Zululand - Staff Review
By Iris Small, December 2012
My husband Les and I left a rain soaked Heathrow Airport one November evening, slept on the plane and arrived in Johannesburg just after breakfast the next morning. Jo’burg was only 2 hours ahead of the UK so we suffered no jetlag which is a real bonus.
We had thought long and hard about the transfer arrangements to our lodge in Zululand. We could have flown from Jo’burg to Durban and then had a 3 hour road transfer or we could have flown to Richards Bay for a shorter transfer. However, because after our week’s horseback safari we were moving on to the Drakensberg Mountains for a week’s hiking , we had decided to drive ourselves. Therefore once we had cleared customs we headed to the Europcar office in the airport. It took over an hour to get the keys to our hire car and the staff were certainly not helpful or friendly but we discovered later that this is the norm. Self drive from Jo’burg would not suit everyone.
Using our sat nav we eventually found the correct route out of Jo’burg. Our 480 km drive to the lodge was easy but it was a long 6 hour drive, with many roadworks, until we reached a gravel turnoff. Here we rang Isabella, the lodge owner, to warn her we were close and she arranged for the lodge gate to be manned. In the dark we meandered our way slowly up the mountain to the lodge. We had a lovely warm greeting from Isabella and dinner soon awaited us. We’d only had a coffee and a couple of muesli bars en-route so we would have eaten almost anything but, wow, you should have seen our meal.
The food at the lodge is absolutely amazing and a major feature of a stay here. Everything was waiter served. Breakfast was really substantial. I only normally had fruit and yogurt (OK so the odd freshly baked croissant did sometimes leap onto my plate). Les however munched his way through fruit, cheeses, meat board, breads and toast, pastries and then a hot breakfast cooked to order. It took him about an hour from start to finish. We adored breakfasting on the gorgeous terrace with genuinely stunning views. Lunch was three light but delicious courses again served on the terrace, weather permitting. Dinner was 4 superlative courses with silver service served inside the restaurant. Had the weather been better we might have eaten around the camp fire on some nights. There’s a choice of house wine or something more special from the cellar for the connoisseurs. There was always a choice of main course and we particularly enjoyed the very non-British options of game such as warthog. We always chose to eat as a group with the other guests but the staff check that everyone to happy to do this.
The accommodation at this reserve is undoubtedly 5 star. Our suite was very spacious, furnishings were luxurious and tasteful, the bed linen lovely, the robes and numerous towels in the enormous bathroom were thick and fluffy, the storage was endless, the mini bar fully stocked, the windows large and plentiful. There is a turn down service with chocolates every night and our PJ’s laid out on the bed as though the invisible man was in them! Whenever we left the room someone obviously came in to tidy up and to top up the home baked cookies that we managed to resist but only for the first day! We often made ourselves a coffee before breakfast and before dinner but never once did we need to fill the kettle ourselves. Real luxury. My only comment would be that I personally would have liked the room to have felt more ‘African’.
On our first morning I awoke at sun rise and sipping coffee on our palatial terrace I could photograph the endless beautiful birds that came and perched so close to me. I’m not a twitcher but adore bird watching and so this was heaven for me. Over the week I saw so many super birds including oxpeckers, widdows, sunbirds, woodpeckers, colourful starlings and many more. The views from the terrace were stunning.
The Unicorn package at this lodge includes 2 rides per day, or if preferred a ride and a walk etc, The morning ride is longer and if a bush meal has been arranged you’ll have just one long ride that day. The lodge is perched high upon the mountain and it’s a 4 km drive down to the immaculate stables. Isabella is passionate about her horses. They were gorgeous and everyone that rode during our week, beginners to advanced, was given a horse they were happy with. Our guide was normally Isolde, a lovely girl who had only been here for 3 months. She had good knowledge of all the flora and fauna and if we get lost in the bush we can now survive by knowing the ‘coffee’ tree, the ‘amaryllis’ tree, the ‘toilet roll tree ( but remember 2 ply is needed!) etc. Sorry Issy if you’re reading this, I just can’t remember the proper names.
I’m the techie in the Unicorn office and riding isn’t a key skill of mine. As I’m old and a novice rider I normally rode Samurai and occasionally Luxus and once Zulu (whom I loved and was much faster). A disappointment was that I couldn’t normally get Sammy to canter for me but he could certainly trot very fast! We had quite a lot of rain during our stay so we didn’t have too many opportunities for cantering. I was also used to Western riding and had to remember the horses here were not neck trained.
If you want to get close to giraffes and zebras then Zululand is the place to come. Isabella carefully manages the game in the reserve. We had so many wonderful experiences. Our favourites were coming across a group (correct collective noun is a journey) of 16 giraffe including youngsters. Then on two rides we were just feet away from the cutest week old giraffe you’ve ever seen. We loved it when giraffe would stroll elegantly along the paths in our direction as if they were coming to see us and indeed it felt like they were on safari looking at us rather than the other way round. The other game was normally a little further into the shrub but we got close and saw plenty of gnu, nyala, warthogs, impala and kudu and once a water buck. After the rain we saw leopard tracks but sadly not the elusive cat itself.
Isabella was keen for us to experience a bush meal and luckily on our last day the weather was glorious so a bush lunch was arranged. It was fantastic. Both groups rode to a lovely location and there the chefs in tall white hats had cooked the most sumptuous meal. The table was beautifully laid and the food and drink plentiful. Magic.
Any negatives at all ? Well the terrain is beautiful but the reserve isn’t huge so there’s not a great diversity of rides but nevertheless each ride we did was great. The more experienced riders seemed perfectly happy with their rides too.
Between rides, weather permitting we could swim in the beautiful pool – again with a glorious view. I photographed a beautiful sunbird drawing up the nectar from the flowers there. Charmu was the non-riding bush guide, with a great sense of humour and knowledge. We did try a nature walk with him one day but sadly it rained heavily so we saw little. However, by ourselves we twice climbed to highest point behind the lodge. It abounded in butterflies and small wildlife and the views from the top were magnificent.
There are a couple of excursions of offer from the lodge (not included in the Unicorn package). We chose to go on the Big 5 drive in neighbouring Amokhosi. Sadly again the weather was against us with a torrential thunder storm but once it had subsided we went out and were rewarded with giraffes standing in front of an enormous rainbow. So memorable. What a picture! We also saw buffalo and rhino and other smaller game so we were quite happy although a lion would have topped it off nicely.
Les and I were really sad to leave Zululand . This was our first horseback safari and for us it was excellent. In addition, the top-notch accommodation, food and service could not be faulted. However, Patrick – Isabella’s husband, and a man I absolutely adored – does need to brush up on his weather forecasting skills!
For more amusing and informative articles about horse riding holidays around the world
sign up to our monthly E-zine the Unicorn Chronicle