A first-time trip to a wildlife park in southern Africa is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially so given the way flights, accommodation and tours all add up to a tidy sum, and for guaranteed sightings of the ‘big five’ – lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and cape buffalo – Kruger Park, one of the biggest game reserves in Africa, is likely to feature on your itinerary.
Finding a good guide can be a hit-and-miss affair and it was fortunate for me to come across Shoes Mathebula, running his own company Khalanga Safaris. He organises day tours and longer trips into Kruger and his knowledge of bird life is beguiling: driving along a road, what looked to me like a bizarrely-shaped piece of plastic stuck to overhead wires turned out to be a long-tailed paradise whydah.
While Kruger has much to offer, parts of it are oversubscribed; what gets overlooked are smaller game reserves, in other parts of South Africa, that are well worth visiting for their more homely nature, friendly staff and adventurous location.
Take H12 Leshiba , sitting high on a mountain plateau in the Soutpansberg mountain range in Limpopo. To get here it takes a short flight from Johannesburg to the town of Polokwane and from the airport here a rental car can be picked up for a two-hour drive. Formerly a hunting lodge, the reserve sits high up in a hidden valley – thankfully too high for mosquitoes – and is watered gently each morning by light rain. Once a Venga homestead, the current owners have converted the dwelling space into a series of rondavels, circular huts each with its own courtyard and conical thatched roof.
Artwork by a local artist, Noria Mabasa, fills H12 Leshiba with clay and straw statuary, pots filled with plants and mosaic flooring. The larger bedrooms have private dipping pools and balconies which overlook the plateau, and beautiful hand-carved bathrooms. A holiday destination in itself, the reserve is a place where you learn some new collective nouns – a tower of giraffes, a dazzle of zebras, a tribe of antelopes – and, best of all, a crash of rhinos.
Guided walks in the morning, focusing on botany and rock art, are a must while the evening safari rides – given the large stretches of open grassland – make close sightings of wildlife almost a certainty. The camp’s guide, Peter, is a fount of information on everything from the history of the Venga people to the behaviour of dung beetles. The camp’s manager, Joyce, once lived here with her family and was born in one of the rondavels.
Still in Limpopo, and close to the borders with Zimbabwe and Botswana, is Mapungubwe National Park. This is part of a greater transfrontier conservation area covering areas of Botswana and Zimbabwe. Little known, the park is quite remote and relatively unvisited but there is a treetop walk, a handsomely designed visitor centre, startling red-sandstone scenery and a viewing point for gazing across to Zimbabwe and Botswana. Self-catering accommodation is available in the park but the nearby Mopane Bush Lodge offers full board and organised trips into the park. Mopane has well designed rooms, a pool and a watering hole where wildlife occasionally ventures.
In the south of the country, accessed by short flights to Richards Bay or Durban from Johannesburg, is Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. It is South Africa’s oldest reserve and home to the big five including the largest group of white horned rhino in the world. A 4×2 car allows you access to the miles of tarred roads in the reserve, although in the rainy season some of the gravel roads can get a little difficult.
For accommodation, Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge, sitting on a hilltop, is the highlight of the reserve. The standard package includes meals and twice daily game drives but an extra activity, a three-hour guided morning walk, makes a welcome change from bumping around in a safari jeeps. The walk’s objective – with the assistance of a professional tracker, is a close encounter with a rhino.
Come nightfall, Rhino Ridge’s minimum lighting makes the walk to and from the dining room and bar area feel like an adventure in itself. Bedrooms are thoughtfully designed, with a coffee area, mosquito nets (not needed) and a shower room leading on to a balcony overlooking the park. From the main reception area, huge windows lead to a long terraced deck offering more views of the bush. A relaxed atmosphere in the evenings has none of the sometimes formal feeling of other reserves and a choice of your main course is a bonus.
For staying outside Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Rhino River Lodge is a private reserve, 30km to the north, with accommodation in thatched rondavels. Open stretches of savannah make game spotting easy and here, for the first time, I saw a cape buffalo as well as encountering a bull elephant who found the jeep rather too interesting for my timid nature. Meals are arranged around the game drives, so an early morning (5am) hot beverage and biscuits is followed by an 8.30am buffet breakfast after the drive.
My journey to Rhino River Lodge proved exciting: a flight delay meant arriving long after dark and armed, anti-poaching guards were patrolling the grounds. A five km drive through the reserve with only headlights for company proved memorable when what looked like my vacuum cleaner scurried across in front of the vehicle. It was in fact a porcupine. Fortunately, nothing larger had decided to wander down the road.
The first-time experience of viewing large wildlife in South Africa is guaranteed to provide an adrenaline rush – these are creatures that could stomp your car into scrap – and a Comfort Inn way to end the adventure is a couple of days at a resort hotel like the Beverly Hills Hotel, a ten minute drive from Durban airport. Built in the 1960s, when the idea of building a hotel on a sugar plantation by the Indian Ocean seemed crazy, the Beverly Hills proved all the pundits wrong. Valet parking, ocean-view bedrooms with no risk of wildlife wandering in, a pool to relax in, breakfast on a deck overlooking the sea and switched-on staff all combine to make this a terrific way to end a holiday.
For more information please visit www.southafrica.net
Author – Patricia Levy