Ross recently visited the picturesque Humala River Lodge in Barberton where he spent the weekend marveling at his incredible surroundings and relaxing in the heart of the bushveld.
One of the privileges of growing up in a country like South Africa is the opportunity to see wild animals in their natural habitat. As someone who was fortunate to visit the Kruger National Park multiple times as a child, I feel almost no desire to observe animals in a zoo. Ethical and conservation obligations aside, peering into a cage or over a fence cannot rival the thrill of spotting a wild and dangerous rhinoceros through the trees or trying to get a photo of a baby giraffe before its mother herds it gently away. When my wife and I heard about Humala River Lodge in the Songimvelo game reserve, we pictured a Kruger Park experience. We were wrong – and gladly so.
At the entrance to the reserve, we met some of the friendly and professional staff of Humala River Lodge. They directed us to the shaded parking where our car would remain for the weekend, since no public vehicles are allowed in the reserve. Our bags were tagged according to our chalet number and whisked away while we enjoyed delicious biltong and our choice of fruit juices or sherry with the other guests. It was then that we discovered that we were two of 16 guests and that we, along with the staff, were the only humans on the largest provincial game reserve in the country.
The drive to the lodge took about an hour, but the time was measured in moments of excited observation, not minutes. The average South African game drive is on relatively even roads across mostly flat terrain. The landscape here was frequently broken by soaring hills and distant mountains, the dirt roads winding unpredictably through the bush. Wessel, our knowledgeable driver and (as we later discovered) manager of the Humala River Lodge, told us that the roads are inaccessible to smaller vehicles by design. The hope of those invested in the reserve is to minimize the impact of game viewing on the diverse flora and fauna in the park.
Over the four game drives that followed that weekend, we came to realise that the animals behaved differently toward us than we had come to expect. It's not uncommon to be ignored by a zebra in the Kruger, or to be disappointed when the movement behind a tree turns out to be an impala, or a hundred of them. Not so in Songimvelo. The contagious wonder of the Americans and Canadians in our vehicle caused me to reassess my definition of a good game-viewing experience. Even impala moved away when we came close. Giraffes and zebras, blue wildebeest and blesboks all stared warily at us from their small herds, and youngsters were ushered protectively away by their mothers. Wessel told us that this is not a fear of humans per se, but a natural fear of an unknown creature. The animals reacted to us as they would have had they never seen humans before. This is very close to the untouched wild. While they provide top class accommodation and are attentive to their guests' every need, Wessel emphasised at our first pre-drive briefing that he also wants his guests to experience this beautiful piece of Africa in its natural state and with its eccentricities and imperfections.
We may have missed the herd of elephants that strolled near the lodge, but stopping for sundowners just a few hundred metres upwind from a pair of rhinoceros was an experience for the books. Humala's rewarding approach to a game-viewing retreat was evident in the many small moments like this. The staff surprised us with one such moment on our way back from a fascinating walk to a San rock art site on the reserve. Having had only rusks and coffee on our early morning drive to the start of the walking trail, we were eager to get back for brunch, but we knew that the return journey was not brief. We rounded a corner and couldn't believe our half-hearted game-spotting eyes: brunch had been brought to us! In the middle of a bridge over the river were end-to-end tables and seating for all, a buffet table of breakfast choices and refreshments. While we sampled the fruit salad, muesli and yoghurt, the chef and staff prepared a cooked breakfast and served us with flair. We felt as if we'd stumbled onto a movie set.
When we weren't on a game drive or enjoying one of the chef's delicious creations in the company of the other guests, we spent precious down-time reading and dozing in our chalet with a generous view of the untouched wild, or briefly enjoying the African sun next to the pool. The lodge and its chalets are arranged above and along the bank of the snake-like Komati river, which winds its way through the reserve and on towards Mozambique in liquid defiance of the drought conditions in the region. The hilly terrain necessitates some separation between the chalets, which lends to the feeling of solitude in a wild landscape (and a bit of a walk to the further chalets). Meal times, however, were a social affair and we met diverse and friendly people from other countries for whom the reserve was an exotic and exciting experience. For the sake of these guests, and in support of a local youth development program, we were treated to a traditional Swazi dance performance around a bonfire on the Saturday evening. The young performers were energetic and entertaining, kicking their feet impossibly high and flinging sand into the hair of the enraptured Canadians.
Two nights was not enough time for us to fully appreciate the peaceful beauty of the reserve, but it was an experience that realigned my concept of game-viewing and reminded us of the great privilege of living in South Africa. Oh yes, and it inspired me to one day build an outdoor shower with a view.