• Richard Brown

The wilds of the Waterberg

Updated: Aug 19, 2020


Two and a half hours from Joburg, in the beckoning bushveld of the Southern Limpopo, lies Mabula Game Lodge, an easy escape from the big-city bustle. The rhythms of the Waterberg are slower, and falling into the gentle beat of the bush is effortless, especially in this little lap of luxury with a G&T in hand.

I had visited Mabula many years before, and remember thinking at the time that the tired old facade, exhausted entertainment areas, jaded dining room and knackered sleeping quarters were in urgent need of an upgrade. It was a relic from the old Northern Transvaal that needed sprucing up in a big way. And spruced up it was.

After a long slog from Cape Town (we flew to Lanseria and drove 200 km to the lodge), we arrived to a welcome party of lazily grazing nyala, a family of warthogs picking insects off the lush front lawn, and a contingent of bright-eyed and friendly staff who furnished each of us with a reviving welcome drink in a calabash. After checking us in at the lavish new reception area, a posse of porters whisked us through a lovely sitting area across a newly-built deck and wonderful dining stoep and past an ancient fig tree to our thatch-roofed suites.

The suites, adorned with natural textures and earthy colours, are comfortable, and more than merit their four-star rating. Simple and unpretentious with touches of luxury, each suite has fluffy beds, its own lounge, and a patio from which to enjoy the antics of the vervets or the more docile dassies baking in the afternoon sun.

After a large lunch (it’s buffet style so, inevitably, mine was large), we set off into the bush on the back of a game viewer with trusty ranger Louw behind the wheel. The reserve is 12 000 ha, which means it certainly isn’t small, but you’re also unlikely to drive for too long before spotting something. In our case, the first sighting – a few minutes after departing from the lodge – was a white rhino and her young calf. Unperturbed by the cruiser, the dusty duo grazed contentedly, mere metres from our flitting lenses. Not a bad start, and it would only get better.

I’m never a demanding passenger on a game viewer. I’m generally just happy to tag along, to breathe in the gamey and grassy aromas of the bush and – in this case – to admire the verdant and undulating vistas of the Waterberg. We passed scores of wildebeest and hartebeest, a kudu, more rhino and a tower of giraffes. At one point we stopped at a waterhole and laughed at the clumsy efforts of a young yellow-billed stork trying and failing to catch fish, only for it to look on in what seemed like dismay as a seasoned spoonbill swooped in and made it look easy, scooping up a fingerling within seconds. Perhaps the spoonbill had the superior cutlery…

Suddenly, Louw’s radio crackled with an excited message that those of us in the back of the truck strained to interpret, but Louw, smiling sneakily, gave nothing away – he just drove a bit faster. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at a scene that people pay a lot of money to witness first-hand, a spectacle that we’ve all seen on Nat Geo and Animal Planet a hundred times, but that few have been privy to in the frightening colours of real life.

Louw cut the engine; I heard the bones crunching before I saw them. My vision zoned in on the sound and my eyes finally found the tawny outlines feasting on the striped carcass of a zebra, not 15 metres from our vehicle. Half of the pride had already had their fill and lay panting in the afternoon sun. The younger siblings were still gorging themselves and growling angrily at one another as they fought for real estate on the kill. We sat transfixed. Only after a few minutes did I remember I owned a camera, and snapped a few shots of the feeding lions. What a privilege.

We went on morning- and noon game drives over the next few days and, although the zebra-kill sighting was never bettered, we did see plenty else, including a huge herd of buffalo, a family of elephants vandalising a road sign, and a bloat of hippo – or, at least, several pairs of beady eyes that checked us out over submarine snouts, which I assumed belonged to submerged hippo.

Cheetah have also been introduced to the reserve in recent years, and we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of them after tracking the two collared males using telemetry.

On the third day we went on a horseback safari. We had the choice between horse and quad bike, but I can’t imagine who would want to sully the serenity of the bush with the braaap-ing of a motorbike, so we saddled up and hoofed it.

A mounted safari has several benefits, including height and mobility, but the horses can also get much closer to game than vehicles or humans on foot can. We rode alarmingly close to rhino, giraffe and a huddle of wildebeest who peered at us suspiciously, but still let us come within spitting distance.

After an hour-and-a-half’s ride, the spa was calling. Mabula Spa is renowned for its variety and quality of treatments, and I opted for the deep tissue massage – an absolute life changer. Then, to round off a perfect day, we had a delectable dinner in the beautiful new boma area. It was dinner and a show, as African dancers performed to the traditional beats of drums, and even got some of the crowd involved.

Our last game drive served up plenty of birds (there are 300 species on the reserve), including sightings of knob-billed ducks, a tawny eagle and a malachite kingfisher. We again circled the pond where the yellow-billed stork had been bested by the spoonbill in the fishing stakes a few days prior, to find that an unfortunate wildebeest had got stuck in the mud and drowned in the interim, with only a lonely grey heron there to pay its respects. It was surely a matter of hours before the hyenas came calling.

All in all, Mabula was a pleasant surprise. It is an excellently run reserve crawling with healthy game, the game rangers are vastly knowledgeable, the lodge itself is brimming with character and luxury, and the food and service are impeccable. Plus, it is one of few remaining reserves where South Africans needn’t break the bank for a little deluxe time in the bush. And don’t we all deserve that once in a while?

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