I could very easily get lost in the kitchen, give me the basics and I’m ok, but any more than that and I need some help, but generally, if it comes in an easy package with a sachet named ‘secret spice’, I’m good to go.

KFC has it’s mystical ‘11 secret herbs and spices’ and the Secret Spice company refers to their blend as ‘a mouth-watering blend of seasonings that adds unique, bold and exciting flavour’. Thankfully Baobab Ridge in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve has a ‘secret spice’ of its own, which each guest gets to appreciate.

The first sprinkling were the warm smiles on arrival, the attention to detail in our gorgeous suite added a wee bit more, and by the time lunch on the deck was served I was hooked. I knew that this spice was going to be exceptionally special. And that it would be a favourite…

And what secret spice is this? You ask.

The people.

As with any safari experience it’s the people that make the difference. The shy smiles on arrival that gradually grow to become shared laughs and meaningful conversations.

Lunch had us pondering the iced coffee, well what looked and vaguely tasted like iced coffee – but wasn’t.  This had chef MAGGIE MAPAYILE chuckling with glee as she told us that it is vegan iced coffee, made not with coffee beans but with charred rice and almond milk. She explained that she found the recipe online and that we were the first to taste it.

Over the next few days, she revealed more of her story. That she was born in nearby Buffelshoek and on completing her schooling worked in the scullery of an eatery in Hoedspruit and from there was promoted to the kitchen proper and learned what it takes to run a professional kitchen.

Working her way through several restaurant kitchens and honing her skills along the way she was finally offered a position in a luxury safari lodge. She tells us that this is where she learned about recipes and the skills required to prepare more sophisticated cuisine – skills that she brought to Baobab Ridge when she joined the team several years ago.  

It is obvious that Maggie loves cooking, the delicious meals prepared by her, and the Baobab team were testament to that. But it was my comment about the yummiest early morning game drive crunchies that had her telling me that baking is her absolute passion. From making pot bread and dumpling over the fire at home for her family to the tastiest breakfast breads and dinner rolls that she prepares for guests.

We were spoilt for choice when it came to teatime treats like banana bread, muffins, and scones served with fresh cream, homemade jam, and cheese. And the best lemon meringue pie I’ve ever tasted!

She told us that the chefs operate as a team in the Baobab kitchen, planning new dishes and working out new menu items together. And love to incorporate traditional local dishes like morogo (spinach), pap and chakalaka, amongst other local delicacies. These are often served on braai nights in the boma, or as a special treat as a bush dinner, where delicious aromas mingle with wood smoke, and where white linen and silverware set the scene for a delicious dinner under a star-studded sky.

I ask Maggie where she gets her inspiration from. Laughing she tells me that she loves watching cooking shows on TV and that Gordon Ramsey is her favourite. And who does she in turn inspire, I ask? Her two daughters, she says – “the eldest is seventeen, loves cooking and loves learning from me”.

And her advice for other young people? “Go to school and learn as much as they can and consider a job in tourism. It is really had work, but the rewards are great.”

Another marvel in the Baobab kitchen is chef PETUNIA MOHLILI and as we get to know her, I am inspired by her story. Unlike Maggie, her first career was as a volunteer police reservist in her home area of Acornhoek. Because she “wanted to contribute as much as she could to her local community” and spent the first six years of her working life fighting crime… until she was retrenched on falling pregnant. Which, in retrospect was a blessing in disguise.

A friend working at Baobab Ridge managed to get her a job helping in the scullery. Quite a change from law enforcement, and not getting paid for her efforts!

The smiling Petunia wasn’t going to let an opportunity pass her by, or the chance to earn an income and support her family. She got used to working in the bush with wild animals all around and put her mind to learning as much as possible about every aspect of the lodge, from housekeeping and waitressing to working in the kitchen preparing vegetables and making bread.

Once she began cooking Petunia realised that she had found her passion. She tells us that she used to dream of being a chef when she was a kid and never thought that it would be possible. “I always cooked at home and now I am able to make my dream come true!” she says.

Like Maggie, she also loves watching cooking shows on TV and spends much of her spare time online, researching new dishes – and adding her own flair to regular ones. Such as her take on the deliciously spicy (read HOT) chakalaka (with her own special secret spice ingredient) we all ladled onto our pap at the boma braai dinner!

Her ambition is as large as her wonderfully big smile. “My hope for the future is to be the best chef I can possibly be. I want to be a big chef, the perfect, perfect chef at Baobab Ridge”. Her attitude is as inspiring as the delicious cuisine that she creates… perhaps I could learn from her in my own kitchen exploits?

Food aside, what would a safari experience be without some well-spent time in the bush?

Thankfully Baobab Ridge delivers splendidly on this too. Our game drive hours were in the delightful company of game ranger JV (aka JABULANI VICTOR SILINDA), who with his astounding knowledge of the bush kept us enthralled for hours. But it was during those wonderful morning coffee and crunchie, and afternoon sundowner stops that we really got the measure of the man. In between conversations that revolved around the state of our nation’s politics (heavy, I know) and the effects of climate change on biodiversity, we learnt about the man himself.

JV grew up in the small local community of Dumfries near Bushbuckridge and like most young boys, kicking a soccer ball around was part of  growing up. This led to him playing league soccer, and to cut a long story short, led to him applying for a job at Londolozi as a security guard.

He tells us the story of his surprise encounter with a leopard when walking guests back to their room – not a dangerous encounter, but one that got him wondering if he would have read the signs that it was there if he were trained. This was the trigger to him training as a tracker and going on to what has been an incredibly successful career as a game ranger.

He tells stories of his exploits in the Kruger National Park whilst working at Jock of the Bushveld (now Jock Safari Lodge), and Shamwari Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, both of which were part of the Mantis Collection at that time.

This gave him the opportunity to work in diverse ecosystems and habitats, each with their own key species. All the time expanding his knowledge and his familiarity with the bush. But as we all know, there’s no place like home, and when the opportunity came for him to head back to his roots, he jumped at it. After a few relief guiding positions in the Kruger area, including at Baobab Ridge, he was offered a permanent position and happily joined the Baobab Ridge team.

A couple of game drives in and I knew his passion was sharing his knowledge with guests. Seeing his face come alive when explaining the intricacies of an ant’s nest, to his frustration and then delight at first losing and then finding a leopard, and the care taken when preparing a G&T, I knew he was living his dream.

In addition to his safari guests,

JV tells me how he loves to impart his knowledge to school children and is often asked to share his experiences with the kids to both teach them about nature and conservation as well as to inspire them to follow their dreams.

Another dream of JV’s is to one day have his own bush training academy, and I cannot think of anyone better to share their knowledge and experiences with a new generation of safari guides. “It’s about leaving a legacy” he tells us. “One that helps to protect these wild places while including people as part of the conservation solution.”

The wildlife experiences we had with JV certainly made this safari experience special, but it was the meaningful conversations, broad smiles, and infectious laughs – the ‘secret spice’, I would call it, that made it exceptional!


Click HERE to read the article in the digital mag…