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Durban - Two days before heading north along the N3 toward game reserve and über-retreat Zulu Waters, a far happier version of myself does the rounds in the office.
When we eventually set off, neither a flat tyre during a shopping detour to Nottingham Road nor an intermittent drizzle manages to dull our excitement.
After all, what were once six abandoned cattle farms along the Bushman’s River has been billed as the new gold standard in bespoke ecotourism by travel writers.
At the end of a dirt road across which wildebeest flee at the sight of our vehicle, lies Shaka Lodge.
It is one of very few buildings which interrupts the reserve’s 3 000 hectare landscape. There has been a concerted effort for construction to take place on already disturbed sites only.
And so the foundation on which Shaka Lodge (once the home of the reserve’s Australian owner, Ian Gowrie-Smith) stands, dates back to 1903, originally belonging to an old farmhouse.
Similarly, Nandi House, the latest addition to the compound, rests on an old reservoir.
We’re still appreciating the cocoa, avocado, and animal-hide interior of Shaka Lodge when we’re surprised by the aroma of a venison curry and “Indian-style carrot cake” in the making.
A chance meeting at an Estcourt post office with a reserve staffer, eventually saw Mbongiseni Makhaye appointed personal chef at Zulu Waters.
With all ingredients being sourced from the property, he is butcher, baker and preserve maker (think green bean pickle, and paw paw and brinjal chutney).
“We don’t do lazy here,” Makhaye says.
Guests may opt to pair their meals with a choice of wine from the private collection in the Shaka Lodge cellar.
Leaving Makhaye to it, a few minutes later we’re out on a game drive with ranger Joe Sithole.
I’ve been reading up on the reserve, and so I sneakily put him to the test, but there isn’t a question Sithole can’t (correctly) answer.
We talk about everything from how in Zulu culture the buffalo thorn tree is used to communicate with the ancestors, to land reform, the US presidential elections, and how Cyril Ramaphosa rates as a fly fisherman.
The chance to hook trout has proven a drawcard for the reserve – that and clay pigeon shooting, trail rides on Appaloosa horses and guided walks to explore caves adorned with San rock art.
I’m not usually one for the outdoors, but two-and-a-half hours later I’m windblown and wide-eyed and twisting Sithole’s arm to take us out again the following morning.
There aren’t any big cats, giraffe or elephants on the reserve, but I’m enthralled by herds of buffalo, the odd oribi, Egyptian geese strolling alongside impala, and blesbuck locking horns.
The following morning, while Makhaye whips up pancakes, muffins, venison sausages and bush pig bacon, four or five white rhino graze close enough to our lodgings to be able to observe them from bed (or the bath).
While we certainly lapped up the luxury and appreciated the absolute privacy on offer, most impressive about Zulu Waters is the ethos.
“It’s not just lip service where conversation is concerned. The clearing of alien vegetation is not a cheap exercise,” assistant manager Mike Weerts explains.
The floors, decks, and exposed rafters are all made from wattle and gum timber.
“He (Gowrie-Smith) has also put a lot of money into the local community,” said Weerts.
A second pre-school to serve the local community has been established, and the Zulu Waters educational trust is focused on providing access to early childhood development.
If You Go...
Tariffs (per person sharing per night):
Shaka Lodge (three bedroom) R3 500
Nandi House (two bedroom) R3 000
Lake Cottage (one bedroom) R2 500
Tariffs exclude chartered flights and additional activities (by prior arrangement) such as hot air ballooning, white water rafting and battlefield tours.
Zulu Waters is a two-hour drive from Durban (25km from Estcourt and 30km from Mooi River). Charter flights can be arranged from OR Tambo International or King Shaka International direct to the reserve’s private airstrip.
Co-ordinates: 29° 06.224’ S, 29° 48.242’ E - The Mercury