Polokwane - “My name’s Ernest and my wife’s Gaye. But she’s not gay and I’m not earnest.”
It’s clearly an often-used line, but it doesn’t come across as schtick: as the chairperson and chief financial officer of the Tintswalo group, the Corbetts are serious players in the tourism business.
I made their acquaintance at a charity auction held in aid of the National Sea Rescue Institute at Tintswalo Atlantic, the water’s edge lodge below Chapman’s Peak that had been almost razed by veldfire a year before. I’d spent two nights at the place a few weeks before the auction - one of the first guests to stay there after its resurrection.
For two nights I’d been lulled by waves - not quite crashing but certainly more than lapping - washing back and forth across the rocks not 20m from the wide-open sliding window at the foot of my bed (Independent Traveller, February 6). What would happen, I wondered, if there was a spring tide or one of those storms for which the Cape was so famous?
My bed would have been soaked.
Potentially soggy tootsies were forgotten as we sat next to each other that auction evening and Ernest learnt of my love for nature and the bush. “You must visit Tintswalo Safari Lodge near Hoedspruit,” he said.
Tintswalo Safari is just about as far away in South Africa from Tintswalo Atlantic as it is possible to go: from Hout Bay in the south-west of the country to the Manyeleti private game reserve in Mpumalanga in the northeast.
I came to Manyeleti after a 1 200km detour. I had flown to Nelspruit for a Mercedes-Benz launch, driven to Mapungubwe to cover a transfrontier wilderness trail run (Independent Traveller, July 30) and returned to Nelspruit for my flight home. I asked the Corbetts if I could stay over for a night or two. No problem, they said.
In Mapungubwe, I’d spent six nights sleeping in a tiny dome tent on a thin foam mattress on the banks of the Limpopo River. My feet and head touched the sides and the ablution facilities were more than 200m away - not great when you’ve gotta go in the middle of a deep, dark African night.
I went from jack to a king in a heartbeat when I was checked in at the R48 000-a-night Baines presidential suite at Tintswalo Safari. The suite is one of seven named after Africa explorers and adventurers, and the “Baines” refers to John Thomas Baines - artist, gold prospector, and reputedly the first white man to view the Victoria Falls.
The other suites are Baker, Kingsley, Livingstone, Burton, Speke and Stanley. Each is unique in its furnishings and feel.
My suite was the size of a decent-sized house, with two en suite bedrooms separated by a large open-plan lounge/dining room. There is a full (inclusive) bar and wine selection, and a plethora of nibbles and fresh canapes are laid out regularly.
All three rooms open out into a private boma that overlooks a riverbed. The boma is complete with a plunge pool that proved popular with a shy bushbuck ewe and the myriad birds seeking to escape the heat. An adjacent kitchen and pantry are the domain of your private chef, butler and housekeeper.
The suite is situated furthest from the main lodge and reception area, with the result no other guests pass your door. Privacy is further ensured by having a dedicated game-viewing vehicle with driver-guide and tracker at your disposal.
For a bushbaby like me this was absolutely the coolest ever because my “guide” was Darren Donovan, head field honcho at Tintswalo and an extremely accomplished wildlife photographer.
Being the only guest in a vehicle means you can spend an hour watching and snapping the interplay between hooded vultures jockeying for a place at the table on a hyena kill without annoying passengers who are not interested in anything but lions.
Not that we didn’t see lions. We saw those in abundance - big ones, little ones, mommy lions, daddy lions and some rather gaunt ones sneaking into a neighbouring lodge just as guests were gathering for dinner.
Darren immediately got on to his radio to give them a heads-up.
Part of the beauty of the Mpumalanga wildlife scene is that many private reserves abutting the Kruger National Park have dropped their border fences, with the Kruger and one another.
This is a win-win for animals, reserve owners, communities and tourists alike: animals migrate freely and gene pools on the smaller reserves are improved. Owners don’t need to spend as much stocking reserves. More animals and greater species diversity mean tourists have a more memorable “safari” experience.
More tourists create jobs and this boosts the local economy.
Manyeleti was proclaimed in 1963 as a reserve for the exclusive use of black South Africans. It has grown to 22 700 hectares and is bordered to the south by Sabi Sands, the east by the Kruger National Park and the north by Timbavati. While the animals roam freely, visitors do not have reciprocal traversing rights.
If there was a profusion of lions, there was a surfeit of elephants. Shortly after seeing a large bull in musth padding purposefully down the road towards us (at which point Darren backed up quite smartly) during the first morning's game drive, I looked up from my plunge pool to see an elephant peering through foliage just 15m away.
It is common knowledge that elephants can move quietly, but their stealth must be experienced first-hand to be appreciated.
What makes Tintswalo Safari Lodge truly spectacular is not so much its luxury asthe wildlife having the run of the place - so much so that guests may not move between the lodge and their suites unless they are with a staff member.
My “presidential garden” was a safari experience in miniature: apart from the curious pachyderms, I saw a harried (and extremely beautiful) boomslang being chased across my pool deck by two starlings, a bushbuck ewe and a pair of grey mongoose drinking from the pool. The pool was also a magnet for birds in the heat of day - the grey loerie, crested barbet, red-billed wood hoopoe and brown-hooded kingfisher, to name a few.
Other spectacular sightings over two evenings and a similar number of morning drives included a herd of buffalo at dawn, lion cubs being irritatingly cute and an elephant cow with two calves slurping their sundowners while a white rhino stood on the dam wall debating whether to join them.
Of course, a luxury lodge and reserve come with excellent cuisine. I declined the pleasure of dining alone in my suite and opted, on the first night, for “bush tucker”.
It was dark and the night was chilling quickly when Darren turned into a small boma where hardwood braai fires had settled to beds of coals. To a background aria of jackal and fiery-necked nightjars, we were served a multicourse meal of which Reuben Riffel would have been proud.
There was nothing OTT touristy about the setting, presentation or delivery. Just presidential.
* Freeman was a guest of Tintswalo Safari Lodge.