It's not every day that you get to wake up with the sound of the White uMfolozi River a few metres away from you.
As the ambient sound of the gushing river makes it way into my room, I'm relieved that I listened to the advice to sleep with my door open.
I'm relaxed as I make a cup of chamomile tea and make my way to the balcony overlooking the river and the expansive Hluhluwe-Umfolozi game park.
My faux ornithologist self tries to identify a bird or two, but I fail. Clearly, my days as an avid bird-watcher in my younger years, were a waste of time.
As the sun rises, slowly evaporating the dew from the deck furniture, I'm reminded of my early call time for the early morning game drive.
Making my way from my suite to the reception area of mFulaWozi Wilderness Private Game Reserve, I am once again impressed at just what a beautiful area they have chosen to build the luxurious Biyela Lodge.
Boasting 12 luxury suites all with a private deck and 10 with a private pool, Biyela Lodge is the shining star in Northern KwaZulu-Natal region's private game lodges that are based in the Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park.
Each suite provides jaw-droppingly amazing views of the uMfolozi River and the wildlife that traverse daily down to the river. Biyela Lodge is built into the hillside and is perfectly positioned to maximise the sweeping views of the imposing plain of the White uMfolozi River below.
When you think about eco-luxury, Biyela Lodge comes to mind. It’s run on solar energy, uses river water and it demands for you to be peaceful. To relax. To momentarily forget what's happening in the world, even for a few hours.
I could live here, I remember saying out loud. That was my reaction when we first arrived at Biyela Lodge, which is named after Chief Phiwayinkosi Biyela.
mFulaWozi Wilderness Private Game Reserve is a Barry Theunnissen project, a collaboration with 10 chiefs whose land surrounds the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park.
It stretches across 16 000 hectares of untouched African bushveld, 6000 hectares of which have already been incorporated into the Hluluwe iMfolozi Park The project has resulted in the five-star Biyela Lodge and the four-star Mthembu Lodge, which is on the other side of the park.
I have frequented the KwesakaBiyela area when I was younger. My grandmother is a Biyela and is a distant relative of the chief. But I had never imagine that the area could boast such a world-class lodge, one that can compete with some of the best in the world.
Think of an amenity and they have it. A fully stocked fridge, a walk-in closet, a spacious indoor and an outdoor shower.
The bathtub boasts the impressive view of the river, the game reserve and the lodge. There’s a spa, a daily game drive, either in the morning or early evening.
The morning drive includes hot beverages on a plain on the reserve, while the evening drive has sundowners on the banks of the river.
The food was one of the highlights and every meal was impressive. A fellow traveller tried their best to wrangle a couple of recipes from Chef Bongo Xabela, but he kept his cards close to his chest. I don't blame him – the food is a major drawcard of Biyela Lodge and I know avid foodies will make the journey there just to so they can enjoy his brilliant cuisine.
If they were to ever think about making their restaurant open to just those coming to dine, I would travel there whenever I am in the region.
And now back to that game drive. It’s just after six in the morning and we are all hoping that it’s going to be a successful morning of game viewing.
Our driver and game ranger, Lungelo Mzulwini, starts the day off by regaling us with stories of the reserve, the animals they have on the park, how it became a part of the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, adding a further 6000 hectares to the iconic game park and our chances of spotting the Big Five.
He is refreshingly honest about our chances- we are likely to spot three of the five and four if we are very lucky.
And so it happens that we are very lucky. It’s a pretty eventful game drive that sees us spot zebra, giraffe, baboons, a myriad of bucks, buffalo and a white rhino, complete with a horn! When last?
As we finish our morning beverages and snacks and continue our drive, Lungelo spots fresh spoor. It’s a lioness. Excitement fills the air. Even he is excited. What are the chances?
After searching for a number of minutes, we lose tracks. Adventure, over.
But little did we know what was about to happen. We spot a clan of elephants. And a number of them, with weeks old calves. That should have been warning enough that we were soon going to find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation.
As Lungelo continued telling us stories about elephants and their mannerisms, their sudden movement alerts us that the mood has changed. They follow the leader through the bush, disappearing for a few minutes before appearing once again. This time the matriarch is not happy. She flaps her ears at us. You could hear a pin drop. Lungelo advises us to not make any movements. She flaps her ears again. Danger zone.
We soon start reversing and then we find ourselves with another herd of elephants making their way across. We stop. The matriarch comes through the trees, checking if we were still there. A few minutes pass before we can reverse and make our getaway.
There’s silence as we make our way back. I then remark “Whoever decided the lion is the king of the jungle has clearly never come across an elephant.” That lightens the mood.
As I tucked into my sumptuous breakfast by chef Bongo, it hits me just how little of our country so many of us have seen and enjoyed.
And having grown up in Richards Bay, which is so close to the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, I am ashamed that I have not really explored my country and province, KZN, as often as I should.
In all the toxicity of our country and a news cycle that always leaves on bewildered, one can forget what a beautiful country South Africa is.
Buhle Mbonambi was a guest of mFulawozi Private Game Reserve.
SA Residents Special: R5950 per person sharing per night at Biyela Lodge, including all meals, local drinks and game drives. Valid until 31 October 2022.
Read the July issue of IOL Travel mag here.