Monday, July 18, 2011

Oliver's Restaurant and Lodge, White River

Our last stop on this journey back to Durban, after two weeks on the road, was Oliver’s Restaurant and Lodge, situated just outside White River. Surrounded by the lush forests of the Mpumalanga Province, Oliver's is situated on the secure White River Country Estate and overlooks the first green of the 18-hole championship White River Golf Course. Oliver's Restaurant and Lodge is within close proximity of the Kruger National Park as well as the Blyde River Canyon and lies in a Malaria-free area. The nearby Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA) gives easy access from and to any major city in South Africa and Internationally.

We were shown to our suite –well! It had an entrance hall, with a toilet off of this, a large lounge with TV, DVD, Hi-Fi, bar fridge and gas fireplace. Off the lounge was the bedroom, which had a large canopied bed, cupboard space, a gas fireplace and then adjacent to this the bathroom, with the “usual” basins, large bath, inside and outside shower, heated towel rail and heated floor. Outside was a balcony with a large, double sun bed, overlooking the pool below. The communal areas had lounges scattered both inside and out, a pub, and dining room, which has consistently been awarded the “Top 100 Restaurants of South Africa” and lovely gardens, filled with a variety of bird-life. They also have a spa on-site for those who may wish to make use of this.

Of dinner and breakfast I only have one word – excellent. This is what one would expect from a top 100 restaurant, and they did not disappoint. For dinner I did not have a starter but instead settled for an Oliver’s Gourmet Table Salad, which was a selection of freshly picked garden lettuce with rocket, garnished with mozzarella, bacon, asparagus, artichokes, cocktail tomato, onions and avocado – this is what a salad should be, and anyway, after indulging in fine food for the past two weeks, I had to assuage my guilt!
Anyway, I had by this time also decided that I would have the Rack of Lamb as my main course and this was grilled to perfection and served with a potato-bacon rosti and vegetables – and I then also had to leave space for dessert! One does not go to a restaurant run by a chef with an Austrian background, and not have the warm Applestrudel on a homemade Vanilla Custard! Great! Janice had always said that she wanted to have the perfect Risotto, so she settled for the Creamy Italian White Wine Risotto with grilled prawns, calamari, mussels and shrimps, finished with shavings of parmesan, which she declared fantastic. It must have been – she would not leave me a taste!

The next morning I would have loved to linger over breakfast, but alas, Durban is far from White River and I had to get going, but having said that, I hope to return, rather sooner than later! Olivers is well positioned for those persons who may be travelling to the game reserves of the Lowveld, and may be arriving too late to do an afternoon game drive, to then stay here the first night. It is also in any event a destination where one may base oneself if you first want to see the sights of the Lowveld and Panorama Route before your visit to, say, the Sabi Sands.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Garonga Safari Camp, Makalali Reserve

From Vuyatela it was a drive north past Hoedspruit and Mica and into the Limpopo Province to our last game lodge that we were to visit, the Garonga Safari Camp, which is set in the Makalali Reserve. The Garonga Safari Camp is fairly easy to get to, one has a good paved road, and when you leave this road, a drive on a very good dirt road to the lodge. We parked our vehicle at a “reasonably” safe car park at the lodge. Why I say "reasonably safe, is that on the day of our departure, there were fresh lion tracks in the camp, and specificall about five metres from my car - which was perfectly okay, just as I had left it!
The lodge itself was somewhat unusual – completely different to any of the lodges that I had been to before, something along the lines of The Flintstones' homes, but in a nice way! Our accommodation was not quite a tent, not quite a suite and not really a room. For this large unit, there were brick walls under a canvas roof, a wooden deck overlooking a dry river bed, a hammock for lazing away some spare time, a large double bed, electricity, overhead fan, inside and outside shower, his and hers basins and lots of space.

The communal areas consisted of a large, thatched lounge and dining room, a large deck, also overlooking the river, a self-service bar (all drinks here are included in the tariff) and a pool. From our deck on our arrival we watched quite a large male elephant make his way down the dry riverbed to eventually disappear into the bush.

The staff here was great and the food was good. However, the game drives did not produce as many exciting sightings as had been seen before, but remember, this was not the Sabi Sands, so I was not expecting to see the vast numbers of predators that I had seen the previous few days. It would also not be fair to compare the Sabi Sands to Makalali – the Sabi Sands has been in existence in its present form for many, many years, and most of the animals in the Sabi Sands had become habituated to motor vehicles, this was still to happen in the Makalali Reserve.
Our guide was Jaffeth and our tracker Rebel, both very nice chaps, and obviously keen to do their best. That afternoon the usual impala, kudu, zebra, steenbuck, black-backed jackal and giraffe were seen. Whilst we were stopped for our sundowner drinks, I noticed some movement off in the distance. As it was dusk, I could not quite make out what these animals were, so Jaffeth had a look through his binoculars – lions! We finished our sun-downers and then made our way to the lions. It turned out to be three adult lionesses with three cubs. We followed them, but it was by this time dark, and they took us into some very thick bush (most of this reserve seems to consist of thick bush), so after a while we left them alone. We also heard hyaena calling, but failed to find them.

That evening dinner was out under the stars, and was a good South African braai, with three types of meat, soups, starters and desserts. This braai was hosted by Jaffeth, who told us some funny stories and quite a bit about his experiences as a wildlife guide. He really is an entertaining character.
The following morning we set out to follow fresh lion tracks, and ended up in the course of the morning to follow two different sets of tracks, but came up short – no lions were found, they were making themselves very scarce in the thick bush, so we settled for the usual suspects, plains game, giraffe, warthog and baboons. We also saw a group of Dwarf Mongoose, very entertaining little carnivores these. A nice surprise was during the morning we came upon a dry river bed, and here a full breakfast was set up. Tables, chairs, food, fruit juices, hot coffee, breads, cereals, cheese, biscuits, yoghurts and more were set out for our comfort.

The afternoon drive produced the usual animals, plus the three adult lionesses from the previous day, as well as two white rhino. Dinner that night was a surprise. What the staff had done, as there were only six guests at the lodge, was to have a private dinner for each couple. They had set out tables at different areas of the main lodge and served each table individually. Each table was out of sight and earshot of the other – a nice touch.

Garonga Safari Camp
is a very nice lodge, but I would be hesitant to send first time guests here purely for the reason that game is not too plentiful However, if you want a superb lodge with all the trimmings, the Garonga Safari Lodge fits this bill perfectly. Activities here include game drives, wilderness walks, sleep-outs, outdoor bush-baths and aromatherapy and reflexology sessions. Janice and I did not do the “bush bath”, but two of the other guests who had done this were thoroughly happy that they had done so, and the other two guests were going to do a “sleep-out” on the following night. The sleep out is on your own on a deck with stunning views overlooking the veldt. A mouth-watering picnic hamper, a drinks box, and hot drinks are left for you at the deck and you are left with a radio. A wash basin and toilet close by are provided. This surely rates as an exceptional lodge if one wants to spend some time here to relax and be pampered, and who knows, maybe I was just visiting at one of those times when the animals were not too keen on being seen – it happens.

Report from the camp sightings log show that for this week, cheetah, lion, elephant and white rhino were all see - herewith a note from Bernie at Garonga
Out of 10 I give the Game Viewing 7. I think the experience to be much more of a Wilderness/natural experience with “very Good” Game Viewing.

90% of our Guests are first timers and it is VERY rare that we have any “Complaint” about poor Game Viewing. Our average stay is 4 nights.

Djuma Vuyatela Lodge, Sabi Sands

From Cheetah Plains it was just a short trip to their neighbour, Djuma Vuyatela Lodge, where we stayed for just the one night. Now I know that I regret staying only one night at any lodge, but Vuyatela really was a place that I would have loved to have stayed at for many more nights. The game drives here, and we did only two, an afternoon and a morning drive, were superb and were probably the best that we had had this entire trip – and that says a lot. The Vuyatela Lodge itself was also very good, with good staff, good food and friendly service.
Our suite consisted of a bedroom, with large bed (king, queen, family? I don’t know, but it could have slept quite a few people comfortably!), separate dressing area, a big bathroom with bath, his and hers basins, shower, an outside shower and separate toilet, all with the good smelly stuff – in this case Molton Brown. Lest I forget, there was also a separate lounge, where we had lounge chairs, a desk, a bar fridge and where coffee was left for us on our morning wake-up call. Our deck, with its own plunge pool, also overlooked the waterhole that was in front of the lodge.

The public areas consisted of inside and outside lounges, a dining room, complete with a fish tank with local fresh water fish, an outside boma, large deck overlooking the waterhole, which had a whole community of residents, hippo, waterbuck, impala, wildebeest and more. There was also a lookout tower overlooking the waterhole, so one could spend some time here if one had time and a very long lens! They also had a library where there was a TV as well as two computers for use by guests wanting to use the internet, as well as a gym and a spa.

After checking in, we were treated to a sumptuous lunch and then on our afternoon game drive we were introduced to our ranger, Ephraim and Amos, our tracker. We were in the company of another photographer, a local from Johannesburg, whom I suspect was in some way connected to Djuma and who had been asked to take some photographs for them, and he was calling the shots. This worked beautifully in my favour, as I too like my photography, so was quite happy when he instructed Ephraim on occasion to park our Land Cruiser to best suit the subject and the light. All of us being keen on photography on this vehicle, we also didn’t mind spending longer than normal at a sighting, especially the leopard sightings, which I think this chap was tasked to photograph. On our afternoon drive we came upon the two leopard cubs from earlier that morning (when I was on the drive at Cheetah Plains) and we were able to spend some time with them. After a while Ephraim heard about three cheetahs that had been seen on the Kruger Park boundary, so we headed off there. Unfortunately the light was poor, but I did manage to get off a photo or two of these rarely seen animals. We also made a turn at the lion kill where the lionesses had killed the buffalo, and the feeding was still continuing here. Among others we also saw elephant, rhino and buffalo – what do you know? The big 5 in one drive!

That evening at dinner we had an interesting guest at our table – Marc Weiner, the person who does the on-line line game drives for “Wild Earth TV” in this area, and he had some interesting stories to tell. I had seen him and his cameraman in this area on quite a few occasions, in this funny vehicle with a long antenna, but was unaware of what he was doing. Now I know – he was doing a live broadcast of his game drives on the internet.
The following morning produced all the usual suspects, including the two leopard cubs again. Back at the buffalo kill, the lionesses had left the scene, and had left behind a male, who was resting up in the shade, that is until his face was touched by the sun – and with a little help from our spotlight, some photos were taken of him. We had to use the spotlight, the light was still very low. Of the leopard cubs, their mother had left them and disappeared and these two were now on their own for a few hours or for a few days, who knew? The young male was a bit shy, and did not show much of himself, but his sister was quite happy in our presence and I was able to take quite a few photos of her. After leaving them we then found another male leopard that we followed for a while, but eventually we left him in the thick vegetation. After driving around unsuccessfully for a short time, we went back to the female leopard cub. Just as we were about ready to leave the young female, I saw some movement in the distance, which turned out to be an older, mature leopard, which we then followed and stayed with for awhile until he had drunk from a waterhole. After this morning full of leopard and lion (four different leopards seen on one drive!) it was back to the lodge for breakfast and to pack.

I really enjoyed this lodge; I enjoyed the contemporary décor and art adorning the walls, the game drives, and everything about the lodge. At no stage did Ephraim or Amos indicate that time was running out – the only time that Ephraim was concerned about the time was when he asked me what time I wanted to depart. If I am at a leopard sighting, as good as these, I may never want to depart! Will I recommend this lodge to my clients – you bet I will!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cheetah Plains Lodge, Sabi Sands

Cheetah Plains, a lodge in the north of the Sabi Sands was our next stop, and we were here for two nights. It was not that far to get from Mantobeni to Cheetah Plains, and we arrived here at about midday. We were welcomed with the customary drinks and shown to our rooms. These were quite a bit smaller than what I had seen at other lodges in the Sabi Sands, but perfectly comfortable nonetheless. The room consisted of a double bed, air-conditioning, and overhead fan, tea/coffee station, outside deck, one bath, one basin, an outside shower and hair dryer. The space to hang clothing was fairly limited, but sufficient nonetheless (just!). The public areas have a gift shop, a pub and inside and outside lounges, as well as the ubiquitous TV room, as well as a pool. We did not make use of this – the cold front was still present.

The Cheetah Plains winter programme is a wake-up call at 06:00, followed by drinks and then departing for a drive at 06:30, returning at 09:30 for brunch and then an optional walk. High tea is served at 15:30 and the drive departs at 16:00, returning at 19:00, followed by dinner. They do away with breakfast and lunch, and instead offer brunch and high tea, which is a good alternative and maybe more lodges should look at this.

We were introduced to our ranger Jacques and our tracker, Patrick, and set off for the afternoon game drive which produced another huge herd of buffalo, elephants on two occasions, nyala, steenbuck, duiker, hippo, wildebeest, zebra, white-tailed mongoose, genet, civet, lesser bushbaby and then some rhino.
Dinner was enjoyed under the stars, and consisted of a good old South African braai, with a choice of meats, salads, starch, desserts, etc. Both times dinner was served under the stars in their boma, just off the lounge and pub area, as were brunch on both occasions. Brunch had a choice of hot and cold dishes, fruit, juice, cereals, yoghurts, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, eggs, toast, coffee, tea, etc.

The morning drive produced the usual animal sightings, but this time also two honey badgers – a rare sight – and two old male lions that we followed for a while. Our ranger, Jacques and our tracker Patrick, knew of a hyaena den which we also visited. However, all that was seen here on this occasion were two adult hyaena – the cubs did not want to show themselves. After this drive we returned to the lodge for brunch and to catch up on some relaxing.

That afternoon’s drive was more exciting. We saw all the usual animals again, including all of the big-5 in one drive. We also went back to the hyaena den, where we found the five young hyaena with not an adult in sight. In fact, upon stopping there, no animals were visible, but being the inquisitive animals that they are, one by one the hyaena’s came out to see what was going on and some quality time was spent with them. We followed a group of five lionesses wandering down the road and got pretty close to them and then when it was dark, we stopped at a tree where there was a leopard kill - a female leopard had killed an impala and taken it up a tree. She also had two cubs with her, but we did not see them. This was a fairly fresh kill, with blood still fresh and running down the dead impala’s neck and the leopard was beginning to feed. A hyaena was present at this site, and this may have been the reason that the two cubs did not show themselves.

That next morning we came upon the group of lionesses that we had seen the previous evening. They had killed a buffalo and were busy consuming this in some long grass. They had obviously been feeding for most of the night, as their bellies were quite full and they were pretty lethargic. We also went to the leopard kill, where we saw the female and one of her cubs in a tree, with the other one down on the ground. The mother was not letting the cub feed with her, and after a few snarls from the mother, this cub left the tree to join the other one on the ground. It was shortly after this that Jacques also left the sighting, a little prematurely I thought, as we had not spent too long here at all. On this drive all the usual suspects were also seen and we returned to the lodge for brunch.
This lodge has some good things going for it. Their tariffs are reasonable and their traversing area is quite large with animal sightings being plentiful in this area. 

Honeyguide Mantobeni Camp, Mayeleti Game Reserve

On the 24th June we arrived at Honeyguide’s Mantobeni Camp for a one night stay. This lodge, which is situated within the Manyeleti Game Reserve, is easily accessed and the entrance gate is very close to the Orpen Gate into the Kruger National Park. We drove to Honeyguide’s sister lodge, Khoka Moya, where we left our vehicle and were taken to Mantobeni by our tracker, Vestment.
The Manyeleti is a 23,000ha reserve owned and managed by the Mnisi Tribe, in conjunction with the Mpumalanga Parks Board, who claim that they are committed to retaining the integrity of the game reserve and unlocking the tourism potential to the benefit of the Mnisi people and surrounding communities. This reserve is bordered in the north by the Timbavati Private Reserve, to the east by the Kruger National Park and to the south by the Sabi Sands Private Reserve. There are no fences separating any of these reserves from one another, so animals are free to roam over this vast area.
We were shown into our tent at Mantobeni, which had a mosquito net, double bed, wooden deck, his and hers basins, two showers and a rustic sunken bath, with the usual nice smelling stuff – Charlotte Rhys in this case. The hot water was supplied by a gas geyser, which was pretty effective. This tent was also electrified and wi-fi capabilities were available throughout the camp. After checking in we were treated to a 3-course lunch at the lodge. The communal areas of Mantobeni consisted of a deck with a lounge, pub, dining area, small library and a pool, as well as an outside boma. The programme at Mantobeni followed the usual programme that most of the lodges follow: an early wake-up call, followed by hot drinks, out on the morning drive, with another stop for hot drinks, back for breakfast, then the opportunity to explore on a bush walk, lunch and then the afternoon/evening drive, with a sundowner stop during this.


Our afternoon drive with our tracker and guide, Dries, produced elephant, buffalo, kudu, impala, hippo, and a civet, among others. What we also found was a magnificent male lion laying down in a dry river bed, with great light on him – perfect for a photo, but he was far off. Dries maneuvered our Land Rover down into the river bed and across to this animal, only for the lion to get up and disappear into the long reed beds flanking the river. Did this lion not realize that he was a great specimen for a photograph, and that the position that he had been in was perfect? We did try and follow him, but this was not easy in the thick bush and we eventually gave up. On this drive we did not see too many animals, but I was quite excited, as from the signs of wildlife, such as dung, broken trees and branches, droppings and spoor, I had the feeling that this place was actually full of animals, they were just eluding us, which does happen – if you go into the bush often enough, as I am fortunate to do, there are always occasions when game will be scarce. As usual, we stopped for sundowners at a pretty scenic spot, before moving on with our drive, this time by spotlight, searching for nocturnal animals. What was nice during the sundowner stop was the lovely sunset, heralding the onslaught of cold weather. Dinner that night was superb, and I had probably one of the best pieces of duck that I had ever had – well done to Nicholas, the chef.

That night was cold, very cold. Maybe this was the reason why I was woken at about 03:00 by the sound of a lion roaring, which seemed to be just outside our tent! Maybe the lion was seeking the warmth of my tent? I had not bothered to close the tent flaps, so all we had separating us from a marauding wild animal to protect us, was a mosquito net – hardly adequate. Anyway, we weren’t attacked, and the lion (or maybe lions?) moved off, the roaring getting fainter and fainter.
On the morning drive a cold front had moved into the Lowveld and the temperature had dropped down to 1º C! The result of this was that very little was seen. We did see the usual animals, such as impala, zebra, wildebeest, klipspringer, duiker, bushbuck and a herd of about three hundred buffalo which were close to the Kruger Park boundary. We also saw plenty of predator tracks, including many tracks of hyeana, but saw no predators on this morning. As a result of this, I was down to trying to photograph birds in flight, including one grab-shot of a Martial Eagle and one of a Lilac-breasted Roller. One can imagine how well a hot mug of hot chocolate, with a tot of Amarula, went down on this cold morning during our drinks stop – very welcome.

We returned to the lodge and a hearty breakfast, before departing to our next venue. Unfortunately I only spent the one night here, which I believe does not do this reserve justice. The fact that it was so cold also meant that we did not see too much. What is maybe not too appealing about this reserve is the state of the roads, easily traversed by the game viewing Land Rover, but nonetheless poorly maintained. This may be down to the fact that the parks board does not have any money to maintain the infrastructure. The lodge itself is not high-end luxury, but is probably attractive to some-one who does not want super luxury, but wants good food, good accommodation and a very enthusiastic guide in Dries – he clearly loves his job and was very apologetic in not finding too many exciting animals for us. I would have loved to have Dries as our ranger at our next lodge!