BILLY SUTER reviews Tala Collection Private Game Reserve in Camperdown, less than a 50-minute drive from Durban, where he chilled at the private, dam-facing, luxury honeymoon cottage.
I HAVE been fortunate to have enjoyed four visits to Tala Collection Private Game Reserve, a 3000-hectare wildlife conservancy sprawling between Camperdown and Eston.
It truly is a terrific escape from the madness of the city – and virtually on Durban’s doorstep, being less than a 50-minute drive away.
With surrounds of rolling hills, acacia thornveld, open grassland and sensitive wetland, and an abundance of aloes that, in some instances, tower several metres high, this is a haven offering a fine mix of flora and fauna.
Giraffe, five rhino, hippo, as well as 380 bird species, impala, eland, nyala, buffalo, zebra, waterbuck, kudu, wildebeest, monkeys and warthog, among other creatures… it’s all there.
With neighbouring farmlands, you will find no lions or other predatory animals here – nor elephants, we were told by game-drive guide Maxwell Madodo, because those mighty beasts need at least 10 000-hectares on which to roam. Conseqently animals move around freely and often in the open.
My first visit to Tala was more than six years ago, when, under the pseudonym Bill Ryan, I wrote a feature review for Durban’s Independent on Saturday on the reserve’s Figtree Lodge – a sprawling old homestead with five en-suite bedrooms.
It was a great weekend away with just my late dad and I, but we were a little lost in that huge house. It would be ideal for families, and more specifically wedding parties, being close to the bigger of the two wedding venues for which Tala is noted.
The bigger wedding venue, The Fig Tree Barn, seats 260 people, and features hand-crafted chandeliers that provide soft lighting from the rafters above, creating a dramatic effect against rough-plastered walls interspersed with ceiling-to-floor mirrors and windows.
It was at the reserve’s smaller wedding venue, the 140-seater Acacia Lodge, perched on a hilltop alongside a watering hole, with sweeping views over the Tala Valley, that I witnessed my niece, Brigitte, tying the knot in February – and what a great afternoon wedding it was.
The venue was perfect – a striking feature being dry, bare, giant thorn bushes hung upside down and strewn with fairylights to, chandelier-like, provide the lighting in a room where tall, glass, concertina doors open up to a wooden deck where the wedding ceremony was held.
My third Tala visit was a day-trip drive, a surprise treat from my brother Rob and his wife Paddie, where we got to see much wildlife and stopped for refreshments at the braai and play-area facilities, also offering a rock pool and ablution block.
Self-drives are popular and the cost is R80 per vehicle and R70 per person (R50 per child). Alternatively, one can park and take a two-hour game drive – the open-vehicle with canopy leaves at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm daily, weather permitting. The cost is R295 each for groups of one to 10, a little less if there are more people. Children aged five to 12 pay R195 each.
The reserve has a variety of accommodation options, most popular, it seems, being Aloe Lodge, offering 10 comfortable rooms in the main reception area which also accommodates the Aloe Restaurant, a curio shop, conference room and boma.
My most recent Tala visit, a few days ago, has proved my most memorable yet, as I was treated to the most posh option of all there – the super-luxurious, modern, spacious, honeymoon choice, otherwise known as Leadwood Lodge Cottage No 1.
Overlooking its own reed-flecked dam and picturesque hillside, it’s peaceful, private and perfect – the standout among the six luxury cottages comprising the Leadwood Cottage range, and also a good distance away from the others.
This one doesn’t come cheap – R2 750 a night – but, wow, what an experience if you can pool birthday money, rob a bank or win the Lottery to experience it with a partner. Relaxing doesn’t come much better than this.
The air-conditioned cottage is for a maximum of two people, and its dominant item is a single four-poster, super-comfy bed that overlooks the dam, a little over a metre from the concertina-wood-and-glass doors that open up for you to drink in the view.
The large, open-plan, T-shaped design has a small lounge to the right side of the bed, and a bathroom and shower, as well as an outside shower, to the left.
Built by a team of artisans with locally sourced shale, Leadwood Lodge cottages use towering thatch and fine finishes against a backdrop of natural beauty.
“The décor is an eclectic merging of antique and organic Africa with one- of-a-kind artistic elements. The lodge was designed on an ethic of ‘nothing straight, nothing painted’ and the final results are a masterpiece of earth, water, glass and hardwoods,” as the Tala website rather flamboyantly sums it up.
There’s even a fireplace an arm-and-a-half away from the bed should you wish to use it (great for winter months).
Two wooden loungers are on the decks overlooking the dam – where we were lucky to have a hippo wallowing the whole time we were there, popping up to snort and wave his ears at us every now and again.
We were also treated to a family of warthog scampering away from our car as we arrived at the cottage, and two adult nyala spent the rest of the afternoon and the next day mere metres from the cottage. Then, in our final hours there, they were joined by three more nyala.
At one stage I was resting on the bed, a glass of red wine in one hand and my phone camera in the other, as an adult nyala casually sauntered on to our deck. He spent several minutes scratching his head and eating aloe leaves less than five metres away. A special moment.
The cottage is non-catering and there is a five-minute-or-so drive up the steep dirt road back to the restaurant area. So it was a little surprising, and very disappointing, to discover only milk (for supplied coffee and tea) and ice cubes in the sizeable lounge bar fridge.
Some water, especially with the heat we have been enduring, should be a must. Also, surely an amply stocked pay-bar with snack items is a no-brainer in a cottage this exclusive?
We grumbled over not having thought to bring some water bottles and soft drinks. But, luckily, we did bring red wine!
A soak in the wood-lined bath or a slow shower in the seperate shower room, where a giant rock takes pride of place, is the perfect follow-on to soaking up the sun while reading a book, or simply watching the Egyptian geese and ducks at play on the water.
The Tala Restaurant, accessible to all in the reserve, is an a la carte affair, with wine perhaps just a little pricey, but with a reasonable mix of items on the menu.
A large venue with a stone fireplace and a thatched pub area, the restaurant has had some sprucing up since I was last there, and it looks much better, less cluttered. However, it’s a little sad to note that the giant, old, bare thorn tree, covered in fairlylights and once dominating the room, has been given the chop.
I requested that the starter of calamari tubes and tentacles contain only the tentacles, and was a bit surprised to have only a very tiny mound of them (each smaller than my thumb fingernail) served alongside a dominant pile of lettuce, onion and tomato. Unimpressive at R65.
Thankfully, the lamb shank served with mash and veggies was an excellent main, well worth R140, and I heard folks at a nearby table complimenting the friendly waitress on an excellent chicken dish. Oxtail is also on the menu, and was reportedly good too, I heard from another table.
The breakfast buffet is more than adequate, offering the usual mix of fruit juice (surprisingly, guava-only the day we were there), yoghurts, cold meats, sliced fruits, croissants, muffins and hot side orders including eggs, mushrooms, baked beans, bacon, sausage and potato.
Tala also offers two self-catering units as part of Fisherman’s Cottage – each a self-catering, stand-alone house with a fine view of the riverine bush and surrounded by open plains.
Comfortably accommodating two people, each cottage has a private concealed boma area that is ideal for a relaxing braai and listening to the calls of African Fish Eagles.
There are also two gas-operated, self-catering, rustic rondavels tucked away in the bush on a remote area of the reserve overlooking a private water hole.
Then there’s Mahogany House, offering six rooms and a communal lounge area, which is adjacent to the 12-room Paperbark Lodge.
The original old farmhouse has been carefully restored to maintain the essence of a bygone era. Six bedrooms with bathrooms en-suite lead on to a central lounge area and out onto a typical farmhouse veranda which looks onto the surrounding garden. A rock pool is a short step away.
Address: Tala Private Game Reserve is at R603 Umbumbulu Road
Telephone: 031 781 8000