I was excited because as the name says, there was surely a leopard, a mountain and some game when they decided on the name of the lodge in Zululand Rhino Reserve. Turns out, the mountain (hill) behind the lodge’s name was Leopard Mountain and while the reserve has a few Leopard, they are still elusive and as impossible to track as… I don’t know… a unicorn.
Following our two nights in Hlululwe at Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge, and mostly because of the individual plunge pools, we booked two nights here, in a reserve that barely features on google maps and to our knowledge, may have turned out to be one of those zoo type experiences (like a game reserve in the Western Cape I guess).
Zoo, it was not. A concessionary it was. We had no idea, and as we drove in it felt like we were driving onto someone’s farm. (We were). I was sure we had made a fail of a booking and was already craving that warm facecloth we had left behind at Rhino Ridge. Antelope was in abundance, Nyala, Kudu and ofcourse all the springboks in clear visibility for any World Cup Rugby supporter to stop moaning (that’s lame, sorry).
We arrived to a (very) friendly hostess, who welcomed us, showed us around to the lounge and lapa, and chatted to us a bit about the lodge and our stay (but no facecloths. I may have a thing for the facecloths). We were shown to our room after we had parked our car out of sight for our two night stay.
For the point of comparison, which its impossible to avoid given we’d just stayed somewhere else – the villas, while boasting their own plunge pool and views for days, are much smaller than the villa and less, umm… well-decorated (perhaps I could say slightly dated?), than what we’d just come from. With the stone work of the rondavel on display, and some typical ‘We’re in Africa’ type decor (not a nguni hide in sight, but rather some leopard print type stuff) – I had already anticipated our stay wasn’t going to be all about the decor (and that it wouldn’t be to my taste) thanks to their website. We were here for the bush anyway… and maybe some sun, food and wine. Its still a holiday after all.
What we were soon to discover, is exactly how Leopard Mountain Game Lodge is ranked number 1 on tripadvisor (as we’ve established its not for the accommodation – although the huge king size bed and Charlotte Rhys is hardly something to scoff at. I’m not so spoilt!). The breakfasts, lunches, dinners and drives couldn’t be further from the experience we had just had.
Let’s start with lunch, as we’d arrived especially in time for it. We had selected from the menu earlier during our check in and orientation and it was delivered as a picnic to our room. We snacked on our balcony overlooking a deep valley of trees and a river. It was a picture of the 20 year drought they’d told us about… Except… everything was green. Perhaps I’m not sure what drought means really in bush terms.
Anyway, figs and cheeses, salmon, fresh bread and a sweet treat. Casual and make-it-yourself, but nothing less than what you need. A nap (because that’s what you do, every day… no matter what, in the bush) later and I was up and ready for our evening game drive. But first: sweeeeeeeeeeets.
An afternoon tea that is hardly necessary, given that we had just had an enormous breakfast, followed by lunch and nap, but all the same the treat table beckoned. Coffee, speckled eggs (fake ones) and lemon meringue tart later, I had met Alden who was our field guide for our stay. I say I, as apparently my over eager self needs to go on every single game drive, while my over worked husband, finds extending naps into afternoon sleeps truly blissful.
While the first drive (as it was an evening drive) was fairly uneventful (oh how I wished it wasn’t to make it worth dragging myself out of mentioned king size bed, next to napping husband) – Alden became a character that completed our stay. Passion is the word that springs to mind, and he inspired us with genuine knowledge, enthusiasm and love for the bush. A conservationist, with a career plan, he made it his mission to ensure a thoroughly fantastic experience. While we never got to see Ellies during our stay (a most bizarre request from me consider just a week earlier I was petrified to see one again), it was due to no lack of trying by Alden. He jumped out of the vehicle to show us spoor or to listen, watch the antelope, and feel where the hunting lionness was. He’s either a phenomenal field guide, or an even better actor – but he had us all in suspense that we were about to find her. We didn’t. But we really almost did.
Unlike our previous place, many guests came straight off the vehicle and to the boma for dinner. Feeling windswept, I made a dash for our room (accompanied by an unarmed, torch-baring hostess – still unsure what she’d actually achieve if we saw that elusive leopard) to freshen up. Evenings at Leopard Mountain are less about that cliff top view, and more about the boma. Starting with a cellar visit, and while Alden isn’t anywhere as clued up on wine as he is on the animals, luckily he doesn’t have to be and our host who made an appearance on our second evening was. Or at least, he was happy to listen to me ramble about wines of the Swartland, Stellenbosch and Robertson. A four course meal with special attention (on our first night at least) to my (ridiculous) ‘allergies’. The food was remarkable. It was wholesome, and while maybe it didn’t have ‘jus’ (or maybe it did) – being outdoors, beneath the stars and with a roaring fire (that my husband jumped up to add wood to) didn’t need fancy names or food, even though it was.
Where my evening game drive took to something resembling a Brazilian jungle making multiple river crossings, the storms from the other night finally made the river flow, which also forced us to remain on the land to the North for the rest of our stay. The land, the 23 000 hectares which is Zululand Rhino Reserve, consists on neighbouring properties who have agreed to drop their fences to encourage the wildlife to roam. Its all about relationship management Alden mentioned to us as he casually off roads at some points in search of my Ellies, and remains very firmly on the road during our lion sighting on both days. It depends on who’s land we’re on, whether we offroad. I can’t help but think if we were all so respectful of each other’s beliefs and wishes what a happy world we’d live in.
Breakfast is enjoyed communally, everyone who is a part of Alden’s adventures sits together and shares stories together. Alden included. Its the feeling of family. There is nothing fancy. The food, while plentiful and tasty, is served in unpretentious dishes by relaxed and happy staff. The decor in the breakfast room is like a home farm kitchen would be (pine and riempie chairs) but its not about that. Its about the story Alden is sharing with us, about how he climbed a mountain alone to find the leopard. Those damn elusive leopards.
A waterhole visit follows breakfast immediately, and Mark being the only smart one, brings his book a long “just in case”. He has clearly done this before. It is little wonder the necessity of the afternoon nap by the time we are home again and served another picnic lunch (didn’t we just eat?)
The semi-privacy of the reserve makes for excellent sightings, and the size relative to the number of lodges means that those sightings aren’t congested. There is plenty of game, all lovingly respected by excellent guides.
Mochachocarula (bush ranger) specials at sunrise, G&T’s (with lemon) at sunset. Stories of stars, of animals, of sightings. Heavenly food and warm hospitality make Leopard Mountain Lodge unique. It’s cosy and homely. There are no modern amenities and uncomfortable silences or quiet ‘ambient’ music. It is feel good. And you do.