Durban - The general manager of Tala Collection Private Game Reserve had me chuckling.
We-know-better queries/suggestions were effortlessly parried and bettered at every turn, always with a smile. No flies on Armand du Toit.
He was one of several exceptional staff members and his quiet humour and easy-going charm was a counterpoint to bubbly Bianca Govender. I’m not sure what she does exactly but this ex-city dweller’s enthusiasm for Tala is infectious. She was behind the bar at the Aloe restaurant, in the very lekker curio shop, and our companion on one or two look-sees.
What I also found exceptional was Tala’s hermaphrodite impala, with her straight, elegant horns. Not something you’re likely to see elsewhere.
The 3 000-plus hectare private reserve is conveniently close to Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Many spend more time commuting to and from work, so if you chuck in a toothbrush and change of clothes and head off for a night, it seems like two.
Surrounded by farms, close to a busy road and sawmill, I thought, at first, that Tala was a bit of an open-air zoo. Its white rhinos - after poaching a couple of years ago - have 24-hour nannies with guns and are used to curious humans. The other animals, with no large predators to stalk them, are remarkably chilled too - which makes for close sightings.
We pottered about in the afternoon, visiting the hides at the dam, admiring the yawning hippos’ dental work, though it was only on the following morning’s guided game drive that we really got a sense of what Tala has to offer: rugged terrain that is a mix of hilly acacia thornveld, open grassland and sensitive wetland. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many, and such tall, aloes. It must be glorious when they are in winter bloom.
The plentiful game includes kudu, giraffe and eland, oribi, bushbuck and reedbuck and birds were everywhere. With 349 recorded species including larks, pipits and cisticolas, blue, and grey crowned cranes, I can hear twitchers packing already.
Accommodation is varied and widely scattered.
Aloe Lodge is the hub, with a curio shop, conference room, the main restaurant area, boma and 10 comfortable rooms in the natural gardens which are kept trim by the resident family of warthogs.
Paperbark Lodge, where we were staying, is a short drive away and has 12 comfy, tasteful rooms - semi-detached and otherwise - in a grassy, treed area. It also has conference facilities and centres on the restored “Old Farm Barn”, a lovely space and a great breakfast venue with a large fireplace, polished floors and fold back windows allowing natural light and ventilation to filter through the trailing vines that cover the beautifully weathered building.
The original old farmhouse, Mahogany House, and its one-room rondavel, is adjacent. Six en-suite bedrooms lead to a central lounge area and typical farmhouse veranda which looks on to the garden, with a rock pool for a refreshing dip.
Figtree House, with five en-suite rooms, is another, serviced, option. The rooms open up to a communal open-plan lounge with a bar and have direct access to the garden. A veranda off the main lounge overlooks the boma area and the rolling hills.
Being within walking distance of the Figtree Barn and the Figtree Auditorium, Figtree House is the perfect place after a day’s conferencing or wedding at the Acacia wedding venue.
The luxury Leadwood cottages, designed on an ethic of “nothing straight, nothing painted”, are being renovated but I had a squiz and loved the funky outdoor showers, double volume thatch and airy, open-plan design.
More rustic options include two gas (and braai) rondavels overlooking a private waterhole.
Fisherman’s Cottages, looking out over the fishing dam, are another rustic option. The two-sleeper, stand-alone houses each have a private boma area that is ideal for a relaxing braai under the stars or just to sit around the fire.
Then there’s hot air ballooning, a bucket list activity that will give you the ultimate Tala experience.
Pick your options and enjoy a lovely, relaxing break. I did.
* Call 031 781 8000 and visit www.tala.co.za