Even if you didn’t see a single animal on your entire trip, you would still leave amazed at the beauty and sheer diversity of the terrain surrounding Rhino River Lodge in the Manyoni Private Game Reserve. Of course you will see animals, loads of them, and make memories to last a lifetime.
They are everywhere, we are surrounded. I am nervous and completely in awe. Twenty? No, maybe thirty wild African elephant are milling around as we sit, dead silent, in the game vehicle watching them in their most natural environment. The lush, thick grass they are munching on rustles under their impossibly massive feet as they meander past, almost oblivious to our existence. The babies of the herd wobble animatedly from side to side, looking a little bit drunk, as they try to find their balance and their place in the world. There are moments in your life that you know you will never forget, and I know, instinctively, sitting in this jungle-like setting with these majestic creatures around us, that this is one of them.
LIVING THE DREAM
Situated in the 23 000-hectare Manyoni Game Reserve, 30km north of Hluhluwe, Rhino River Lodge is a family-owned safari lodge that offers a variety of upmarket accommodation options, wonderful, friendly service and once-in-a-lifetime safari experiences.
Owned by Ballito-based husband and wife team Dale and Shannon Airton and their partner Donald Alexander, the lodge was born, in 2005, out of a passion for conservation and a desire to rehabilitate the natural environment.
Dale spent most of his life in the bush and studied conservation. He was working for KZN Wildlife at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve when he fell in love with this particular piece of land.
“It was an old game hunting farm and Manyoni as it is now didn’t exist. It was made up of individual plots of land, some of which were being used for commercial cattle farming.”
The catalyst for dropping the fences and joining the 17 properties was the introduction of black rhino into the area – a project that was funded by the WWF, KZN Wildlife and the private sector. “We ultimately became the custodians of these rhino,” he says.
Owning a property like Rhino River Lodge was always a dream for Dale. And now, he is living that dream. Seeing the transition of the terrain to what it is now an authentic, big five wildlife reserve, has been an incredible experience. He says. “I am passionate about conservation, and tourism is a means to that end. It has been remarkable to see the land transform naturally and become so wild. It happened the way nature intended and hasn’t been manipulated at all … and now you will bump into big animals here,” he says, smiling.
SAFARI SLUMBER FINE FARE AND SMILES
The lodge itself has also transitioned over the years, and now comprises three different types of accommodation: double en-suite luxury rooms, family chalets and two two-bedroom private safari homes – the Cottage and the Homestead.
The Homestead, where we spent two nights, is a stylish self-catering safari home with two bedrooms, each with its own en-suite bathroom with beautiful bush-facing tub and outdoor shower. The stacking doors in the lounge open out completely onto a stunning private deck and swimming pool, overlooking the Msunduze River bed.
It’s a short walk from your accommodation to the main lodge area, which is made up of a small reception area and curio shop, open dining area and lounge and swimming pool and boma. The contemporary, stylish décor is carefully thought out and comfortable, but not over-the-top or flamboyant. Amongst the biggest drawcards of Rhino River Lodge, made evident by the number of repeat visitors they have, are the friendly staff, warm atmosphere and delicious, homestyle food. “We are a small, close, hands-on team,” says Dale, “and that’s exactly what we have always wanted to be. We have worked hard to cultivate this ethos, and we want our guests to feel like they are joining a family when they visit us.” The food and service during our stay was top-notch and, definitely worth a mention, was the wonderful dinner under the stars we were treated to, with our own private bonfire and just the nocturnal sounds of Africa to keep us company.
Wonderful creature comforts aside though, it is the sheer magnificence and humbling beauty of the diverse surrounding habitat that really leave an imprint when you visit this property. From thick riverine vegetation, rich with animal and bird life to open savannah bushveld and acacia thornveld, the terrain is simply a feast for the eyes.
“One of the biggest drawcards, and the real beauty of Zululand, is the diversity of the habitat, which allows us to have the carrying capacity of such a diverse range of species. There are so many different habitats in a small area,” says Dale. Which, of course, bring us to the wildlife. In addition to being home to all of the big five, the reserve also has a number of cheetahs and African wild dogs and our early morning and late afternoon game drives were a wonderful spectacle, with everything from herds of thundering buffalo to towers of beautiful giraffe and a lazy water monitor casually strolling across the road. We watched a content cheetah rolling around in the grass for ages and then, of course, there was our never-to-be-forgotten ellie encounter.
Like most properties, Rhino River Lodge was hit hard by the pandemic. Dale says, though, that it has also been an exciting time to South Africans now exploring their own country. “Some of the local visitors who’ve come had never been to a game reserve before. We are hoping even when the international market starts opening up again, that we will still retain this local market.” A stay at Rhino River Lodge includes two three-hour game drives and three full meals a day. Breakfast is a selection of fruits, yoghurt and cereal, followed by a full English breakfast and lunch is served at 1.30pm. Your afternoon game drive includes a sundowner of your choice and then it’s back for a three-course dinner. Rates (until 12 December) are R2950 pppn for the double en-suite room, R2800 pppn for the family chalet, R3350 pppn for the Cottage and R3600 pppn for the Homestead. There is an increase for high season rates between 13 December and 15 January.
Text: Leah Shone