A leopard keeping an eye on things. Photo: Supplied

“Time for a lemonade” said Anton Roberts as we sat atop the riverbank in Ukuwela conservancy. One or two “lemonades” later and the sun was setting over the trees of neighbouring Phinda Game Reserve, a very different affair from where we were sat.

Here, adjacent to Roberts’ Umkhumbi Lodge, some way outside the town of Hluhluwe, the stars shine a lot brighter since there is only bush and distant Albizia Camp - a big, rustic camp-site for large groups with permanent ablutions and a central hangout.

Perfect for Roberts’ frequent volunteers and interns, the latest batch being veterinary students from the UK whose moon tans vied with the luminous fever trees in the fading light.

Relax in the bar and meet and greet the other patrons, Umkhumbi bar room area is were the only TV is situated. Photo: Supplied

I met Anton and Emma Roberts in 2011 when I first stayed at Umkhumbi Lodge.

I was struck with the care they had taken in building units in the sand forest, using wheelbarrows to cart materials so as not to harm the forest.

I was further impressed as I found out more, their rustic Kosi Bay Camp, Amangwane, their conservation drives and how proactive and resourceful they are in building on what they do and have.

Umkhumbi Lodge is not a massive money spinner but they are not in it for the money.

“If we were we could simply start a pineapple farm” says Emma. That would mean destroying their forest, home to the red duiker from which the lodge takes its name, endangered Suni antelope and many other species.

The core principal of the Roberts’ work is wildlife and conservation of our wildlife areas.

They’ve built everything around that with the vision to create larger conservation areas and to educate people about the importance of long-term conservation.

To that end they have partnered with, among others, the Wild Tomorrow Fund (https://wildtomorrowfund.org) who bought 500 hectare Ukuwela to save it from becoming another pineapple farm, with negotiations under way to expand to over 800 hectares in the near future.

At Umkhumbi Lodge the Roberts’ have a clinic and spend time working on animals that have generally come from rehabilitation centres such as Crow (crowkzn.co.za) where they have been successfully rehabilitated and are now ready for release into the wild.

This process entails “rewilding” the animals and in many cases this means weaning them off any form of human contact.

The puff adder being treated for pneumonia and the hissing spotted eagle owl in the aviary seemed well keen to be rid of humans.

Umkhumbi offers internships with up to three-month placements, or short-term volunteers for a minimum of two weeks.

At Albizia Camp (www.albizia.co.za) they run a bush school for primary schools, high schools, colleges and even university groups, with customised programmes to suit specific needs and, in some cases, curricula.

Included are basic bush skills, core conservation principles, nigh t skies, game walks, game drives, iSimangaliso Wetland park visits and more, work and play combined.

 


Albizia Camp at sunset, were they also run courses on various subjects such as basic bush skills and more. Photo: Supplied


“Albizia gives us the opportunity of releasing the rehabilitated wildlife in a very low game density area, giving the animals the best possible chance of survival” says Roberts.

“We are also doing various studies, including game density studies with camera traps, which are producing amazing results like aardvark, porcupine, honey badger and leopard sightings. Bucket traps are also in place where we record data on a daily basis of insect and reptiles.

“This way we are figuring out what is on Ukuwela as a brand new conservation area”.

The conservancy is home to a variety of plains game like wildebeest, nyala, zebra and impala plus at least four leopards which, before the camera traps, were not known of.

And I haven’t even mentioned the lodge! It goes as three star and the subdivided units dotted around the sand forest are roomy and airy with private decks and en-suite bath and shower.

They all have aircon and fridges, but the only TV is at the bar. Courses such as snake handling, or finding scorpions at night with ultraviolet lights, are far more interesting in any case.

The main hub is the lapa with fantastic sunset views from the upstairs bar, where Copper the staffie does his bat chasing lark while Shadow cuddles up to guests.

Chef Meva Zisongo is a keeper and his meals are definitely four star.

Call 035 5901233 and visit http://umkhumbilodge.co.za