It had been exactly a year, give or take a day or two, since I had last driven this route. A route that I had taken many times over my thirty years of visiting the province of KwaZulu Natal. Through the historic towns of Ladysmith and Dundee, with their Boer War associations, and onto Vryheid. The latter leg gives unparalleled views down across the near mountainous hills and valleys where at many locations, including Rorke’s Drift and iSandlwana, there had been fierce battles fought between the English and the Zulus during a brutal war. Turning right at Vryheid I headed down toward Ulundi and Melmoth, the heart of Zululand and my destination, Babanango Game Reserve.

This was a return trip and one that I had eagerly awaited. It was unusual as it is not often that I get to return to a reserve in such a relatively short space of time. But so much had happened here in the last twelve months. There had been new arrivals and new developments at Babanango Game Reserve, a reserve still quite new and evolving at a good pace.

Last year I had the privilege of staying at the stunning Zulu Rock Lodge & Valley Lodge, situated in the north and south of the twenty-two thousand hectare or fifty-five thousand acre, Babanango Game Reserve. Now I was arriving at the newly constructed and more centrally located Madwaleni River Lodge. The lodge is described as a luxury tented camp nestled on the southern bank of the White Umfolozi River. Do not underestimate the word luxury. I had to get my thesaurus out to look up words that would go above luxury. I want to add in opulence, grandeur and magnificence. But I must also stress that everything here has been sympathetically and tastefully done with a level of attention to detail I have rarely seen. Madwaleni is a masterpiece created with subtle and very imaginative touches.

The main lodge is the central and focal point for guests where you enter through a broad passageway containing decking, polished concrete floors, dry stone walling and ceilings lined with grasses and reeds. Beyond the foyer there is a bar, restaurant, lounge, library and deck. On the deck there is an extension of the restaurant along with more comfortable seating and an area complete with fire pit. A short walk from here there is an infinity pool and gymnasium all overlooking the White Umfolozi River.

We took breakfast and lunch on the deck and dinner in the restaurant. Breakfast was a feast starting with fresh local fruits, cereals, yogurts, followed with a full cooked main. I actually declined the continental course. All three courses at dinner were excellent with some of the best cooked of lamb I have eaten. A special mention to lunch and Ntombe, front of house, who not only introduced lunch to us, but looked after us so well throughout our time at the lodge. When I say introduced lunch, that’s exactly how it was. Ntombe presented us with a basket each, which was more like a picnic hamper, and removed each item one by one. And with a beaming smile she introduced each item before placing it in front of us. A homemade in-house selection of bread, micro salad, hummus, fresh pickled chillies, chicken skewers, crustless quiche and chocolate covered biscuits for dessert. Admittedly when Ntombe announced the freshly made bottle of carrot and ginger juice, I may have turned my nose up. How wrong was for that initial reaction. It was a perfect, refreshing accompaniment. Ntombe, dare I ask for the secret recipe?

My tent, matching the main lodge, was huge but again far from over the top. Size is not everything but it goes a long way to adding to the overall, beyond, luxury experience. The bathroom fittings and shower, all within the tent, are simple and stylish. The tent opens onto a large deck area, complete with choices of seating areas and your very own plunge pool. And wherever you are in the tent, the bathroom, the lounge area or the king size bed, you have a view of the river. And the river itself, flowing fast over the white rocks, is a mesmerizing sight and a pleasure to listen to. It is a truly spectacular setting.

Under the experienced guidance and driving skills of Koenraad and Ed we explored the reserve. On a morning drive there was a sense of a mission in the air emanating from our guides. We crossed the fast-flowing White Umfolozi River, an adventure in its own rights, and headed north following the reserves undulating and rocky road system. Our guides had picked up tracks and there was an urgency to press on as the sun began to rise. Urgency though did not mean, not stopping for sightings or travelling beyond a normal speed. With Ed at the wheel Koenraad, binoculars raised to his eyes, pointed up and gestured to Ed to stop the vehicle. All the guests followed his pointing finger through our binoculars and there on a rocky outcrop, although still some distance away, we could all clearly see three lions, two males and a female. Ed eased us closer and what a thrill it was to see some of the reserves new arrivals. On my last visit cheetah had just been introduced and in the last twelve months they had been joined by lions and elephants. The reserve was conserving and expanding its animal population. There was, we were told, also the possibility of more new arrivals in the form of lion cubs. Probably the first born in the area for over a century.

There were many encounters on our drives including buffalos, hippos, wildebeest and giraffe. It was clear to see increased game numbers particularly in the big herds of hartebeest and zebra. This was conservation at work. But Koenraad and Ed were not only about the big game encounters. On an evening drive we encountered many nocturnal birds including nightjars and owls. We had a fascinating lesson on the hunting skills of an eagle owl. “The prominent fluffy looking tufts on the owls head are not ears, they just resemble ears” Koenraad explained. He went on though to explain, that using their genuine ears, one up and one down they could pinpoint their prey with great effectiveness. Our guides were birders, probably twitchers, lepidopterist, dendrologists and biologists. Their knowledge of butterflies and in particular moths, plus trees, plants in general and photosynthesis was mind blowing.

What a real privilege it was to be able to return to Babanango Game Reserve, stay in the grandeur of Madwaleni River Lodge and explore the reserve and see how it has developed in the last twelve months. Madwaleni translates from the Zulu language into English as “the place of the rock”. Now I should mention here that Koenraad could also be a geologist. We learnt that the white pillow granite rocks in the Umfolozi River date back nearly three and a half billion years. That makes it the second oldest rock on planet earth. It is impossible to comprehend in my brain how a year equates into three and half billion years. But I can tell you that in my year there has been significant change in Babanango Game Reserve, a conservation story that continues to develop.


About Author

People say that Africa has an effect on your soul and Mark Henson the ‘author’ of this site is no exception. He first travelled to South Africa and the province of KwaZulu-Natal in 1993 and has been coming and going every year since. Twice now most years!

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