I underestimated just how much of a tonic the wide-open space of the Welgevonden Game Reserve, home to Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa, might be at this time, the perfect antidote to the claustrophobia and confinement we’ve endured the past year.
After a very manageable drive from Johannesburg to the Waterberg in the Limpopo province, I step out of the car, take in the fresh air and surrounding landscape, and let out a very relieved sigh. Headed for Mhondoro, we’re met at the main gate by a bar and snacks artfully displayed on the bonnet of a Land Rover, and after a cooling G&T accompanied by the tastiest homemade game droëwors, we embark on a further hour’s drive in the hardy open vehicle bumping along into the vast valley.
The expansive reserve has a wide array of wildlife, including the Big Five and some other sought-after cats, but it’s mostly the spectacular birdlife darting among the trees that we enjoy en route. It’s a comfort to see that the rhinos, still adorned with their horns unlike at some more cautious reserves, are plentiful, and it seems the inability to take a private vehicle into this area may be what’s protecting them.
We reach Mhondoro in time for a delicious lunch, the first of many sumptuous and beautifully presented meals. I’m touched that my wheat intolerance has kindly been accounted for with many extra options available, making for the rare occasion when I need not endure my usual food fomo. It’s these acts of thoughtfulness from the obviously passionate staff that make for the full five-star experience. Returning from dinner, we’re met with a roaring fire in our room, with drawn mosquito nets surrounding the bed, and — glorious surprise — hot-water bottles tucked beneath the covers. You couldn’t get any snugger if you tried.
Surprise and delight are the themes of our stay, and the moments of feeling spoilt and considered are plentiful. We’re met in the middle of our brisk morning game drive by chefs making pancakes on a skottel braai (with wheat-free versions for me, of course). We’re entertained at an extravagant boma dinner under the stars by a performance of African song and dance, and my nine-year-old son (my companion for the weekend) is treated to an on-foot bug hunt with Lena, our bush guide, who is equal parts charming and informative.
The attention to detail is not only apparent in the hosting skills but also in the design of the lodge, which displays much thought and many unique features. There is a custom-built stargazing deck, as well as a waterhole with an underground game-viewing hide connected to the main lodge by a 65m reinforced concrete tunnel, which makes for the ultimate vantage point to enjoy the wildlife.
We also enjoy the experience of a lifetime when a herd of elephants nonchalantly gathers at the poolside to quench their thirst with large quantities of pool water, completely unperturbed by the humans in close range on the deck. This is apparently a regular occurrence at Mhondoro and an absolute highlight. And it’s not just elephant families that are made to feel so welcome.
For a place that offers this level of luxury and comfort, it is surprisingly geared towards families with children. There is much accommodation that takes family-sized groups into account, as well as the large luxury villa, which is perfect for extended family gatherings and celebrations, especially appealing at a time when large parties and events aren’t the norm.
Gyms, spas, and private plunge pools are a nice touch, but when I reflect on what really makes it a most special stay, it’s definitely the warmth, friendliness, and attentiveness of a staff complement that feels like a new group of friends hosting you for the sheer love of it.
• From the August edition of Wanted, 2021.