A tent against a sunset sky. Picture supplied
A tent against a sunset sky. Picture supplied
Bathtime in the bush is always special. Picture supplied
Bathtime in the bush is always special. Picture supplied

Durban - Captain Mansfield must have been overjoyed when the British gave him a tract of land in Pongola, in recognition of his war service.

Sitting on the vast veranda of his former home, modern-day visitors to White Elephant Safari Lodge look out over the same scene he once did.

The bastion of the rocky, bush-clad Lebombo mountains fills the eastern horizon, cooling breezes fan the veranda, but there is one difference: the Pongola Dam did not exist in his time, nor would life have been as idyllic.

Whereas the captain had to cope with drought and hardship, the only difficulty guests now face is what activity to choose, or whether they can find room for another delicacy.

While you’re driving towards White Elephant, the scene is set by a view of dam and mountains. Then the lodge peeps out above the bush. Perfectly groomed lawns, dotted with trees and shrubs, surround the main house. Concrete pathways meander to the eight safari-style luxury tents in the bush.

The tents have solid sides, double canvas roofing and zip-up, sturdy canvas doors. An interesting feature is antelope horns, on which the door flaps can be hooked back, leaving just the protective gauze lining in place. The windows, too, are gauze-covered to discourage unwanted creepy-crawlies. Sleeping nets and overhead fans add romance. There’s a large indoor bathroom, and a canvas-surrounded outdoor shower.

On arrival, guests are served home-made iced tea; prettily packaged biscotti and dried mango await in the tent. Tea and coffee-making facilities (with plunger and wonderful Ethiopian coffee) and home-made shortbread are in a wooden cupboard on the deck, and there’s a bar fridge. The cupboard locks, in case the monkeys want to hold a party.

Here a typical day: 5am wake-up call (5.30 in winter), a continental breakfast (including tasty croissants) to get you going. Off on a game drive, with brunch at 10am. An array of unusual salads, fruit, yoghurt, egg flan, and other delights.

You might want to take a dip in the large rim pool or perhaps spot some elephant strolling down for a drink.

There is plenty of birdlife, and nyala browse around the tents. At night you might hear the clip-clop of their hooves as they cross the paths.

At 3pm high tea is served. It can be freshly baked pies, spring rolls, tasty sandwiches, muffins, cake, fruit. Every day there’s something different.

Then maybe a boat cruise on the Jozini Dam, with sightings of animals on the shore.

Because of good rains, the game was sleek and well-fed. Some of the younger giraffes were lying with forelegs tucked contentedly beneath them; warthogs and elephant were russet-red from mud bathing. A large herd of buffalo were equally relaxed.

On return, guests are welcomed back with a Pimm’s with ginger ale or a fancy vodka cocktail. Staff like to keep them guessing what will be served.

Owners Heinz and Debbie Kohrs want White Elephant to be memorable for being just that bit different. So they offer guided elephant and rhino monitoring.

There’s tiger fishing and guided walks. In nearby Pongola, there are Arabian horses to ride, a golf course, and tours of the sugar mill in season.

History abounds in the area… some of it bloodthirsty. Hunter George Shadwell shot 150 elephant and 91 hippo in just one season.

Pongola is actually the oldest game reserve in Africa. Proclaimed on June 13, 1894 by President Paul Kruger, it comprised seven farms along the Pongola River, totalling 20 000ha, with its own game warden, Herman Frederick van Oord. A Hollander by birth, he was taken prisoner during the Anglo-Boer War.

Rinderpest left a devastating trail. Just two constables were left to police the reserve. One of them, Nondwai, I read, acted in an honorary capacity for many years and was crucial to conservation in the early 1900s.

Open season for hunters, when farmers claimed their cattle were dying because the game encouraged tsetse fly, saw the decimation of wildlife and the reserve was deproclaimed in 1921.

The reserve was viewed as a white elephant. So was the Jozini Dam. Hence the naming of the lodge White Elephant.

At one stage the Kohrs family (Heinz’s father originally bought their farmland) considered naming it Mphafa, after a huge buffalo thorn tree next to the house. But this was pushed over by a famous tusker, Douw, who was later killed by a train on the railway line that passes through the reserve.

Dinners are delicious affairs, taken on the veranda in fine weather or in the colonial African-style main house, with large airy lounges, sofas and paintings of the famous tuskers of Kruger Park. High ceilings and exposed rafters add character, while muslin curtains billow in the breeze.

Before dinner, guests find their bubble baths have already been drawn and as nature's nightclub swings into action, the insects and frogs are considerate – nothing too raucous, just enough to remind you that you are in the bush. Early in the morning, liquid bird calls fill the air. Once – before humans began their stampede to the concrete jungles – this was how we all greeted the day. It’s magical.

l Call 034 413 2489 or visit www.whitelephant.co.za. - Sunday Tribune