BY BILLY SUTER
I LIKE to think it was my making sudden moves, rather than the shocking sight of my far-from-gym-toned naked body, that sent a duiker scuttling off one night, then a squirrel the next, when I enjoyed an outdoor shower in a natural sand forest in Hluhluwe at the weekend.
That shower attached to a tree trunk – its hot and cold water pipes indicated with bead-and-wire chameleons in red and blue – was on my bedroom doorstep. It was amid shrubs, trees and bird sounds, at the luxurious, far-from-the-madding-crowd Umthiba Bush Lodge in the Kuleni Game Park.
In the heart of the park, which is adjacent to the Phinda Game Reserve and close to the St Lucia World Heritage Site, the eight-sleeper Umthiba Bush Lodge – with an additional two-sleeper, self-catering cabin a few steps away, on a gravel path – is one of 17 sites under sectional title ownership at Kuleni.
Each site enjoys total privacy amid the park’s 170 hectares of sandforest, thornveld, wetlands and grasslands. Either commercial or residential, the individually styled, eco-friendly timber lodges provide a maximum bed capacity of eight.
Kuleni, so named after the small hill in the area, was once a cattle farm but has been allowed to return to bush to provide a slice of heaven for anyone seeking an environment in which to relax and/or explore nature’s treasures.
Walking is encouraged (although game drives are not permitted) and there is an abundance of game and birdlife to enjoy – including giraffe, warthog, zebra, nyala, wildebeest, duiker, implala and other species.
Eight of us booked in for the weekend on the advice of most in the group who had been there six years earlier and had since labelled it “the healing house” . They called it that as the lodge had been their sanctuary after they had scattered the family patriarch’s ashes at the Hluhluwe Game Reserve about a half-hour-or-so’s drive away.
This time we were all back to scatter the family matriarch’s ashes – and Umthiba Bush Lodge provided not only healing for the soul, but also body and mind.
Owned by amiable Chris Brown of Durban, the lodge’s visitors’ book shows first entries in 2006.
It is a spacious, warm, classy and tastefully decorated structure with a lot of light, high ceilings, space, wood and glass.
One just feels at home and at peace in this self-catering venue which is serviced by friendly housekeeper Mpume Ngcobo, who has been there since 2008.
At the lodge’s centre are a spacious, elegant, open-plan lounge, diningroom and kitchen – all dark and light woods, and white walls. Up three steps, flanked by a storeroom and additional shower and toilet, and you are in a small courtyard featuring a display of potted plants.
Three bedrooms lead off the courtyard – two en suite, with double beds; the third, aimed at children, offering two single beds and another on a landing, reached via a wooden ladder.
The en suite bedrooms have large baths and also hot-and-cold-water outdoor showers, which I absolutely loved.
The lounge leads onto a spacious patio and outside dining area overlooking a pool on one side and a boma and braai area under trees on the other side.
The view from the patio, where there are recliners and comfy wooden chairs, is of a large sandy area, dotted with old tree trunks and shrubs, and edged with dense bush that leads to a variety of walking trails. A family of warthogs, heard but not seen when we were there, is known to love the area.
We set out early on the Saturday morning for a walk, with mist still wisping through the foliage, and saw a giraffe after less than 10 minutes of strolling.
He was about 30m away and a little anxious about our presence, constantly peeping his long neck out from behind a tree, but eventually allowed us to gawk and take pictures while he nonchalantly went about chewing on a branch.
We also got up close and personal with a large nyala, who took his time to leave our path on a trail which we all somehow wandered from, leaving us lost for a good hour longer than we had planned to walk.
And a point here – would it not be a good idea to number the colour-coded route-markers for each of the trails? That way one would know if one was headed for the trail start or finish, should one get lost. We were never sure where we were until we finally, by pure fluke, made it back to the lodge.
Getting lost had its advantages, though – over almost two hours and more than 6km of walking, we came across other lodges by accident and at one of them, overlooking a large pond, we got to see two more giraffe. Felt very lucky.
When you arrive at the entrance gate at Kuleni Game Park – which, by the way, is locked from midnight to 4am – ask for a brochure showing the various trails. Five are available, each colour coded and varying from 0.5km to 0.8km, 1.6km , 1.8km and 2.4km.
Besides the walks and relaxation on offer at Umthiba Bush Lodge, which also offers DStv and reading material, one can also check out nearby attractions.
A short drive away is Zulu Croc, a reptile park offering an adventure show, guided tours, Zulu dancing at a mini cultural village, a restaurant, as well as team building experiences and school tours. More info at http://www.zulucroc.co. za
Five minutes from Hluhluwe you will come across Ilala Weavers, which is also worth checking out. Open seven days a week, it offers a Zulu cultural museum, an African art gallery, curio shop, clothing and jewellery sales, The Fig Tree Café and Deli, a children’s play area and a nursery. More information at http://www.ilala.co.za
Also worth checking out, of course, is the world-renowned Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park, for which entrance is R110 a head for South Africans with ID and R220 for foreigners. Covering 96 000 hectares, it is home to the ‘Big Five’ – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. A must.
A drive to Sodwana Bay is also a possibility, but it’s a good 77km or so from the lodge – and we were a little ticked off, on arriving at the boom gate, to discover that for a quick view of the beach we would have to pay R50 for the vehicle and almost that per head… or something like that.
We weren’t amused – and a road sign near the boom, saying no drinking was allowed, put paid to any idea of a sundowner there. So we drove off, back to the lodge, less than a minute after we arrived there. Cheers!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT UMTHIBA BUSH LODGE
Costs per night: Children aged six and under stay free, and those aged seven to 12 pay R250 each. The cost is R3 500 for four adults, R4 500 for six adults and R5 500 for eight adults. There will be a R500 increase on these options from October 1, 2017.
Directions: From the N2 freeway, take the Sodwana Bay/Hluhluwe offramp. Go through Hluhluwe town and turn left at the T-junction. Turn right on to the new Sodwana Bay (N22) Road then cross the railwayline and travel 16km further until you reach Keleni Game Park on your left.
Check-in: Arrival time is 2pm and check-out time is 10am. Please advise management if arrival times are later or earlier than expected, so that the right preparations can be made for your stay.
Contact: Landline is (031) 303 5425. Cellphone is 082 312 4877.