The Mabula Game Lodge, a private game reserve, is about two hours away from Johannesburg and one of the many that boasts the famed 'big five' — lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffaloes. But, apart from these crowd pullers, the reserve is also a sanctuary for zebras, warthogs, hippos, giraffes and antelopes.
The reserve is named after Prince Mabula, who married the legendary 'rain queen' Modjadji and ruled over the area. The UB Group owns the Lodge, and the Three Cities Group of Africa is responsible for its management.
As you drive past the gate of the game reserve, you enter a world that is seemingly serene, but the appearance is deceiving. Spread over 12,000 hectares of land, the tranquil, scenic beauty of Mabula offers visitors a unique bush experience with freely roaming wildlife. The architecture of the Lodge blends perfectly with the lush green environment and you almost expect to see a lion amble past.
Anita Babbar, the Lodge's genial executive housekeeper, welcomed us warmly at the reception. She has been in Mabula for two years, having moved here with her husband who is the financial manager at the property. Over a refreshing cup of tea she tells us a little bit about the place.
"The focus of our people at Mabula is to present the African bush experience in a different way so that visitors carry back fond memories," Babbar says. "The accommodation and entertainment activities are geared toward this end."
The Lodge has been newly renovated and offers luxurious accommodation, with thatched-roofed, air-conditioned chalets. The décor is distinctly African, highlighted by materials such as wood, cane, natural stone and terracotta that are used to accentuate the culture. The animal-print designs on the furnishings further enhance the ambience of the rooms. Guests can choose from 51 rooms at the main lodge or can stay in tents at the Kwafubesi Safari Camp in the heart of the reserve. While the camp does have shower facilities, there is no electricity (light and heat are provided by gas or open fire).
For the food connoisseur, apart from the conventional restaurant and pool bar, there are some unusual dining areas where you can savour the varied culinary offerings. The Boma is an open area which offers a fabulous buffet spread under a star-bright African sky, while guests watch traditional African dancers swing to the beat of rhythmic music.
The Lodge is an excellent venue for conferences and other corporate functions. It has three halls — the Kingfisher, the Marula and the Baobab Room — that offer state-of-the-art conference equipment in a classic bush setting. Team-building games such as a treasure hunt in the wild or a miniature survival course give delegates an experience that is far removed from regular urban life.
Recreational and sports facilities include a health and beauty centre, a fully equipped gym, sauna, swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, and golf at a nearby course.
But the most important reason people come here is, of course, the animals. And that's right where we were headed. Babbar checked that we were suitably attired — long sleeved shirts and caps — led us to our vehicle and introduced us to Estefan, our game ranger. The game drives at Mabula are conducted in an open 4x4 vehicle that gives visitors a 360-degree view of the surrounding flora and fauna. Estefan was quick to assure us that the safari was safe as the animals were used to seeing the vehicles and would not get too animated.
In a short while we hit the dirt paths and drove into the reserve area. The morning air was quite cool and we hoped to get lucky with animal sightings. It's a dream to spot the big five on your first safari and when you multiply that by the fact that it was the only safari we were going to have, the odds go up quite a bit.
Suddenly Estefan sniffs the air — rhinos are close he says with a casual air. Obviously, Estefan has been there and done that, but the words were enough to send our pulses racing and cause us to eagerly scan the trees and bushes. But it was not to be and we drove on. Our first sighting was of zebras placidly munching at the short grass. Two zebras nuzzling each other provided us a perfect photo opportunity.
As we drove deeper into the reserve, we spotted many different species of antelope. Apart from its four-legged denizens, the game reserve is alive with the calls of the brilliantly coloured birds that announce your arrival as you drive along. There are nearly 60 mammals, 300 species of birds and more than 100 types of plants in the reserve.
Our most impressive sighting was of a solitary male elephant standing under a tree. He blended so well with the earthy background that it was only his waving trunk that caught our attention.
Our game drive ended much too soon and we headed back to the Lodge, a little disappointed that we had not seen all the big five, but nonetheless happy with our first African safari.
Life at the Lodge revolves around rest, relaxation and animals, not necessarily in that order. The day begins at the crack of dawn, when the first game drive of the day takes place with the experienced game rangers. It's a time when the animals are most active. Coming back, two hours later, a sumptuous breakfast awaits, just reward for the early wake-up call. Between breakfast and tea, guests can indulge in spa treatments, play some sports or just relax. In the evening, after a refreshing cup of tea, it's time for another game drive. The day wraps up with cocktails at sunset.
Apart from the conventional safari in the 4X4s, guests can go horseback riding through the reserve, take a bush walk or experience the thrill of riding in a hot air balloon over the reserve.
The Mabula experience is truly impressive and amazing and as we leave the African bush for the urban jungle, we promise ourselves to come again! This is a walk on the wild side that can never bore a visitor.