Roux du Toit is devilishly good at finding lions. Thornybush game reserve
consists of no less than 11,500ha of the kind of Lowveld bush that childhood
holiday dreams are made of. Within this giant haystack are two needles: the prides that live at Thornybush. And while du Toit is careful to say he’d never guarantee a sighting, I’ll take a stab and say you’d be mighty unfortunate to miss them.

Du Toit is a member of a small team of folk who live and work at the River Lodge at Thornybush, and it was he who fetched us from the gravel airstrip at Jackalberry. We’d taken a couple of tries to get the Federal Air Beachcraft on the ground as a result of warthogs on the runway, so we arrived, dressed for Sandton, slightly bewildered.

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Du Toit was an immediate hit. I do enjoy a good lion, but I’ll sit and watch
a purple-crested lourie or a gymnogene just as happily, and Roux, perhaps more used to crashing his Land Cruiser through the bush in search of the Big Five, was evidently thrilled to stretch his twitcher’s legs for a change. His knowledge of the birdlife is encyclopaedic.

The whole team was there to greet us as we arrived at The River Lodge, now desperate to shake off the city’s suddenly absurd clothes. The accommodation at the River Lodge is out of the top drawer. It really gives great hope to encounter this kind of high level of taste and quality in an industry that is too often a purveyor of Afro-kitsch nonsense. At The River Lodge there isn’t a leopard print to be found.

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It’s a sensitively designed property that sits comfortably in its environment and does not, as is so often the case, impose a dated and silly idea of Africa onto its surrounds. Rather than scream “safari!”, it offers a space for reflection, and allows the bush to teach its quiet wisdom.

The Royal Suite offers accommodation for four adults, and the lodge is happy to make a plan for kids too. It consists of two bedroom suites, and a central communal area with a dining room, a drawing room, and fireplace, not to mention a well-equipped kitchen and bar, swimming pool, and braai area. It all stands on stilts overlooking the Timbavati River, full of red duiker and steenbok, as a result of the drought.

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The staff at the River Lodge are there to make you comfortable, and dinner at the lodge’s central boma area is a good start. It overlooks a well-lit watering hole, and diners sit just a floodlit rim-pool away from the Big Five. It’s a pretty special place to have a meal, but the surprise is quite what a treat the food
turns out to be.

Addy Ndlovu, head chef at the River Lodge, has a hell of a story to tell. He knows the property exceptionally well. That’s because Ndlovu started life in the luxury hospitality industry as a gardener who took it upon himself to grow herbs for the kitchen. After stints outside Thornybush, he’s back where it all began: cooking superb holiday food, simple as dictated by location; and utterly
unaffected by the desire to show off.

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Lunch the next day was served on our stoep in the Royal Suite. It was a preposterous amount of food. Home-made burgers on home-baked buns, perfectly cooked satay chicken, and a light and zesty “yellow salad”,
a Ndlovu original that’s going to transform Parker family braais.

Overseeing the River Lodge is Liza Huismans. Experience, an eye for detail, and enjoyment of people’s company is a rare triumvirate of attributes, but they’re all there in Huismans, who, when interrupted by our many inane questions, regaled us with stories of leopards on the stoep, elephants in the garden and the vervets’ habit of mindlessly picking away at the thatch.

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Huismans runs a tight ship. The place is immaculate, the service staff there
when you need them, but otherwise scarce (turndown may, in fact, have been conducted by magic), and there was not a stray leaf on any surface. We did take advantage of du Toit’s off-roading skills to park next to a pride of lions. We watched for half an hour, fascinated, as a juvenile elephant carefully stripped the bark off a tree. We also walked breathlessly in du Toit’s footsteps through the bush for a couple of hours one morning, a rare treat indeed.

But we also just sat. We read, watched the birds and enjoyed the company
of the humans of the River Lodge. A funny thing, I suppose, but true. I’d return just as much for the people as I would for the lions. The lions are a given, after all, but a place like the River Lodge is a rare thing indeed.

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50g yellow peppers, julienned
50g corn kernels, blanched
50g baby corn, blanched
50g yellow patty-pans, sliced and
left in iced water
100g gooseberries or pineapple,
100g baby carrots, peeled,
halved, and blanched
For the vinaigrette:
50ml white wine vinegar
50ml lemon juice
30ml Dijon mustard
100ml extra-virgin olive oil
30ml honey

Mix the salad ingredients together.
Blend the vinaigrette ingredients together and toss with the salad.
Serve chilled.

Alexander Parker travelled to Thornybush with Federal Air, which flies daily to various airstrips in the Lowveld.

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