I’m all about experiences.
The passionate pursuit of that mysterious, intangible essence that flows from time spent doing something that speaks to my very soul. That feeling of connectedness savoured over a G&T as the sun sets on yet another marvellous day in Africa. A yearning for a heightened state of contentedness.
I think those in the know generally call this happiness.
Surviving COVID-19 and its ever-changing list of lockdown regulations, just as you most probably have too, has only served to reinforce this imperative. It makes me that much more adamant to continue to strive for authentic experiences in my travels, as I seek to keep this promise to self.
Such were the preoccupations of my mind as I recently visited Babanango Game Reserve, a second trip to the reserve in the last few months. Leaving the chilly, wind-swept planes of the Highveld for the warmer temperatures of Zululand in northern KwaZulu-Natal, was just what my wanderlust seeking soul needed.
A Reserve Evolving
I first visited Babanango in November 2020, having heard much about this reserve in the making. Regular updates as significant milestones were achieved kept the reserve front of mind and continually on my radar as a travel writer. The 22,000 hectares that make up the reserve are currently being rewilded with the Big-5 with buffalo, giraffe, zebra and rhino already reintroduced to these ancient lands.
Three accommodation offerings – Zulu Rock Lodge, Babanango Valley Lodge and Matatane Camp are operational with friendly staff eager to cater to your every bushveld whim. A further lodge, to be called Travellers Camp and situated on the White Umfolozi, is planned for 2022. The reserve also boasts over 308 species of birdlife, including several breeding pairs of blue cranes. And aloes for days.
My return visit was an absolute delight and a chance to witness this evolution before my very eyes, as new activities and, yip you guessed it, experiences, have been added to the Babanango offering.
Let me share some of them with you.
Breakfast in the Bush
Getting up early is par for the course when out in the bush, but Babanango has taken it one step further and offer the option of having breakfast served in the bush. Not just a reheat of bacon and eggs cooked at the lodge mind you, the entire meal is prepared right there in the bush.
Starting with champagne, moving on to an assortment of cheeses and then your cooked breakfast, made to order, is truly a priceless experience as the sun rises over the mountains of Zululand. A good cup of bush coffee to end off the experience makes for a wonderful time of contemplation, or conversation, with friends.
Spend time on a Beach, 150km inland from the Indian Ocean
And here I thought beaches were only found along the ocean! The White Umfolozi River flows through the reserve and at several spots, and depending on the season and flow of the river, creates beaches.
I spent some time with the newly introduced horses at Babanango, an excellent way to view game and a great new activity on offer, stopping off at one of these beaches. A quick-sticks fire in the appropriate spot, a kettle placed on its flames and the most perfect cup of coffee ever was soon brewed.
Coffee on a beach over 2 hours from the ocean, reached by horse and brewed from scratch – now that’s one for your post-COVID bucket list.
I remember being impacted by the friendliness of the staff on my last trip to Babanango. Returning this time was like reuniting with old friends. Bongani paraded an array of colourful socks selected from his collection, Mzi enchanted us around the fire in the boma with his stories of Africa and Lucky continually shared throughout my stay, his love and passion for all elements of the bush.
Many of the staff members are residents of the local communities surrounding Babanango, making this project one that has the community at heart. And this ethos extends beyond mere staff employment, but that is a separate post in itself.
Picnic in (soon to be) Big-5 Territory
In my mind, there is something very South African about a picnic, even though we certainly didn’t first conceptualise this glorious pastime. I enjoy the connection to the land it offers as I sit upon terra firma and take in the splendour of Mother Nature.
And we have tons of splendour here in South Africa, and terra firma.
Always seeking to enhance your bush experience, Babanango will set up a picnic lunch, complete with bar service, literally anywhere among their 22,000 hectares. But speak to Lucky, he is the man in the know and will suggest an array of great locations from which to while away your afternoon.
The List Continues
I could go on recounting my experiences during my stay at Babanango, like taking in sundowners at the Hippo Pool under the watchful eye of these magnificent animals. Or the cuisine prepared by Executive Chef Khumbulani at Babanango Valley Lodge or Chef Lekona at Zulu Rock Lodge. But I think it’s best I leave you to go forth and make these discoveries for yourself.
So I find myself contemplating, what was that intangible essence I alluded to before, what did I experience during my trip to Babanango?
In one word it would be hope.
The hope of exciting things to come tomorrow, as the reserve continues to achieve its milestones. The hope of a more equitable future, as community projects are rolled out. The hope of returning to the heart of Zululand one day, complete with its stories and tales, where I can, yet again, experience this unique slice of South African life.
Now that speaks to my very soul.
Thank you to Babanango Game Reserve for hosting me during my stay in Zululand. Opinions and views expressed are, as always, my own.