Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on Earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago?
– Brian Jackman, award-winning British author and journalist
The steep rutted dirt track levelled out and the thick vegetation that had hemmed in the road grew sparse and then fell away, revealing a breath-taking and quintessentially African vista. Before the safari vehicle yawned a vast open expanse of rolling green plains punctuated by enormous fig trees under which white rhino sought respite from the sun.
Like an imagined scene straight out of an early Wilbur Smith novel, the plains were alive with wildlife. A single glance revealed upwards of five different species of animals, from waterbuck, which look as though they’ve sat down on a freshly painted toilet seat, to warthogs with faces that only a mother could love. Rhino moved about on the plains like giant grey tanks, slowly grazing at the lush grass as the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the air, lending a bluish tinge to the mountains in the background. Overhead, gaudily coloured European Bee-eaters wheeled and swooped.
The Fig Plains, as they are aptly called, was our first real introduction to the incredible abundance of wildlife in the Welgevonden Game Reserve and it was such a spectacular and breath-taking greeting that I couldn’t wait to see what my stay at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa would show me. I was right to be excited: before the end of the day, we’d see the most elusive member of the Big Five.
The Welgevonden Game Reserve
The Welgevonden Game Reserve is a 35,000-hectare slice of heaven located an approximate three hours’ drive from Johannesburg in the Waterberg region of the Limpopo Province of South Africa. This rare malaria-free reserve is home to Big Five game – elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo – as well as just about every other species of African animal you can think of, big and small.
Birdwatchers: prepare to annoy the living daylights out of your fellow explorers as you make the ranger stop the vehicle every few hundred yards for a new bird sighting. But, at the end of the dusty road and a drive filled with adrenalin-laced game viewing, is the heart of the operation: the luxurious five-star Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa. It was to this veritable oasis of luxury that I had been invited to write an article about their offering.
A Home for the Heart
The Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa consists of a beautifully appointed main lodge (which functions as a reception, guest lounge, and restaurant), a spa, a “boma” for dinner under the stars, a curio shop, and a luxurious collection of rooms, suites, and a villa (accommodates six people), every bedroom of which has views over the lawns and watering hole that lie directly in front of the lodge.
Mhondoro has clearly been built with this in mind: offering guests an immersive wildlife experience that continues even after you’ve alighted from the safari vehicle, retired to your room, and gotten into your pyjamas. This is a true story: many of the photos I took of wildlife were taken from the vantage point of the villa’s master suite (and in my pyjamas). In fact, one of my favourite pastimes between game drives was sprawling out on my ridiculously large balcony with a glass of bubbly to watch the warthogs rolling in the mud and the baboons chase and pester each other.
I don’t know which divine entity favoured my fortunes but I somehow got lucky and landed the villa’s master bedroom suite. I had, completely to myself, a bed large enough to sleep an elephant, a walk-in closet, an enormous luxurious bathroom complete with his and hers vanities and a separate toilet, my own lounge with a fireplace and writing desk, and a wrap-around balcony and patio with views of the watering hole. My suite also came with an outdoor shower and so – super eager to try it out – I washed off the day’s travel while watching zebras graze around the watering hole and take the occasional nip at each other’s rumps.
The space was enormous and yet it felt cosy, intimate, and like home away from home (with five-stars, attentive service, exceptional food, and ridiculous extremes of pampering thrown in).
Mhondoro Dining Experiences
Dining at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa is a celebration of the reserve’s spectacular and abundant wildlife, not in the sense that this wildlife finds itself on the menu, but rather in that every meal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – is taken outside, either on the deck of the lodge or on the deck of the villa, where the views of the watering hole and its animals and birds are uninterrupted.
On our first night, however, we found ourselves in the atmospheric “boma” – a small, open-air arena with tables and seating arranged in semi-circular arcs around a central fireplace, where we enjoyed a traditional South African braai and fare (think oxtail potjiekos and boerewors) and even a song and dance performance by the staff. The service was unrelenting in its attentiveness and we didn’t once want for anything. I fell asleep that night in the sweet embrace of silky soft white linen, red wine over-indulgence, and a mosquito net that cascaded, dream-like, down around my elephant-sized bed.
The Watering Hole and Game Drives
One of my favourite features of Mhondoro, not surprisingly, was its underground watering hole hide that is connected to the main lodge through a 65-meter long concrete tunnel, which makes it the very first and the only luxury lodge in the country to offer guests (literally) eye-to-eye encounters with the wildlife that come here to drink and take a dip.
Throughout our stay, we had a troop of 30+ baboons pay the watering hole a visit, as well as wildebeest, zebra, impala, elephant, a rhino mother and her very young baby, and a family of ever-present warthogs. According to the staff, lion, leopard, and cheetah have been seen from the excellent vantage point of the lodge, not only coming to drink, but in the case of the cheetah, to take down a gazelle and enjoy a leisurely lunch as well (they would have had to pry me from that hide with a crowbar).
And then there are the game drives. Mhondoro maintains a fleet of safari vehicles that are not only bigger and sturdier than most of the animals you’ll encounter on your excursions but are very comfortable to sit in even while the vehicle negotiates dongas the size of the Grand Canyon and bounces over roads more rutted and pockmarked than the surface of the moon.
The absolute STAR of the show are the game rangers who take you boldly into the bush, wear their passion for nature on their sleeves, know how to track the wildlife, and are tomes of knowledge on the park’s fauna and flora. Our lead ranger, Fritz, knew more about birds than I do, which was at once ruffled my feathers and impressed me.
The rangers maintain constant communication with each other, reporting sightings and sharing information over the radio, which gives guests much better odds of experiencing those once-in-a-lifetime sightings of special animals, like leopard. In fact, it was on our very first game drive (on the evening of the first night) that Fritz spotted a leopard slinking low in the yellow grass. Had it not been for that communication network, we would never have stopped at that bend in the road to search for the leopard and, undoubtedly, had it not been for Fritz’ keen eyes, the big cat would have slunk past us completely undetected.
Sunrise snacks and sun-downer drinks
After a few hours’ of fruitful game viewing, the rangers make a habit of stopping the vehicle, usually somewhere with a beautiful view, and break out the coffee, tea, rusks, and other breakfasty snacks (on morning drives) or the gin-and-tonic, wine, liqueurs, and nibbles (on late afternoon drives). And let me tell you… there are few moments are profound as finding yourself standing in the middle of the African bush with a gin and tonic in your hand, watching the setting sun paint a blaze of fierce colours on the horizon.
The hardest part of writing this article was trying to keep it short and sweet and even that I have failed to do. The Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa and the Welgevonden Game Reserve into which it is nestled is, quite honestly, one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the luxury of visiting. So much so, I could have written a novel-length account of my stay there. From the lodge’s major services, amenities, and offerings right down to the minute attention to detail paid by the staff (that opening quote was placed next to my bed on a printed out piece of paper), Mhondoro is a home for the heart that, once departed, will forever beat with a deep love for Africa.
This article was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine, a Cape Town-based lifestyle and leisure publication that focuses on food, wine, travel, and adventure in South Africa.