By Stef Terblanche
In what now already seems like a lifetime ago, before the government declared a state of disaster and a national lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, I received an invitation to travel to the Waterberg region in Limpopo as a guest of the Tintswalo Lapalala lodge in the Lapalala Wilderness private game reserve.
I had no idea of what to expect, as in the past I had only ever travelled through a small south-eastern corner of the Waterberg region along the N1 between Pretoria and Polokwane as well as around the south-western town of Thabazimbi. The entire two-thirds of the region above that line, was an undiscovered mystery to me.
That mistake had cost me not getting to know much sooner one of the most splendidly wild wilderness preserves in the country – in fact one of the last few remaining true wilderness areas in South Africa. A place where natural beauty is not only manifested in the physical view in front of you but is found also in the way it enters and enriches the soul. And the splendour and hospitality of Tintswalo Lapalala – the lodge plus all its people who make it what it is – anchored what was for me, a thoroughly pleasant and invigorating experience.
We travelled about an hour by road from Johannesburg’s Lanseria Airport before entering the Waterberg region just south of the town of Bela-Bela (previously known as Warmbad). The region stretches from Bela-Bela in the south to Lephalale in the north, and from Thabazimbi in the west to Mokopane in the east.
Entering the reserve
From Bela-Bela it was about another two hours via Vaalwater before we pulled up at the gate of Lapalala Wilderness. Along the way I had begun to understand why people fall in love with the Waterberg… but the best by far was still to come. After some welcome refreshments we boarded our open game-viewing vehicle and set off for the lodge, quite a distance deeper into the reserve.
Along the way we learnt that the mountains around us were home to a treasure trove of San art and we also passed the Lapalala Wilderness School where many children have been gifted some of their best lifelong memories. We saw many animals, including white rhino, wildebeest, herds of impala, and giraffes sailing through the bush on their gangly legs and heads held high above the trees. But there would yet be much more to follow.
I had always realised that the name Waterberg obviously had something to do with a mountain and water, but now I found out exactly where it came from. The area is mountainous, while criss-crossing the area are literally thousands of streams. The Lapalala is reserve is bisected by the perennial Palala River that drains the area from south to north, plus its most important tributary, the perennial Bloklands Spruit. In the greater Waterberg region, there are many more rivers, streams and fountains, and locals say after good rains the region literally sparkles in the sun.
The bumpy dirt road took us across bushveld plains and rivers, skirting the sides of mountains, through river valleys and dense indigenous forests, until suddenly in a clearing on the edge of a flood plain, the lodge appeared.
As we pulled up to the front entrance of the lodge, the general management couple David and Tanja Jacobs and their friendly staff were waiting with huge welcoming smiles, hot wet towels and more refreshments. Along a raised wooden walkway – which protects humans from the wild animals and allows them to pass underneath – we were each shown to our own secluded tented accommodation.
Where luxury meets the bush
The eight tented suites are each named after a different African tribe and are decorated accordingly. These include among others, Zulu, Venda, Maasai, Himba and Xhosa. Mine was the Tuareg, named after the nomadic pastoralists of the Sahara. The dominant colour theme was blue and white with splashes of bright yellow, colours that identify the Tuareg of North Africa.
Like all the other suites mine came with a luxurious bed looking out onto the plain and watering hole below where visiting animals are a permanent feature; a very private wooden deck with plunge pool and comfortable loungers; and an outside bath tub and shower from where one can lie in a foam bath while watching rhinos or a herd of wildebeest some fifty meters away or, at night, look up at the millions of bright stars in the Milky Way above.
Tintswalo Lapalala lodge is a luxurious tented, eco-friendly camp which is completely off the grid, operating only with solo power and generators. And even though it’s off the grid, free Wi Fi keeps you connected to the outside world… if you choose. Yet visitors can count on enjoying every modern comfort while immersing themselves in the natural beauty of the wilderness around them.
There are different dining areas, but my favourite was the outside deck and the boma with its fire pit where we enjoyed hearty breakfasts or dinners of traditional cuisine. There’s also a main lounge area with a large fireplace where you can relax and chat to other guests.
The lodge and its tented suites have been designed to blend in and offer the least disturbance to the surrounding bush. In fact, so well has this been done, that one night I woke from a scraping sound on the outside of my tent and went to inspect. Pulling open the tent, I came face to face with a rhino standing beside the plunge pool. On another occasion at night, lions came wandering though underneath the raised boardwalks that connect the lodge and the suites.
Naturally, daily highlights were the early morning and late afternoon game-viewing drives in open 4X4 vehicles with our very knowledgeable and experienced guides who are more than willing to go that extra mile to please their visitors. From our guides we learnt much about the history, topography, geology and the fauna and flora of the reserve, an ancient product of the tremendous forces that shaped the earth and our continent.
For millennia the region was home to prehistoric life, followed by thousands of years of San occupation, before other tribes and white settler farmers arrived. For more than a century large parts of the fertile valleys were cultivated and farmed, but over the last five or so decades most of it has been rehabilitated to its original wild splendour, with animals being reintroduced to the area.
The legacy of two friends
Lapalala Wilderness reserve is the legacy of two friends and conservationists, the well-known artist Clive Walker and the late businessman Dale Parker. Their love affair with this wilderness area started from the moment they looked out over the Palala River Valley back in 1981. They purchased their first farm here from one of the last ‘great white hunters’ of East Africa, Eric Rundgren, who had turned protector of the wildlife he had previously hunted with such dedication.
Over the next 20 years they purchased 17 more farms in the area and by 2001 the reserve consisted of 36,000 hectares. Since then it grew to 48,500 hectares, soon to be increased to 52,000 hectares, making it one of the largest private reserves in Southern Africa. There are only three commercial lodges in the reserve, of which Tintswalo is one. Clive meanwhile also established the Lapalala Wilderness School, through which well over 70,000 youngsters have passed to date, kindling a keen spirit of conservation in them, with many later following a career in this field.
Soon after purchasing their first land here, Walker and Parker started reintroducing the original wildlife species to the area. In 1990, Lapalala became the first private reserve in South Africa to acquire black rhino when a number of these highly endangered animals were brought to the reserve.
Today the reserve boasts both black and white rhino, lions, leopards, elephants, hippo, giraffes, zebra, impala, waterbuck, bushbuck, wildebeest, crocodile, baboons, monkeys, galagos, servals, roan antelope, buffalo, wild dogs and red-billed oxpeckers. In total there are some 147 mammal species, 300 bird species, 33 amphibian species, 114 reptile species and 50 fish species. This year, as an added treat for visitors, Tintswalo Lapalala introduced guided fly-fishing safaris on a ‘catch, release and research’ basis.
A family affair
Game-viewing drives in this reserve are a truly awesome experience. Because there are only three lodges in the entire reserve, and because of its size, you will seldom encounter another vehicle on such drives. On one particular game drive in the late afternoon we stopped at a large dam and boarded a pontoon that took us very close to a group of hippos enjoying the sunset and the water. It was on this cruise that I was joined on the rooftop seat of the pontoon by Gaye Corbett whose family owns Tintswalo Lodges, with properties at some of the most beautiful locations in South Africa.
<Caption> Gaye Corbett
On the rooftop of the pontoon, sipping champagne, with the sun setting and the male leader of the group of hippos keeping a watchful eye on us, Gaye told me the story of how she and her husband Ernest had years ago been developing and managing shopping centres around Mpumalanga. During the construction of one of their malls in Bushbuckridge, their youngest daughter, Lisa, became involved in an empowerment programme with the local community.
Through this encounter they were introduced to the Manyeleti Game Reserve and were asked by the local community to tender for a concession in the reserve, which they successfully did. Through the vision and efforts of Lisa, together with her game ranger husband, Warwick Goosen, they established their first lodge, the Tintswalo Safari Lodge, incorporating Tintswalo Manor House, in 2002. From there followed a string of beautiful, high-end lodges around the country, one of the more recent being Tintswalo Lapalala. Gaye and Ernest’s eldest daughter, Tracy Henley, has since also joined the family business.
Gaye told me that among all their lodges, Tintswalo Lapalala was one of her favourites. She loves getting away to the exquisite natural beauty and solitude of this pristine wilderness area to relax and revitalise. And who can blame her!
Many additional surprises
On our daily game-viewing drives combined, we got to see most of the animal species of the reserve, including leopard and a large black-maned lion who pretended we didn’t exist. We were also treated to many pleasant surprises.
For instance, on the drive back to the lodge in the dark after a game drive, we suddenly came upon a festive sight in the middle of the veld – two long tables laden with indigenous culinary treats and drinks, all lit up by lanterns strung around them, and manned by our welcoming host, Richard. It was here that Richard persuaded me to eat mopani worms for the first time in my life. Let’s say, it was a snack I will never forget.
On another occasion Gaye and some of the Tintswalo management and guides treated us to a riverside picnic second to none. Sheltered from the harsh sun under white Bedouin-style tents, we feasted from a variety of picnic hampers with the fast-flowing waters of the Palala River rushing by an arm’s length away. A professional masseuse was on hand to loosen up those stressed muscles, while some of us cooled off in a large rock pool. It was simply just another day of awesome bliss in Africa.
All too soon my visit came to an end and I had to take leave of Tintswalo Lapalala’s wonderful management and staff and this magnificent place they call home. The lodge, the reserve and much of the entire Waterberg region, truly constitute a bit of paradise on earth.
2-Night Safari for 2 from R18 500, and for a family of four from R20 200 (2 adults and 2 children under the age of 16), including all meals and twice daily game drives. This is valid
until 28 February 2021 but excludes the peak season from 15 December to 15 January. For more information or to book a dream holiday in this wilderness paradise, you can go to https://www.tintswalo.com/lapalala/gamelodge/.
This article was made possible with the kind assistance of Janie van der Spuy of Five Star PR and Tintswalo Lapalala who paid for travel costs and provided accommodation