Tonight I am resting where the Zulu kings slumbered, but in a modern and private Umntwana Honeymoon Suite on the banks of the Mkuse River at Amakhosi Safari Lodge in NE KwaZulu-Natal. In Zulu, Amakhosi means “Place of Kings”, and I certainly felt like a King in my king-sized canopy bed.
Welcome from a Zulu king and queen.
From Amakhosi the ancient Kings and Queens of Zululand ruled a vast empire that stretched from the Indian Ocean to present day Namibia. Nearby my lodge are the ancient ruins from the past that testified to the might of the Zulu Kingdom.
From these savannahs, wetlands, and mountains, warriors (impi) were sent out on raids and hunting parties; 12,000 hectares now comprise Amazulu Private Game Reserve that encompasses the lodge in all directions with thornveld, grassveld, and lowveld.
My private "Kingdom",
The bubble pool overlooks the Mkuse River
It doesn’t take me long to hop into my private bubble pool on the expansive deck that overlooked the Mkuse River where crocodiles are often seen bubbling to the surface. An electric fence surrounded my Suite from bigger game and predators. I noticed blue butterflies flit in the bush.
The reserve has no black rhinos but there are herds of elusive white rhinos that I hope to photograph. Elephants often bath from the rocks in front of my #7 Suite. It is winter now, and in my mind, the best time to visit, but during the summer the rains make the hay colored grasslands green and thick and full of game because it is the birthing season.
After my cold plunge I dab off the wet with a lush towel and get into my safari gear for a jaunt around the territory.
Two game drives daily are included in a stay at Amakhosi, as are all meals and the splendid spread at the 3 p.m. high tea. My padded chaise lounge was so comfortable that I dozed off when suddenly my assigned ranger, Mandie, alerts me for the 4 p.m. night safari. Mandie grew up along the Orange River in western South Africa, near Namibia, and she is an exceptionally qualified ranger and driver who has even more enthusiasm than the animal viewing guests.
Amakhosi Safari Lodge was judged a finalist in The 2011 Safari Awards and the entire village of suites, lodges, villas, main lodge and restaurant, and spa wrap around an elbow and section of the slow moving chocolate colored Mkuse River.
The dining lodge includes the reception area.
At the main lodge Mandie stopped to pet the orphaned tame baby warthog that one of the rangers sleeps with at night to acclimatize the porker to the cooler winter air. We met up with Kiki, our tracker, and Mandie bundled a high-powered rifle in the gun rack. As we crossed the Mkuse River I eyed the waters for breaking beady eyed croc heads.
There's crocs in the Mkuse River.
Amakhosi is famous for its summer frogging safaris when the amphibians hatch along the banks as the Mkuse’s waters rise above a widened flood plain.
The rangers also lead year around walking safaris from the lodge, but because the reserve is so vast, the multi-seated game trucks are the best option for seeing loads of the Big 5.
I didn’t participate in a Birding Safari but I want to return to the area someday after learning about the powerful Stephanoaetus coronatus eagle, which hunts monkeys and small forest antelope. The reserve has three breeding pairs of the rare Crowned Eagle, nesting along the water course forest. Although Phillip Khumalo, the Head Ranger, is the Specialist Birding Guide at the reserve, I felt like an intimidated amateur photographer when Mandie pulled out her monster telephoto lens to snap a staccato of shots of a mother and juvenile African Eagle Hawk in a dead tree, their heads panning the savannah for a meal. I am sure Mandie has great photos of all 420 species of birds on the reserve.
Mandie checks the bird book.
I don’t understand why when I took a photo of a giraffe it turned and looked over his shoulder with a smirk and I get only a bush butt shot, while Mandie snagged blue ribbon winner poses. I framed a warthog rump in my viewfinder and I think I caught Mandie with the same smirk as the giraffe! The wildebeest and kudu shots I got were all tails. There was a flurry of butt jokes and I think I was the “butt” of them, but we all laughed. The reserve protects 15 species of antelope so as an interloper I hoped to get one Nat Geo shot — facing me.
That evening under the clear Zulu starlight a boma fire blazed so hot I had to push my canvas camp chair back from the flames.
Zulu warriors danced for us..
It was African Heritage Night and Mandie handed me a vodka cocktail as I entered the traditional cattle kraal on the premises of the lodge. Drums beat and more guests arrived to form a near full circle.
Zulu warriors popped out of nowhere like they did on raids and they danced and stomped in close patterns in full skin and feather regalia, brandishing their light but strong shields and spears.
Because I was conveniently on the end of the line I am pulled out of the ranks and coerced to stomp with the athletic troupe. I tried to keep up with the rhythm but I swear those drums kept beating faster.
Later I dined with Shane, the lodge’s night duty General Manager. House wines are included with an Amakhosi stay, and the red merlot paired nicely with my order of grilled King Fish, an ocean breed, and the Ostrich Carpaccio starter.
Shane is an avid fisherman and he tells me there are numerous black bass (large-mouth) ponds in the area, with a recent record weighing in at over 7kg. The Mkuse if full of yellowfish and burbot, a type of bream smaller than its ocean cousin. The only way I would fish the river is if Mandie held a rifle from the bank to bag me a new set of crocodile luggage.
It's 5-star African fusion cuisine at Amakhosi Safari Lodge.
There are two types of accommodations at the Lodge: The six River Lodges, and the Umntwana Suites, which meant "a child of Royalty" in Zulu. The reserve only accommodates 16 guests at once (children are welcome), truly making it a private kingdom.
The Lodges are shaped like Zulu shields.
The new IsiGodlo Villa is great for families of four and is somewhat more isolated from the rest of the encampment.
"IsiGodlo" means a Chief’s residence, and it is the only private villa on the reserve; it is positioned to capture views of the animals drinking below and the beautiful African sunsets. The exclusive, hidden gem had a spacious lounge with large leather sofas, a centered fireplace, and bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms all opening up onto a large wooden viewing deck with embedded splash pool.
Farther downstream on the banks of the Mkuze River gorge (and falls) the reserve operates the Ibandla Bush Camp with two rustic houses (no electricity), each with two en-suite bedrooms. The Camp caters groups of up to eight guests. This Camp is utilized for overnight walking safaris, or rented separately, but is ideal for larger families
The new IsiGodlo Villa.
I was in my own private kingdom in my Umntwana Honeymoon Suite and the high thatched ceilings kept the room cool and the glass walls offered ad hoc game views. All Lodges and Suites and the Villa overlooked the Mkuse. Each free-standing accommodation had its own A/C, lounge, fully stocked mini-bar (with a loaded tray of biltong), tea/coffee making (with a jar of biscuits and cookies); only the Suites have the outdoor bubble pool and hammock.
A romantic retreat.
The double sink bathroom had a fantastic circular tub and also a two person shower; truly a romantic rendezvous retreat for royalty.
The Lodges and Suites are shaped like huge Zulu shields and they are jammed with African art and artifacts. Sure there was a zebra rug on the floor. If you don’t find a turn-down treat at bedtime on the pillow check the mini-fridge where it is kept to fool foraging vervet monkeys.
Chic African comfort.
At the main lodge there is a beautiful swimming pool with poolside loungers and a small boma circle, plus a small library, and curio shop corner; I found plenty of large format African wildlife books in both the inside and outside lounge (high tea is served outside). There is satellite television only at the main lodge, which also has conference facilities for 16 delegates and a central communication center (email, phone, and fax at additional cost).
Yumies are serve at high tea.
Guests gather for drinks at the small bar to swap stories before the evening meals are served in the linen clad and impressive dining room.
The next day Daudi and Corrine joined us at high tea and for our afternoon game drive; they were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. The Lodge can also arrange fully catered Weddings in the Bush.
Amakhosi is famous for Frog Safaris.
On the drive Mandie stated that the reserve used to brand its lions, but now computer chips track them, which is what I think Daudi was doing on his iPad. When the discussion arose about the mating call of a specific rare African bird we were all jerked to attention when we heard the call, but Daudi just laughed because it was a play back from his African Bird app. We had been tweeted!
A herd of grazing Cape Buffalos lazed and grazed in the reclaimed sugarcane field that used to be a Voortrekker farm, and each had the obligatory white egret on its back, pecking at the ticks and bugs. We almost hit a porcupine (Hystrix Africaeaustralis) that skittered off into the bush near the outer boundary of the electric fenced reserve. It is the largest rodent in Africa, up to a meter long and around 20kg in weight. Their long, sharp quills are modified hairs and loosely embedded in the skin and are not poisonous and cannot be “shot” out.
At the edge of the open plain/sugarcane field was a marshy area where a few hippos called home as well as herons, egrets, mousebirds, and a snake necked bird that dove for fish. Just past the marshlands a black-backed jackal stalked with a lurking gait the fast running guinea fowl; near the Lodge later we saw side-striped jackals which are not indigenous to the area, but the rangers raised the pups after they were found in a cane fire.
The beautiful AmaZulu Private Game Reserve.
My favorite bird could have flown off a Fruit-Loops cereal box, the beautiful male banana bird, or also called the African yellow-billed hornbill. A couple of males flitted from tree to tree following the truck, hoping for a handout.
A huge thunder and lightning storm welled up during the evening sundowner on a dam road. The ponchos were broken out and the storm fizzled out. In the darkness our spotlight caught a small croc crawling up the dam wall, the only one I saw at the reserve. Hmmm. . . . Samsonite or Louis Vuitton? We later found the Southern Cross as the clouds rolled on across the mountains.
Weaver Bird nests at Amakhosi Lodge.
Shane and his staff can also arrange a horseback safari at the nearby Pakamisa Private Nature Reserve. (Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature about Pakamisa.) The St. Lucia Wetlands and Sodwana Bay are a mere 2.5 hours away from the lodge and are well worth adding into your itinerary. Mozambique and Swaziland are also in close proximity.
The 5-star Amakhosi Safari Lodge also runs several packages deals, such as the Winter Warmer Special for new bookings: pay for two nights and get the third night free. Ask also about their last minute specials. Amakhosi also has a Beach and Bush Package in conjunction with the beautiful Oyster Box Hotel in Durban.
Amakhosi is easily accessed: By road, about 4 hours from Durban and 5½ hours from Johannesburg. The reserve has its own airstrip and it is about one hour from Durban or Johannesburg. GPS co-ordinates: Airstrip is S 27 degrees 40.237' / E 31 degrees 40.377' 1190 feet above sea level; Lodge is S 27 degrees 39.239' / E 31 degrees 38.030' 1120 feet above sea level.
The game reserve and adjacent hunting reserves take poaching seriously. On the drive out of Amakhosi a poaching unit on motorcycles had high-powered rifles with scopes slung over their shoulders. I guess I will have to go to the mall for my new croc luggage.
— Feature by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine; photos by the author and courtesy of Amakhosi Safari Lodge.