Ever since I bawled my eyes out watching Born Free aged about 7, I'd dreamt of going to Africa. My fantasy involved staring transfixed at lonely acacia trees set against a vast pink sunrise, while giraffes and zebras sunned themselves in the frazzled scrub beneath. It also included wide open plains, buffalo drinking from muddy rivers, elephants snorting through the undergrowth and prides of lions reclining in the savannah. It was, essentially, your typical African cliché. Thing is, it turned out not to be a cliché at all.
My very first trip to Africa took me to the Amakhosi Safari Lodge, situated alongside the Mkuze river in the 12,000 hectare Amazulu private game reserve in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. Its six spacious river suites sit just back from the water's edge, each one accommodating two people in absolute luxury.
Inside and Outside Your Suite
Each traditionally decorated, glass-fronted suite has a living area, a shower room, an oversized petal-strewn bathroom with a deep, circular tub for two, a large, comfortable bedroom and a private viewing deck. The two extra Umntwana honeymoon suites also have private plunge pools and hammocks overlooking the river. All of which is just lovely, of course. But it's the people who work at and quite obviously adore Amakhosi who lift the lodge out of the domain of hedonistic wilderness retreats and into the realm of something altogether more elusive. Amakhosi is magical and its staff seem to know it. Every once in a while, you stumble upon a place that is so much more than the sum of its parts, and this is one of them. If they'd offered, I'd have moved in on the spot.
Visitors for Tea
As we arrived late in the afternoon, high tea was served on our deck and we were warned not to leave any food outside lest we were paid a visit by a troupe of pilfering bush babies. Immediately, we made a mental note to most definitely leave some food outside. Africa is home to the world's most astonishing animals, but not many of them are cuter than a bush baby and we absolutely wanted one as a guest at our table.
We lounged around and watched the sun go down, and listened as a strange, mournful calling wafted through the breeze. We couldn't work out what it was or where it was coming from, when minutes later, through the dimness of the early evening light we watched, dumbstruck, as a herd of around 25 elephants wandered along the opposite riverbank, slipping back into the trees like giant grey ghosts.
Up With The Lark
The following morning arrived with a start - a 5.00 a.m alarm call from Andrew, one of Amakhosi's resident rangers. After a cup of strong coffee, we wrapped ourselves in blankets, climbed into the back of the Land Rover and hugged hot water bottles to our chests. It was cold - the sun was yet to rise - but the combination of warm body and tingling face was perfect.
It's hard to articulate the thrill I felt as we drove out through the gates of the lodge. This was not just some random excursion, but something I'd been wanting to experience for most of my life. So when we pulled to an abrupt halt within 15 seconds of the exit sign, I could hardly contain myself. A large male elephant blocked our path. It was so close I could see the individual hairs on its gnarly hide. Andrew told us to sit still and not make any sudden movements. The animals in the reserve have come to accept the jeep as non-threatening, but flailing arms reaching for zoom lenses are not necessarily part of that acceptance. We waited patiently until it strolled nonchalantly back into the thicket.
What followed was an unbelievable three hours. I don't know if we were particularly lucky that morning or if it was just par for the course, but we saw, at various proximities, rhinos, buffalo, kudu, impala, warthogs, zebras, lions, a huge rock monitor lizard and an enormous sitting giraffe. Barely five minutes went by without another sighting. But best of all was what we didn't see - a single other vehicle. This entire landscape, as far as the eye could see, in every direction, belonged to these animals alone - and being part of a hugely outnumbered species was humbling, to say the least.
Later on we were taken to an enclosure near to the lodge's staff quarters to see two orphaned cheetahs that ranger-in-training Nicolai had recently rescued. The babies had only just entered their new, temporary home after a period of 24hr round-the-clock care from Nicolai and later, he would re-introduce them to the wild.
Time for Rejoice-ing
Our next couple of days followed a similar theme - up before dawn for a morning drive, back for brunch on the terrace, a sleep by the pool or reading on the deck followed by tea and another late afternoon drive.
Dinner was prepared by the wonderfully-named chef Rejoice, though on our last night we were treated to a traditional South African braai (barbecue) with our ranger and tracker, and best of all, singing and dancing from the entire staff of the lodge.
I'd been warned in advance that there's something about this landscape and its creatures that manages to infiltrate the very core of your being. I suspected that I would succumb, and I did.
The Amakhosi Safari Lodge is about a five and a half hour drive from Johannesburg, or a four hour drive from Durban.
I would recommend visiting Amakhosi as part of a wider journey through Kwazulu Natal. Check out our review of the Isandlwana Lodge, a couple of hours west of here. If you have more time, consider combining a Zululand adventure in South Africa with a beach holiday in Mozambique. The Quirimbas Archipelago in the north of the country is home to some of the most pristine islands in the Indian Ocean.
The author stayed as a guest of the hotel.
Have you been to or are you from this area? Have you ever had an amazing safari experience? Where's the best place you've ever been for game viewing? We'd love to hear about your experiences and recommendations in the comments below.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.