Durban - it’s not yet 7am but already the heat is noticeable. The watering holes are few and far between and the vegetation is dry and sparse, eagerly awaiting the first summer rains. Not far away two Helmeted Guineafowl notice our presence and let off an ungainly squawk of alarm.
Moving slowly forward I take care to tread as lightly as possible, knowing that stealth is crucial on this particular adventure. We are on a guided walk at Leopard Mountain Game Lodge in Zululand Rhino Reserve, and I am warily keeping a lookout, not just for rhino, but for all manner of beasts that could view me as a tasty morning snack (lion and buffalo probably topping my “let’s stay out of their way” list).
Our guide, Ivor, armed not only with eyes like a hawk but also a pretty nifty-looking rifle, gives us some manner of confidence, although we are acutely aware that we are the intruders in the animal kingdom here. At some point we come across a buffalo quietly grazing: on foot, with not much protection, this experience takes on a whole new dimension.
Creeping quietly and submissively away we soon find ourselves in a valley where a female leopard was spotted not two hours earlier: we move through the area slowly, keeping our eyes peeled for any signs of movement, but she is too clever for us and slips away unnoticed.
Experiences like these are part of the daily routine at Leopard Mountain, a family-owned lodge set in the National Protected Area that is Zululand Rhino Reserve (a 23 000-hectare reserve in northern Kwazulu-Natal). Being a relatively small establishment, with chalet accommodation for 18 guests, staff can ensure that each visitor experiences a truly memorable stay.
Dinners are intimate occasions with tables set up around a camp-fire: guests can enjoy a scrumptious four-course dinner and an award-winning wine selection with nothing but the sound of the bush in the background and the twinkling of the starry night sky overhead.
Guests’ comfort comes first at the lodge, and manageress Melissa van Rooyen has come up with some novel strategies to make the stay as relaxing as possible.
Lunch is a picnic basket packed with delicacies for visitors to enjoy in the comfort of their chalet. And the beautiful stone-and-thatch accommodation really is worth spending some time in: each unit is secluded enough for privacy and comes equipped with everything needed for a comfortable stay (thankfully not with a TV or any other electronic devices to spoil the serenity of the surroundings).
Best of all is the private plunge pool in front of each chalet (the perfect way to escape the heat of the day) and the hammock strung across the porch with beautiful views out over the bushveld and Lebombo Mountains.
Not that you’ll have too much time for lazing in a hammock. Early morning game drives are an education about life in the bush, with guides Adam and Graham’s passion for the job shining through in everything they do. The reserve has all of the Big Five, as well as numerous smaller animals and over 520 bird species, and the guides seem to know them all.
Tucked up snug with blankets and hot-water bottles to keep out the cold, we come across all manner of flora and fauna (the highlight of the drive was seeing two lions mating). After returning to the lodge for a full breakfast, guests have the option of a mid-morning trip to the hide: well camouflaged on the banks of one of the all-year-round watering holes, visitors can sit back and admire whatever arrives for a drink.
Our photo opportunities (and moments of amusement) were provided by a family of warthogs enthusiastically splashing about in the mud not five metres in front of us.
The afternoon game drive was dedicated to finding one of the leopards after which the lodge takes its name, and while we did come across plenty of other game, as well as a spectacular sunset, the most elusive of the Big Five animals once again evaded us.
Albert Einstein wisely advised: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Leopard Mountain Game Lodge definitely provides a memorable and detailed look at nature at its finest.
In fact, 80 percent of guests to the lodge are return visitors, and after our weekend at the lodge we can see why. I know I need a return visit: I need another attempt at finding one of those leopards, and as an added bonus I know that if I wait four or five months there will also be some cute little lion cubs waiting for me. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ll be back.
* Sam Bradley was a guest of Leopard Mountain Game Lodge.
What you need to know
Contact: 035 595 8218; www.leopardmountain.co.za. Leopard Mountain is a four-star lodge
Directions: When northbound on the N2 highway from Durban, take the D464 District Road/Leopard Mountain Lodge turn-off to your left 32km after Hluhluwe. Proceed to the Main Gate of the Zululand Rhino Reserve where you will be asked to sign in, and then continue on for 13km to the Lodge.
Rates: R1 895 per person per night sharing, including dinner, bed and breakfast, lunch, high tea and three daily game drive activities.
Other activities: The guided walks are good for game and bird spotting (R300 per person) and the Touch an Elephant experience (R350 per person) is also available.