• Richard Brown

Waterberg wanderings

For an unbeatable wildlife experience in the bushveld after lockdown, head to Welgevonden Game Reserve in the malaria-free Waterberg region of Limpopo. Basing myself at Mhondoro Safari Lodge and Villa pre-Covid, I dusted off my khakis for an exhilarating safari.

You don’t know fear until you’ve had a peed-off elephant charging at you at full tilt. It’s a hopeless feeling of impending doom, a primal certainty that your end has arrived. I’ve had the misfortune of being at the wrong end of an elephant charge on several occasions – I suppose if you are idiotic enough to regularly put yourself in harm’s way, you shouldn’t be surprised when it keeps befalling you. Luckily, none of the incidents have ended in tragedy, and I was once again fortunate to survive the wrath of a big female elephant while on a safari with Mhondoro Safari Lodge in the Welgevonden Game Reserve.

A giant’s rage

One of the many drawcards of Mhondoro Safari Lodge is its raised vantage point over a favoured watering hole. The lodge’s warm salt-water swimming pools are also rather popular with the huge population of elephant, who like to slip their trunks over the raised edge of the pool for a drink. In fact, guests of Mhondoro have the unique (and safe, I was assured) opportunity to be wallowing in the pool while elephants slurp up big trunkfuls of water at the other end. Every day at sunset, like clockwork, a legion of elephants would slowly and surely make their way towards Mhondoro to quench their thirst and wash off the day’s dusty heat.

One evening while coming back from a game drive, our way was blocked by a steady stream of thirsty ellies on their way to the lodge. Greg, our capable young ranger, stopped at a safe distance, shut off the engine and told us to be quiet while we wait out the traffic. There we sat, transfixed as the hulking shadows crossed the road metres away, their great reverberating bellies the only interruptions in the twilit silence. Around 50 of them must have already crossed when a big matriarch bringing up the rear – who hadn’t noticed us – was startled when she caught wind. Turning furiously our way, she let out a booming trumpet. Staying unfazed, Ranger Greg made some calming sounds to try and ward her off. But she was having none of it, and soon the massive pachyderm was thundering in our direction.

When an elephant charges, it’s a good sign – if somewhat counter-intuitive – if their ears are flapping. This indicates that it’s a mock charge and only intended to intimidate. But this angry female’s ears were firmly tucked back, her head down and she was sounding her battle cry. Disheartening signs, to say the least… Hurriedly, Greg started the Cruiser’s rumbling diesel engine and gave it a roaring rev. It stopped the elephant in her tracks, but only momentarily. When she dropped her colossal head and bore down on us for a second time, revving the engine clearly wasn’t going to cut it. Thankfully, this is when Greg decided to floor it and get us out of there. As we pulled off, the elephant’s giant tusks must have been mere metres from making impact. For a few mind-numbing seconds, she charged after us and looked to be gaining, until promptly giving up. With an irate shake of the head, she turned away and continued back to the herd. Our 22-year-old ranger had handled a serious situation with a calm and composed competence belying his years, and I cannot fault any of the decisions he made.

Somewhat shaken, but also exhilarated and in one piece, we arrived at the lodge at the same time as the elephants. And this time round, we were able to watch them safely from behind the barrier as they drank thirstily from the pool.

Bush opulence

Back in 2013, Mhondoro was gutted by fire. Not to be discouraged, Dutch owners Frank and Myriam Vogel took the next two years to rebuild the five- star lodge, reopening it in 2015 with the addition of a stand-alone Villa, which we were fortunate enough to call home for a few days.

Perfect for both families or groups, the exclusive (and certainly upmarket) three-bedroom Villa sleeps six, has a private pool, expansive deck overlooking the watering hole, indoor and outdoor dining areas, and even a gym and yoga room. To top it all off, a personal chef, ranger and game vehicle mean guests can kick back in the privacy of the Villa throughout their stay, but still have free rein of the main lodge too.

The main lodge is no less attractive an accommodation option. Like the Villa, the lodge area and five free-standing suites are designed for comfort, but with undeniable opulence. Minimalist and earthy, with a combination of African and contemporary European decor, every piece was hand-picked and each space appointed with a deliberate, voguish touch. A spa, where a menu of treatments can be booked, a gym, infrared sauna, children’s games room, stargazing platform, wine cellar, heated pools and sprawling decks round off the list of luxuries.

But the highlight of Mhondoro has to be its one-of-a-kind waterhole hide, which is accessed via a 65 m tunnel from the basement of the lodge. Here, animals including the big five can be watched undetected from the underground hide when they come to drink. It’s surreal watching the towering shapes of rhino or elephant guzzling mere metres away, and the photographic opportunities are unrivalled.

Of course, it goes without saying that at a five-star establishment you should expect the food to be of a similar standard, and we definitely weren’t disappointed. We were treated to memorable nights in the vast boma complete with roaring fires, traditional dancing, a great atmosphere and excellent locally produced food.

Creatures great and small

You can experience the undulating greenery of the Waterberg and all its wild inhabitants in a variety of ways. Game drives, bush walks, rock-art excursions and even rhino tracking are possible here. In fact, the 36 000 ha reserve is home to the world’s highest concentration of white rhino on private land. The other remarkable statistic is that not one has been poached, ever, and long may that record continue.

On our game drives with Greg, we encountered countless rhino and even witnessed a fiery territorial scramble between two massive males, while the female whose attentions they were vying for looked on. After a prolonged clash of horns, the loser trudged off with a substantial gash below his eye.

We saw four of the big five, with only a leopard sighting eluding us. But to make up for it, we encountered a leopard kill, where a fully grown zebra had been dragged several metres up a tree and perched out of reach of other predators.

Another big-five highlight was a close encounter with a burly lioness and her weeks-old cubs. Chancing upon one of Welgevonden’s western pride’s females early one morning, we watched her stalk some zebra unsuccessfully. Later, we found her sister, also stalking through the long grass – not in search of prey though, but for her cubs that she’d left somewhere that morning. We followed her as she called out to them, and when she eventually found them, it was a remarkable scene to witness. We had the sighting all to ourselves too, as mother and cubs reunited and wrestled playfully. She led them to some water for a drink, and then after a precious few minutes, they disappeared together into the tall stems of the grassy veld.

It’s not just the big five that makes game drives here a treat. It’s home to 45 other mammals, 300 species of birds and more than 2 000 types of plants. On a late-afternoon drive, the big game was scarce, but the kaleidoscope of rare birds we saw more than made up for it. First we saw an impressive black-shouldered kite that swooped down and scooped up an unsuspecting mouse, carrying it off to a perch high in a fig tree. Next, we heard a distinct chirrup and saw two pygmy kingfishers flitting about in a buffalo thorn right next to the vehicle – a remarkable sighting and one that would delight the most discerning birders. Not long after, I looked up to see a feisty starling having a go at a much larger Wahlberg’s eagle that had ventured too close to the starling’s nest.

The so-called ‘little five’ can also be seen on the reserve, and we were lucky enough to spot three of them: a leopard tortoise, elephant shrew and rhino beetle. The full house would include the buffalo weaver and ant lion. Other more elusive critters such as aardwolf, civets, and aardvark also roam the reserve, but you’d need a good slice of fortune on your side for an encounter. On our last drive, we had some remarkable luck when we caught sight of a brown hyena skulking through the grass. Welgevonden is an extraordinary park boasting such diverse topography. From sprawling grassland to verdant valleys, impenetrable forests and rocky plateaus, it is this variety of habitats that’s brought about a rich diversity of animal species. Here Africa really puts on its best display, showing off in fact, and we’re lucky to have this flourishing wilderness right in our backyard.

Know this

• Welgevonden Game Reserve is less than three hours’ drive from Joburg, making it easily accessible for a weekend getaway.

• Mhondoro Safari Lodge and Villa is one of several lodges in the Welgevonden reserve, and guests are transported from the main gate to the various lodges in game vehicles.

• Mhondoro consists of five free-standing suites (three onebedroom and two two-bedroom options), plus the three-bedroom Villa. Included with the Villa is a dedicated guide, chef, butler and cleaning staff. A fully equipped kitchen, large dining areas, private pool, gym and personal game vehicle are also part of the package, along with all the amenities at the main lodge. Suites start from R5 350 per night in peak season, while the opulent exclusive-use Villa starts from R47 000 a night during peak season. mhondoro.com

• To find out more about Welgevonden Game Reserve, and the other lodges in the reserve, visit welgevonden.org.

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