“It’s about a journey of purpose, and the creation of a culture of mutual respect,” explains Theunissen, who went on to develop the Biyela and Mthembu lodges in the reserve. They are named for the communities on whose land they stand, and in time ownership of the lodges will be transferred to the communities.
For now the two lodges — with a third tented camp in the pipeline — provide crucial employment in this rural corner of KwaZulu-Natal, while proceeds from gate fees go directly to local community projects. So while community and conservation are taken care of, what about visitors?
It was way back in 2010, and civil engineer Barry Theunissen was standing alongside iNkosi [chief] Mthembu, gazing out at the lush Zululand hills bordering the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP).
Theunissen was building government housing for the local Mthembu community and working on rural development policies. He asked the iNkosi what he planned to do with all this empty land, almost pristine bar a few cattle kraals and homesteads.
What about establishing a game reserve, suggested Theunissen.
The rest, as they say, is history. Before long a further five amakosi had signed up for their vision of conserving a vast swathe of wilderness on the southern border of the HiP. To date, some 16,000 hectares of land have been set aside by the five communities, with 6,000 hectares already sharing an unfenced border with the wilderness of the southern iMfolozi section.
For starters, the two lodges are a delight.
Mthembu is the more relaxed of the pair, offering seven luxurious one-bedroom suites and two interconnected family villas. Decorated in shades of stone and sand, with a spacious central living area and expansive deck with river views, the lodge is well suited for both exclusive bookings and multi-gen get-togethers. The spa treatment rooms are a wonderfully quirky touch, housed in traditional Zulu rondavels.
Upstream, Biyela is perhaps the more striking lodge, with 12 free-standing suites clinging to the hillside overlooking the White iMfolozi. Each suite boasts a private plunge pool and glorious bath-with-a-view. Décor throughout is dark, bold and contemporary — a thoroughly modern space perfect for city-slickers soaking up time in the bush. It’s all courtesy of interior designer Michele Throssell who, aside from bringing a sharp eye to the interiors, is also the niece of the late Ian Player, an iconic conservationist and passionate protector of the Hluluwe-iMfolozi Park.
Not that you’ll spend all day in your suite, of course. While there are plans for bush walks and river activities in the future, right now it’s the twice-daily game drives that will keep you busy. Though fences were dropped four years ago, and wildlife is slowly discovering the new lands south of the White iMfolozi River, don’t come expecting the ‘Ferrari Safari’ of the Lowveld.
“It’s not a contrived experience. Here you’re blended in and you see what you get,” adds Theunissen. “You might have the Big Five in one morning, or you might not, but the birding here is always phenomenal.”
But there is certainly game to be seen, and in my few days in the reserve we had our share of close encounters: a grumpy elephant bull in musth, skittish Cape Buffalo, and the throaty call of lions at our riverside sundowner stop.
And the landscape itself is the star of any visit to uMfulaWozi . In the morning the rushing of the White iMfolozi provides the soundtrack to coffee on your private deck, and game drives along the river deliver wisps of mist floating ethereally above the water. In parts the reserve rolls across steep hillsides, the thickly forested valleys surely hiding their own secrets, while in others the plains open out to provide the perfect habitat for cheetah and plains game. Stately trees flank the riverbanks, while in early winter the Common Spike-thorn erupts in white flowers as if a downy pillow has been shaken loose across the landscape.
It’s a land with a rich history to discover too. The name mFulaWozi refers to the meeting place of two rivers, and it’s not far downstream from Mthembu lodge that the White iMfolozi River meets the Black iMfolozi. It’s here, in this triangle of land, that King Shaka perfected his famous hunting pits in a landscape reserved for ritual hunting.
Happily, those days are long past, and today this corner of Zululand lies undisturbed — a peaceful haven for wildlife and travellers needing to reset in the wilderness.