The spirit of safari comes alive at Ngala Private Game Reserve, the first private game reserve to be incorporated into the well known Kruger National Park in 1992. Spanning 14,700 hectares (36,300 acres) of game-rich wilderness, respect for nature overtakes human activity and development. From the minute we entered the Timbavati control gates into the national park, we were given strict instructions to travel not more than 40km per hour as animals roam free. My travel partner and I mused in delight as we spotted our first pair of giraffes munching on leaves and then a herd of impalas staring intently at our vehicle.
Ngala Private Game Reserve shares an unfenced boundary with the world renowned Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest wildlife sanctuary allowing the free movement of wildlife along natural corridors. The private game reserve is formed by a three way partnership between the private sector, the state and a non-governmental organization (&Beyond, South African National Parks and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in hopes of controlling poaching and protecting the diminished number of animals in the park.
“Reinstating nature to make it valuable, that is the approach we (&Beyond) took. It’s all about educating the locals about the value of their backyard,” Les Carlisle, group conservation manager explained. Poaching has since stopped within the private game reserve. Whilst demands for ivory, horns and sorts still continue in Asia, the locals have learned to respect and protect nature for what it is.
On arrival at Ngala, we were greeted with a friendly welcome of homemade lemonade and chilled towels by a host of friendly staff and then ushered to our cottage. Tucked away under large tamboti and mopane trees, 20 classic thatched cottages are well spread out within the vicinity. Tastefully designed, each cottage has its own private verandah. Cobbled stone pathways lead you from the cottages to the expansive dining area with rugged chandeliers and an elegant buffet table with fresh flowers.
The familiar hectic city life is long gone as you step into the spacious sitting decks decorated with plush Victorian sofas overlooking thick riverine woodlands and a watering hole. Jameson who greeted us at the reception told us to keep a lookout on the watering hole as elephants, cape buffaloes and impalas would frequent the natural pool for a gulp.
Ngala prides itself in the intimate and personalized service the staff extends to each guests. From arrival to departure, our needs and wants were taken care of regardless of how much effort or time it took. Our butler Patrick was always on his toes with a big smile on his face. The lodge manager willingly helped with clearing the dishes and rangers go beyond game drive conversations as they spend evening dinners with guests, getting to know them better.
Patrick chimed, “We are a community at the staff quarters. We play soccer and get along like family. We have a great chef and excellent food too. Sometimes I have to skip meals because I eat too much!” After much conversation with the staff, I soon realized that the sincerity and warmth that exudes from each staff member stems from the fact that their needs are well taken care of by the management.
Up to ninety percent of the staff at Ngala comes from the nearby village call Welverdiend where the local Shangaan tribe lives. Ngala has provided vast employment opportunities for the community at the Welverdiend, developed computer centers in several schools, and empowered individuals to set up small businesses to improve income levels.
Les Carlisle explained, “Our strategy is to work with communities, not for communities. That way partnerships between us are stronger and we work hand in hand, not one ahead of the other.” Building long lasting and trusting relationships with people of the land has proven testament to their success in sustaining community partnerships.
Our ultimate wish was to spot the famous African Big 5; lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino and leopard. At 4pm, guests gathered around the spacious open deck for afternoon tea and bite-sized pastries and fruits. Our ranger, Mike Robertson introduced himself and briefly explained the history of the game reserve and what we would expect from the game drives.
Within the reserve, only a limited numbers of vehicles are allowed at a sighting and rangers are well aware of their boundaries between the animal and the vehicle. We were given prudent instructions not to make animal calls while on game drives and to respect the privacy of the animals in their natural surroundings.
We hopped onto our open 4×4 safari vehicle where our tracker, Elvis greeted us. Elvis spent most of his life in the bush. The national park was his backyard and as a child he would follow his father hunting for rhinos and buffaloes. Today, hunting is not his game, instead he finds pride and satisfaction in showing guests around his backyard.
Mike turned the engine on and turned around to ask us, “What would you like to see today?” Instantaneously we replied, “Lion.” He nodded and we were off on our first game drive. It was soon learned that ‘Ngala’ means lion in Shangaan and the reserve lives up to its name, as we spotted several prides of these majestic cats in wide open plains and on the dirt road catching a few winks before the sun sets. The spectacular diversity of wildlife that moves through this immense wilderness was truly awe-inspiring. During our three hour morning and evening game drives we spotted elephants, spotted hyenas, buffaloes, hippos, white rhinos, giraffes, impalas, zebras, kudus, warthogs and wild cats.
Our game drives were always punctuated with a break at a chosen stopover; either a watering hole or in the wide open grasslands. Safety is always a priority as the ranger and tracker kept a close eye on the surroundings. We savoured the sights and sounds of the wild whilst sipping on wine, juice or a hot cup of coffee. Being on foot in the wild offered a different experience as we watched the elephants and buffaloes waddle in water just a few feet away. Our senses became more sensitive to the slightest of sounds; birds chirping, cicadas whistling and the scent from the tiny aniseed plant.
Most of our evening game drives lasted through sunset and into the night. This was when nocturnal animals like the bush babies, owls and termites come out to play. As the skies transformed into a black velvet blanket filled with glittering stars, Mike, our knowledgeable ranger stopped the vehicle and unraveled a dozen stories about the constellations, Greek legends and astronomical wonders.
African Culture through a Gastronomical Affair
At Ngala, it is all about guest experience. Having stayed three nights at the lodge, not one of its dinners were at the same location. From the elegant candlelit dining hall to the romantic glow of the courtyard around the blazing bonfire and the lamp-lighted open deck with a choir of dancing Shangaan women, dinner was an anticipated affair.
Meals are created to give a wholesome and traditional flavour with choice ingredients, fresh produce and locally sourced meats bought from the local village or the nearby White River town.
Lettuce Mokoena, head chef of Ngala Lodge greeted me at the lunch buffet table as he explained his quite recent passion in cooking. Before he became the head chef, Lettuce started as a security guard at &Beyond lodge. He applied for a position as a waiter and soon found joy in serving guests. He soon tried his hand as a kitchen staff and found that his skills in cooking blossomed quickly. Now 8 years after, Lettuce is one of the most respected and well-loved chefs among the &Beyond family, of which Ngala Lodge is a part of.
“I love my job and it gives me great satisfaction serving guests an unforgettable meal,” says Lettuce. Attention to detail is the key to this mouthwatering experience. Lettuce and his team give extra attention in picking only quality ingredients and sticking to precise cooking methods.
One of the ways to ensure this is by growing and harvesting vegetables from their own ‘shambar’ or garden. Vegetables such as carrots, beetroot, onions, spinach and pumpkin are homegrown and tended with care.
Hearty breakfasts and healthy lunches feature traditional Pan African flavours such as slow roast pork, ‘Bobotie’ -a curried mince meat dish covered with an egg based topping, ‘Pap’ – a traditional porridge made from ground maize, ‘Boerewors’ – homemade sausages, butternut pumpkin soup and ‘Melktert Pudding’ – a custard based tart topped with cinnamon.
We had a wonderful experience in South Africa’s famous wildlife sanctuary and hope many others can enjoy it too. We have full confidence that it will continue to thrive for the simple reason that sustainability takes precedence over profitability. &Beyond’s model ‘Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife and Care of the People’ is a wholesome cycle that protects, respects and sustains the ecosystem.
As light fell over the safari, we caught the glare of a lion before it flicked its tail, turned and walked into the horizon. I realized without a doubt that the reality of this experience is not only in the viewing of big game, but the simple magic of building unforgettable connections with those who have served you and our mutual love and respect for nature and wildlife.