You know you’re in for a safari with a difference when within the first 10 minutes of arrival you’re on foot and staring in awe at a four-metre long African rock python as it slowly slithers off the ground and up a nearby tree.
And in hindsight – this really did set the tone for the rest of the weekend: a safari experience that veers away from the predictable, consistently delighting with unexpected moments that feel like they’ve been created just for you.
This wasn’t our first trip to the 35 000-hectare Welgevonden Game Reserve in the Waterberg, Limpopo Province, but it was the first time that we got to see just how diverse its terrain is. On game drives, as we went out in search of the elusive half-collared kingfisher (which sadly still hasn’t make it onto our life list), we were treated to stunning riverine landscape of rocky crags, alongside deep valleys, before heading into the wide-open grasslands to track down the big cats.
To the playful irritation of the reserve’s other rangers, our guide, Ivan Ueckermann found the lion pride before anyone else on both of our morning drives – once while we were so completely absorbed in photographing the ubiquitous Namaqua dove that my husband and I completely missed a pride of three huge lions just a couple of metres away. Other special sightings included eland, rhino and a swaggering elephant in musth, along with a variety of plains game.
In 2013, Mhondoro’s main lodge was gutted by a devastating fire – but the owners, Dutch nationals, Frank and Myriam Vogel, took the next two years to completely rebuild it and at the same time, they developed a luxurious exclusive-use villa, which we had the opportunity to stay in.
The clever design and décor of the villa manages to perfectly tread the delicate line between contemporary and organic, with little touches that make it homely and welcoming at the same time. Tan leather couches against screed floors along with woven baskets and natural textiles meld African influences together with European.
The Mhondoro villa sleeps six guests, with a vast master suite complete with private lounge, fireplace and free-standing bath, along with two additional bedrooms (also both en-suite). It has an open plan lounge with fireplace, both indoor and outdoor dining areas and a fully-equipped kitchen and comes with a dedicated guide, game-viewing vehicle, personal chef and butler.
With its own swimming pool and deck, well-equipped gym and separate yoga room, guests have the option of remaining in the privacy of the villa, or joining guests at the main lodge which is just a one-minute walk away. Again – it’s the unexpected little touches that make this property so special, from everything on hand to make the perfect tomato cocktail, through to remote-controlled fireplace!
For those who like to stay somewhat in touch with the outside world – there is free and fast Wi-Fi throughout the villa and main lodge.
Did you know that you can gauge the strength of a kudu’s immune system by the whiteness of its stripes? Or that the fiscal shrike (also known as the Jacky Hangman) usually doesn’t return to eat its carefully spiked biltong? Or that birds have a protein in their eyes that reacts to magnetic forces and helps them to navigate when migrating? Well, we didn’t – but thanks to our Ivan our guide, we left with these facts, along with dozens more. There was no such thing as an uneventful game drive, and even during those times when there wasn’t much to see, he made sure to keep us entertained with excellent anecdotes and fascinating insights.
Without a doubt, one of the most unique features of Mhondoro is its special photographic hide, accessed day or night via a 65-metre long tunnel from the main lodge. Sunken so that you’re gazing over a waterhole at eye level, you get a truly up-close-and-personal perspective of all the wildlife that flock here to drink.
Another highlight was the surprise 30-minute spa treatment that was thrown in. The on-site spa overlooks the lodge’s waterhole via glass fold-away doors, but seeing as we were there during winter, we kept these firmly shut and instead enjoyed the crackling warmth from the fireplace. The spa menu includes facials, pedicures and manicures, along with full range of massages, from aromatherapy through to hot stone massages.
Time was short and the winter chill and some cloud cover had set in, so we didn’t get the chance to do some of the other activities on offer, including star gazing, but when conditions permit, I’m sure a night spent learning more about the southern hemisphere’s constellations from the custom-built star deck with telescope, would provide the perfect end to the day.
“Unforgettable” and “carrot soup” are not words I ever thought I’d use in the same sentence, but it really is the only way I can describe the delicious way our arrival lunch kicked off. Followed by a generous platter to share of roast lamb, chargrilled corn and bulgur wheat and avocado salad – this is a different kind of bush dining.
A huge focus is placed on healthy cuisine that will leave you feeling full but energised – all inspired by what’s in season in their own organic herb and veggie garden. For us, it was loads of winter veg like carrot, beetroot, radish and spinach, always beautifully plated up on wooden boards and slates, always served along with freshly baked bread of varying flavours.
For our last night, we were treated to a boma evening with a much-needed roaring fire warming up the candle-lit tables. The food was grilled on the open fire, with kudu fillet on offer along with delicately-cooked fish foil parcels – but the clear winner of the evening was the impala potjie.
Even the game drive snacks were special – with the mini brownie squares being the most popular. And Mhondoro being full of their usual surprises, they sent us off with a ‘padkos’ bag with pastries, fruit and more of those prized brownies to go!
All-inclusive rates start at R5 250 per person sharing per night and include all meals, local drinks and selected house wines, twice-daily game drives, reserve entrances fees and scheduled departures from Welgevonden main gate. Villa rates start from R45 000 per night (for up to four guests).