It’s hard to remember back to a time before internet bookings, TripAdvisor, budget carriers or even think of an era when holidays meant just that. A time when you truly took a break from your normal life apart from the odd call or fax.
After three decades of being in the travel business I totally applaud the fact that access to our beautiful world is easier, more accessible and more streamline. We have witnessed amazing changes thanks to the merging of the digital and travel landscapes also allowing us to stay connected where ever we go in the world.
But and there is one big but… after the initial euphoria of this gift of connectivity there has been a steady thawing out to the ball-and-chain effect that means we are always plugged in and somewhat challenged to truly escape.
The result is that increasingly there is a new purposeful pilgrimage in travel to find destinations that are off the grid, spaces where travellers can digitally detox and re-connect to the natural world and plug back in with family and friends.
I read somewhere that when we plug back into the natural world and connect to what is truly precious we recalibrate our priorities and rediscover our natural equilibrium.
This trip definitely helped reset my priorities. It’s my own version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. We discovered a place where you can definitely plug back into something far more powerful than anything you can find on screen.
I’d like to introduce you to the astonishingly beautiful Limpopo province, South Africa’s northernmost region, and a little known corner of this great country. An area that sits within the great curve of the Limpopo River close to Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique. The Waterberg Biosphere is a true natural wonder.
This quiet unsung hero, just three hours drive north of Johannesburg, is part of South Africa’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It’s an area that offers its own magnificent and ancient Waterberg Mountain range, a rich tapestry of biodiversity, as well as thousand-year-old rock art that emanates from the first noted human habitation ever nearly four million years ago. This is the birthplace of the human race!
That said it’s a place where the balance of power is still firmly in the hands of mother nature.
The rolling savannahs, sparse human habitation and the natural vast wilderness as well as its climate makes for an extraordinarily rich, malaria-free safari destination all year round. Waterberg is home to a limited collection of private game reserves which guarantee travellers the best seats in the house, with a truly up-close and personal connection with this lush landscape and its wildlife.
Best for family and multi-generational stays – Jembisa
Our first bush stay was at the magnificent Jembisa, the private residence and wildlife reserve of The Whitbread Family, perhaps better known for their brewing and hospitality empire . This wonderful family lodge is now available for exclusive use as part of the Mantis Owners Collection, which as the name suggests, offer guests access to some of the most extraordinary private homes around the world ( http://mantisownerscollection.com).
From the minute we arrived, the lodge and its team, including the enthusiastic house dogs Rolo and Liquorice, wrapped their arms around us as if we were part of their family and had just arrived home. The six bedroom lodge (five en-suite rooms and a children’s bunk room) is an elegant tasteful mix of grand African lodge and quintessential English charm all sprinkled with precious touches of the owner’s treasured family memories of their personal life in the bush.
Sitting high above the Palala River with the most breathtaking views over its own 3500 hectares of private wildlife reserve, Jembisa and her land stretch as far as the eye can see. This really feels off the grid. A fact not lost on me when we signed the forms to authorise a helicopter pick up to the nearest hospital should any of the more dangerous Waterberg wildlife take too much of a shine to us.
Forms authorised and signed, we were guided to the most spectacular look-out point for afternoon tea. Sitting sipping Earl Grey on the manicured lawns of this well loved home, breathing in the vast expanse of the surrounding untamed natural beauty, a quote came to mind “life is not about the number of breaths you take , it’s about the number of moments that take your breath away ” and here at Jembisa this was one of those moments.
Whilst the Big Five are not in residence (apart from the occasional star appearance from shy leopards) their absence creates the perfect environment in which all other Waterberg wildlife thrive giving a much deeper, richer and more intimate connection with this wilderness. Hippos, giraffes, impala, wildebeest, waterbuck, kudu, zebra, warthogs and klipspringer are all abundant as are most of South Africa’s beautiful bird and insect life. All go about their day completely oblivious to our excitement as we truly step into their world, guided brilliantly by our ranger Ed. No large vehicles packed with tourists here, no jostling with other vehicles to a site to catch the best long distance glimpse of the wildlife. Just the four of us in the midst of this wilderness.
These immersive game drives were punctuated by colonial style refreshment stops where the linen, nibbles and drinks were served with yet more behind the scenes stories of bush life in Waterberg. Wildebeest biltong apparently is a real treat with gin and tonic.
A walking or biking safari completely changed the dynamic from sitting in the relative comfort and safety of the trusted Landrover. All of a sudden, with the stakes more evenly balanced in favour of the wildlife, your senses are on high alert. Ed started to teach us some tracking skills although thankfully we know it’s not the Big Five we were looking out for but everything else seemed just that bit more intimidating. This included the Little Five, namely the Elephant Shrew, Buffalo Weaver, Leopard Tortoise, Ant Lion, and Rhino Beetle. Always keeping a keen eye out to avoid the more dangerous Blister Beetle that secretes an acid like substance, the scorpions that deliver a vicious sting or one of the half dozen or so poisonous snakes that if bitten require that helicopter we signed up for on day one.
Every day was a smorgasbord of experiences all completely catered to our very personal wishes. This really is safari up close and personal in every sense of the term.
Evenings were just as much of a sensory treat, a mix of local and international culinary dishes all served in discreet table locations throughout the estate. The tables meticulously laid of course and decorated with colonial style elegance and lanterns to light the way. All this under an immense clear night sky that allowed the enthusiastic Jembisa team to share wonderful stargazing stories. We learnt more about astrology in our short stay here than any trip to a planetarium.
This place truly is perfect for families as there is something to inspire everyone from game drives, walking safaris, tracker training, mountain-bike safaris, fishing, night drives, camp outs under the stars, family braais under the night sky and even post game-drive massages. All effortlessly delivered by an extraordinary team who are passionate about making your stay magical in every way.
And whilst the safari activities are clearly big parts of the day, what’s just as precious is the quality of the family downtime in between from playing with the dogs on the lawns, swimming, shooting practice, fishing from the bridge under the watchful eye of the local hippos or chatting with the khaki clad rangers about life on the reserve.
A wonderfully atmospheric home offering classic style luxury, where you can relax with your family. Jembisa and her team deliver a whole new granular level, an up close and personal experience that is totally engaging and inspiring.
• Sunset fishing with the sound of hippos calling in the river
• Sundowners on the banks of Palala River
• The view from Jembisa across the reserve
Best for outstanding location and tented luxury – Marataba Safari Lodge
A short drive towards the imposing Waterberg Mountains and we arrived at Marataba Safari Lodge, part of the exclusive More Group of properties (https://www.more.co.za) and one of the nearest Big Five reserves to Johannesburg.
The anticipation and excitement as we reached the reserve’s gates was palpable. It was like stepping into a real life Jurassic Park, and whilst clearly the dinosaurs had long since departed leaving evolution to do her best work, being met by a guard called Doctor was still a tad unnerving.
The nine kilometre drive up to the lodge is a treat in itself as you wind across the plains guided by the majestic Waterberg Mountains with the wildlife nonchalantly going about another day in this latter day Garden of Eden.
Elephant, zebra, wilderbeest, giraffe, kudu, impala, warthogs not to mention hippos, lions, leopards, the endangered Waterberg Rhino as well as the extraordinary birdlife, insect life and Waterberg fauna are here in abundance on the 23000 hectares of private reserve.
It is raw and real and mesmorisingly beautiful, a rare glimpse of what mother nature can do when left to her own devices.
Having said all that, a genius with a vision and some extraordinary architects have managed to create the most stunning lodge that blends beautifully into the raw natural landscape. The contemporary main building mixes glass and natural materials to somehow enhance what nature has created over millions of years.
Surrounding the lodge, discreetly absorbed by the landscape are 15 stone and canvas tented suites that are to die for. The tents offer every modern luxury that you can imagine, outdoor showers on the wooden decks, a vast free-standing bath , luxurious white linen beds, mini bar stocked with yummy treats and personalised water bottles to reconfirm their veracious commitment to conservation and sustainability. No plastic water bottles here.
The tented rooms spill out onto their own private viewing decks giving guests front row seats to the rich plateau below that is teaming with life. Oh and let’s not forget guests are also appointed their very own butler, who guides you safely to the main lodge after dark should you encounter some of the local wildlife in closer proximity than is comfortable.
Marataba is stunning and unique; a Big Five reserve in a six star location and environment; the only private operator within the Marakele National Park that gives guests access to a combined 45,000 hectares of wildlife reserve. With a maximum of only 30 guests at the lodge at any one time, Marataba offer the luxury of privacy and facilities that are second to none. But, that said, for me it was the connection to this dramatic landscape that delivered the most extraordinary bragging rights and a peacefulness that was priceless.
The goosebump moments just kept on flowing; seeing our first and sadly rare Waterberg rhino, sitting only feet away from a lion and his lioness, watching a herd of playful young elephants at bath time, facing-off with a bull elephant who wanted to declare his status, paddling in a weir whilst the hippos belly-laughed, sipping a sundowner mesmerised by the flock of swallows as we glided along the Matlabas River on the reserve’s private Miss Mara launch. Even being welcomed at dinner by over 500 hand-lit lanterns creating the most magical area where we were spoilt with delicious fusion style dishes.
For those in search of an even greater off grid and intimate adventure within this extraordinary landscape check out Marataba Trails Lodge, an exquisite lodge that hosts a maximum of eight guests at any one time. You can even embark on a guided game walk with the Big Five, perhaps more a mix of intimate and intimidating in equal measure.
• Sunset drinks on Little Mara
• Watching a herd of elephants play in the water
• Afternoon tea watching rhino
• Dawn watching the sunrise over Waterberg Mountains
Best for horse back safari and rhino conservation – The Ant Collection
With the gauntlet firmly laid down by our previous stays and the benchmark set exceptionally high, we arrived at The Ant Collection interested to see what they could possibly deliver that was beyond the ordinary.
This reserve has history in bucket loads with the owners family having farmed the land sine the 1800’s. The 12,000 hectare private reserve, run by Ant Baber and his wife now offer guests two distinctly different lodge-style experiences at Ant’s Nest and Ant’s Hill.
What struck us instantly is regardless of which lodge you stay at , the ethos here is the same, to create a wonderfully relaxed environment where kids, dogs, horses, African wildlife and guests all mix together as one big family making it an incredibly informal, informative and social stay.
Beyond the shabby-chic style and warmth of the lodges there are two key stand outs that separate this experience; the most amazing quality and choice of horses for horseback safaris and a connection with all the wildlife but most importantly the endangered Waterberg Rhino that is unique. These two cornerstones are woven into the fabric of the entire stay.
The owners first passion for horses has seen them create a herd of nearly 100 roaming horses that graze freely on the reserve, but dutifully arrive twice a day to be tended by the team before they take guests out on magical horseback encounters with the wildlife. From complete beginner to experienced rider every level is catered for and every rider treated to something very inspiring.
The wildlife are blissfully unaware and un-phased by the horse-backed audience allowing the experienced guides to navigate horses and riders within feet of normally skittish game that at other reserves may only have been seen through binoculars or chased down by 4×4’s. It’s a peaceful and respectful encounter that is exceptional. The team are entirely tuned in to riders wishes and abilities and manage the pace of the ride to suit.
Introducing our 13 year old to the joys of riding in this environment was a delight. Watching him building a relationship with his horse over the stay was as much of a treat as the safari itself. After one particularly long hot ride we unsaddled the horses and gently coaxed them into one of the reserves dams to cool off giving us all the opportunity to swim our horses bareback.
Their second passion is the protection of the endangered Waterberg Rhino. One of these stunning creatures is killed and mutilated every 10 hours for their horns. Through a series of successful new initiatives the team are managing to raise awareness and funds to support this dwindling rhino population. Staying at The Ants Collection means you are also supporting their charity which is making a positive impact on a real threat to the rhino – this is how all travel should be!
Having worked so intensively with their own rhino population for so long, the rhino have become part of the family, each animal loved and cherished. The ability to see these magnificent beasts and really understand the work that is being done to protect them from extinction is both inspiring and life changing.
The two lodges offer different riding terrain and a slightly different vibe. Ants Nest is more chalet-style younger vibe perhaps suited to families with younger children as it has a larger outdoor area, swimming pool and stables on site with the added benefit that the rhinos often pop by to say hello at the lodge.
Ant’s Hill, offers stunning views across the reserve and a more relaxed tranquil atmosphere suited to couples or families with older children with the infinity pool being the perfect antidote to any saddle-sore bits.
Last but by no means least, a quick shout out for the incredible yet relatively small team who deliver the seamless management of The Ant Collection many of whom have been with the Baber family for many many years. There is a sense that you are a true house guest of Ant and his family and family means the extended family both the team, the horses, the rhino that all have names and the wider reserve.
Sitting blissfully relaxed one night after supper following another great day on safari, wood burner crackling and the soft chatter of the other guests whafting in the background, looking up at the clear blanket of stars, a wonderful shooting star raced across the sky.
One wish…..that I could stay here off-grid for a little longer with my new found family and friends where the connection is not digital but something much much more important.
• Swimming bareback with the horses
• Sundowners at the highest spot of the reserve after releasing the horses to roam free in the bush
• Archery/air rifle training with one of the team
• Snake demonstration
• Massage on the deck of our ‘Outlook’ lodge overlooking the reserve
• Meeting the owner and hearing about the conservation work
“ This corner of the African earth smiles on me more than any other”.