By Wren Mast-Ingle
Johannesburg - He takes his name from the famous cowboy who blazed his way across the cinema screens of yesteryear, but instead of two pearl-handled pistols, Rogers held out white, wet towels as we climbed from the car in the heat of the late afternoon sun.
It was an enormously appreciated welcome to Hoyo Hoyo Tsonga Lodge in the heart of the southern Kruger National Park after a two-hour drive in the crackling dry and dusty reserve… especially when backed up with a deliciously cool fruit cocktail.
One is immediately taken with the architecture based on traditional tribal design. The use of thatch and other natural materials and the beautiful art and décor combine the rich ethnic traditions of the Tsonga people with modern-day luxury and opulence. Registration was quick and easy and Rogers – who is the designated Tshonga Chief – assigned one of his butlers to escort us to our spacious, air-conditioned suite with a king-size bed, en-suite bathroom, outdoor shower and its own game viewing deck.
This is one of six at Hoyo Hoyo and the chaperone service (mandatory after dark) is a great help in getting to the suites, especially as animals frequently share the walkways with guests, having wandered in from the surrounding savannah and the Mluwati River, once well-worn as an ancient elephant route.
We had missed the afternoon game drive and were happy to enjoy the high tea and then the game viewing deck at our suite across the bone dry river.
The lounge and dining room had been transformed with the advent of darkness. Rich colours provide a striking backdrop to the masks, carvings and drums, exuding warmth in harmony.
The four-course dinner, served by the exuberant Shangaan butlers, although enjoyable, unfortunately did not match the quality of the surrounds or service. In fairness, however, the cuisine highlight is the traditional Bushveld braai on a Saturday night, which is popular with foreigners and which we did not experience on our midweek visit.
In our suite after dinner we were struck by the quiet that engulfs Hoyo Hoyo at night. Amazingly there was not even a crick or peep from insects… which we thought unusual for the bush.
Early the following morning we opted for a foot massage on our deck and enjoyed the therapist’s input on the locale. Over breakfast we had a full rundown from other guests as to what we had missed during the game viewing.
From Hoyo Hoyo we set off for Hamiltons Tented Camp, another lodge in the Imbali fold, some 40 minutes away. There was such a surfeit of game it took us until lunchtime to reach our destination. The camp takes its name from Colonel Stephenson-Hamilton, who was instrumental in establishing the Kruger National Park between 1902 and 1904 while warden of the Sabie Nature Reserve. Hamilton also took on the roles of magistrate, customs collector and border guard and increased the size of the reserve from its original 1 200 square miles (about 1 932km2) to 14 000 square miles (about 22 531km2) between the Crocodile and Limpopo rivers.
Hamiltons Tented Camp has captured much of the atmosphere of more than a century ago, but has added an indulgence in luxury to the style and grace of a long-ago era and transformed the safari into a modern-day experience not to be missed. It has had a complete makeover since the devastating floods earlier this year, including the rebuilding of the main tented lounge area and all decks with beautiful timber.
The main building and six canvas tents are connected by an elevated, spidery walkway lining the western bank of the Nwatswitsonto River. We were welcomed by the manager, Ben, who assigned one of his butlers to take us to our “tent”.
Inside, you step into another world. A huge bed draped in a flowing mosquito net stands on teak floorboards while the furnishings echo the 19th century adventurer’s way of life. A secure front deck presents a panoramic view of the jackalberry trees on the banks of the river and the high water marks left by the floods. In the height of the dry season only a few pools remain to help sustain the wildlife.
Our wildlife adventure began in earnest when we saw four elephant making use of one of these pools some 500m upstream from the camp, and we spent a great hour watching and photographing once we found a vantage point.
Going to the main building for lunch along the walkway, we saw another of the elephants trying to get into the main swimming pool. However, he decided it was too insecure and concentrated on tearing down branches to munch on.
Our walkway route took us close to the elephant, who decided he did not want to be disturbed and came towards us, ears flapping. We beat a hasty retreat and spent the next 10 minutes getting an Italian out of harm’s way. She thought the big animal was trying to play and wanted to get closer.
Later we went on our first game drive with Suitboy as our ranger and guide. Kruger Park is home to an impressive number of species, from trees (336), fish (49) andamphibians (34) to reptiles (114), birds (507) and mammals (147). It was an unforgettable experience, especially as, in a matter of two-and-a-half hours, we saw the Big Five, including a pride of six lions, and also a cheetah racing through the bush and visible for some 100m.
As a finale we had a jackal saunter nonchalantly across the road in front of us. The opportunity to be off the road and in the bush among these animals changed the concept of game watching for us and Suitboy was a fountain of knowledge delivered with a sense of humour.
Dinner, with fine food platters served on the front deck of the main tented building, proved an experience in itself. The setting of the table with a selection of antiques as décor and perfect service, added to what can best be described by Hamilton himself: “For me the pathless jungle, the reed-fringed rivers with the wild call of the fish eagle ringing down the long reaches, and still, warm nights, their silence punctuated by the throb of the lion’s roar”.
In the early morning we tried the outdoor shower and finally reluctantly bade farewell to the friendly personnel.
We left as the sun rose and enjoyed the game sightings on the way to Orphen Gate. Six giraffe gyrated around at the side of the road, providing an opportunity for some unusual photography of the long-necked animals and, finally, we came across a huge herd of elephants a few kilometres from the gate… a fitting end to our three-day safari.
IF YOU GO
It is a 460km to 480km journey from Joburg to the Kruger National Park (depending on your point of entry).
Hamiltons Tented Camp
SA residents special – rates from R2 310 per person sharing per night.
Hoyo Hoyo Tsonga Lodge
SA residents special – rates from R1 990 per person sharing per night. Reservations can be made through Extraordinary Reservations, 011 516 4367 or [email protected]
An extended version of this story can be viewed at www.mi5.co.za - Saturday Star