The evidence was there. Huge impressions left in the dusty road, paths through the lush grass, green and succulent after the recent unseasonal rains. They were moving in an easterly direction. There were broken branches and tufts of grass strewn across the road. It had been dull and cloudy all day, but as dusk approached the sun broke through the clouds basking the Zululand bush with a warm glow. Perhaps in response to the sun, or perhaps just our good fortune they finally came into view. The herd of elephants we had been tracking for the last couple of hours at Amakhosi Safari Lodge…

My hubby and I were on our way to Amakhosi Safari Lodge – renowned for it’s ‘at home’ relaxed luxury and close and memorable wildlife encounters… We had left Durban fairly early that morning and travelled the recommended route towards Pongola, a short distance beyond the turn off to Lake Jozini (the southern-most spot to go tiger fishing in Africa) we hit a left onto the R69 to take the ‘scenic route’. Although somewhat gravelly, scenic it certainly was, with great views back across the Lake.

Within moments we knew were in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal’s Zulu Kingdom – land of kings, ferocious battles and an abundance of game. The dirt road wound its way uphill through thick indigenous bush past Zulu homesteads (or Umuzi’s as they’re known by in this region), the occasional school and a few commuters waiting at the roadside for a minibus taxi. Often the only evidence of an Umuzi was the spiralling smoke from a communal wood fire. The game fences on one side alluding to the fact that we were in ‘big game’ country.

Soon we were ticking off bird species, African Harrier Hawk, European Sunbird, Emerald Spotted Dove… and we had only just entered the Amakhosi Private Game Reserve. Then it was giraffe and a variety of antelope. But it was with the personal greeting and the welcoming exuberant smiles of Faith and Gugu, bearing cool facecloths and homemade lemonade that we knew we had arrived.

We were soon to realise that this attention to detail and personal touch was what took the hospitality at Amakhosi Safari Lodge to another level.

Our luxurious suite at Amakhosi was beautifully appointed with ceiling high windows, a spacious deck with hammock and private plunge pool overlooking the Mkuze River. The king size bed, draped with mosquito netting to give it the appearance of a four-poster, separate lounge area and fabulous bathroom certainly exceeded our expectations –  we were after all in one of the Umntwana honeymoon suites…

The late afternoon game drives are preceded by high tea. Freshly made iced tea or lemonade and a variety of savoury and sweet mini portions (thankfully, so it meant I could try all of them!) were followed by our introduction to Phillip, head ranger at Amakhosi, and ‘ours’ for the duration of our stay.

Armed with binoculars, camera and a jacket, to deal with the nip in the evening air, we were off.  With a diversity of habitat that includes bushveld, grasslands and mountains, Amakhosi is a naturalists dream, boasting in excess of 400 different bird species as well as a variety of amphibians, with a frogging safari a highlight during the summer months. We were fortunate that there had been unseasonal rain and had the opportunity to get a taste of what a frogging safari is all about.

‘What would you like to see this afternoon’ Phillip asked.

Having been on safari before and just happy to be back in the bush again, we had no specifics, nor did German couple Andy and Simone as they had seen the ‘Big 5’ the day before! They were lucky, as the elusive leopard is owned by no-one, goes where it pleases, and is extremely difficult to see as its rosettes enable it to seemingly disappear in the dappled shadow of the bush. Besides there is so much more to a safari experience than just the ‘Big 5’, as amazing as they are!

So we just headed out… and before long had added kudu, nyala and zebra to our list, as well as numerous bird species. Phillip’s description of the Green Wood Hoopoe (previously known as the Red-billed Hoopoe) brought a smile to my face, the Zulu word being ‘iNhlekabafazi’, meaning giggling women… the birders out there familiar with this species will know what I mean.

Before long Jeremy our tracker spotted signs of recent elephant activity, so we set out to find them. Considering the size of these Pachyderms, one would have thought it would be a breeze. There was evidence of newly broken branches and grass on the road.

We stopped and listened… not a sound. Where were they?

Another couple, both ‘newbies’ to the bush and on their first safari started out hoping for a ‘zoo’ type experience where the wildlife appeared as if on call. It doesn’t work like that and although the rangers and trackers at Amakhosi are very familiar with their territory and the wildlife found within it, they cannot summon them to appear as required. Except perhaps for Phillip and his birds!

Phillip is one of the top ten bird guides in South Africa, and his imitation of bird calls had us absolutely amazed. From the call of the emerald-spotted wood dove, to the orange-breasted bush shrike and the black-headed oriole, he had them answering his call and coming in for a closer look. And if this didn’t get them close enough, his photographic skills and ‘big lens’ camera did the trick.

Birding enthusiasts will love the summer months as the bird species are boosted by seasonal migrants such as the African emerald cuckoo and the woodland kingfisher.

And suddenly we spotted them, first one, then another and another… Phillip stopped the vehicle and turned off the engine, we were in for a very special experience – the kind of close encounter that memories are made of. We watched as they fed, quietly making their way through the bush towards us. African elephants graze and browse their way through their habitat, with an adult consuming in excess of 250kg of food a day! That’s a lot of food, its no wonder their focus was entirely on the task at hand. As they moved closer, Phillip reassured us that we need not be nervous, he knew the herd and provided that we didn’t get between a mom and her baby we would be ok.

This up-close-and-personal kind of experience is something that can only happen when in the hands of an experienced ranger who knows ‘his’ elephants well, knows their moods and quirks and how to react quickly should things become volatile.  I would definitely not recommend anyone try this on a self-drive, or with an inexperienced ranger at the wheel. Elephants are wild, large and often unpredictable!

The herd gradually crossed the road in front of us and seemed to melt into the bush… the sun was disappearing over the horizon and we still had to stop for sun-downers. G&T in hand and ‘devils on horseback’ (prunes wrapped in bacon) sizzling in a pan we stood quietly absorbing our special experience and the changing sounds of the bush as night fall slowly descended upon us.

On arrival back at the lodge, we were greeted with a smile, a wet facecloth and a glass of Amarula – which seemed appropriate seeing as the fruit of the Amarula tree is considered a favourite food of elephants. After a quick freshen up we were back for pre-dinner drinks around the bar, which offers a great opportunity to get to chat to the other guests.

Dinner at Amakhosi is special. Once we were all seated at our tables, Rejoice, our chef for the evening, introduced us to the menu – we each had a personalised copy – and we were in for a treat.

Starting with caramelised onion soup with deep fried onion rings and Greek yoghurt garlic oil; then fresh caprese salad with basil pesto and balsamic reduction; kudu loin served with sautéed baby marrow ribbons, butternut mash, sweet potato puree and red wine jus finished off with pecan pie and Amarula ice cream. All beautifully and creatively plated, something I hadn’t really expected in the bush.

Each day at Amakhosi starts with an early morning wake-up call, then coffee and rusks on the deck before setting off on a morning game drive. Being late March, the morning was quite chilly so the blankets waiting for us on the open game viewing vehicle were most welcome, especially as we dipped into the valley to cross the fast flowing Mkuze River, shrouded in early morning mist.

This morning we were heading up into the more mountainous region of the Reserve, the higher we climbed the more spectacular the view! The mist continued to hang in the valleys giving the appearance of a vast inland sea dotted with dark mysterious islands.

We eventually came to a stop on a high plateau – our coffee stop for the morning… the bush coffee (filter coffee and Amarula instead of milk and sugar) tasting all the sweeter for the view. As the sun warmed up, the mist lifted as did our need for jackets, and we were able to spot giraffe, impala and nyala in the distance. Whilst the others were more interested in the view, it was the tiny things that held me captive. A spider web glinting in the early morning sun, its delicate strands dripping with ‘diamonds’, its owner sunning itself oblivious of the close inspection. Despite the rocky mountaintop, the surrounding grasslands were rich in diversity, with numerous grasses and a few other flowering plants – spring and summer being the best time for wild flowers.

Breakfast followed our return to the Lodge… a continental buffet breakfast with the yummiest homemade health bread and full English breakfast is available. The fun part of every meal at Amakhosi is the trading of ‘did you see’ stories as each guest relives their experience in the bush – each one different, but none less memorable than the other.

We were getting used to the routine at Amakhosi… after breakfast guests have the opportunity of relaxing at the main pool, subjecting themselves to being lavishly pampered at the SPA or just relaxing on the deck of their suite enjoying the ambience of the African bush. We chose the latter, followed by a dip in our private pool and a nap.

Ready and refreshed we set off for high tea (again *sigh*) and the afternoon drive.

This time we were after buffalo and rhino, and before long spotted a couple of buffalo, stragglers from a rather substantial herd… and Phillip, with his knowledge of the terrain soon had us watching them as the watched us, uncertain but just a little curious. Quickly losing interest they continued to graze, occasionally knocking horns, just to prove who was boss.

The rhino continued to elude. Their recently occupied resting spots and the fresh dung quite evident… even Jeremy’s recee into the bush following tracks yielding nothing but the direction in which they had moved. It was G&T time again, and then we had a ‘date’ with General Manager Alwyn to see if we could find a few late season frogs…

Being ankle deep in a swamp in ‘Big 5’ territory, with nothing but a headlamp, is quite an adrenalin rush. Alwyn had a rifle, which gave only a slight sense of security, as I’m sure he was more focussed on finding the little critters that were melodiously serenading for a mate than worrying about the much bigger critters in the long grass around us… It didn’t take long before I was focussed on little other than the frogs either – such is the delight of a frogging safari.  We ticked off a few species, but it is the summer months that provide the best experience. I’m looking forward to that…

Fresh into our drive the following morning we ‘woke’ a couple of white rhino, who had been languishing in their roadside resting spot, reluctant to greet the early dawn.  Today was obviously rhino day, as soon after we came across another, a lone male – dehorned. Amakhosi had recently purchased him as a breeding male, and he had arrived in this state… sad to see him like this. Unfortunately the threat of rhino poaching often leaves game farmers little choice, but even this doesn’t ensure their safety as poachers will still risk life and limb to get at the little stub of horn that is left behind.

While we were out frogging the evening before, the rest of ‘our’ group had heard the elephant trumpeting along the river so Phillip decided it was worth a look… and was it worth it!!

After a successful river crossing, the water depth even taking Phillip and Jeremy by surprise, we were following the elephants and could soon hear them in the thick bush. What was to follow was another memorable ‘close encounter’, the elephant happily grazing and browsing around us, seemingly oblivious of us being there.

One mouthful of greenery rapidly followed by another, the only concern being the occasional fly which was easily dealt with by a swish of the tail or flap of the ears. What an incredible privilege to experience one of Africa’s finest creatures in its natural habitat, unthreatened and relatively secure.

It seemed fitting to end our time in the bush at Amakhosi with a coffee break along the MkuzeRiver. The melodious sound of emerald spotted doves complementing the swooping flighty movements of European bee eaters feeding overhead…

Our safari ‘newbies’ were totally transformed, captivated by the ruggedness of Africa, her unpredictability and her beauty – going home with memories to last a lifetime.

Africa… and Amakhosi, at her best!

Words – Tessa Buhrmann