There are game reserves aplenty vying for that moneyed six-star market that demands bespoke experiences and don't mind paying for them. Only a handful gets providing the holy trinity of experiences - superb hospitality, absolute privacy, and breath-taking environment right.
Are you game for a view?
ZuluWaters, previously marketed as Dalton Private Reserve, may be the new gold standard. Singita Lodges where ever they may be have long been considered the ultimate in game experience. I mention them here to illustrate that while ZuluWaters doesn't yet meet them in the weightiness of their team of rangers or in delivering multi-course tasting menus, ZuluWaters may just be the one to dethrone the current lodge kings.
You'll see a zebra... or two, maybe many more... crossing your path.
Set on six combined cattle farms in the hills and valleys of KZN-Midlands, near Escourt, the 3000ha reserve around the Bushman's River delivers plains game - disease-free buffalo, antelope, bush pig, warthog, zebras and white rhino. There are small cats such as African wild cat, serval and Genet and other predators such as caracal, black-backed jackal and brown hyena but - and here is where the region differs dramatically from other wild-life areas, because of the absence of big cats, elephants and giraffe which the vegetation cannot support. For first-timers this may be disappointing but we enjoyed the relative calmness and healthy heard sizes over the imminent threat of death.
What better than a picnic under the trees?
When people speak about game viewing in Namibia and Kenya they focus on the vast herds and I had my first experience of this in South Africa at ZuluWaters. Except for loners such as the adorable Oribi - tiny antelope even smaller than common duikers - seeing large eland herds loping across the plains or vast numbers of zebra dazzling us as they scatter around our approaching vehicle is a real treat. As a summer rain-fall area, it is hard to imagine the yellow and browns of the parched vegetation take on an emerald hue in summer. The skies are also unpredictable in that because of the proximity to the Drakensberg mountains flocks of vultures eye the ZuluWaters plains for in-flight snacking. There must have been 50 of them overhead while we climbed to the top of the koppie for a view down to the river.
Comfortable and well-appointed to ensure a restful and relaxing sojourn.
This is a place that takes its name from its location. Dalton is the name of the historic bridge over the Bushman's River and ZuluWaters or perhaps even more accurately San Waters takes its name from spear and arrow sharpening stones in the river. To run your fingers over the slender indentations in the rock is to be in touch directly with the hunting that took place here for hundreds if not thousands of years. Hunting and trout fly fishing still occur at ZuluWaters but as part of the property's conservation and commercial viability. That was how Australian-born owner Ian Gowrie-Smith first came to the property. As a Fortune 500 luminary, Gowrie-Smith has brought his business nous and exacting standards to the project.
Local really is lekker - even if it's local aliens
Most impressive for me is how everything on site is built from black wattle, gum and other alien timbers found on the site while slate and stone used in the construction is cut from the land itself. Architects Koop Design won the 2010 AfriSAM SAIA Excellence in Architecture Award for Sustainable Architecture for the project. This waste-nothing philosophy is echoed in the cuisine prepared by personal chef Mbongiseni Makhaye who grows fruit and vegetables on site and uses game and poultry raised on the land. If ever there were an expression of a locavores desire to eat seasonal, organic and locally-sourced food, this is it.
Just the place to relax after a hectic day of picnicking and game viewing.
The villa's kitchen has rows of jars of preserved summer vegetables to serve during winter while vast freezers preserve the sweetest strawberries, frozen immediately after picking, for later use. The bacon served at breakfast is from bush pig, cured and smoked by Chef Makhaye. Nothing goes to waste - the surrounding communities of Ezindikini, Mhubheni and Dalton Bridge benefit from every kill and skins are cured on the premises and available for sale.
Accommodations are available in a three-bedroomed exclusive-use villa which owner Gowrie-Smith stays in when he visits, Reservoir House that accommodates two couples and Lake Cottage for honeymooners. All accommodation is upscale but the villa, branded as Shaka Lodge, is furnished in a deluxe style with timber clad walls and floors and superb carpentry forming the skeleton of the property. Décor is masculine and unfussy but luxury is visible in the quality and number of desk-height plug fittings, Wi-Fi and internet connections and a Bose home cinema and sound system that delivers a movie theatre experience.
Not Brian Berkman's favourite choice of transport, but a great way to explore nature.
The nearby Equestrian Centre provides mounted game-viewing experiences on beautiful Appaloosa or Paint horses with experienced guides who, even for the super skittish such as I am, were willing to take the reins and lead my horse on a memorable experience.
After the two or three-hour experience a picnic lunch is available. Pay R250 for a two hour trail and R350 for a three hour trail along the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains while the picnic is an extra R200 per person.
Fishing and hot-air ballooning experiences are also available at ZuluWaters at an additional fee but a stay there will not easily be forgotten.
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