Johannesburg - When you book, of course, you don’t know what the weather will do. So it was that we left for Askari Game Lodge and Spa in the Magaliesberg just as a cold front swept the region.
When the mercury is at zero you really just want to be at home under the duvet, so it was a case of bearing up and facing the challenge of being parted from one’s nest. Walking past the spa on the way to our chalet, I weakened and shivered – I wasn’t looking forward to disrobing for any treatments, no siree.
The chalets looked charming in the pale afternoon light and they were eclectically furnished, with crisp white linen (brrr), a jonkmanskas and other beautiful pieces of Africana. Askari prides itself on being a conservator of local history and has several old ox wagons as well as a small museum.
Lukas, the amiable porter, brought our bags and offered to build a fire in the open grate. When we got back from our game drive – icy, even with the blankets supplied – there it was, the flames licking wildly around the logs. Very welcoming, although it would have needed extra petrol to heat all the icy recesses of our high-roofed temporary abode. The staff had left hot-water bottles in our beds and they were gratefully clasped when we returned from supper.
Every meal at Askari was a banquet. At dinner you can expect a variety of starters, from cold shrimps and smoked salmon to salads, and mains on the buffet include chicken curry, oxtail, venison stew, roast beef and roast lamb. With a dinkie of Nederburg Edelrood and a cosy corner, it all went down a treat.
A special aspect of Askari is that you can interact with the two orphaned male elephants that live there, Damara and the younger Nzewe. When we arrived, a bride was having some wedding photographs taken with them. No doubt her dress did not stay pristine white.
Our date with them was booked for 10.30am on the Saturday, preceded by a film and talk given by our game ranger, Yolande Prinsloo. It does make you look forward to getting to know these gentle giants better, and although I would usually not approve – I think animals are best left in nature, separate from us – the fact is these two gorgeous beings would not be alive if they had not been rescued by Askari and other sanctuaries for displaced creatures.
My nerves were quickly calmed when, under the patient and expert guidance of handler Washington Pedzisai, Nzewe deftly took a piece of apple from my hand, and I felt his slippery trunk kiss the top of my head.
I felt reassured that Yolande and the handlers were in control of them, and they remained shackled throughout. Although they perform tricks – such as kicking a soccer ball and rolling over – for rewards, I never got the feeling they were being exploited or diminished.
At all times the handlers were reassuring and empowering, frequently rewarding them with treats for their hard work. Only positive reinforcement was used, never any harsh words. Really, what would be the point?
A word of warning. If you are going to meet Damara and Nzewe, wear khaki. Their trunks are apt to dribble and they churn up the red sand, so you will emerge a little dustier than when you arrived.
On the way back to the lodge we passed the home of Guiseppe Plumari, the owner of the reserve, who entered into a partnership with Askari to open the lodge and museum to the public. There is also a small chapel on the premises, which Plumari reportedly built for his daughter to be married in.
This is a place with lots to do, relatively speaking. You need to make time to get Sibusiso Nzima to take you around the museum, which features an exhibition of the Magaliesberg’s ancient origins, and different forms of horse-drawn carriages and carts from around 1800 onwards.
We did our tour on the Sunday morning, having spent the Saturday afternoon in the beauty salon. The spa staff treated us like royalty, and what I especially liked was that I was able to have my pedicure done “in bed”, so I didn’t have to get up after my massage.
As I snoozed, my feet were dipped in warm water then buffed and smoothed. So divinely relaxing.
After a Swedish-type massage (“Fire” on the brochure), a manicure and a pedicure, I felt top dollar.
And so, after sherry in our room, back to the restaurant for supper, which was no hardship. Again, the crackling fire in the hall, the vast array of dishes, the welcoming smiles of the serving staff, our cosy corner and the Edelrood. So simple but so perfect.