Mention of the name of this famous private game reserve and visions of luxury, glamour and fabulous game viewing are conjured up. But does Londolozi live up to its outstanding reputation, and is a visit worth the high cost? David Steele investigates.
“I hope you’re not going to waste all that valuable space writing the same old stuff about Londolozi,” exclaimed Dave Varty as he joined me for lunch on the observation deck at Tree Camp soon after we had arrived, “when you could be writing about the crisis being suffered by our Lowveld rivers!”
“You must bear in mind that although we always push the message,” I responded, Getaway isn’t a conservation magazine. Our readers want to know what it’s like to stay here. But rest assured, I certainly don’t want to write ‘the same old stuff’ and in any case you can have your say when we do your interview.”
David wasn’t convinced and I must admit I wasn’t quite sure how to avoid writing what I’d said I wouldn’t. A mental check list immediately began running through my mind: leopards, yes; John and Gillian, no; Pamella Bordes, definitely not; awards, perhaps; ecotourism. . . .
So much has been said and written about Londolozi, holder of the 1992 Asata/ Diners Club award for best game lodge in Southern Africa, and more recently winner of what has been described as the world’s most prestigious environmental tourism honour, British Airways’ Tourism for Tomorrow award.
Indeed, with its high occupancies and equally high tariffs, Londolozi must be making its competitors. . . well, green with envy! Not bad for a lodge that’s less than 20 years old.
It all began at a tennis party in 1926, when Frank Unger told his friend Charles Varty that a game farm named Sparta was for sale in the Transvaal Lowveld.
The two men, both lovers of nature, bought Sparta sight unseen and set off at the first opportunity to explore their new acquisition. Accompanied by bearers and armed with two rifles, a compass and a rough sketch map, they found themselves at a beautiful spot on the banks of the Sand River, where the water ran clear over granite rocks. They must have been well satisfied with their purchase.
Sparta was used as a wildlife retreat by Charles and passed on to his son Boyd, who kept it as a private sanctuary for hunting and relaxation. During this time the surrounding farms were bought up by private individuals as game arms.
It was in 1948, at an informal gathering of these owners, that the Sabi Sand Game Reserve was formed as an association that would oversee the area on a permanent basis, since most of the owners did not live on their farms but used them as retreats and hunting areas. Today the Sabi Sand is one of the largest and most successful privately owned game reserves on the continent.
When Boyd’s two sons, John and Dave, inherited Sparta 20 years ago, they had to decide whether to sell it – for times were hard – or create a worthwhile reserve for the wildlife of the area. They decided on the latter course and Londolozi was born.
Londolozi is Zulu for ‘protector of all living things’, and this was the ideal the Varty brothers set themselves. Although only in their early 20s, they were armed with enough enthusiasm, dedication and commitment to make Londolozi a reality.
The camp originally consisted of four rondavels, with a bush shower and ablution facilities located down a rough track away from the camp. The Vartys started by offering wildlife trails and safaris on simple lines, with the emphasis on conservation awareness and education. As the word began to spread, Londolozi began to grow.
When the need for more accommodation became apparent it was decided, after much deliberation, to build four luxury thatched chalets on the banks of the Sand River. A great deal of care was taken to ensure that the new chalets would blend with the bush and that natural materials would be used as far as possible.
As Londolozi became established as a haven for wildlife enthusiasts, further improvements were made. A swimming pool was constructed under a spreading red ivory Berchemia zeyheri, four additional luxury chalets were built on the banks of the Sand and a new airstrip was cleared for the increasing number of private planes that were arriving.
In 1979 rangers and their guests started to obtain regular sightings of leopards in the reserve and word was soon out that Londolozi was the place to see leopards.
A year later Bush Camp, with eight beds (increasing the reserve’s total number to 32), was built with the emphasis on rustic bush accommodation. However, in 1988 it was remodelled to comply with internationally acceptable standards. Tree Camp opened later that year, with the sole objective of being the most exclusive camp in Africa.
Work on upgrading the original Main Camp was completed earlier this year. The chalets now have new interiors and the camp boasts a sparkling new pool and a new boma.
In the 80s John Varty gained renown as a cameraman and producer of wildlife films, and he has several awards under his belt. Success came also to Dave Varty with his involvement in The Conservation Corporation, of which he is chairman.
The aim of the corporation is to bring a businesslike approach to conservation – using the vehicle of ecotourism to rehabilitate degraded ecosystems, promote biodiversity, encourage the development of rural communities and generate sound financial returns for its investors.
The operating philosophy of The Conservation Corporation was taken from what has become known as the Londolozi Model, which is based on three fundamental principles: care of land, care of wildlife and care of people.
It’s these three principles that appear to be the reasons behind Londolozi’s success. The reserve has the reputation of offering one of Africa’s most luxurious and remarkable wildlife experiences.
Visitors are encouraged to “become part of a working model of sound conservation, and to leave not only pampered, but educated and spiritually uplifted”.
Would Londolozi live up to its reputation? And would it justify its high prices? If my experiences there were anything to go by, I had little doubt, at least about the first question.
I had previously paid two fleeting visits to Londolozi: one, a day visit involving a single game drive with Dave Varty in the early 80s, had provided close encounters with lion and leopard.My second visit, a 24-hour affair, was for the launch of former ranger Lex Hes’s book The Leopards of Londolozi in 1991. On the evening drive on that occasion we had enjoyed sightings of all four of Africa’s large land predators: a leopard with two cubs in a tree, with a kill, as well as their interaction with spotted hyena; a cheetah settling down for the night; and four lions out on the hunt.
Now I was looking forward to a four-day sojourn with my wife and son. The recent drought had broken and I had received word that the veld was looking beautiful. Also, several predators had given birth to cubs, which were being seen regularly.
The safari got off to a good start. Comair’s 07h30 flight from Cape Town slotted in nicely with its 10h30 flight to Skukuza, and the company’s new Fokker F28 80-passenger jet, which I was keen to try out, was being used on the leg to Johannesburg (this jet is no longer being used on the Skukuza run).
The flight from Cape Town went smoothly, with attentive cabin staff making sure none of the passengers missed out the abundant fresh rolls, croissants, Bel Paese cheese, fruit juice and coffee. And the compact jet airliner was comfortable.
Another advantage was that we were offloaded at Terminal D, the same terminal from which we would depart less than an hour later.
There was a Conservation Corporation desk at the departure hall, where a hostess helped us check in, and we were then invited to relax in the corporation’s comfortable new lounge before being called for the flight to Skukuza.
Less than an hour after leaving Johannesburg – and just four hours after leaving Cape Town – we landed at Skukuza, to be welcomed by Lo
We were back in the air a few minutes later. This time in The Conservation Corporation’s spanking new 12-seater Cessna Grand Caravan, which runs a shuttle from Skukuza to Londolozi and Ngala. The flight took only six minutes, saving a Land-Rover trip of more than an hour, and we arrived at Londolozi in good time for lunch. This certainly broke all records for the trip from Cape Town to Londolozi!
Tree Camp was everything it promised to be. We were cheerfully welcomed by hostess Kim Hebdon in the camp’s attractive open-plan lounge and shown to our luxurious chalet, which blended into the riverine habitat and offered total privacy.
The spacious main room – a bedsitter – was tastefully and comfortably furnished and boasted many extras, such as copies of Getaway in a leather folder and field guides in a carrying case which you could take with you on your walks and drives.
This room opened onto a large wooden cantilevered balcony, right up in the trees, that wound round to a private outdoor shower. But even the inside bathroom had a large plate-glass window that gave you the feeling of being outdoors!
After unpacking, and an outdoor shower, we strolled down to the main building and out onto the splendid balcony. It is suspended nearly 25 metres above the ground in an enormous jackal berry Diospyros mespiliformes, where breakfast and lunch are served alfresco.
We joined Dave and his wife Shan for lunch, over which we discussed our plans. We were also introduced to Paul Allen, who would be our ranger for the duration of our stay, and Mike Norris, marketing manager for Londolozi.
If lunch was anything to go by, we would be in for some delicious meals.
Much the same courses are served every day, with soup (hot or cold) for starters, a delightful cold buffet with meats and fresh salads, freshly baked bread and a hot dish such as bobotie or lasagne.
To finish there was always a marvellous fresh fruit salad, a selection of fruit, cheese and biscuits, and filter coffee. Incidentally, although there are different rates for the three Londolozi camps, they all serve exactly the same meals.Tree Camp is the most luxurious of the three and guests enjoy the personalised service of a hostess (Kim), game ranger (Graham Cook), tracker (Enoch Mkansi) and private Land-Rover (I guess this vehicle could become quite crowded when the camp is full!).
There was time to relax and enjoy a swim in the lovely pool before meeting back on the balcony at 16h00 for tea.
With filter coffee, a selection of Twinings teas, a choice of two or three iced teas, a ginger cake and sausage rolls, this was a sumptuous affair.
We had our own Land-Rover for the visit so we would have more flexibility for photography, and Paul himself was a keen and competent photographer who understood my needs. And, of course, a vital member of our team was Enoch Ngwenya, who had been colleague Patrick Wagner’s tracker in his days at Sabi Sabi.
Mike Norris, Dave Varty’s young daughter Bronwyn and a friend of hers joined us for the first drive, and so we began our search for animals.
We found most of the more common species that evening and were fortunate to include nyala in our sightings, because this species is not normally easy to find in the Lowveld.
The rangers and spotters had been following a leopard with two seven-month old cubs for several days, and when we got to their lair we were rewarded with a good sighting of one of the cubs.
We also spent some time watching five adult lions conducting a successful hunt. They killed a young zebra not far from us – we could hear its distress call but the bush was too thick for us to see anything. By the time we had found them, some 10 minutes later, the zebra had been torn to pieces and there was not much left of it.
After all the excitement of the drive, the Tree Camp guests gathered in the boma for drinks before dinner. Snacks were served as well as impala kebabs (an old Londolozi tradition).
On the menu was French onion soup, chicken kebabs peri peri and roast beef, brandy snaps, fruit, cheese and biscuits, coffee and home-made chocolates.
By the time we got to bed it was past 23h00. It had been a long day and we were exhausted. Wake-up was at 05h00 the next morning, so it was fortunate that we all slept well.
There were many highlights on the seven game drives that followed the first exciting one.
One of these happened the very next morning. Paul, Enoch and I had gone out, the other two Steeles choosing to sleep late and go for a walk with one of the trackers.
We spent the first hour or so trying to photograph hippos – not too successfully I might add – and, when we climbed back into the Land-Rover, Paul got onto the radio to see what had been found.
He turned to me with a smile: “You’ve got a choice of four sightings: last night’s lions with their seven cubs, a cheetah with three cubs, the leopard with two cubs, or a large herd of buffalo!”
We chose the cheetah because it was the closest and we hadn’t seen one on our first drive. When Paul found her, I had a good opportunity to take some portrait studies in the lovely morning light.
Two mornings later I had another opportunity to photograph this group, after we had followed them for an hour or so. Our patience was rewarded with some lovely poses.
We also went back to the leopards that morning and briefly saw the mother as well as one of her cubs. But our best leopard sightings were on our last two game drives.On our last night at Londolozi we saw the mother and both cubs feeding on an impala. When we first arrived at the scene the carcass was under a thick bush, with the two cubs lying in a donga nearby. Unbelievably, right on cue, the mother arrived at the scene and pulled the carcass out into the open where, without obstruction, we could photograph her eating with one of the cubs!
The next morning, on our last drive in Londolozi, two male leopards were seen near the carcass and, when some interaction was reported over the radio, we drove in to see what we could find.
Apparently the larger male, which was possibly the father of the cubs, had moved into the area, followed by a younger male. Naturally the older leopard, strongly territorial, had resented this intrusion and spent a good hour trying to chase him off.
Working in thick bush we had several fleeting sightings of both individuals, some of them very close, and when the older male finally chased the younger one away we were able to watch him, at very close quarters, resting while getting his breath back. Great stuff!
Altogether, we saw six different leopards on our four-day visit, a remarkable tally when you consider how secretive these animals are.
We saw lions on every drive, and early one morning there was another kill very close to us. We had been with the lions for only a couple of minutes when a young waterbuck had the misfortune to walk straight into the clump of thorn bushes in which they were resting.
It was over in an instant, less than 50 metres from us but just out of sight. We were with them a minute later, watching the five adults (of the same pride we’d seen hunting on our first drive) consume the carcass.
They were joined by two of the cubs, which also enjoyed the feast. However, our sightings were not all of this pride. One night, for example, we spent a memorable hour watching a different pride hunting under a haunting full moon.
Altogether, we saw more than 20 different lions, members of three or four prides. My favourites were the young cubs, which we sometimes watched at night, following their parents down a sandy track. Occasionally they would stop and stalk one another, or their mother’s tail, before launching an attack. It seemed a bit of a pity they had to grow up.
Strangely, it was almost more difficult getting photographs of some of the more common species. One exception was two giraffe that playfully jousted late one afternoon, providing an interesting subject for our cameras.
We also saw a number of white rhino, including one mother with a young calf, which ran off as soon as she detected us. A group of five adults we saw on another occasion was much more relaxed.
Elephant were conspicuous by their absence, which meant we didn’t see the big five. But we did see 24 mammal species. One of the most enjoyable of these was the bushbuck I watched feeding below the balcony of our chalet.
Paul and I identified 51 bird species on our visit, about one sixth of the total list for Londolozi. But the only two I was able to photograph were a spotted eagle owl and chin-spot batis roosting at night.
Undoubtedly, one of the great attractions of the Bushveld is its fresh air. You just can’t seem to get enough of it when it comes whizzing past you as you sit high in a Land-Rover, or as it wafts round you as you relax during sundowners. And the visual splendour of the bush – especially the different colours that come with each season – is breathtaking.
Early one morning we spent some time identifying the trees in a patch of open woodland not far from the river, as the sun rose before us and the moon set behind us.
A variety of familiar trees occur at Londolozi, including knobthorn Acacia nigrescens, umbrella thorn Acacia tortilis, kiaat Pterocarpus angolensis, tamboti Spirostachys africana, marula Sclerocarya birrea, magic guarri Euclea divinorum and leadwood Combretum imberbe.
Closer to the river you can expect to see lovely examples of sycamore fig Ficus sycomorus, Natal mahogany Trichilia emetica, jackal berry Diospyros mespiliformis, sausage tree Kigelia africana and matumi Breonadia salicina. And on the sandy islands in the river you’ll see wild date palm Phoenix reclinata growing among the reeds.
Just as impressive are smaller plants such as the impala lily Adenium multiflorum and the leopard orchid Ansellia africana, which add a flash of colour to the bush when they’re in bloom. Examples of both of these plants may be seen in all three of the camps.
After breakfast each morning bush walks, led by an armed Shangaan tracker, start from the three camps, a popular destination being a hippo pool in the Sand River. No one is better at leading these walks, since the trackers have an intimate knowledge of the bush and will interpret what they find for you – from the identification of birds and tracks to the local uses of various plants and trees.In some areas Londolozi is incredibly beautiful, with lovely open spaces that attract all sorts of game. These contrast quite sharply with other areas, where bush and dongas predominate, and there’s an interesting story behind this, as Paul told me one day as we watched zebra feeding on a plain.
Early aerial photographs of the reserve show an area of mosaic grassland with a high water table and little donga erosion. Plains game such as tsessebe, roan, sable, and reedbuck thrived in the open habitat.
Alarmingly, by the early 1970s, dongas and bush encroachment were proving a serious problem. The reserve was drying out because the roads, firebreaks and fences that had been built were increasing water runoff and the areas with a high water table, on which plains game thrived, were being replaced by dense bush.
Each encroaching bush needed water, further lowering the water table, and grass was finding it increasingly difficult to compete.
In 1979 the renowned ecologist Dr Ken Tinley was called in to assist with the veld-management programme at Londolozi. He was the first to recognise the connection between the drying-out process and scrub encroachment. His recommendations were simple: to clear the bush in the lower valleys and plug the dongas carrying away the surface water.
Because bulldozers were used, Londolozi’s subsequent bush-clearing programme along natural seeplines was controversial, but a number of open grasslands been successfully restored and the programme has become world renowned. It is part of the Londolozi Model.
Another successful part of the Londolozi Model is its community-development programme. The Varty brothers realised that restoring habitat and building up wildlife populations was not enough. In the long term, the survival of the reserve depended on the attitude of the people living in adjacent areas, and only by sharing the benefits of Londolozi’s natural resources on a mutually beneficial basis could this objective be achieved.
Londolozi currently employs some 130 local Shangaans as game guards, trackers and chefs, while innovative partnership ventures have multiplied as the Vartys pursue their goal of involving the community in every possible aspect of running the reserve.
A taxi operation, selling wood from the bush-clearing programme, wood carving, vegetable production and a sewing co-op are some of the successful joint ventures.
The lodge also has a full-time nursing sister who runs a daily clinic in the staff village, while lodge staff themselves run a pre-primary school for which the reserve pays a teacher.
Staff members are encouraged to buy shares in the clubhouse that has recently been constructed, which is run as a cooperative business. The village shop is managed in much the same way.
I visited the staff village one afternoon (visitors seem to be encouraged to do this, and many make use of the opportunity) and could see the programme in action. It appeared to be working well.
After two days and nights at Tree Camp, we transferred to Bush Camp, a little further upstream. This camp is run along similar lines but houses double the number of guests in eight secluded en suite ‘rock chalets’.
Most of these chalets look out onto the Sand River, but ours – the most secluded – was tucked into a ravine with a small stream trickling past it.
The accommodation was very similar to what we had enjoyed at Tree Camp and the chalets no smaller. The camp has its own private lounge, balcony and boma, and a beautifully elevated swimming pool set into the banks of the river, surrounded by huge jackal berry trees. It also has its own hostess – Gail Arniston – game rangers and staff. In fact, everything you need to enjoy your stay.
Which brings me to the big question: a visit to Londolozi is certainly not cheap – is it really worth it?
In trying to answer this I must emphasise that the camps are small, intimate and very luxurious. Not for nothing is it the only game lodge in the world to have been awarded membership of the prestigious Paris-based Relais et Chteaux. Acceptance for this association is based on stringent criteria for quality, based on five characteristics: character, courtesy, calm, charm and cuisine.
Nearer home, Londolozi is also a member of The Leading Hotels of Southern Africa, a group that promises the finest hospitality, service and cuisine in a unique setting.
Having said this, I do believe that Londolozi, at R1 035 to R1 500 per day, is outrageously expensive in its high season in summer, when it unashamedly caters for rich overseas visitors, and my advice would be to give it a miss at that time. Even weekends out of season are pricey and to be avoided.
But if you look at the midweek winter specials, they compare favourably with the cost of staying at a local five-star hotel, especially when you consider that the Londolozi rates include three superb meals a day, as well as game drives and walks. In addition, these specials are available when game viewing in the Lowveld is at its very best.
We used the boma only on our last night at Bush Camp. The night before, at the conclusion of the game drive, all the Bush Camp guests were taken to a surprise bush braai.
The tables, lit by flickering lamps, had been laid out in a convivial semicircle on an open plain. Lamb kebabs, fillet of impala and guinea-fowl pie were on the menu. It was a glorious, balmy night and the moon was full. What more could you possibly ask for?
An Aussie guest was so taken with it all that he made a touching, impromptu speech, saying what a superb time his party was having and thanking Londolozi for providing the opportunity of seeing Africa in this way.
I had to agree. It’s an experience you simply can’t put a price on.
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