Tag Archives: Weekend Escape

The Lucky Number

Chris Harvie finds a range of ‘fives’ at a lovely Kruger National Park Lodge

“Only the Makuleke people can show you this!” Sam Japane told us, proudly.

Sam is one of the Makuleke people himself and it was certainly a spectacular setting.  I was, at long last, gazing into the famed Lanner Gorge, one of the Kruger National Park’s most hidden and sought-after  sites stretching deep below, its orange cliffs towering above the winding, gurgling snake of brown and white rapids that was the Levuvhu River, as lovely as its name.

Sam, our garrulous guide, had already shown us some of the Ugly Five, most of the Small Five – we were missing only the elephant shrew – and a couple of enviable lifers on the birding front. My first broad-billed roller, for example, and Dickinson’s kestrel. Sam is an exceptional identifier of birds, able not only to imitate them, but also even to give their bird numbers.

“Woodland Kingfisher, breeding male, Roberts number 433 Halcyon Senegalensis.” No-one was arguing. “Mosque Swallow, 525.”

The spectacularly situated Outpost Lodge straddles a line of dassie-strewn and fig-wound rocks, high above the Levuvhu  in the so-called Makuleke Concession, in the northerly Pafuri region, wedged between the Limpopo river and its tributary, the Levuvhu. The area offers some of the most outstanding scenery in the Kruger and while it may not be easy to find the sought-after Big Five here (although they are present), all the other Fives, the area’s superb birding and its splendid isolation more than make up for that.

The Makuleke people were removed from this, their land, in 1969 only to have it returned to them in a ground-breaking agreement with the new government in the 1990s, whereupon a 30-year concession was granted to The Outpost. The Lodge was built and is staffed by the Makuleke and they are shareholders in perpetuity, thus owning and managing some of Kruger’s most iconic places and simultaneously keeping alive their own history in the area through frequently-spun tales of the meeting places of the chiefs and the traditions of the Tsonga people to whom the Makuleke belong.

Our game drives took us the length and breadth of the 28 000 hectare concession. The first evening, we meandered along the Levuvhu River, counting the crocodiles. Nyala, warthogs and elephants were scattered along the riverbanks, bathed in the evening’s golden light.

Over 350 species of bird have been identified here and as we stopped for a sundowner, under a baobab estimated at 1200 years old, we startled a flock of crested guinea fowl  sending them scurrying towards the river, their black fluffed heads bobbing up and down in the dry bush. The moon rose full, between the ancient tree’s mangled branches.

The following morning, a different spectrum of birds awaited – Brown-headed Parrot (363) and Senegal Coucal (390) and a range of Rollers – as Sam wove us in and out of the giant pan-stippled, yellow-green fever forest to Crook’s Corner where three countries meet and where our guide wove some lore of his own into a well-told African tale of the dawn-of-time agreement between The Creator, the hippos and the crocs, while the descendants of the latter two species watched us from a nearby pool. I don’t think The Creator could have been far away either. Certainly, looking down the spectacular Lanner Gorge that afternoon as the sun set behind the distant Soutpansberg, it was easy to imagine oneself in Eden.

Back at the Lodge and returning to our ‘space’, as they aptly call their rooms, to change for a dinner under the stars, we were startled, as we were each time we walked in, by the sheer audacity of the design. The structures are blandly unimpressive from the outside but open the door and then the electric blinds … and you walk straight into the view and become part of it. Mosquito-netted beds stand against the only permanent wall. On one side of the open deck, looking to the east, lies an open bathroom and shower while, off to the west stands a daybed and beyond it, only trees and shrubs. Way below, the Levuvhu River glows in the moonlight.

We slept every night with the blinds open and the wind rustled in the trees, between which our deck seemed suspended from the sky. There was nothing between our ‘space’ and space itself, until nearby birdsong drifted gently through our waking minds.

The Outpost is all about people – the Makuleke people and their guests whom they greet by name. Their welcoming smiles, their warm handshakes, their cheerful enthusiasm and their cooling facecloths after a dusty game drive amongst the Big, the Small and the Ugly Fives, will always be etched on my memory of this peaceful, lovely calming place.

Remember Sam’s words: Only the Makuleke people can show you this.



Where it is – In the Makuleke Concession, Northern Kruger National Park. It’s a long way from anywhere by car – six hours from Johannesburg – but don’t let that put you off. Make a road trip of it.

Why go there – For the (not guaranteed by any means) Big Five, the Small Five, the Ugly Five and not forgetting the- dare I say it? – High Five of a superb Makuleke welcome. And 350 species of birds.

What it has – Eleven Luxury Spaces (or rooms) and one Honeymoon Space. All en-suite (or en-space?) with showers and stone baths. Swimming pool. Library. Excellent coffee. A view into Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

What it is like – Floating above the bush in the tops of the trees, with the night calls of Africa to lull you to sleep, safe from all manner of birds and beasts lurking below.

Rates – SA Residents Only. R2575 per person sharing, R3350 single. Includes accommodation, three meals and two game drives a day, snacks, teas and coffees. Last minute booking rate also available.

Getting there – The Outpost is just over 10 kilometres from Kruger’s Pafuri Gate and 380 kilometres from Skukuza. Four kilometres from Pafuri, turn off to the south and travel 6.6km to the lodge.

Contact – Reservations 011 327 3920 Email reservations@theoutpost.co.za Websitewww.theoutpost.co.za . The Outpost is operated and marketed by Rare Earth Retreats.

Ain’t Seen Notten’s Yet

Chris Harvie gives top marks to this family-owned Lodge

From the shaded wooden deck, we look out over a gentle upward slope studded with giant trees. A pair of cud-chewing buffalos lie next to a distant termite mound, vervet monkeys squabble in the trees and the chatter of starlings floats on the warm afternoon air.

We arrived at Notten’s Bush Camp only ten minutes ago, and after a welcoming hug – this is a friendly place, after all, and I am a returning guest – we are stretched out, beer in hand on a watchtower upper platform, contemplating and feeling very much a part of the Bushveld scene.

Notten’s is one of the oldest lodges of its kind and it is family-run. We’ve been greeted by a Notten and served a drink by a Notten. We are to be taken on a game drive by Joseph Mathebula, a local Shangaan who has been driving here for thirty years and some of whose children work alongside him. He is almost more Notten than the Nottens.

We have barely left the lodge in Joe’s Land Rover when we become embroiled in a cameo performance by a breeding herd of elephant at a small waterhole, distant trumpeting giving away the presence of another group a couple of hundred metres away. As they line up to drink, despite the greying light and with the camp perfectly poised in the background, our fellow guests click cameras and gasp with ratcheted excitement.

To say that Joe is a character is a ludicrous underestimation.  His broad smile and jaunty enthusiasm are as catching as the thorns on the bushes through which he drags his guests. He knows the area better than the back of his hand; the hand on which he will later gently perch a chameleon and break open elephant dung to show the grass content.

Joe is a local legend, dating back more than half a lifetime. He is the Skukuza Methuselah; one of the most respected trackers in the region. Everyone tunes into the radio as he unearths a female leopard and we bump off the road in pursuit, through what he calls, in the Sabi Sand’s quasi-Shangaan vernacular, the ‘makhulu hlathini’ (deep bush).

Joe and his colleague Median are a well-oiled telepathic team, bundling us from one sighting to the next, from deep ‘hlathini’ and herds of half-hidden impala littered with newly-born lambs, to the open veld, where three behemoth rhinos lumber about directly in front of us.

Alighting on a knoll to pour us a drink, Joe continues with his colourful and occasionally over-vivid stories from his years in the ‘Sands’. He tells tantalising tales of brushes with long-toothed leopards and angry elephants; he laughs at the young upstart rangers and fondly remembers long-gone colleagues. A couple of calm kudu browsing in the near distance ignore our wine-filled intrusion. Beyond them a family group of woolly waterbuck meanders obliviously across the plain.

As night falls and the bushbaby starts to call, we make our way back onto the vehicle and slowly back to camp. The elephants and the darkness have blended into invisibility; our leopard has long disappeared into the night. In the deep distance, the roar of a lion breaks the stillness.

Paraffin lights and burning torches show the paths to our rooms, themselves lighted by the glow of burning lamps. Notten’s has no electric light in the rooms; it’s a welcome relief for night-accustomed eyes not to be bombarded by the brightness of modernity as we hurriedly shower and change for dinner.

The lodge’s rooms are blissfully devoid of the usual cliché trappings of bush décor. There’s no leopard-skin or zebra-stripe; no overwhelming insurgence of khaki. Ours is spacious and furnished in light pastels. The bathroom is modern with clean finishes, a deep bath and the choice of an inside or outside shower.

Our favourite spot is the covered deck outside with its two sunbeds. We collapse on them briefly before dinner and vow to return to them afterwards.

The lunch before the game drive – a spectacular sprawl of salads, quiches, cold meats and cheeses – had filled us up at the time but left us with high hopes for dinner which are more than met. Comparing sighting notes over a pre-prandial glass of wine, we are enthralled by the conviviality of Notten’s; cheerful smiling faces rise and fall in the light cast by the dancing flames of the fire and, all around us, the night is abuzz with the calls of the veld.

Seated at a long table, we dine with like-minded guests, on a delicious red pepper soup, followed by a perfect tender fillet of beef cooked over the coals by Dave Notten, who then regales us with his own memories of his childhood in this ethereal place.

Some hours later, replete after a superb cheesecake and with a last glass in hand, we return to the deck in front of our room as a small herd of buffalo moves through the grass below. We reflect on our day between the buffalos and the decks of Notten’s.

The word ‘hospitality’ seems inadequate for the incomparable warmth of the Notten’s experience. The magic lies in the personal approach, the history and the genuine concern with which they look after their guests.

And Joe Mathebula and Dave Notten and both of their families are at the heart of that ineffable warmth. Ten out of ten for Nottens.


About Notten’s Bush Camp



Notten’s Bush Camp, Sabi Sand Wildtuin, Mpumalanga. Telephone: 013 735 5105 Reservations: nottens@iafrica.com Website: www.nottens.com


Notten’s has only eight rooms, all spacious and elegant, but remember that there is no electric light. A plug-point is however provided for the charging of cameras and other equipment. A long pool allows for a bit of exercise between bountiful meals and sedentary game drives! There is also a small spa.


R3350 per person per night full board with two game drives. A winter rate of R2950 applies from 01 May to 31 August. The rate also includes a daily bush walk, cold drinks, house beers and wines plus a bag of laundry per stay. No children under 6. Children 6-12 qualify for a 30% discount.

All tartanned up

Country bumpkin Chris Harvie attended a tattoo at Jozi’s Tuscan Palace, where he enjoyed the full Monte treatment.

Bagpipe music skirled through the flag-decked streets of Montecasino as we made our way to the arena. Upturned faces, many pale and freckled betraying Gaelic roots, looked wistfully to the roof-painted sky, whence the call of the pipes seemed to emanate, and smiled. Let the show begin.

And what an impressive event it was. Proudly South African, with no fewer than twelve acts made up a cast of 800 performers marching and drumming and piping their way in and around and through each other whilst an enthralled crowd, encouraged to make as much noise as possible to egg on the performers, did just that.

We cheered and stomped and clapped Highland dancers, Irish dancers, Indian dancers, acrobats, the South African Military Health Service Band (yes, there is one) and even the Harley Owners Group of Johannesburg, who made almost as much din as the legendary and unearthly Haggis and Bong electric guitar and bagpipe combo, another highly entertaining act.

Away from the ceilidh and the pipe bands, we had booked into Montecasino’s five-star Palazzo Hotel, where we had been greeted on arrival by a flurry of friendly faces, bearing cold drinks, hurtling us through the paperwork and then whisking our bags to our rooms.

One forgets how good Tsogo Sun is at these things. When I booked, they confirmed me, unasked, onto a weekend breakaway deal which included all sorts of fascinating extras and freebies to ensure that we made the most of our stay. And we did. With the tattoo now firmly under our sporrans, it was time to take in the rest of what the bright lights of Montecasino had to offer the bedazzled bush band.

We went ten-pin bowling, we played in the entertainment arcade, we drank world-class coffee at Fego, we enjoyed an excellent curry at Raj and we watched bands and street players doing wonderfully clever things on every street corner. Montecasino is a Wonderland. It has the feeling of an imaginary world in a vast indoor stadium. We half-expected a dozen Mary Poppinses to come floating down from the concrete ether, as they did in London’s Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, and take on Lord Voldemort.

We didn’t use the free movie tickets but we’re saving them up for another time and we’d already paid to go into the Bird Garden when we realised that we had free tickets, so we went mad and went twice. It was a highlight.

I am somewhat ornithophobic and although I have no problem with birds in the outside world, wandering around under shadecloth surrounded by strutting, poeping, flapping creatures is really not my bag. Having said that, Montecasino’s Bird Gardens didn’t worry me in the least. In fact they may have cured me.

Huge tented aviaries are home to an eclectic range of multi-coloured birds of all shapes and species. The most colourful, the scarlet ibis, is an astonishing bright red, but there were many other beauties to ogle: turacos, cranes, peacocks, ducks, geese and parrots with a smattering of monkeys, snakes, oversized geckos and lemurs to calm the nerves between avian dive-bombings.

The stars of the show are the birds which take part in the live demonstration, where handlers lure owls, a toucan, a pelican and a ground hornbill into swoops and waddles in the purpose-built arena. It’s good wholesome fun – and when you have had your fill of gawping, you can get up close and personal with a bunch of lorikeets. Buy your nectar on the way in and these colourful little chaps while climb all over you to get their beaks into it. A hat is recommended!

All in all, whether you are coming from out of town to spend a night at one of Montecasino’s three hotels or whether you just want to pop in for the day, it cannot be recommended too highly. It’s safe, it’s well organised, there’s plenty to do and the visitors come from all over the place. The family in front of me in the bird queue had come down from Zambia for the weekend so if you can overnight, do so.

The Palazzo is superb with comfortable, spacious rooms and arguably the finest breakfast on earth. There’s a buffet and a choice of individually-cooked breakfasts; there are cereals and smoothies; there’s a parmesan the size of a medicine ball and there’s a fruit collection from around the world; there’s muesli to accompany it and a selection of seeds. Just watch out for any passing predatory birds.

And this a palace, after all, so eat breakfast like a king, then go and check out what’s happening over the road in Tuscany. It may not always be tartan, but there’s sure to be somebody waving a flag and putting on a show.



Where it is: Fourways, in amongst the malls, in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs.

Why go there: For an in-town out-of-this-world experience and to get over any fear of birds you might have. For shows, music, good food, a family-friendly atmosphere. And there’s a casino if you are really desperate.

What to do: Montecasino Bird Gardens. Adults: R48. Children under 10 years: R27. Open daily from 08h30 to 17h00. Demonstrations 11h00 and 15h00 with an additional 13h00 show at weekends and on public holidays.

Getting there: Access from William Nichol Drive. Blink 20 times and you still won’t miss it.

What there is to see on the way: Small Tuscan mansions down every side-street and in every cluster development, in preparation for Montecasino – the real thing.

Contact: Tsogo Sun reservations: 011 367 4250 or 0861 005 511 Email:montecasino.reservations@tsogosun.com. Choose between the 3* SunSquare, the 4* Southern Sun Montecasino and the 5* Palazzo. Rates from R525 per person per night. Ask about the Sunbreaks Special and special deals for children.

Predators on Parade

Seeing the Big Five at MalaMala, the prince of game parks, is all but guaranteed, writes Chris Harvie

There are game reserves and game reserves but MalaMala is in a class of its own. Founded in 1964 by its current owners, the reserve proudly and justifiably boasts having the best Big Five game-viewing in the world. But is it all about the Big Five?

Well, at MalaMala, yes it is. So if you are a birder, a mongoose fancier or a pangolin addict, it’s not for you unless you take a private vehicle. If, however, you want unparalleled lion, leopard and elephant viewing, then it’s right up your 4×4 track.

I had been before, more than 20 years ago, and the best compliment I can pay to owners Mike and Norma Rattray is that it hasn’t changed a bit. It has obviously been painted, they have bought new beds, the cushions have been reupholstered and so on, but the fundamental feel is just the same.

They haven’t gone berserk with interior designers; there’s no faux fur, no zebra stripes, no smelly candles. MalaMala has remained steadfastly what it always was. A hunting concession turned game reserve with a family history of excellence and hospitality.

We saw a leopard on the drive in. A bulky male hulked across the road just in front of our car and settled right on the roadside, yellow eyes fixed on us, unstressed and in control. The game in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin, whilst not in any way tame, is somewhat habituated, meaning that you can stare at a big cat from a Land Rover and he’ll stare back disinterestedly. But get out of the vehicle and he’ll probably tear you limb from limb.

Yuri de Villiers was our ranger although a MalaMala ranger is more than a guide, he is your host. He joins you for meals; he is at your beck and call all day. It used to be claimed that MalaMala rangers even went to the loo with you, although luckily Yuri didn’t try that.

He showed us to our rooms, which turned out to have not one loo but two. All MalaMala’s rooms have two bathrooms. It’s such a good idea not to have to fight for the first (or maybe better, second) wash at 5.30 in the morning before the 6am game drive. Everything they do is a good idea. The rooms are spacious but not huge, sensibly furnished but not over-luxurious, stylish yet simple.

Lunch is taken at separate tables on a huge deck overlooking the Sand River, where elephants wander unperturbed amongst the reeds in a cacophony of birdsong. The camp is not fenced and Yuri had some fascinating tales arising from the need to lure leopards away from kills made outside guest rooms. Thrilling stuff indeed.

Our afternoon drive saw us in and out of a herd of hyperactive elephants before heading for the dry riverbed, where a pride of nine lion had been relaxing during the day. They obliged us by taking a hike along the sandy bed just as the sun went down. The females fanned out to surround a herd of impala in what the Zulus would term ‘horns of the buffalo’ formation but somehow managed to miss, even as the impala hurtled straight towards them at high speed. Our hunger matched theirs, therefore, as we headed back to camp.

Dinner is served around a blazing fire in a reed boma under a huge Jackalberry tree. It’s a four-course affair with a choice of delicious soups and starters before a trip to the buffet. I hate bomas as a rule, but this one is big enough to have character. The food is also unusually good and obviously hasn’t been stewing in its own juices on a braai for hours.

The morning drive yielded more elephant, two male lions, a rhino with playful calf and twenty minutes winding our way through a herd of 300 buffalo. As one does. Before breakfast.

As I say, it is all about the Big Five. Luckily we’d seen a leopard on our own on the way in, as Yuri hadn’t shown us one, but he did say that we were only the second group in his more than a year and a half at the camp who hadn’t seen the Big Five with him and admittedly, we were only there for one night, where most guests stay two or three. This is, after all, the area with the highest concentration of leopards anywhere in the world.

You receive a certificate on leaving if you see the Big Five at MalaMala. So that’s almost everyone. I now have two certificates. CHRISTOPHER HARVIE HAS SUCCESSFULLY TRACKED DOWN THE BIG FIVE AT MALAMALA.

Admittedly, apart from my face-saver leopard, I didn’t exactly track them down myself but that’s not the point.

The point is that one certificate is dated 10 October 1991 and the other 23 April 2012. And between those dates, MalaMala has continued a standard of excellence to which newcomers on the block can only begin to aspire and, in many cases, at a considerably lower cost.


About MalaMala

MalaMala Game Reserve, Sabi Sand Wildtuin, Mpumalanga. Telephone: 011 442 2267 or 0861 SAFARI. Reservations: reservations@malamala.com Website: www.malamala.com

Main Camp has 18 rooms and its satellite Sable Camp has 7 suites, all stretching along the riverbank under shady trees. Rattrays, as the eponymous Mike Rattray is careful to point out, is not in colonial style but in classic South African style and has 8 khayas.

Rates are quoted in US dollars but start at approx. R5200 per person per night including full board and all game activities.