The sound of the long-awaited post-winter drizzle, softly tapping on dusty, dry leaves and a newly laid thatch roof has never been so sweet. Being in the bush after five months of lockdown and simultaneously experiencing a brand-new lodge and its offerings amidst the chaos of Corona gave me a glimpse of hope and for a moment, all was right with the world.
Abelana Game Reserve is located between Phalaborwa and Hoedspruit, adjacent to the Greater Kruger’s Balule Private Nature Reserve and the Selati Private Game Reserve. It’s a mere 20-minute drive to The Kruger National Park’s Phalaborwa gate, which even makes a day visit to the Kruger not too far-fetched. Not that you need it though; Abelana Game Reserve has it all and more.
Abelana Game Reserve is currently home to two newly launched lodges: Abelana River Lodge with its river-facing rooms, humble but impressive décor and a gigantic fig tree; and the tented Abelana Safari Camp with its old-world, luxury safari feel, extraordinary viewing platform and a 1710-year-old baobab.
Abelana River Lodge sits on a dammed section of the Selati River. Its spacious and decorative rooms all come with large decks and loungers overlooking the river – ideal for fish eagle, croc and hippo spotting. I even had a little bush buck that gleefully came grazing next to my room every morning. If you’re not lazily sunbathing on your deck (unfortunately my weather did not allow for sunbathing), you’ll probably find yourself lounging by the pool or under the old fig tree that somehow brings everything full circle. Plunge into the pool or secure yourself a spot on one of the luxury daybeds next to it and indulge in a delightful G&T while you’re at it.
Try this: I can definitely vouch for the locally produced, honey-infused Rhino Beetle gin.
Abelana Safari Camp is the base for the once-in-a-lifetime Abelana Horse Safaris and has a certain old-world charm to it. Surrounded by granite boulders the four en-suite Meru-style tents are perfectly placed for the ultimate glamping experience. The tents are equipped with two single beds and a small bathroom with a shower and they even come with chests of drawers redolent of days gone by.
The Safari Camp’s lounge and dining areas are reminiscent of classical African explorers with the selective and clever use of leather, decorative items and rich and inviting safari colours.
From the camp, an impressive staircase leads you to a 100m² viewing deck from which you can even spot the northern-most part of the Drakensberg escarpment.
Try this: We were treated to a lovely mid-morning tea and the cinnamon-infused koeksisters were to die for. Be sure to request these before you arrive – they’re that good!
Wine and dine
While staying at Abelana River Lodge, the cosy dining room which flows out onto a beautiful deck overlooking the Selati River, was the venue for some wonderful fireplace dining experiences. With each seating, guests are offered a choice between two plated meals and one of the options would normally be suited for diners with special dietary requirements. Chef JL Kruger and his team impressed us time and again – from a delectable springbok carpaccio as starter to a divine beef Stroganoff and polenta for lunch. On the last evening we were treated to a true South African braai in the boma underneath the whimsical fig tree, complete with lanterns, laughter, and libation.
The weather allowed for breakfast beside the river on the morning we were due to leave. I could only imagine a week of bliss beside the pool once summer arrives.
My room’s coffee station was stocked with divine shortbread biscuits regularly (because I inevitably kept emptying the cookie jar) and of course, the game drives came with all kinds of delicious treats. The morning drive was complemented with homemade rusks and (Amarula) coffee or tea and the sunset drives came with whatever beverage you preferred (wine, Amarula, a li’l something on ice or even some hot beverage options). Snacks included the likes of biltong, dried fruit and nuts.
Wines from the menu that I can attest to included Jordan “Cold Fact” Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Vondeling “Baldrick” Shiraz 2017 and Glenelly “Glass Collection” Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine list is rather impressive with many favourites from wine estates like Neil Ellis, Vrede en Lust and Paul Cluver, to name a few. They also offer a reserve collection of premier South African wines like Rust en Vrede’s “1694 Classification” 2016, Uva Mira’s “The Mira” Merlot 2016 and more.
Conservation, sustainability and community
The word “abelana” means to share amongst each other and this is true to the whole being of the reserve and its staff. The reserve belongs to the Mashishimale community who won a landmark land claim that restored ownership of the land to them in 2010. The community decided to use the land for conservation and eco-tourism purposes and they joined hands (as is also epitomised in Abelana’s logo) with MTH Lodge Holdings, which now leases the property from the community and creates jobs, educates and supports the community on numerous levels.
This unique piece of land, which stretches over 15 000ha, boasts breathtaking landscapes, impressive smaller habitats like its mopane forests and interesting history which will soon all be taught to children from the local community at an already allocated environmental educational centre. Here children will be taught about conservation and the importance and history of their land.
Furthermore, Abelana has its own bottling plant which allows for guests to have both still and sparkling water on the house all the time. No single-use plastic bottles are used. In addition to this, things like laundry and transport services will increasingly be outsourced to companies within the local community and Abelana plans on developing community vegetable farmers who will ultimately be able to supply the Abelana lodges with fresh produce.
Game drive, horse safari or bush walk?
Abelana Game Reserve has gone all out when it comes to offering guests the ultimate bush experience. In addition to regular game drives that take place twice a day, you can also explore the bush on foot with renowned South African trails guide, John Fouche and his wingman, Tavengwa (who is especially good at elephant tracking) at the steer. A bush walk with them is truly a must, as it allows you to immerse yourself in the sounds and smells of the bush. We spotted elephant tracks and evidence from a hippo marking its territory; we learned about moss that only grows on granitic soil and we felt a rush of adrenalin at the sound of twigs cracking nearby.
If a bush walk is not adventurous enough, Abelana Game Reserve also boasts horse safaris – a unique experience for advanced riders based at Abelana Safari Camp. Qualified guide and expert equestrienne, Tamlyn Whitebread heads up the horse safaris. This experience is certainly not for the fainthearted but undoubtedly worth adding to your bucket list. Abelana Game Reserve is one of the few places in South Africa where you can trot and track and the carefully planned 3 to 7-day horse safari itinerary, which runs throughout the year, is one for the books.
Abelana Game Reserve is undoubtedly one of the most genuine South African safari experiences I’ve ever had. There are currently some great post-lockdown South African rates running, so book your stay and pack your suitcase!
For bookings, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or phone them on 061 952 4302.
Image credits: Abelana Game Reserve; Renate Engelbrecht | Fashion: Mr Price