Jenny Coad, The Sunday Times | September 1, 2019
Staring over a cliff edge at the Palala River, I spot two hippos sitting stone still, the water forming a silvery line around their bulk. Ahead, the undulating bush, softly scrubby at the end of the South African winter, goes on and on. There’s not a power line or a hint of human encroachment as far as I can see. This is Noka Camp, in the Lapalala Reserve, a three-hour drive north of Johannesburg. Wonderfully remote, beautifully designed and with a helipad in the pipeline, so you can chopper in from the airport, it is the world’s most stylish new safari lodge.
Meghan and Harry would love it. And they wouldn’t have to worry about being flight-shamed, because the lodge will offset your carbon footprint with a local donation — it gave £24 to a Community Stove Project to cancel out my return journey from London. It’s off-grid, with solid eco-credentials such as the “solar walkway” and, even better, a commitment to donate 60% of your room rate to conservation projects in the reserve. With prices starting at £575pp a night if you book and travel before mid-December, and £1,125pp a night thereafter, that amounts to a daily donation of £345, then £675.
I am the first journalist to stay. At the moment, there is only one other camp in the 120,000-acre reserve (Lepogo Lodges, which runs Noka Camp, is building Melote House, set to open in 2021) and, while I do see other vehicles, we have the animals to ourselves.
On our first drive, we have a close encounter with a lion. I’m near enough to hear it harrumph, having feasted on an eland, a large antelope, which lies torn open next to it, offering a grisly biology lesson. The lion pads off to the watering hole to wash it all down — the Henry VIII of the animal kingdom, with the odd hopeful black-backed jackal in attendance, but no wives. Our ranger, Emmarentia — always with an intriguing fact to hand — tells me that, during the breeding season, lions mate every 20 minutes all day long. No wonder the lionesses have scarpered.
You’re rightly spoilt for the price, which includes all excursions, plus food and drink. And you will be as roundly satisfied as that big cat by the creations of the chef, Marco. Before arriving, you’re asked to fill in a questionnaire, so you can request your favourite cocktail (gin and tonic, naturally), pillow (do people really have one?) and the activities you fancy. An Iron Age site, Bushman paintings, fishing and astronomy are all on offer.
Named by the Dutch voortrekkers, the Waterberg mountains, where Lapalala resides, are older than the Himalayas. The area was hunted for game, used as farmland, then rehabilitated bit by bit by two conservationists, Dale Parker and Clive Walker, who started buying up farms in the 1980s. Their vision was to preserve the habitat and its wild residents — the reserve is fenced in.
In 1985, they set up a wilderness school to spread the conservation message, and 3,000 students visit it each year. There’s a resident Burmese python, which its keeper pets as if it were a puppy. Its skin is silky smooth, but I don’t fancy a cuddle. The school director, Mashudu Makhokha, tells me some former pupils are now members of staff. They teach locals about the environment by holding football tournaments with educational half-times.
In 1990, Lapalala became the first private reserve to buy black rhinos. The success of Parker and Walker’s mission can be seen all around. On our game drives in an open-sided Land Cruiser, I see a mother rhino and a baby that looks as if it’s growing into its skin, ears flicking in opposing directions like little satellite dishes. Impertinent red-billed oxpeckers groom them so thoroughly, they nose right into their ears. The birds were reintroduced in 1989, having been wiped out by farm poisons. A big male rhino moves ponderously and scratches his horn on a tree as if sharpening a carving knife. When he catches our scent, he bolts off with surprising speed. No wonder a group of rhinos is known as a crash.
There are curious giraffes, one calf with a bloody bite on its bottom, skittish zebras and solid little warthogs. They’re shy, raising their tails and scampering off as we drive past. One afternoon, a herd of elephants crosses in front of us. It’s like being in Jurassic Park, but to the sound of snapping branches rather than John Williams.
No game drive goes by without a gourmet snack. Breakfast is served in the bush one day — we arrive to find Marco frying ostrich sausages over a firepit, a table laid with a white cloth and a selection that would make a five-star buffet look mean. There’s seeded muesli, gooey chocolate biscuits, pastries, fruit and a full fry-up. After all that, I could do with lounging about like that lion.
There are plenty of flop spots back at camp. My vast lodge has a living room, a wide balcony with a sky bed (they’ll make it up for you to sleep outside, beneath mosquito nets), a deck with a plunge pool, a sunken bath and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bush. The interiors are by the Cape Town-based designer Sarah Ord, known for her flair with vibrant colours.
It’s impossible to read a book or nod off because there are kudus trotting down to the riverbank for a drink, zebras emerging through the trees — and is that a flap of elephant ear in the distance? I found it quite tricky to open the balcony door: it’s on an automated system controlled from an iPad, as are the lights. Given that we spend so much time at our screens, I’m not sure that’s what most people want in the bush.
By the restaurant — on the terrace and indoors for cooler nights — there’s a bar and lounge area painted an earthy pink, with chunky knitted throws under which you can sit and listen to the wind whooshing through the canyon, giving a sense of its emptiness. Apparently the electrical storms are dramatic, thanks to the iron in the rock. There’s no lightning when I stay, but a startling orange moon and a blaze of stars — you can easily see the Milky Way.
On our evening drives, which start at about 3pm, we learn about poisonous tree sap, lion ants and termite hills from Emmarentia, whose eyesight is so sharp that she spots a discarded porcupine quill. We go to see the San people’s paintings, which feature elegant reddish-brown deer and men with unlikely-looking appendages. They’ve not been dated, and could be anything from 100 to 1,000 years old, I am told, but they’re proof that some things never change. There’s a trip along Kubu Dam, where we see more hippos, their ears popping up on the surface, and a prone crocodile on the bank, which leaps alarmingly into action with a splash. Each day is rounded off by sundowners with Marco’s imaginative nibbles.
The animals are the main event, though apparently some people have booked just to enjoy the lodge’s wine cellar, and there will be yoga classes on a raised platform, as well as a gym. But, for me, this isn’t the place to work up a sweat. It’s a place to sit, stare and wonder.
Walk on the Wild Side
Wander with the animals through Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, in the Greater Kruger National Park. You won’t get as close to a lion as you might by vehicle (although there are evening game drives for that eyeballing thrill), but you will work up an appetite for the breakfasts served at camp. The reserve isn’t fenced, so wildlife is free to roam. You aren’t. Apparently, a couple of ferocious honey badgers are frequent visitors. The rooms are rustic thatched chalets and there’s a treehouse for Swiss Family Robinson romantics. Supper is a braai — a true taste of South Africa. Prices start at £175pp a night, full-board (africaonfoot.com). Fly to Cape Town or Johannesburg with British Airways or Virgin, then on to Eastgate airport.
Rhino Ridge overlooks a watering hole surrounded by bush in the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. You’ll have the chance to spot zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, waterbucks and the densest population of white rhinos in the world. Back at base, watch wildlife go by from the spa, 36ft infinity pool or sundeck. Three nights in a Safari Room (private deck, shower with a view) cost £470pp from May to July 2020, including full-board accommodation, two daily game drives, sundowners and park fees. The reserve is a three-hour drive from Durban airport or seven hours from Johannesburg (Cedarberg-travel.com).