Babanango Game Reserve: A conservation jewel in the making
By Thabo Mkhize
After a truly African storm the night before, when the sky went from brilliant black into a disco of colour and sound, the Babanango Valley Game Lodge rises from its slumber replenished and resplendent.
The 283 species of birds were busy, chirruping in the breakfast buffet brought to them by the rains. The grazing impala were on the move, too, with newborns that waited for the big showers to hit, before announcing themselves to the world.
They say that rain and water are signs of life, and the 23000 hectares of rich and diverse land within the African Heritage Conservancy (AHC) boundaries attest to this.
Life bringing bounty
Babanango Game Reserve is situated 50 km from Vryheid, and about a three hour drive from Durban, on South Africa’s subtropical east coast.
Highs and lows- take your pick
While Zulu Rock towers atop the land, providing outrageous vistas, the lodge is deep in the valley, almost out of sight from anything else.
X spots the marks
The game drives are in the very capable hands of Xolani Mhlongo, a highly sought-after guide.
You may know him better as ‘Mr X’, because his reputation precedes him. With over 15 years of experience, Mhlongo has an engaging style and certainty about him.
His knowledge of birdlife, indigenous trees and the lesser lights of the safari kingdom is exceptional.
On the wing
It is refreshing to see the secretary bird, with its impressive wingspan, the humble Guinea fowl, the migration birds and all manner of chirpers take prime billing.
Mr X takes care to hear them, spot them and then name them in not just their classified name, but also by their Zulu and their anecdotal listing.
On the ground
The same applies for the abundant flora, because this is prime Zululand. The stories of our forefathers speak of an affinity to the land, and an appreciation for what each tree brings.
Mhlongo explains that as much as he loves game driving, his true passion lies in tracking. Then he is at one with the land, and taking guests on an exhilarating education.
Babanango Game Reserve encourages locals to come for drives, with deals that are sensitive to the economic challenge. The initiative has also dispelled the myth that safari experiences are generally the preserve of rich people.
Babanango has an array of hospitality options, including Matatane Camp- a facility that can sleep school- and other large- groups, camping and learning about conservation.
Geology students also love the area, taking particular fascination in the Khoi San drawings found in caves. The gushing White Umfolozi River winds its way through the valley, holding its own secrets and wonder.
Appetites well met
There is generosity from the culinary creative team, too. Breakfast is everything you might expect from a relatively new luxury offering, but it is dinner that is the main event.
Chef Khumbulani’s offerings are well thought out, like a chilled avocado soup to sap away the last of the lingering steam from an afternoon game drive.
At sunset, with the last of the rays splashing all manner of hues onto the rocks, the views from the pool deck are simply magical.
The rooms at the Lodge are generous and well appointed, with options including family rooms and the crowning glory being the honeymoon suite, well away from the rest of the accommodation.
There is an intimate bar and a large patio and fireplace beneath a gorgeous old vine, and several other prime spots for afternoon drinks.
It is cosy, comfortable and gives a sense of home, with attentive staff at your beck and call.
The equally stylish (but quite different) Zulu Rock Lodge offer even more luxurious accommodation options- some with private pools, or elevated decks to take in the panorama below.
African Heritage Conserved
This AHC project is one that has been handed generous support of almost $33 million from Hellmuth Weisser, of Germany, but it has retained a reassuring stamp of Africa.
There is much emotional investment, and the local chiefs are all on board with where the vision is going.
The fancy trinkets, Big Five, the infinity pools and fine linens might be what initially catches the tourist eye, but your heart will be captured by the enduring beauty of the land and the people who work within it.
And, until the lion roars the valley into life, the might of the Umfolozi will provide the background music.