Positioned along a graceful curve of the White Umfolozi River, within the Babanango Game Reserve, lies the luxurious Madwaleni River Lodge. There was no doubt that we were in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal’s Zulu Kingdom… from the joyful and melodious singing of an isiZulu song as we arrived, to the tasteful décor that incorporates Zulu craft and culture, and the warm smiles and Zulu handshakes of the wonderful Madwaleni staff.

The lodge, aptly named after the isiZulu phrase meaning ‘The place of the rock,’ pays homage to the majestic granolithic mountains that adorn the landscape. Beyond its geological significance, the historical and cultural narratives of the region are woven intricately into the Madwaleni River Lodge architecture and design.

We lunch on the deck, and as I sip the freshly squeezed lemon and ginger welcome drink (yes, it was so delicious that I asked for a refill), Nqobile, our lovely waitress/butler, unpacks our picnic basket. She comes from the nearby rural town of Nqutu and started as a waitress at Babanango Valley Lodge when it opened and is very proud to have been promoted to work at Madwaleni.

Our light meal of roast beef, roasted potatoes and horseradish sauce is delicious. The expansive views across the river tempt me to linger, but I choose to explore the wonders of this architectural paradise, a journey that continues throughout our stay, every glance revealing a new aspect of the history and culture of the region.

Crafted by the internationally renowned Luxury Frontiers, the lodge’s architectural design seamlessly blends ancient symbolism with contemporary interpretations. I love how the structural elements in the design are inspired by the formidable Zulu warrior shield and mirror the strength of the spear. It’s little wonder that the lodge’s unique design features, including a pioneering steel frame structure, have garnered accolades and awards for their ingenuity and creativity.

I love the fact that supporting the local community is part of their ethos, and that by collaborating with skilled local artisans to create bespoke artifacts and crafts creating employment opportunities and empowering and enriching the surrounding communities. And I marvel at the intricate beadwork, beautifully woven baskets, and traditional wood carvings – and the ceiling, which reminds me of the grass mats one buys along the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) beachfront! 

Our well-appointed suite overlooks the briskly flowing river, its waters tumbling over ancient river rocks smoothed by its constant flow. The sense of place is evident here too – the mosquito net tiebacks resemble a necklace that would happily grace the neck of a Zulu maiden, the knob-kerrie door handle happy in an old man’s hand, and the tent-poles, a giant Zulu spear. The locally inspired décor creating an ambiance that is both welcoming and authentically African.

We head out for an afternoon game drive, pause as we cross the White Umfolozi River, it’s water fast flowing and crystal-clear, the aloe-clad hillside ablaze in the late afternoon sun.

Weavers, starlings, and Cape white-eyes feed on the few remaining aloe flowers – we’d missed the peak aloe season by a couple of weeks. Hendrik, our guide, tells us that Babanango Game Reserve is home to 12 aloe species, including ‘vulnerable’ Aloe gerstneri and Aloe vanrooyenii, which are found in small but healthy numbers on the reserve.

We stop at the crest of the hill for sundowners, the breeze is chilly but the G&T and spectacular view more than make up for it. The sun gradually sinks towards the horizon, the Umfolozi river a ribbon of silver as the sky goes from soft peach to burnt orange and finally a deep purple. By the time we get back to the lodge the sky is awash with stars. We are drawn to the communal fire pit and, glass of red wine in hand, I watch the dancing flames of the crackling fire – bush TV they call it, as the night sounds echo through the valley and the full moon begins to rise.  

We awaken to the valley clothed in mist, I slip out of bed to make coffee and relish its warmth as I watch the mist swirling over the river, waiting, hoping for it to lift. I consider hopping into the heated plunge pool but opt for the indoor shower with its elegant copper fixtures and luxurious eco-friendly amenities instead.

The mist gradually lifts and the sun streams in, Hendrik meets us at the breakfast table, and we plan for a leisurely day exploring the reserve. A safari experience at Babanango Game Reserve is infinitely more than just ticking off the Big Five – they are always a privilege to see, but this captivating landscape offers so much more.

The expansive backdrop is a canvas painted with an array of hues, from the golden grasslands to the pops of colour created by the grass aloes and the splashes of green from trees clothed in their new spring leaves. We pause again at the Umfolozi River, she is such an integral part of the reserve and deserves much attention. Hendrik points out the distinctive tracks left by a mongoose, and the delicate spoor of duiker. A three-banded plover criss-crosses the wet sand, pausing momentarily to drink at the water’s edge.

A pair of blue crane – South Africa’s national bird, and listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, stand statuesque along the riverbank, then stroll into the river. Not a sight one sees often, Hendrik tells us. Just as we are about to drive off, they begin to call, a loud nasally ‘krrarr’, not the prettiest call, but a privilege to hear, all the same!

We watch as a martial eagle soars overhead, unperturbed by the two long-crested eagles that are dive-bombing it. Wild pear and coral trees add a splash of white and red respectively to the landscape, a golden-breasted bunting flits around a buffalo-thorn tree and a flock of red-faced mousebirds feed feverishly on a saffron tree. Zebra graze in the distance, and a small herd of red hartebeest take fright as we drive by, in contrast to the wildebeest that uncharacteristically just amble away.

Hendrik has a vague idea where the newly introduced herd of elephants are likely to be, so we head in that direction. These were the first elephants to grace these hills in more than 150 years. The females were relocated from the nearby Manyoni Private Game Reserve and Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape, and the two bulls from Tembe Elephant Park in KZN, ensuring genetic diversity, crucial for their health and for the long-term viability of this population.

He spots them across the valley, and we decide it’s a good enough time to pause for lunch. Whilst we may not have been dining with quite the finesse that chef Khumbulani would have appreciated, the setting more than made up for it… and across the valley the elephants continued doing what elephants do best. Hiding, and eating. Downing one cabbage tree after another.

I ask if there is some concern over the ‘safety’ of the vast stands of aloes and large trees. Hendrik responds by telling us about the bee project, initiated earlier in the year by guide Graham Adams, a passionate advocate for both elephants and plants. Drawing inspiration from Elephants Alive, a NPO in the Hoedspruit area that had had great success in using bees as a deterrent in human-elephant conflicts, he proposed using bees to protect vulnerable vegetation within Babanango Game Reserve from excessive elephant feeding damage.

The call of a jackal echoes through the valley, answered in the distance by another. This symbolises the benefit of conservation, here is a species that was decimated by farmers for the damage it caused to livestock, a species that hasn’t been reintroduced, but one that has found its way to a ‘safe space’ away from the threat of humans. Similarly, Babanango Game Reserve has seen the return (or maybe they were always around, just never seen?) of several species, including leopard, brown hyena and the like on its camera traps. 

We drive past the boma, two more lionesses await their release, to join the two male lions and two lionesses released earlier in the year. Another species that hasn’t graced these hill in over 150 years. But, Hendrik explains, Babanango Game Reserve goes beyond just protecting individual species, it is actively engaged in restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems with the removal of invasive species and habitat restoration projects so as to reverse environmental degradation and encourage the resurgence of native plant species.

I loved our day in the bush, the immersive experience heightened by the insightful commentary from Hendrik, who shared perceptive details about the delicate balance of this intricate ecosystem. His passion for wildlife conservation was evident, and his joy of sharing this knowledge quite apparent. The evening sky was once again painted in shades of tangerine and crimson and as the sounds of the bush enveloped us, we watched a white rhino and calf retreat into the unfolding darkness. With quiet appreciation I gaze up at the starlit African sky.

Madwaleni River Lodge is not just a destination; it is a journey that captivates the heart and soul. It’s where sophistication meets wilderness, where luxury finds its home in nature’s embrace and where conservation and community are top of mind.

Read the article in the digital mag HERE