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Issue 17
Africa Travel> Issue 17
UPDATED: July 9, 2015
Of Pachyderms and Perfect Pitch
Angry elephants, fireside luxury and blazing African sunsets at Welgevonden Game Reserve
By Jo Kromberg

Elephant taking a dust bath (Willie Smit)

It's past noon on a blisteringly cold June day when we pull into the main gate at Welgevonden–a 37,000 hectare game reserve of diverse landscapes and geology and a plethora of South Africa's most stunning wildlife in the heart of the rich ecosystem of the Waterberg District in Limpopo, South Africa. Welgevonden means 'well found' which is quite apt as we spot our game ranger Bornwell, who sets up a beautiful table for us with snacks and drinks before he drives us the hour or so to Ethuthuleni Lodge, our first luxury abode on this adventure.

The false Maroela trees' leaves drip red and the sandy road is the shade of ochre and the sky is a bright blue. The bush is very dry this time of year and on the drive we spot Eland, zebra, impala and the beautifully ancient and highly endangered white rhino with her calf – a very special sight. The reserve first became a conservation area in 1993, consolidating a number of private farms, removing internal fences and returning this amazing area to its original natural state. Just be aware that Welgevonden charges a "reserve entry fee" of about $6 per person per day, which I personally think is exorbitant. Most other game reserves in South Africa don't charge nearly this amount.

Less than a kilometre from the lodge our happy progress is halted by a massive elephant, slowly making his merry, devil-may-care way down the road and of course, blocking the whole road and lingering for a nice Acacia morsel here and there. Going nowhere, very slowly… Since this old fellow is known as a chaser of vehicles, Bornwell reverses the vehicle and waits. And waits…. And waits…. And just as I am about make an inventory of our meagre food rations and possible sources of warmth for the night, lodge manager Greg comes to the rescue and shows Bornwell another entrance road to the lodge.

Elephant taking a dust bath (Willie Smit)

Ekuthuleni Lodge

Our wonderful host Viv welcomes us warmly at the lodge with a smile as do her amazing staff who all introduce themselves personally to guest. We chat about our wild encounter and she shows us to our lodgings. Each of the 5 suites at Ekuthuleni Lodge offer guests intimacy, privacy and magnificent views of the grasslands – giving a whole new meaning to nature on your doorstep. The romantic bathrooms open onto a private courtyard and have both indoor and outdoor showers. The décor is lovely and understated with dollops of character and warmth.

We meet for lunch on the deck overlooking the bush and it takes the form of a delicious lasagne preceded by an excellent spicy tomato gazpacho. The chef's name is Laptop–yes, Laptop–and he introduces all dishes to us personally, a very sweet touch I thought.

The lodge itself is a lovely private and intimate oasis in the and guests can relax next to the swimming pool in summer overlooking sweeping grassy plains, or watch the sun as it sets at the end of an African day. If the weather is cool – such as in our case - curl up with a book in one of the comfortable lounges before enjoying a delicious meal prepared with the freshest ingredients available. Meals can be enjoyed in the cozy dining room or on the open-air deck, sheltered from the elements by a reed awning.

We forgo the evening game drive to take a nap and just revel in the deafening silence and bitingly brilliant cold and open starry skies above us as the night falls.

After a luxuriously hot bubble bath we convene by the fire for drinks and then dinner which a traditional "braai" or barbecue. Beef chops, sausage, polenta, tomato and onion sauce, a variety of vegetables and salads – it's all quite a feast!

The comfort food, warmth of the fire place and wonderful company together with some magically superb wine all combine to send me to bed quite early and what an amazing turn-down surprise should I find! My gown and slippers are laid out on my bed and a piping hot water bottle is tucked inside my bed just like mom used to do. They spoil you here…

There is an absolute and somewhat disconcerting stillness in the clear, icy night. No wind, no sound, not a creature stirring… The half-moon hovers over the hills in the ghostly white light like a silent echo and the bush is soundless – like it is holding its breath for some extraordinary drama to unfold. A lion kill perhaps?

Stealthily stalking its prey and then wham! Pouncing with such ferocity with all hell then breaking loose in the dark! But my imagination is running away with me and I ensconce myself in my warm bed and succumb to a deep and wonderful slumber.

I lie in the next morning and just immerse myself in the fresh air and the wonder of my view as I sip my excellent coffee.

We spent the morning just relaxing and absorbing the silence by osmosis before lunch is served. Delicious chicken wings and peanut satay sauce, accompanied by a beautiful vegetable quiche appear like magic and disappear just as quickly interspersed by sounds of satisfied guests.

A fireside to warm the heart (Willie Smit)

Elephant drama on the drive

The game drive later produces sightings of zebra, giraffe, antelope and wildebeest. The problem with this time of year is that the animals tend to stay in one place because of the bitter cold and the bush is rather quiet. But other guests did see lions and cheetah though so it's just luck of the draw.

Little did we know real drama was afoot on the drive back to the Lodge.

After night has fallen - to icy temperatures - we spot a lone male elephant in musth (a periodical change of the behaviour of elephant bulls) ambling down the road ahead. The gargantuan elephant is perfectly lit in the spotlight with dark patches of urine running down its legs – and the smell, oh the smell! Such an elephant is very dangerous and aggressive due to much higher than normal hormone levels and should be avoided. But poor Bornwell, bless his soul. He is so terrified of this particular pachyderm that instead of reversing the vehicle slowly and calmly, he backs it into the mountain and, when attempting to turn in the narrow road, almost careens down the ravine on the other side and then…. Gets stuck. He asks us all to please alight the vehicle. So, in the pitch black night, with possibly a mad, rampaging elephant storming us on one side and the Big-5 sniffing around the other side, ready to pounce on anything, we do. With help from the three strong men on the vehicle, and finally having found the low range gears, we head the other way, away from said elephant.

Flushed with excitement and slightly trembling, we are quickly given a warming and very welcoming sherry at the lodge.

The dinner of perfectly cooked rump steak and delicious cheese cake mousse takes my mind off my near-death experience and much mirth and merriment follow as we all tell tall tales of times in the bush.

Stress free environment in the wilds of Africa (Willie Smit)

Tshwene Lodge

It is much warmer the next morning. The sunlight plays across the bed and wakes me up with a smile. I haul myself out of my comfortable cocoon of a bed and its warmth and shuffle outside to enjoy my coffee and the solitude in the sun on the patio. After breakfast we take our leave and Viv drives us the 5 minutes or so down the road to Ekuthuleni's sister lodge, Tshwene Lodge. Surrounded by magnificent rock outcrops, Tshwene Lodge is a secluded oasis in the rugged valley of the Taaibos River. The Chacma baboon, after which the lodge is named, echoes around the surrounding hills eerily.

The five strategically located suites all offer exhilarating views of the valleys below and the hills beyond but there are some steps so it is not advised for people who have severe difficulty with mobility. The main facilities include the two lounges, pool, indoor and outdoor dining areas set on a huge wooden patio with magnificent views. The stunning and ample double rooms with bathrooms en-suite, an indoor and private outdoor shower and amazing African views are beautifully decorated in understated and natural fabrics with splashes of colour here and there. From your private wooden deck you can listen to the calls of a passing herd of elephant, or watch the African sun set the bush ablaze as it sinks over the horizon in this malaria-free sanctuary.

Charming lodge manager – and our rescuer from before – Greg, shows us around after the staff have greeted us with a beautiful welcoming song in their native language Sotho. After lunch we spend the afternoon taking photographs of the Lodge and of the simply sublime honeymoon suite. Situated slightly away from the lodge and reached by wooden walkways, the suite boasts its own private outside Jacuzzi as well as massive bathroom with inside and outside shower in harmony with the bush and completely private. Private and intimate dinners can be served on the deck or anywhere the couple desires. It is truly magically romantic.

After a dinner of a delicious barbecue feast that night we sit by the cosy fire and exchange stories again far into the night. I awake with the magnificent view of the bush the next morning and spend the morning after breakfast just relaxing and catching up on some work. The Wi-Fi in the reception area works perfectly so you can catch up on emails if you absolutely have to.

Our amazing guide Simon takes us out later on a superb – and much more relaxing – game drive. He informs us of the most amazing aspects of the fauna and flora or the area and we spot elephants, zebra, hyena, giraffe, jackal and a rare civet cat.

The morning of our departure arrives and we my heart sinks thinking that we have to leave this place.

As we leave, all the staff line up to sing us their farewell song:

"Down, down, down the valley

Down the valley up to the mountain, Tshwene Lodge is my home

Sweet home….home….sweet home…

Sweet home, mama, Tshwene Lodge is my home…."

Africa's giant giraffe reaching for tasty morsels (Willie Smit)




Getting there:

There are no current direct flights between China and South Africa but many multi-stop airlines will get you here.

Ekuthuleni Lodge and Tshwene Lodge is a two and a half hour drive from Johannesburg. Daily road and air transfers may be arranged on request. Tshwene is equipped for private helicopter transfers. The reserve also has two private landing strips. As no private vehicles are allowed in the reserve, guests have to be picked up from the Welgevonden main gate by their rangers at 12h30 daily. From Johannesburg, take the N1 north to Pietersburg/Polokwane. At the Kranskop toll gate, keep left to Nylstroom/Marble Hall. At the T-junction turn left towards Nylstroom/Modimolle and continue straight for approximately 70km to Vaalwater/ Mabatlane. Continue through Vaalwater/Mabatlane on the Thabazimbi road for approximately 24km and turn left at the Welgevonden main gate. (Do not turn left at the South gate or East gate.)

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