Monday, October 1, 2012

Bongani Mountain Lodge – Keith Marallich

It was about a 10-hour drive from Durban to the Bongani Mountain Lodge, which is set in the 8,000 hectare Mthetomusha Game Reserve between Malelane and Nelspruit, at the south/western tip of the Kruger National Park. The Mthetomusha Game Reserve was one of the very first game reserves to be built on what has become the contemporary approach to community and conservation partnerships. Established through an innovative initiative by which the then Tribal Authority of the Mphakeni tribe, under the leadership of the late Chief Charles Nkosi, gave low potential agricultural land over to the management of the KaNgwane Parks Corporation for optimal and sustainable development. This approach pioneered in South Africa the concept of close community involvement in conservation. This rugged reserve, broken by granite crags and outcrops and the area’s sweeping valleys are broken by huge granite domes and rocky outcrops, resulting in three distinct woodland vegetation types which are home to a wide variety of large wildlife species such as kudu, giraffe, zebra and nyala as well as the “Big Five”. The magnificent Malelane Mountains is a place in Africa where lion, leopard, elephant buffalo and rhinoceros walk ancient paths once trodden by the First People of our continent, the San (Bushman) - their gallery of more than 200 rock frescoes is a priceless legacy.

Janice and I had left Durban behind, and I was glad to do so – we had had four days of solid heavy rain in the city and I was looking forward to some sunshine. However, we stayed in touch with the rain as it moved slowly northward, and it was only when we arrived at the car park at the lodge that there started to be some breaks in the clouds and the rain petered out. One accesses Bongani Mountain Lodge from the N4 between Nelspruit and Malelene and then onto a dirt road for about seven kilometers until one reaches the secure car park. From here you are collected and driven up the mountain to the lodge itself by a staff member – this is for your own safety – normal vehicles will not make it up this road.  We were collected by our guide, Wandile, who offered us an afternoon game drive that day, which, unusually for me, I declined – I had just travelled for ten hours in poor weather conditions in a car and I was not too sure of the weather for that afternoon anyway – it could still rain at any time! I had no more energy for another three hours or so in a vehicle. The drive from the car park to the lodge takes about 30 minutes or more, and we did see some zebra en route, as well as sign that this area had recently been visited by elephants. The road itself was rough-ish and I was later to discover that this was one of the better roads! Remember, this is called Bongani MOUNTAIN LODGE, which is a very good indication that this lodge is not situated on the flat plains, therefore, for the most part, the roads are also built on uneven ground.

Our room was spacious, with great views over the plain below. This room had one of the biggest beds that I have ever encountered – surely enough space for a few more people. In the room were a bath and basin, a small lounge and then a separate toilet and shower with an outside shower as well. There was also an outside deck with stunning views over the valley below. Janice and I that afternoon wandered around the camp and enjoyed the views. The public area (dining room and curio shop with deck) is spacious but unfortunately to get to this, one has to climb some steps – not difficult at all, but surely not possible for any people with physical handicaps. Fortunately even this little problem can be overcome – a vehicle can get close enough to the chalet and can then take a handicapped person around to the front entrance, making access a little easier. There are two pools at the lodge, a small one with great views over the valley and then a larger one on the further side of the lodge. Janice and I spent most of the afternoon on the upper deck, in line with the top of a weeping boer bean tree (Schotia brachypetala). The weeping boer bean is a handsome, medium to large tree with a wide-spreading, densely branched, rounded crown. It has a single trunk that sometimes branches low down. The flowers are rich deep red, and are produced in masses, in dense branched heads on the old wood during spring. Schotia brachypetala attracts a wide variety of birds, animals and insects and is a noisy, hive of activity while in flower. Nectar-feeding birds, particularly sunbirds, bees and insects feed on the nectar. Insect-eating birds feed on the insects attracted by the flowers. Starlings, monkeys and baboons eat the flowers, monkeys eat the seeds, birds eat the aril on the seeds and the leaves are browsed by game and black rhino also eat the bark. Now this tree was in full flower and was full of birds, which I tried to photograph – poorly I may add.

     this is the bedroom that we had at the lodge.

     just another view of the bedroom with its lounge.

     a view of the chalet from the outside.

     the smaller pool with the lovely views over the valley.

     the smaller pool from another angle.

     the larger pool, where we also enjoyed our dinner one night.

High tea that afternoon was good, as was the dinner that evening, with a choice of starters, three meat dishes, veggies and two desserts. This was held under the stars, as the weather had by now cleared and only a few clouds dotted the night sky.   

On the morning drive we went searching for the elephant whose sign we had seen on our arrival, but except for more signs, we could not find them. I was amazed by the ruggedness of this reserve – whilst the scenery was stunning, the roads were quite difficult to traverse. We did however find kudu, zebra, impala and nyala.

Breakfast was again good, looking out over the weeping boer bean with its multitude of birds, bees,  butterflies, vervet monkeys and tree squirrels and the far mountains, eating a hearty breakfast washed down by coffee and fruit juice – all is fine in Africa.

    a collared sunbird feeding on the weeping boer bean,

     as was the African yellow white-eye

     and a butterfly.

That afternoon we found a pair of klipspringer. Reaching approximately 58 cm at the shoulder, klipspringers are smaller than most other antelopes. They stand on the tips of their hooves and can fit all four hooves on a piece of cliff roughly 30 mm in diameter. Male klipspringer horns are usually about 10–15 cm. With a thick and dense, speckled "salt and pepper" patterned coat of an almost olive shade, klipspringers blend in well with the rocky outcrops on which they can usually be found. However, their agility on rocks and crags is so extreme that their most dangerous enemies are eagles and humans, so camouflage is not as important to them as to most other antelope. Klipspringers form breeding pairs rather than herds and the pairs mate for life and will spend most of their lives in close proximity to each other. When one klipspringer is eating, the other will assume lookout duty, helping to keep the pair aware of any predators. Why this long description, I hear you ask? Well, simply because I did not get a photo of these little guys so a description will have to do.

We also saw buffalo at a distance, giraffe, impala, nyala etc. and then it grew dark fairly quickly. This was then when we happened to come across a male lion, which was taking cover in some very thick bush, so I only managed to get a very poor photograph of him. What struck me about this lion, (but only after eight days, mind you), was that this was the only lion I had seen on this entire trip, having visited, in addition to Bongani Mountain Lodge first, three other lodges in two different reserves thereafter! 

     the only lion seen in eight days of safari!

Dinner that evening was a treat – a braai (that’s like a barbecue – but only better) was on offer on the lawns adjacent to the large pool. In addition to the starters, salads, veggies, boerewors (that’s like a type of sausage – but only better) and lamb chops and two desserts, they also had prawns and calamari on the braai, so, another fine meal was enjoyed.

Bongani can be a bit difficult to get to because of the condition of the road, but I have it on good authority that they will soon be opening a new access road to the lodge that will have less than a kilometer of dirt road and make the lodge easily accessible – but you will still be taken up the mountain in a safari vehicle. It also seemed as if the wildlife was a bit scarce, but this may just be due to the fact that they too had had four days of incessant rain, and nothing disturbs animal behavior more that changes in weather patterns. Try it, go to a game reserve when it is very windy, or very cold, or raining and you will have difficulty in finding the wildlife. If there is a change in weather patterns, it also takes animals two or three days to adjust to the changes. But, having said that, the only lion I had seen in eight days of game drives was this one at Bongani.

     a lodge with a view

     and a room with a view.

The lodge is well positioned with stunning views, the food is good, the staff are friendly, the tariffs are reasonable and I suspect that game viewing can from time to time be good – we did have feed-back from previous clients who had this to say about Bongani:

Dear Lisa,
I just wanted to let you know that we had a great time and Bongani Mountain Lodge was absolutely stunning!  It was so lovely I have gone onto Tripadvisor to recommend it - we really did have a lovely time, service and staff were fantastic.  Food and facilities were great.  We even saw all big 5 in one day.  Great all round.

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