Category Archives: Destination Unknown

Welgevonden – Well-Found and Well-Founded.

‘You’ve been living in the bush for a long time; you must know how to tell when a zebra is sick.’ Lazarus, our Makweti ranger, is taunting me. I have to admit that I don’t – but this is what is so refreshing about the lodges of the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve. The rangers and staff are firmly in tune with the game and therefore full of fascinating snippets. Sylvester at Mhondoro later tells me that a fork-tailed drongo can imitate as many as two hundred different bird calls. I hadn’t known that either.

The 36 000 hectare reserve was established only seventeen years ago, on the Waterberg plateau north-west of Johannesburg, and its nearest town, Vaalwater, a once-obscure dorpie, now finds itself firmly on the map due to its proximity to Welgevonden and the reserve’s neighbour, the Marakele National Park.

The reserve covers a broad range of different habitats from rocky ravines, studded with low trees, through almost miombo-like woodland to the plains in the south. It is home to more than 50 species of mammal including some more unusual ones: brown hyena, aardvark and aardwolf. There are also fifteen species of antelope due to the fact that the reserve broaches both bushveld and drier biomes, allowing eland, gemsbok and hartebeest to exist alongside the more common impala, klipspringer and duiker.

But one picks up on numerous more subtle differences. All the operators have traversing rights over the entire reserve, for example, rather than by negotiation with other owners, as is the case in some similar set-ups.

There are no road-signs pointing out the lodges and homes that are hidden away in the mountains and, although there are 53 owners, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have the place to yourself. The lodges, only 13 of which are commercial, are limited to 10 guests and seven staff on site and no private vehicles are allowed in. Instead visitors are picked up from the gate by lodge vehicles.

When, in 1993, these 18 farms were all cobbled together to form the reserve, every building and structure that fell into it was flattened and buried in a deep hole, covering up the evidence that there had ever been any cattle on this sourveld.

Speaking to Hennie Roets, an Oom Schalk Lourens type who farmed here for many years before he sold up to the new owners but stayed on as Operations Manager of the reserve, you get a strong impression of the essential pride the former owners have in what has become of their land.

The sections were divided off using helicopters to survey the land and plan the roads but Hennie was on the ground planting crosses to mark the internal boundaries and plotting the 450 kilometres of tracks he would later construct over the hills. ‘Ek het die hele plaas met my voete deurgeloop,’ he says in his matter-of-fact way. (I have covered this entire farm on foot). ‘We used to farm cattle, now we farm elephants. It’s basically the same idea.’

This concept is precisely what makes Welgevonden so interesting. The management of the reserve makes no bones about the fact that this is a form of farming whereby game numbers are controlled just as they are in any such reserve. Here, though, the ongoing revitalisation is more proactive and there’s a refreshing honesty about the difficulties they have faced.

For example, explains conservation manager André Burger, they bring in a klomp of wildebeest that are unaccustomed to living in a reserve with predators. The lions take full advantage of the antelopes’ naivety, often killing more than one at a time. At least lions are gutsy and eat until the plate is clean.

So do lions kill for fun? No – but they make hay while the sun shines, pure opportunists that they are. The wildebeest have to learn quickly and those that don’t become part of the food chain. But predator-aware wildebeest are expensive and hard to come by so it is inevitable that some will be sacrificed during the learning experience.

Welgevonden is well-known for its excellent rhino-viewing but the reserve can support only a carefully-calculated number of the creatures, so they dart a couple of young males and send them off to new homes in the Kgalagadi. With the proceeds of the sale, they can buy more and savvier plains game for the two prides of lion to feed on with rather less ease and abandon. (We watched the rhino-darting and I touched the animal’s mouth, which was as soft as a baby’s cheek – in that second, my entire image of a rhino changed forever.)

This reserve, just like any other, can only cope with a limited elephant population, so they contracept (as they call it, although I am sure it is not a word) the females every year. However, to prevent a breakdown in herd structure, they have recently skipped an identified cow from each herd to allow some young to be born. Last year they gave contraception to one female who, unbeknown to the vet, was already pregnant. The calf was born unaffected. So contraception works and poses no risks to the elephant and once again Welgevonden is at the forefront of the research.

Sourveld, for obvious reasons, supports far fewer animals than the sweet grasses of the Lowveld so the reserve is carrying out ground-breaking work in what they called the Plains Project, whereby areas of open grassland are actively fertilised and mown to stimulate grass growth and change the mineral content and sweetness. This attracts the game to the chosen areas, which are easily accessible for game viewing. The animals keep the grass short, defecate and urinate – a form of bush fertilisation that will ultimately result in these areas becoming self-perpetuating grazing lawns.

And where something is out of kilter in the natural infrastructure, the reserve management is quick to put it right by the most natural means, such as the planned reintroduction of oxpeckers 13 years ago, to counter the residual cattle ticks which were infesting the kudu.

They were busy planning the oxpecker reintroduction, André explains, and awaiting the birds, when the they started to return of their own accord. He feels that this was an indication that the system was starting to function more naturally and that there were no oxpecker-unfriendly pesticides being used in the area. The birds have done extremely well on Welgevonden and the tick numbers have also consequently reduced radically.

Likewise, buffalo were temporarily removed a few years back after an outbreak of corridor disease. Healthy bulls have now been reintroduced to act as sentinel animals to determine whether the disease remains on the reserve after a quarantine period. Fortunately no further indications of its presence have emerged and recently a herd of buffalo has been re-introduced.

In a way, it seems somewhat artificial but in fact it couldn’t be further from that. It is a perfectly-managed microcosm of how the entire planet ought to be run and it is a privilege to be a part of the process, as was explained to me by Sibusiso Vilane, veteran climber of Everest and a renowned motivational speaker, as we looked out over the sweeping views to the west from Nungubane Lodge’s vast deck.

Sibusiso is now deeply involved in the rhino project, keeping tabs on these beasts by sketching them and monitoring their movements. The man is as inspired as he is inspiring and he’s also heavily committed to community work in Vaalwater. The reserve maintains strong ties with the townspeople and such is the enthusiasm for conservation and education here that everybody in Welgevonden seems to be on something of a high.

Including the zebra who, evidently, aren’t sick. How can you tell? Because the mane lies flat when a zebra is in poor health. Thanks, Lazarus. No need to raise them from the dead, then!

The Leopard and the Aardvark

‘Lunch was a good tuna-fish roll with very average salads, on a deck with a huge tree growing through it. Then we went to our rondavel – a round room with a shower tacked on and gas lights. Perfectly adequate and nice hard beds … Dinner was an impala kebab followed by impala steak or fish pie and pineapple crumble.’

So I wrote of Londolozi in May 1983. The rate was R75 per person per night including all meals and game drives. It was more than a month’s salary to a poor hotel barman like me and I don’t think I thought it was worth it.

But it’s thirty years on and things have changed a bit.

On arrival at Founders Camp, our bags make their effortless way to our room, while we follow smiling camp manager Tammy down a winding path to a wooden deck the size of a tennis court and seemingly floating on air above the Sand River, and a glass of seriously moreish home-made iced tea.

In a place dedicated to the taking of magnificent photographs, the style is deceptively simple. For all their lightness and brightness, Londolozi’s five riverside camps blend discreetly into their environs in colours best described as dramatically black and white with superimposed splashes of sepia, matching the enlarged photos of the reserve’s founders gathered on the walls and cleverly picking out the yellows and browns of the veld.

The bedrooms are equally muted in colour, with soft light fauns and creams reflecting the light of the surrounding bush. The Founders Camp rooms have private decks and splash-pools. The massive high-roofed bathrooms have vaulted bay windows which look out into the trees but ensure privacy from human passers-by whilst not excluding the stares of the odd prurient baboon.

Just as the rooms have taken on a whole new dimension, so lunch, thirty years on, is certainly not a tuna-fish roll. Nor is anything average. The salads are imaginative and delicious, as are the gooey quiches, the sliced rare fillet, a chilled gammon, and smoked salmon with sour cream and fresh capers the size of grapes. Then comes cheesecake. Arguably the best in the world.

There are many aspects of this place that match the ‘best in the world’ label. Londolozi has been acknowledged as such in many ways and has been voted, on numerous occasions, one of the 100 top hotels in the world by the likes of Condé Nast Traveler and Tatler magazines.

It is renowned for the world’s best leopard sightings, largely down to its spacious traversing of great swathes of the Sabi-Sand and the combination of open grassland and towering riverine trees. We would see it for ourselves a bit later on. I would also put it out there that the game drive open vehicles are the best in the world; genuinely comfortable, so that you don’t bash your elbow on a sidebar every time your ranger takes on a tree and kitted out with blankets, raincoats and even hot water bottles.

Our ranger, Daniel Buys, has been at Londolozi for more than three years and personifies the ethos of the Varty philosophy – it is a gentle combination of courtesy, consideration and professionalism.

There are no Land Rover jockeys here. There’s no chasing through the bush for the best position; no bragging on the radio. Londolozi is a place of open spaces with room for everyone. And is if to prove it, our afternoon game drive among the elephants, buffalos and rhinos yields one particularly astonishing sighting, which we have to ourselves for almost an hour. We find ourselves completely transfixed by a leopard, lodged up a tree and cumbersomely skinning and eating an aardvark while, below, a skulking hyena is showered with falling fur as it picks up the leftovers dropping through the branches. A first for all concerned. In fact, maybe a regional first? Later, in the creeping dusk, we come across four male lions asleep in the long grass. We have, as if it matters at all, seen the Big Five in one drive.

Tammy had told us – or rather warned us with great glee but not much promise as far as I was concerned – that there will be a traditional South African dinner in the boma on our return and I am dreading it. How could Londolozi let itself down with such a crass and dull event as a boring old braai in a reed-sheltered enclosure?

I should have known better.

The warmth of the circular fire is reflected a hundred times by the light of dozens of paraffin lamps and candles, flickering across white-clothed tables and warm blankets over the chair-backs.

A warming sweet potato soup is followed by a juicy roasted coconut chicken, perfectly rare sirloin and a selection of superb side-dishes, among which the most unlikely success is a samp and bean stew. There follows an exquisite Amarula mousse. More than sated, I turn to my host to say good night. With the deception of the bush, it feels like midnight but it is in fact a whisker past ten o’clock.

Driving through the river in the cold light of the next morning’s dawn in pursuit of a leopard and cubs, I mull over what it is that makes Londolozi so particularly iconic of its genre and I realise that the answer lies in the realisation that this safari, this journey, will always be with me. It had started days before I arrived, in ‘stalking’ the Londolozi website, and it will be with me for months afterwards as I look back at a perfect experience.

How often can you say that? I may not have been saying it in 1983 when Dave and John Varty had recently opened their camp of adequate rondavels and average salads but I am saying it now: Londolozi is perfect.

Where it is: Right in the middle of the Sabi-Sand Wildtuin on the western border of the Kruger National Park.

Why go there: For the Before, the During and the After of a safari. Get involved with the Londolozi Family on their website before you travel – maybe buy one or two of their books and apps – and follow the blog to keep up afterwards. I am still following that leopard, three weeks on.

What it has: Five camps with varying high standards of comfort. Choose the camp that suits you best. Children are welcome and should join the Londolozi Cubs for an unforgettable safari, kids’ style.

What it’s like: Well, it’s nothing like it was 30 years ago in terms of facilities, but the emphasis remains on unpresumptuous hospitality, an unobtrusive ethos of community-minded sustainability and top-class wildlife-watching.

Rates: From R6950 per person per night in Varty Camp to R11950 in the Private Granite Suites. Includes all meals and game activities.

Getting there: From the R536 Hazyview-Skukuza road, just before the Paul Kruger Gate, turn left towards the Shaw’s Gate entrance to the Sabi-Sand from where you should allow 45 minutes to reach Londolozi. The route is well signposted.

Contact: See For reservations, call 011 280 6655/6 or email

Visiting Cape Town, the Mother Ship.

The extra-terrestrial experience begins with a five-minute check-in and a stonking breakfast at Lanseria airport. Never again, I promise myself, will I unnecessarily go through the horrors of OR Tambo. Two hours later, the Mother City. Or as it turns out, the Mother Ship.

To a Lowvelder, it is undeniable. Cape Town is another world. Capetonians are aliens. As alien as Marmite-flavoured rice cakes and Badger-friendly muesli.

“So, what did you do in the holidays?” Two students, recently returned to the centre of their studies, conversation-locked and loafing, dangling kikois and piercings down Dock Road.

“Sleeping. A lot of sleeping. It was good. I love sleeping. You?”

“I smoked a lot of weed”


“Yeah, great. I love smoking weed. Next year I am thinking of getting a job at Afriski, but this year, it was weed.”

The weather is unseasonably warm. The Waterfront brims with childish smiles and confusion-wracked parents orienteering their offspring through the diversions and interpreting the endless stalk-mounted signs in front of strands of candy tape. Everything, it seems, is temporarily elsewhere.

Arts & Wellness Craft Curios is temporarily at the Craft Centre in North Wharf” reads one such piece of advice. Wellness is very Capetonian, I think to myself.

At the Aquarium, more signs: “The Rockhopper Penguins are temporarily in the kelp forest. The Outside Penguins are temporarily on the beach upstairs.” Probably smoking weed, I reckon.

By a dry dock: “Bypass route available when closed.” Bypass route to where? For whom? Dry boats?

Warning Cannons Firing”. Where? At whom?

Cannons notwithstanding, Cape Town is a Hard Hat Area. It will be wonderful when it is finished but for now, just as the pavements are closed, so is the skyline filled with cranes. And while we visitors from up-country herd our mini-hordes from one attraction to the next, Capetonians hibernate rather than don protective clothing to negotiate the detours.

Burying themselves in shopping malls and coffee shops where the ambient temperature is 22 degrees, they wear hibernal long coats and woolly hats. They hang out in supermarkets with specialist sections appealing to unusual diets. Their rice cakes really are Marmite-flavoured – “Rice cakes will never have to be bland and boring again now that we have baked them with lovely Marmite” says the packet, apparently not taking into account that this judgemental measure could be avoided by not making any rice cakes at all. They still eat like polystyrene, however Marmitey. And Cape Town’s  Muesli really is badger-friendly. What can this mean? No badgers were hurt in the harvesting of the wheat flakes or the drying of the raisins? How unsurprising.

A coffee shop in Mouille Point. Clutching a laptop, a pale, scarf-swathed, leather-clad maiden in knee-length boots,  to the not-so-pale waitress: “You can feel the South-Easter coming in. The ‘marntin’ is going to be buried in cloud this afternoon.  I don’t know whether to face the sea or look inland from under the heater. Oh, decisions! What do you think? Anyway, darling, bring me cappuccino, you know the way I like it, not more than half a centimetre of foam and min sprinkle on the top.”

I smile at her over my perfectly normal cappuccino but she ignores me. It all becomes clear. These creatures from another world can’t actually see us. This is not ET. It is The Sixth Sense. They look straight through us because they don’t know we are there. Like the penguins, we are temporarily elsewhere. But it stops them badgering us about the depth of our foam and what flavour rice cakes to buy.