Marching down a game path in a row, the elephants reach the sizeable waterhole in front of Royal Malewane in Thornybush Game Reserve, to play in the water and to drink lustily. Two hefty females dig into the bank with their feet, creating mud to suck into their dexterous trunks, to toss over their head onto their back. A parade of nyala, kudu, warthog and occasionally a resident leopard, make for easy viewing from the brightly coloured sofas on the deck in the communal area. A Purple-crested turaco forages on a weeping boer-bean tree scattered with red flowers, a herald of spring. This bold shade of red is picked up in Liz Biden’s décor in her Persian carpets, curved couches and the occasional throw. Contemporary African art adds a cheeky touch to the eclectic genius of the furbishing.
After flying to Royal Malewane’s private Jackalberry air strip in a Federal Airlines Pilatus PC-12, I am whisked to the lodge in a Toyota Landcruiser. Buildings are not visible when we stop under a tree with a bench sporting vividly coloured scatter cushions. Staff members welcome me with a cheery wave. A short stroll down a sigmoid wooden walkway leads to the grand entrance, flanked by two life-size cheetah sculptures by Dylan Lewis. This inviting space, with feng shui airiness, leads directly through to the waterhole, where waterbuck are browsing.
Recent renovations at Royal Malewane include construction of the Masiya Bar overlooking the edge of the waterhole. Named after Wilson Masiya - a charismatic master tracker who joined The Royal Portfolio when it opened in 1999 - the bar sports over 50 whiskies and an impressive gin collection. I savour a dram of Lagavulin - a 16-year-old Islay single malt whisky that is delectably peaty - as I languish in an open-weave Dedon chair. An iridescent Malachite kingfisher darts down from its perch in a Jackalberry tree next to the bar, to spear an aquatic insect.
Master tracker is an honorary recognition of exceptional knowledge of animal behaviour and tracking ability. Of only seven in Africa, Royale Malewane now has three master trackers in Juan Pinto, Lucas Mathonsi and my tracker, Jonas Mhula. These men are highly respected, so it is a privilege to be on game drives with them, to learn about tracks and signs in the bush. Each morning Jonas points out footprints of nocturnal creatures that have passed the lodge, including spotted hyena and African civet.
On our game drives, Jonas hops off the precarious looking tracker seat to investigate marks in the sand, weaving a story of what he can discern from these traces. Our special sightings include a lioness with three tiny cubs, a white leucistic buffalo calf and a newborn hippo standing on the back of its mother. Following a pack of nine African wild dogs as they are hunting is exhilarating. The most riveting find, that causes me to hyperventilate, is a Temminck’s pangolin! We alight from the vehicle to get a closer look at this intriguing, endangered animal, with its imbricated scales. After decades of trips to the bushveld, it is my first time to observe a pangolin, considered to be one of the rarest species on earth. Curled into a ball at our approach, like a circinate frond of a fern, it slowly unfurls to lick up formic ants. Standing on its hind feet, with its reduced forefeet by its side, it scurries off looking like a mini-Tyrannosaurus rex.
With six Luxury Suites, two Royal Suites (each with two bedrooms) and Africa House - the separate six-bedroomed exclusive-use villa - Royal Malewane has an intimate and exclusive feel. Return guests include Elton John, who entertains his family and friends, appreciating the gourmet dining, fine wine collection, award winning Spa and - of course - sightings at the panoramic waterhole.
Federal Airlines has shuttle flights from their private terminal near to OR Tambo International Airport to lodge landing strips in the lowveld. To Jackalberry airstrip at Royal Malewane in Thornybush Nature Reserve and back to Johannesburg, I am turbopropped in the luxurious Pilatus PC-12. Covid-19 protocols are observed in the private terminal lounge, as well as on the flights. The lounge has an indoor and outdoor area, where drinks and snacks are served as I wait. It’s a simple comfortable space, right next to their runway.