I was at the luxurious 5-star Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa, in the 35,000-hectare Welgevonden Game Reserve in Limpopo, a mere 2h45-minute drive from Johannesburg. Its location within the magnificent Waterberg Mountain range ensures breath-taking scenery amid rock strewn mountains, pristine water courses and diverse vegetation.
A deep roar filled the void between us and the concealed riverbed and I quivered as it reverberated through my whole being… or perhaps it was the excitement and anticipation? We waited patiently, but he chose not to emerge, so we opted to head off and leave him in peace. He continued to roar intermittently in the distance while we enjoyed sundowners beneath the last rays of the setting sun.
Being home to the Big 5, including a large well-protected white rhino population and a ‘resident’ herd of elephant that visits the waterhole at the lodge on a regular basis, but tend to prefer a drink from the natural, salt-water swimming pool. There’s even a #poolellie selfie spot – how’s that for ellies getting into the social media groove!
Meals times are a treat at Dutch-owned Mhondoro, with beautifully presented cuisine that is true to its roots – African chic with an edgy European influence. The lunches are light and the local South African wine well chilled, the view across the shimmering pool to the waterhole beyond a delight. A few zebras quench their thirst and a couple of warthog ferret around in the dirt.
Binoculars in hand and camera at the ready, we head out for an afternoon game drive. A dazzle of zebra watches us nonchalantly, a lone wildebeest in their midst. We stop in a clearing and appreciate the results of Welgevonden’s renowned anti-poaching unit – a security success story that has resulted in the reserve being a safe space for the endangered white rhino. Quite a feat on a continent ravaged by the scourge of poaching. We watch as they haul their bulk effortlessly, their crinkled folded skin, mud caked, and their ears a delicatessen for red-billed oxpeckers.
A woodland kingfisher calls in the distance as we seek out the male lion that another vehicle briefly spotted. He is well concealed in the riverine forest and we must be satisfied with the occasional roar.
Back at the lodge we are treated to a traditional South African feast within the walls of the boma and beneath a canopy of stars. The oxtail stew is delicious and the red wine flows freely. Just the recipe for a good night’s sleep.
Mhondoro sleeps only 24 guests, with accommodation including two child-friendly Family suites, a romantic Honeymoon suite, and a 2-bedroom Executive Suite – which I share with a colleague. We each have a spacious private bedroom with en-suite bathroom, complete with indoor and outdoor showers plus a bathtub just waiting to be appreciated. I love that the bathroom amenities are Rain natural products as they’re locally made and free from chemicals, and they are provided in bulk dispensers on the wall. The comfy couches in our lounge invite me to chill with a book, but it’s the heat of the day and the private deck and plunge pool wins out.
Those looking for the ultimate in luxury and privacy can opt for the Mhondoro Villa which features a magnificent master suite and two additional bedrooms and comes with a private gym, yoga or massage room and a heated swimming pool. All this comes with a game-viewing safari vehicle with personal guide, and the services of a chef, butler, and housekeeping staff – and most certainly defines luxury!
Finding lions was clearly on our mind as we headed out on our game drive the next morning and we were soon rewarded with an indistinct footprint on the sandy road. ‘It could be the female’ we are told… and our search begins.
Our guide scans the road ahead, pausing occasionally to check the spoor – but it’s hyena, from the night before. Then suddenly the trail becomes evident, not just one lion, but two! ‘It’s the sub-adults’, and we follow as they veer into the grass then emerge further on. We hear a kudu bark in alarm, and head in that direction. Nothing, so we head back in the direction of where we spotted them last.
Movement on our right reveals them walking determinedly through the bush, they veer back on to the road in front of us and continue, then pause a while. Ever alert. Their keen focus on something ahead. I see rhino grazing and think ‘surely not’. Then I spot the warthogs…
Hunting as a team the one lion approaches head-on whilst the other veers right, past the rhino, into the bush. The warthog scatter and the chase is on – it happens so fast that we miss the final moment. Up ahead on the road we see the hapless warthog in the lion’s grip. It is horrible to watch and we hear it squeal relentlessly as it tries to break free.
Eventually yielding to the death grip around its throat and providing a well-earned meal. These young lions have done well, a little clumsy and not as skilled as their mum would have been, but that’s all part of their learning process.
We move on in silence, quite sobered by the harsh reality of the bush. A lone ostrich pecks at the gravel alongside the road, it too has lost a mate plus his brood of five chicks. There are many hazards in the bush, all part of the food chain, nature’s way.
We too need our sustenance and have breakfast in the bush – freshly prepared pancakes with bubbly on the side. Our tummies full and our mood restored we head back to the lodge for a well-earned relax at the spa.
I spend some time with Fritz Breytenbach, Mhondoro’s General Manager, to learn about their eco-initiatives. He tells me that in line with the vision of the Dutch owners, Frank and Myriam Vogel to further reduce the carbon footprint of the lodge, various eco-friendly initiatives have been put in place. I already knew each guest receives a steel water bottle, easily refilled from the glass decanters in the main lodge. Fritz tells me that their water supply comes from an underground borehole, is filtered, and purified and then supplied to all taps throughout the lodge.
I also knew that check-in is done digitally to reduce the use of paper, but what I didn’t know was that they use re-usable leather wallets for gratuities which saves about 2000 envelopes per year. I get to peek through a back door and see all the recycling bins – Mhondoro recycles all glass, paper and plastics used at the lodge, and has an agreement with Nespresso to recycle used coffee pods and grinds. Even the grey water gets recycled – after collection it goes through a water filtration system and then used for irrigation.
Most impressive though is their major solar power installation, an array of 620 solar panels and a massive battery storage facility. Fritz proudly tells me that this is the largest solar operation at a lodge in Limpopo province and has successfully taken the lodge off the grid to be self-sufficient in terms of all its electricity requirements. Even with air-conditioners running during the hot summer months.
Other recent additions to the Mhondoro footprint includes the purchasing of two farms measuring about 2 400 hectares adjoining Welgevonden Game Reserve. These tracks of derelict farmland are being rehabilitated and over time will become protected wilderness areas. A section of one of the farms is being utilized to grow fresh produce for use at the lodge. It includes a chicken coop for farm fresh eggs and a greenhouse where herbs and vegetables are grown, with surplus produce donated to the surrounding communities.
That afternoon we head out in a different direction in search of the elusive elephants – they weren’t coming to us so we would search for them instead. And find, we did. A small herd scattered amongst the boulders of a rocky koppie, a cantankerous looking old bull that thankfully strode past us without further thought and another, more relaxed and content, feasting on the abundant vegetation.
Add more rhino to the mix, a large herd of eland, more zebra and wildebeest, and even a couple of jackals. Our night drive back was interrupted by a stroppy young bull on our left and further up a large grey roadblock that in the dark, with a ravine on one side and thick bush on the other, our guide was unwilling to chance. A numerous point turn and a major detour later had us ticking buffalo off our list too – albeit a brief glimpse of rather scraggly old dagga boy before he disappeared. Leopard and the other nocturnals, hyena, aardvark and aardwolf, eluded us, but that’s the nature of the bush.
Our last morning had us heading out from the lodge on a short bush walk in preference to a drive. We walk quietly and slowly, a group of five rhino appear to be asleep near the waterhole, one stirs, we stop. I hold my breath. We move on slowly. The zebras aren’t as comfortable with us on foot as they were with our vehicle and they watch us warily, a wildebeest snorts with concern. We see spoor where a cheetah has crossed the path the night before.
We learn that the larvae of the marble emperor moth feeds on the leaves of the wild syringa (Burkea Africana), that the fruit of the stamvrug (Englerophytum magalismontanum) is a popular veld fruit and a welcome thirst quencher when walking in the mountains and that the soft leaves of the velvet bushwillow (Combretum mole) make useful toilet paper when caught unprepared. We watch a toktokkie beetle as it randomly taps its abdomen on the ground and inspect the elaborate burrow of a burrowing scorpion alongside the path.
This is what I love about a walk in the bush, the quiet – except for the sounds of nature, the fact that all the senses kick in, and that one gets up close with the little creepy crawlies and plants.
There’s time for one last breakfast, and hopefully a bit more action at the waterhole. Packed and ready to go I head down the steps and along the 65m reinforced concrete tunnel that connects the main lodge to the underground game viewing hide. I’m rewarded with a herd of zebra.
They’re a little wary at first but slowly venture closer to drink. What a wonderful way to end my time at Mhondoro, up close, but not quite personal, just as it should be.