozi Big Five Game Reserve. Summer brings hot days, the chance of a storm, lush green bush and rivers in full flow. Now in August it was time for a return visit to the same reserve, but with a few changes. This time I was travelling alone, in mid-winter and my destination was to be the newly finished Biyela Lodge, sister lodge to Mthembu. It was still warm, even hot, but the bush was dry, shades of green had been replaced by varying shades of beige. And where the river flowed there was now just sand.
I was running late; my drive had taken longer than anticipated and I had used Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park as a short cut. I love the drive through the park, but being honest, it is more of an excuse to use this route rather than a short cut. I stuck to the speed limit and did not dare to stop at any wildlife sightings, of which there were several. On leaving the park at Cengini Gate I turned left taking the familiar road towards my destination. This is Zululand, the heart of the Zulu Kingdom, where it’s people live very rural lives, some still in traditional round thatched rondavel huts, surrounded by rolling hills and what seems to be free roaming livestock. Cattle wander across the road, stopping to graze on the verges. Donkeys take shade under thorn trees from the winter sun and goats browse on every available shrub.
Arriving at the Umfolozi Big Five Reserve gate I see things have already improved since my last visit. There are new road signs, ensuring guests do not miss the entrance. And just inside the gate the car park is complete with shade cloth covered parking. The most notable change is that the guest waiting area is now finished. It is beautifully decorated with soft furnishing including couches and comfy chairs, and the walls have stunning black & white wildlife photographs hanging on them.
A vehicle is sent to collect just me, having arrived after all the other guests have checked in, and I am whisked to the lodge. Here I am met by Sikhonzile, who assures me I am not late. In fact, she has enough time to give me a welcome tour of the lodge, starting off by asking me, “Have you seen the lions yet?” I give her a doubting look, but she takes me to a viewing deck, where a scope is set up, and she beckons me to look. Wow, there are four lions in the valley below us. When I look with the naked eye, I can still them. She finishes my tour before taking me to my room and telling me that afternoon tea is about to be served, then in an hour our first game drive will commence.
It is in my room as I wander around that I am suddenly hit by the overall wow factor, sheer scale and luxury. The lodge itself is very modern and grand with indoor lounge, dining rooms and separate bar. There is an outdoor infinity pool surrounded by stepped decking with choices of seating decorated with lavish striped cushions. Viewing decks command stunning views of the White Imfolozi river valley and rolling hills, both near and far. There is a fire pit on one deck which also offers a large outdoor dining area. The rooms run left and right from the main lodge set on varying heights, but all offering views of the river valley. My room is not spacious, its huge. The open plan bedroom contains a giant bed, seating area with sofa, coffee table and chairs. There is a fridge, mini bar, set in a wooden cabinet allowing it to blend with the room along with a tea & coffee station. Behind the bed a separate room has a writing desk plus wardrobe and storage space. The bathroom has a shower, double sinks and bath. The front walls contain bi-folding doors and windows which open onto a large personal viewing deck, outdoor shower and infinity plunge pool. Everything is grand, yet, the overall natural finishes including colouration and use of wood and thatch make the lodge and rooms blend perfectly into the surrounding bush.
My first afternoon tea was a grand affair as was every meal served at the lodge. The thought, planning and skill in food preparation and service was second to none. Presentation and the all-important flavours were vibrant, a feast of the senses, making every dining experience an event in itself. A huge credit to the chef and his team. We ate inside and outside, under the Milky Way clear above in the winter sky offering views of unlimited stars, reflecting the lodge, staff and it’s fine cuisine. On my last evening around the fire our dinner was expertly cooked on braais (barbecues) from which we were served a meal fit for royalty. Steaks, chops, venison, borewors, were accompanied by snoek, fish, and king prawns. Before we dined that final night, we were treated by a local community choir, to an unforgettable display of traditional singing and dancing. The group were joined by lodge staff and fellow guests adding to a wonderful and most memorable evening.
Our guide for the duration of our stay was Vuyani, an expert spotter with a wealth of bush knowledge. On that first drive, joining three couples and me being single, I was allocated the front passenger seat. I was heckled from the back seats, in good humour, for being upgraded to business class in the game viewer. All our drives into the Umfolozi Big Five Reserve and the adjoining Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park were memorable, with serious sightings, but always fun.
The birdlife came thick and fast. Flocks of red billed ox-peckers, bateleur eagles some, perched some flying, yellow billed hornbills, white fronted bee-eaters, rollers, nightjars and vultures. Vuyani spotted a vulture sitting on it’s nest high in a thorn tree. He told us of traditional healers, sangomas, and their use of vulture parts in their culture. He explained “A sangoma will use the brain of a vulture to give them the ability to see like the bird. A vulture can see and find meat providing food. A skill that the Sangoma will gain by consuming the brain”. He went on to tell us that education programmes are in place to conserve vultures and protect them from use by traditional healers.
We encountered a large number of impala, of all ages, on our drives including bachelor herds, some containing around twenty adult bucks. There was plenty of other general game including giraffe, warthog, kudu and wildebeest. We joined a huge herd, otherwise known as an obstinacy, of buffalo as they searched for water in and around the near dry riverbed. It was at the river, that we struggled to navigate in December as it flowed, but now resembled a beach where we were rewarded with the most memorable sightings. Herds of elephants searched for water, digging deep into the sand with their trunks. Older matriarchs guided and demonstrated their skills to younger members. And here there were very young, relatively small, elephants. Witnessing the digging, and seeing hundreds of previously dug holes, demonstrated the desperation and need for drinking water. At one point three maybe four herds began to congregate around us. Tensions ran high, rumblings could be heard emanating from many elephants communicating their dominance to others. Older bulls joined the scene, chases broke out, dust flew, and trumpeting echoed all around us.
Those same holes in the riverbed provided water for other animals. The mini sand dune that Vuyani spotted and drove us towards moved and lifted its head. We were slowly approaching a large lioness, drinking from a pre-dug elephant hole. Her golden coat near perfectly matched the colour of the sand. It was also that time of day known as the golden hour, where the first rays of the sun offer the best light for photography, and all is gold coated, making Vuyanis sighting even more remarkable. We were joined that morning by two lioness both with blood stained faces and large bellies. Clear signs that they had feasted, no doubt, on another animal searching for water at the riverbed.
From my previous visit I wrote of the foresight of all those involved in the development of the Umfolozi Big Five Reserve. I cannot offer enough praise as the development expands. This area of Zululand is rural and harsh with limited employment opportunities. With this expansion comes job opportunities. The local community are offered employment and are trained to the highest standards and their service and commitment to guests I could not fault. The continual growth in tourism here, and in the whole of KwaZulu Natal, is a vital cog in a big wheel. Here in the reserve is a history that encompasses conservation and Zulu culture, of Kings and current tribal chiefs. This land conserved by King Shaka and Dr Ian Player continues to protect and serve the wildlife that call it home. To all those involved I take my dusty hat off to you and thank you.