Enjoy the Big 5, but learn to love the little things at Makweti Safari Lodge
This Waterberg lodge distinguishes itself by offering everything you expect from a five-star resort, and everything you don't, writes Damien Armstrong
When in unfamiliar territory - as Lovely Wife and I find ourselves one afternoon in late February - it's best to hang tight and wait for the penny to drop. It's not always clear how this will happen, but you'll recognise it when it does, a moment of clarity that snaps the unacquainted into focus.
We need it, because we're struggling to put our finger on what makes the Waterberg - the unusual, enticing terrain that surrounds us - so damn compelling. Nobody's ever managed to map it out, or make complete sense of it. Evasive, unpredictable and intangible, it doesn't play by the rules.
But then the penny presents itself, uttered by Neil Davison in his quietly convincing way. "You need to just let this place be," he states. "It works best when left to be its best." And with that, he nails it: respect the unexpected.
To fully grasp the profundity of the situation, we should zoom out a bit. Davison is an astute guide and general manager at Makweti Safari Lodge, the luxuriously intimate retreat we're calling home for two nights.
In the heart of the Welgevonden Game Reserve, about 2.5 hours from Joburg, it's a layered destination, full of welcome surprises.
THINGS YOU DON'T EXPECT IN THE BUSH
PART ONE: HERDS IN THE HAIL
The three of us are on a dirt road in an open-sided Toyota Land Cruiser, huddled under a sparse but effective grove of trees, sheltering from the unforgiving hail storm that has temporarily halted our game spotting, blurring this magnificent landscape with a criss-cross of cold lines.
A few minutes earlier, we were roaming with elephants. For an exhilarating 30 seconds they charged alongside us, dusty grey skins darkened to slate, dashing to escape this abrupt and confusing change in weather. It was a brief period of unusual alignment, our paths entwined as we hunted for dry ground. I'd never experienced anything like it, nor had Wife. Davison maybe, but he's as thrilled as we are. We wring out our clothes then putter off, buzzing with bliss from the first of many curious curveballs that make Makweti altogether enchanting.
One of 20-odd private lodges in this vast reserve, it distinguishes itself by offering everything you expect from a five-star resort, and everything you don't.
First off, it's one of the few unfenced sites in Welgevonden. As instructed, we keep our eyes peeled when crossing its "animal highway", a short dirt path linking reception with the rest of the camp, a common commute for creatures en route to the nearby waterhole. We're hoping for a heart-stopping leopard encounter but settle for languid zebras, a family of skittish warthogs, the mandatory monkeys and a few dassies sunning on the deck.
We're instructed not to leave our suite once night falls, and a ranger accompanies us everywhere after dark. It's a welcome rule, as there's no reason to abandon our thatched sanctuary. Pitched high over an endless valley, it's all natural stone and white linen, connected to a private pool by a wooden walkway. The ball-and-claw bath is tempting, but I opt for my favourite: an outdoor shower. This one comes with a view, excessively high pressure and that essential feature for this essential feature, mismatched taps.
Makweti has invested heavily in the guest experience, creating a truly homely home. With only five suites, space and privacy are guaranteed, and meals in the Indaba Lounge feel like a first date. The lodge is a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs member - an international association of gastronomy - and its cuisine is textured with a twist on the traditional, hearty and nuanced. It's at dinner, surrounded by double-volume windows and warmed by a roaring fire, that I spot the next rarity.
PART TWO: THE LITTLE THINGS
It's an Edradour 10 Year Old. Not a common whisky, but perfectly in place and, produced by the smallest distillery in Scotland, somewhat symbolic. This attention to detail reinforces an attitude that we experience in many different ways over the weekend.
Game drives are the main drawcard, and with almost 40,000ha of untamed bush to explore, the resort focuses on curating experiences that are intimate and eye-opening. Sure, we're excited to encounter the Big 5 - and we get up close with four of them - but more intriguing are Davison's reminders to appreciate the minutiae: brown hyena marking, tiger beetles, poisonous pods, giant insects laying eggs in the soft, rain-soaked sand and a plethora of aromatic scents from handfuls of freshly plucked plants.
We learn to employ all our senses on game drives. It's not just about sighting; it's about listening out for jackal calls, hearing water babble over unseen rocks and catching the stench of a bull elephant in musth long before he lumbers into view. Davison posits that nature is not necessarily in balance but in a constant state of flux, ever adapting to ensure survival. But all this micro attention enhances the big picture, resulting in a finely tuned state of equilibrium.
Welgevonden benefits surrounding communities with employment opportunities and educational drives. Lodges and farms work together towards common goals and, as a privately owned but collectively managed entity, emphasis is placed on collaborative conservation efforts.
Home to both black and white rhino, Welgevonden has partnered with IBM, MTN and others to develop a world-first solution to counter poaching. Prey animals such as zebra, wildebeest, eland and impala are collared with custom sensors that transmit movement and behaviour data to a digital platform, monitored by conservation staff. A change in pattern might suggest the presence of a poacher, a pre-emptive indicator that could prove essential to these species' survival.
It's an ingenious take on the internet of things, allowing rhinos to get on with their job of mowing the reserve's plains, improving grass-nutrient quality and allowing other animals to thrive. Because that's exactly how it should be in this big, happy interconnected ecosystem.
PART THREE: CURIOUS CHARACTERS
My tired gaze blurs as I skim across the wall of books at breakfast. We'd initially asked to skip the Sunday morning game drive because, for city-slicking, overworked, bag-eyed parents, sleep is the biggest luxury. But Davison won us over, and we've just returned from a crack-of-dawn canter into the wild.
I rub my eyes and read again. Flora. Fauna. Fanon. Wait, what ... is that Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth? How a revolutionary book that influenced many global social movements landed up on Makweti's shelf is anyone's guess. It's a little out of place, but it's also not. Makweti embodies the spirit of the Waterberg that, as well as being a catchment for water, is a magnet for all types. Poet and naturalist Eugène Marais spent years studying its termites. It's an area where farming failed in all forms, from cattle and sheep to peanuts. The flat plateaus are ancient ocean beds and lightning strikes frequently, attracted to the iron in the rock.
In other words it's all rather otherworldly. It's not just unfamiliar at first, but forever foreign. Makweti accepts this, offering guests an incomparably luxurious experience coupled with the privilege of enjoying this unique environment in an unfettered way. It embraces a terrain that can never be changed, but will undoubtedly change those who visit it.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
WHERE IT IS:
Makweti Safari Lodge is in the Welgevonden Game Reserve in the Waterberg district of Limpopo province. It's about a 2.5-hour drive from Johannesburg.
Five air-conditioned suites, built from stone and thatch, are dotted around the main lodge. Each one accommodates two people, so the lodge can house a maximum of 10 guests at a time. Four of the five suites have a private plunge pool. Kids 12 and up are welcome.
WHAT IT OFFERS:
Game drives in an open vehicle. Walking safaris can be tailored to your special interests - by prior arrangement and subject to availability. The property also offers African-themed cuisine in the dining room or outdoor boma and extra-special treats in the spa.
- Last-minute: Book no more than 10 days before your visit for a special rate of R3,000 per person per night sharing. Valid until the end of September. Minimum two-nights.
- Midweek special: Pay for three nights, stay for four (R4,000 per night). Valid Sunday to Thursday until September 30.
- Mother's Day: Be quick and you can also take advantage of their Mother's Day special, valid until the end of May: R4,000 per person per night - mom stays free. This applies to a minimum of four guests (including mom), for a minimum four-night stay. Valid Sunday to Thursday. All specials are subject to availability.
Rates include accommodation, all meals and safaris. They exclude beverages, items of a personal nature and reserve fees of R178 per person per day.