Hidden gem offers safaris at your own pace
Set deep in the Manyoni Game Reserve, Thuleni Homestead will reward big-game watchers and also those who simply wish to do nothing
As much as I love the bush, I find most safaris exhausting. No matter how decadent the food or luxurious the lodge, they’re often gruelling, rigidly regimented affairs — involving crack-of-dawn starts, interminable jolting drives, as well as that introvert’s nightmare: oodles of incessant small talk with staff and the other guests you’ve been lumped with at dinner or on a drive.
In the mad dash to the next sighting, the beauty of your setting is often overlooked by your camera-toting compatriots (and the guide that’s determined to impress them). Should you endeavour to make time to soak it all in — by bunking a game drive, perhaps — this is seen as heretical by the set-in-their-ways staff who, too used to the sheep-like obeisance of guests, seem at a loss to accommodate this contravention of preordained routine.
Fortunately, there is an alternative that offers a way to enjoy the bush on your terms — as leisurely and privately as you want to, without sacrificing on luxury. With the rise of single-use villas as an alternative to hotels — particularly popular with well-heeled families — it should come as no surprise that this model is finding proponents in the bush.
And amen to that — because a bespoke safari means no other guests, and a game drive if and when you want it. Happily, you can skip those harrowing 5am wake-up calls.
In March, I visited Thuleni Homestead, not far from the Eswatini border in remote, romantic Zululand. Owners Guy and Lisa-Jane Hamlin — avowed bush lovers — built this four-bedroomed villa as a bush getaway in 2009 and only started renting it out in 2018. Lucky us.
Its simple, minimalist design is nevertheless welcoming and luxurious. The layout offers privacy, with suites boasting decadent linens and outdoor showers. Floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors facilitate a seamless flow between indoors and out. Flooding in are the sights — of warthogs dipping in the watering hole and rippling acacia woodland — and sounds — of sleepy emerald spotted wood doves and the piercing urgency of black-collared barbets.
And while the walls are understated neutrals — whites and greys — there are plenty of local textures and touches: soaring tamboti tree trunks acting as pillars, pod mahogany floors and a wall made of stones foraged from the surrounding hillsides.
This is a place of being instead of doing. But to remain house-bound, flopping around in the plunge pool and staring at the puffy clouds skidding over the distant, curvaceous Lebombo mountains the entire time would be doing a visit to Thuleni a disservice. Fortunately, the Hamlins were on hand to ensure I was prised from my lounger.
Thuleni is situated deep inside the 23,000ha Manyoni Game Reserve. While this protected area is home to all of the Big Five, it also has littler — but no less exciting — critters in abundance. My favourite sighting was the serval sauntering in front of us like Kate Moss at Fashion Week.
Over morning coffee, we watched dung beetles transform impala droppings into smoothly spherical balls which they proceeded, with great urgency, to push up the road. Then there was the croaking Natal sand frog revelling in the rain near Thuleni’s main entrance. Among the many birds we saw, the Wahlberg’s eagle perched in a tree was undoubtedly the most majestic.
That night, Guy lit the fire in the pit, while Lisa-Jane prepared dinner in the ample, well-outfitted kitchen. The bout of rain we’d had earlier had cleared, and the sky above was dark and densely sparkling — a village’s lights in the distance faintly echoing this. As we fell asleep, lion roars marked our passage to dreamland.
Though Thuleni feels wondrously far away from the hustle and bustle, it’s only about a four-hour drive from Durban. While the Hamlins won’t be around to host you, a locally based guide can be booked to take you on whatever game drives you require. The house is serviced daily but you’re on your own when it comes to catering — so pack Woolies’ finest because local eating options are in short supply.
While it’s very tempting to not leave the reserve (or, indeed, Thuleni’s wooden deck), there’s plenty to do in the region if you’re in the mood for exploring. Scuba diving among Sodwana’s technicolour reefs is just an hour away. Even closer is Mkhuze Game Reserve, run by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. While the poaching onslaught has left its big-game numbers sadly diminished, it is still a birder’s paradise and offers guided walks in its fig tree forest.
The venerable Ghost Mountain Inn — much-loved by crusty British retirees on bush and battlefield tours — is also in close proximity and is ideal for light lunches and spa treatments. And the vast, shimmering Jozini Dam — about a half-hour away — offers boat cruises and tiger-fishing.
• The writer was a guest of Thuleni Homestead, which can be booked through Perfect Hideaways.