I am seated in a green game vehicle, soaking up the view of the rugged wilderness before me. For someone who has been on more than a dozen safari trips throughout South Africa, you’d think I would tire of seeing the “Big Five” and natures other charming creatures. But my trip to uMfolozi Big Five Game Reserve, on the other hand, was different.
Having spotted the endangered white rhino, a cheeky elephant answering the call of nature and dozens of impala, it was the area’s rich history that piqued my curiosity.
The Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park, known as Africa’s oldest proclaimed nature reserve, contains the legacy of King Shaka and Dr Ian Player – the global conservationist who founded Operation Rhino. Player helped protect the white rhino from extinction in the late 1950s.
Our game ranger Artist Gqwetha, who has accumulated a wealth of knowledge in his 10 years on the job, brings the vehicle to a halt and turns to our group of intrepid explorers.
He points to the valleys King Shaka once called his home and where he encountered many battles. Shaka was at the forefront of conservation and played a critical role in how man interacts with the wild today.
Game drives at uMfolozi merge culture and wildlife seamlessly, painting a perfect picture of conservation and the strides locals have made to protect the area.
Barry and Sonja Theunissen are the brains behind the uMfolozi Big Five Game Reserve concept, which falls under the Mantis Collection portfolio. In less than eight months, they have launched two new lodges, Mthembu and Biyela. Zulu, a luxury tented camp, opens next July. The lodges, named after the five descendants of King Shaka’s chiefs, who offered their tribal land to enhance conservation in the uMfolozi Wilderness, prides itself on community development.
“It benefits everyone, especially community members who are hired to work at the 5-star lodges,” chief Mthembu tells our group later that afternoon, during a mandatory sundowner break overlooking the grand White iMfolozi river.
“It is the start of something extraordinary,” he says, raising a triumphant toast to our group of seven.
History with luxury
As we arrive at Mthembu Lodge, the staff gather around – serenading us with songs that pay homage to Africa. They are in a joyous mood and prepare to treat us to an authentic African bush experience. Walking into the lodge feels surreal. The modern furnishings, coupled with fresh plants, transforms it into a paradise for any traveller. A refreshing drink in hand, we get a tour from managers Dave and Christina.
Mthembu Lodge, which opened in October, has seven private villas and two family villas. The villas mirror the original Zulu dwellings. Each villa is named after a Zulu King who played a pivotal role in the province’s history. Hand-built by members of the Mthembu tribe, the villas are tastefully decorated with African art and contemporary furniture.
I was booked into the King Solomon villa, which has mesmerising views of the wilderness. The villa comes standard with an oval-shaped bath, outside shower, air conditioning, stocked mini bar, wi-fi and a private deck perfect for when you want to escape for a few hours, with a good book and a G&T. For those who prefer to explore, the lodge’s infinity pool is ideal for a mid-morning swim. Mthembu offers special boma dinners on request, with energising performances from the youngsters of the tribe.
I couldn’t help feasting on the grilled prawns and spicy chakalaka, while others tucked into the braaied meat. The next day, we drove for an hour to Biyela Lodge. Biyela Lodge, which opened in May, caters for the modern safari traveller. Tiered on a descending cliff, overlooking an oxbow lagoon in the White iMfolozi River, Biyela is the perfect escape for travellers wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Boasting 12 villas, the lodge offers guests spa treatments, stargazing, and will soon launch walking safaris. Travellers have the option of booking into the honeymoon suites, with broad views of the park and wilderness areas, or the river frontage that offers astonishing views of wildlife. Guests can choose to skip game drives as you can view the game from the comfort of your deck chair. And the elephants and various species of antelope frequently pop by to quench their thirst.
All villas come standard with outdoor showers, a lounge and spacious bathrooms, and a viewing deck. Three of them are without a pool. However, it has night beds for those who want to sleep under the stars. The lodge’s infinity pool, with 180-degree views of the plains, is Biyela’s most attractive attribute.
Breakfasts – an elaborate affair – offers everything from fresh fruit, cheeses and baked goodies, followed by a hot breakfast of your choice. Drinks and snacks flow freely throughout the day to keep your stomach satisfied until the afternoon’s high tea spread. Dinner at Biyela allows travellers to dress up and tuck into a mouthwatering fine dining meal – fit for a chief. We ended the night making S’Mores by the fire pit.