A white elephant revived

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iol travel nov 26 cw tr White Elie

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HIDEAWAY: White Elephant has wonderful views of the Jozini Dam and the Lebombo Mountains. PICTURE: MYRTLE RYAN

Durban - Captain Mansfield must have been overjoyed when the British gave him a tract of land in Pongola, in recognition of his war service.

Sitting on the vast veranda of his former home, modern-day visitors to White Elephant Safari Lodge look out over the same scene as he did.

The bastion of the rocky, bush-clad Lebombo Mountains fills the eastern horizon, cooling breezes fan the veranda, but there is a difference: the Pongola Dam did not exist in Mansfield’s time, nor would life have been as idyllic.

Whereas the captain had to cope with drought and hardship, the only difficulty guests now face is what activity to choose, or if they can find room for another delicacy.

Driving towards White Elephant, the scene is set by a view of dam and mountains. Then the lodge peeps out above the bush. There are eight safari-style luxury tents in the bush.

They have solid sides, double canvas roofing and zip-up, sturdy canvas doors. The door flaps can be hooked back on antelope horns, leaving just the protective gauze lining in place. Sleeping nets and overhead fans add romance. There’s a large indoor bathroom, and a canvas-surrounded outdoor shower.

Tea and coffee-making facilities (with plunger and wonderful Ethiopian coffee) and home-made shortbread are in a wooden cupboard on the deck, and there’s a bar fridge.

Here’s a typical day: 5am wake-up call (5.30 in winter), a continental breakfast to get you going. Off on a game drive, with brunch at 10am. An array of unusual salads, fruit, yoghurt, egg flan, and more.

You may want to take a dip in the large rim pool or spot elephant strolling down for a drink.

There is plenty of birdlife, and nyala browse around the tents. At night you might hear the clip-clop of their hooves across the paths.

At 3pm high tea is served. It can be freshly baked pies, spring rolls, sandwiches, muffins, cake, fruit. Every day it’s something different.

Then maybe a boat cruise on the Jozini Dam, with sightings of animals on the shore.

Because of good rains, the game was sleek and well-fed. Young giraffes were lying with forelegs tucked contentedly beneath them; warthogs and elephant were russet-red from mud baths. A large herd of buffalo was equally relaxed.

On their return, guests are welcomed back with a Pimm’s with ginger ale or a vodka cocktail.

Owners Heinz and Debbie Kohrs want White Elephant to be memorable for being just that bit different. So they offer guided elephant and rhino monitoring.

There are guided walks and tiger fishing.

In nearby Pongola, there are Arabian horses to ride, a golf course, and, in season, tours of the sugar mill.

History abounds in the area… some of it bloodthirsty. Hunter George Shadwell shot 150 elephant and 91 hippo in just one season.

Pongola is the oldest game reserve in Africa. Proclaimed on June 13, 1894 by President Paul Kruger, it comprised seven farms and 20 000 hectares on the Pongola River.

Rinderpest had a devastating legacy. With farmers claiming their cattle were dying because the game encouraged tsetse fly, it was open season for hunters, wildlife was all but wiped out, and the reserve was deproclaimed in 1921.

The reserve was viewed as a white elephant. So was the Jozini Dam. Hence the name of the lodge.

At one stage the Kohrs family considered naming it Mphafa, after a huge buffalo thorn tree next to the house. But this was pushed over by a famous tusker, Douw, which was later killed by a train on the railway line that passes through the reserve.

Dinners are served on the veranda in fine weather or in the colonial African-style main house.

Before dinner, guests find their bubble baths have been drawn, and nature’s nightclub of insects and frogs swings into action – nothing too raucous, just enough to be a reminder that you are in the bush. In the morning, liquid bird calls fill the air. Once – before humans began their stampede to the concrete jungles – this was how we all greeted the day. It’s magical. - Weekend Argus

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