For me, self-driving in South Africa is a joy; courteous drivers, well sign posted routes and long empty stretches of road through breathtaking scenery. It allows you to combine contrasting areas without having long transfers or wasting time in airports. By self-driving, the journey becomes part of the adventure!
I was heading north from Johannesburg to the Limpopo Province where I would explore the beautiful Waterberg and the rich agricultural lands around Tzaneen, experience the Venda culture atop the Soutpansberg Mountains and finally cross the border into Botswana for two nights on the Mashatu Game Reserve.
Rush hour in Johannesburg is early so, by the time I had cleared customs and immigration and collected my hire car, the roads were quiet and leaving the city was very straightforward. A three hour drive brings you to the Waterberg, an area of scenic splendor with towering mountains and river hewn gorges offering big game and outdoor pursuits.
Ease of access and being a malaria free area makes the Waterberg particularly attractive to families as well as couples.
Ants Nest has been built on land owned by the Baber family since the late 1800’s and is today still owned and run by direct descendant Ant Baber and his wife Tessa. The lodge was built on the site of a former ranch house and the feeling of family and homeliness continues to this day. The land is now a private reserve where one can see more specialised species such as roan, sable and white rhino. Activities are tailored to suit each client with game drives, walks, and mountain biking all available, but Ants’ is particularly well known for the horse riding.
Not being able to ride or not having ridden for a long time does not exclude you from activities. My previous riding experience amounted to a couple of gentle day rides and the last time I had sat on a horse was over six years ago, but this presented no problem! With over 90 well-schooled horses to choose from, the staff are expert at matching the right horse to the right client and in the late afternoon we set off on an afternoon ride with me on my steadfast steed who clearly knew that he had a novice on board! The more experienced and adventurous riders departed with Ant on a fast paced ride whilst our group ambled through the bush at a more sedate pace.
I always find myself relaxing when I am in the bush but quietly sitting on a horse just metres away from grazing impala and zebra was magical and as much of a cliché as this sounds, I really did feel at one with nature!
Jembisa Lodge has a very different feel to Ants Nest but is another haven for families. The six bedroom house was previously a family home and has a playroom, lounge, TV room and spacious gardens where children are safe to run around. Days can be idled away by the pool or sitting on the shaded terrace but there are still adventures to be had! Walking, running and cycling in the bush, fishing, swimming and tubing in the river (subject to water levels) and for the more adventurous, a sleep out under the stars!
Neither Ants Nest nor Jembisa have dangerous big game on their properties but nearby Entabeni and Welgevonden Game Reserves can be visited for a day as part of your stay.
Accommodation options here are the luxurious Safari Lodge with breathtaking views towards the dramatic cliffs or the smaller Marataba Trails Lodge whose outlook is down the valley and directly into the sunset. At Trails, the maximum number of guests is eight and the only activity on offer is walking. Depending on the time of year and the enthusiasm of the guests, walks can last from two or three hours up to a full day.
One of the joys of doing these educational trip is discovering a little gem and this time it was Kurisa Moya. This small eco lodge is only a 45 minute drive from the town of Polokwane, but it feels a lot more remote. Having driven through four villages taking care to avoid wandering cows, chickens and children I turned off onto a mountain road and climbed up into the forest. Generally speaking a saloon style car is suitable for self-driving in South Africa but for the road into Kurisa Moya we would suggest (read insist!) on a car with a higher clearance just to help with the rocky and uneven terrain.
Kurisa Moya is not for everyone as there is no social hub and meals are served in your cabin but for self-sufficient and independent minded lovers of nature, walking and birding, and for those who enjoy their own company, this is a little piece of heaven.
The 422 hectare farm has five distinct habitats (forest, mountain, woodlands, grasslands and bushveld) and has recorded over 250 species of birds. An added bonus for birders is that David Letsoala, rated as being the best local birding guide in South Africa, and Paul Nkhumane, one of the top five local guides in the country, are both based at Kurisa Moya and can lead specialist birding walks on the farm. Walks with David, in particular, must be pre booked and as far in advance as possible.
David has ‘stakeouts’ for the ‘specials’ to be found in the forests like the Cape Parrot, Bat Hawk, Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Narina Trogon and Green Twinspot to name but a few.
I was lucky enough to do a short bird walk with Paul and whilst the early morning forest birding was challenging, Paul was incredible in identifying the various calls and the terrain was like an enchanted forest.
You don’t have to be a keen birder to enjoy Kurisa Moya; there are seven self-guided hiking trails, a dam stocked with rainbow trout where you can try your hand at fly fishing (lessons are available) and the chance for an authentic Sotho village tour or even a home-stay where you are welcomed into the homes of families living in the village of Ga-Malahlela, close to Kurisa Moya.
Kurisa Moya, and indeed properties close to the ‘tropical garden town’ of Tzaneen such as the lovely Kings Walden, are excellent options as a stopping off point en-route to, or back from, the Kruger National Park, but if time allows a longer stay is very worthwhile.
After Kurisa, I travelled north to the Soutpansberg Mountains where I stayed at the lovely Leshiba Wilderness, a small property built in the style of a local Venda village by a well;known Venda artist. The area offers stunning walks, both self-guided or guided and is well suited for those those love to be in the wild.
Leaving the mountains behind me I drove to the Pont Drift border where I crossed into Botswana for two nights in the Mashatu Game Reserve. There is a beautiful, and varied landscape here covering some 27000 hectares; rolling plains interspersed with rocky kopjes, expansive dry river beds and areas of beautiful forests provide a platform for diverse wildlife sightings.
Neither buffalo nor rhino are found on Mashatu, but I had wonderful sightings of leopards, cheetah and lions plus the bountiful plains game. It is elephants however that Mashatu is famous for and there is nowhere better to view them from than one of the photographic hides on the reserve. Booked at extra cost, a morning or afternoon can be spent in the hide, with a professional photographer on hand to offer guidance.
The hides are at ground level and provide a fantastic close up perspective as the animals approach to drink. It was very windy when I visited the hide and the game was not too prevalent but even so we had an entertaining morning; a solitary young female kudu, scared even of her own shadow, literally jumped a foot into the air when she dipped her toe into the water; two young giraffe bulls spent at least thirty minutes playing a game of ‘will we/won’t we’ when deciding whether to drink or not (they didn’t) and perhaps the most watchable of all; two warthogs with not a care in the world who dived straight into the water intent on having a good wallow in the muddy shallows.
The hides are primarily aimed at the serious photographer but for someone like me, firmly entrenched in the ‘point and shoot’ school of photography, it was still a wonderful experience.
Mashatu can be accessed by air from Johannesburg on a light aircraft shuttle flight but it also slots in to a self-drive itinerary very well and could easily be combined with either the Waterberg, the greater Kruger area, or both!