I had visited mFulaWosi Wilderness before, spending a couple of days in their uber-chic and more sophisticated Biyela Lodge – but being more of a bush girl, and wanting to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life, I chose to immerse myself in the stunning natural surroundings of Mthembu Lodge.

The lodge itself is off-grid and a marvel of modern design, seamlessly blending traditional African style with modern amenities to create a truly luxurious and comfortable experience – one that started with the beautiful smiles of assistant lodge manager Chennai Ndemera and butler Nomthi Khanyile, welcoming us with refreshing lemon grass fragranced facecloths and a chilled beverage on our arrival.

The river beyond drew me like a magnet, the delightful décor, with its warm woods, rich fabrics, and vibrant pops of colour a feast for the eye. The expansive lounge with its plush sofas and armchairs comes complete with a fireplace for cooler evenings and the dining space, both indoors and out, offers stunning views of the surrounding wilderness – as does the stunning infinity pool and nearby bar, the perfect spot to enjoy a cold drink and swap stories with fellow travellers.

Mthembu Lodge offers a variety of luxurious rooms, each designed to provide guests with the ultimate in comfort and relaxation, and ours was no exception.

I walk through our spacious and elegantly appointed suite onto our private deck, two chairs perfectly positioned to take in the panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness and for my hubby to capture the antics of the resident crested barbet.

The unique décor has a modern aesthetic with the finest bespoke furnishings and traditional Zulu accents – with the grass mats and baskets sourced locally. From the king-size bed with its voluminous mosquito net to the free-standing bath and the outdoor shower, the floor to ceiling glass ensures that the splendour of the natural environment is just a glance away.

The exquisite décor throughout the lodge bears the unique trademark of Ballito-based designer Michele Throssel, the niece of the late Dr Ian Player, who decades before had essentially saved the white rhino from extinction with his Operation Rhino initiative. The rudimentary rondavels that he and Magqubu Ntombela, his friend and wildlife guide, stayed in during this period are now home to the Mthembu Lodge spa. And the derelict stables a little further away are destined to be reimagined too.

But the real highlight of a stay at Mthembu Lodge is the opportunity of taking in this expansive wilderness area, a true conservation legacy.

Led by our experienced guide, Aidan Hill we explore the riverine forest, thick bush and expansive grasslands of the mFulaWosi Wilderness in search of the incredible wildlife that calls this area home. From majestic elephants and graceful giraffes to stealthy lions and elusive leopards, the mFulaWosi Wilderness is home to an incredible array of wildlife – but with all real safari experiences seeing the Big 5 is no guarantee.

A dazzle of zebra enchant us, we watch as their tails swish and with barely a glance they continue head down to graze, a nearby herd of impala aren’t quite as nonchalant, the ram very aware of our presence and ready to snort a warning should the need arise. Aidan has a wealth of knowledge and shares interesting facts continuously – I learnt that a young zebra has long thin legs and a shallow belly to give it the same profile as an adult, which enables it to be concealed easily within the herd at times of threat from a carnivore.

Sundowners beckon and we head to a spot on the river’s edge. The White iMfolosi was bathed in warm amber light as the setting sun cast its final rays across the water, suffusing everything with a sense of magic and wonder. I marvel at this wild and natural place, gazing across a river that elephants have crossed for centuries, and still do. A place where the Big 5 roam freely and conservation a priority. But it is also a place where the well-being of the local community and the Zulu culture is of utmost importance.

There’s nothing better than a G&T in the African bush, Aidan shows us tracks in the sand and tells that this is a favourite crossing spot for the elephants, and that there is also an old hyena den nearby.

It’s getting dark so we head back on our night drive. Fiery-necked nightjars dot the road in front of us, and we spot an eagle owl in the trees beyond, he peers at us for a few moments then flies off into the darkness.

A dark form comes lumbering towards us out of the night. We stop a good distance away, but the young elephant bull keeps coming, Aidan speaks to him gently, he pauses in front of our vehicle – just asserting himself dominance in a non-aggressive manner Aidan tells us. Deciding that he’s made his point he saunters off into the bush. A memorable night drive moment with a flutter of adrenalin.

We enjoy an equally memorable moment the next morning…

Our wakeup call is followed by freshly brewed coffee and rusks in the dining room, and with a snug blanket over my legs we set out on our morning drive. A small herd of buffalo give us the hairy eyeball, Aiden points out the tracks of a black rhino, I scan the thick bush expectantly. The sun gradually makes its appearance through the wispy clouds, and the grasslands glow in the golden light, and an elephant stands silhouetted against the milky sky.

I watch as it walks slowly towards us, nonchalantly pulling up tufts of grass, it barely pays us any notice whilst continuing to come closer. The sunlight reflects off its ivory tusks, it raises its trunk as if to sense our intent. I can see every detail of its weathered, wrinkled skin, the delicate eyelashes, and the deep rich glow of its golden eyes. An earthy musk emanates from its massive body, and I am struck by the incredible presence of this gentle giant.

It’s the same young male as we saw the night before… he is completely relaxed, and I sit in awe as he looks at me with his gentle, intelligent eyes then continues to feed alongside our vehicle – if I stretched out my hand, I could almost touch him. I forget to take photos, and just enjoy the moment.

We stop for our coffee break alongside the river – there’s nothing better than Amarula coffee with homemade cookies and muffins. I raise my mug in a toast to our magnificent elephant encounter and the riverine forest alive with birdsong.  

mFulaWozi is home to a wide variety of plains game, we pause to watch as a herd of impala leap and bound through the golden grasses, their long slender legs carrying them effortlessly as they graze on the tender green shoots. In the shade of a nearby thicket, a small family of warthog snuffle and snort as they search out roots and bulbs, their bristly hides and distinctive tusks a reminder of their rugged resilience, and their tails straight as an aerial as they scamper off.

A pair of secretary birds stride across the plain, and a Burchell’s coucal, calling incessantly, suns itself on a bush, hopefully it won’t be living up to its name as a rainbird! In the distance, a group of zebras can be seen, their sleek black and white stripes shimmering in the sunlight as they graze, wildebeest snort and grunt, their shaggy manes and broad shoulders a symbol of their formidable strength. 

Dining at Mthembu Lodge is an absolute treat, with a wide selection of scrumptious cuisine emanating from exec chef Prince’s kitchen – he tells me that many in his team come from the local community and started off with little to no kitchen experience, but under his watchful eye and careful tuition now excel in creating all manner of deliciousness. William Ntokoza, he tells me proudly, started off in the scullery when the lodge opened, but has progressed to sous chef, and is now second in command. He jokingly tells me it’s the Mthembu cooking school!

A few of my favourites during our stay were the yummiest gluten-free cookies I enjoyed on our game drives, the Mnandi Stack for breakfast (French toast, gluten-free for me, with brûlée bananas and caramelised apple, maple syrup, bacon and wild basil cream – your mouth watering yet?) and the beautifully presented and equally delicious platters for lunch on the deck, to international favourites and traditional African cuisine for dinner. But the most memorable was the deliciously decadent pavlova he and his team created for me – along with a beautiful rendition of happy birthday.

I pop into the walk-in wine cellar off the dining room – it’s a chilled environment, so offers the perfect escape on a sweltering Zululand day. The selection is vast, and I spot several wonderful South African wines – our barman, Nkanyiso Dlomo, aka ‘The Doctor’, kept us well hydrated with perfectly created G&Ts and wine paired perfectly with whatever chef Prince had created.

Guests from Biyela Lodge had spotted a subadult lion cub dashing through the bush earlier in the day when they were heading out for a guided walk, so that afternoon we headed out to look for tracks and try and find it. With almost military precision, the game viewing vehicles form both lodges traversed the roads in the area looking for tracks…

But as with any safari experience, one goes with the flow, and instead of a young lion we were treated to wonderful sighting of a large herd of elephant. We hear the breaking branches before we see them, and watch as they gradually come into view, munching their way towards us. There are several tiny ones, most in close proximity to the adults, except for one brave soul who rushed towards us, ears aflutter and trunk waving in the air – his bravado quickly failed, and he scampered back to the safety of his mom’s legs.

A sundowner surprise saw us welcomed into a clearing to a table laden with a wide choice drinks and an assortment of snacks. Solar lights and safari chairs completed the ‘out of Africa’ scene, but unfortunately the sun didn’t get the memo and we gazed at a moody, darkening sky instead. Perhaps that rainbird knew a thing or two.

Doctor tells us that they had seen an African rock python on their way there, and in the hopes of finding it we head off before night sets in, but to no avail. A white rhino hurries off, perhaps to find its companions, wildebeest snort and nyala scatter, Aidan dims the lights so as to not disturb them, a herd of impala who take their time moving off the road.

Heading out early the next morning we spot leopard tracks in the soft sand, they were just a stone’s throw from the lodge, so perhaps unbeknownst to us we’d had a nocturnal visitor. I had heard the deep resonating call of a lion during the night, so I was still hopeful that we would find one. But for now we were till looking for the elusive black rhino.

There is plenty of evidence, but no rhino. What we do see is a determined leopard tortoise forging its way up the road and a bark spider whose web almost blocks our path; some nifty manoeuvring leaves its web undisturbed. I learn that a bark spider’s web takes up to about six months to regenerate if it’s destroyed – no wonder Aidan went to such lengths to avoid it. A martial eagle surveys the surroundings from its lofty perch, white-backed vultures sun themselves on treetops, waiting for thermals to develop and white-throated sunbirds flit around as they feast on bugs, and several more coucal’s tell of possible rain.

Pausing for coffee on Ndleke viewpoint, we take in the expansive view of the Wilderness area which stretches as far as the eye can see in an easterly direction. I smile as I hear a rooster crowing, its sound carrying from the Mthembu community.

It is a gentle reminder of the incredible commitment that the Zulu chiefs from the surrounding communities – all descendants of the Shaka dynasty, made to extending the footprint of this conservation area by partnering with Barry and Sonja Theunissen and KZN Ezemvelo wildlife to create this incredible wilderness area. Additionally, Barry and Sonja’s commitment extends to the preservation and conservation of the rich Zulu heritage and culture that still runs deeply through these rolling hills.

We pass an old watering trough that was once used by the community to water their cattle and traverse the hills that were once the hunting ground of the Zulu King Shaka; and stop at the historic and culturally significant Ngomani spring. Aidan tells us that it’s a natural spring that never dries up where Shaka and his hunting party would stop to be refreshed and collect water during one of their hunting expeditions – it was also used by him to anoint his valued Zulu warriors when they became his indunas. Rumour has it that both King Cetshwayo and Ngomani, a close associate of both Shaka and Cetshwayo, are buried within 200m of the spring, something not everyone believes though.

Heading back for breakfast we spot fresh lion spoor on the road, a pair of them, and judging by the size, two large males. I wonder if it was them that I heard during the night. A little further on, are the tracks of a hyena… they are on top of our early morning tyre tracks so we must have just missed it. Aidan laughs, telling us that on our morning drive we saw the Big 5 by their tracks.

That, I think to myself, epitomises what a true wilderness experience is all about – it’s about being out in the bush, never quite sure of what’s around the next corner and never guaranteed what you’ll see. But at the same time, relishing the expectation whilst still appreciating the wonder of the surroundings and all the creatures and critters that call it home… and the local communities that benefit from its existence.

So if you’re looking for an unforgettable safari experience in a stunning natural settings, look no further as Mthembu Lodge and the mFulaWosi Wilderness offers visitors the chance to experience the breath-taking beauty of a wilderness conservation area in a truly unique and unforgettable way.

Read the story in Responsible Taveller digital mag HERE