Sefapane River Lodge, Limpopo
Driving through the bush to Sefapane River Lodge, close to the Lowveld town of Phalaborwa in Limpopo province, guide and lodge manager Sascha Hof points out the last of the brittle mopane leaves clinging to almost bare branches. She comments on the startling freshness of the knob thorns in full bloom and the way in which the stripes on a cluster of zebras tone into the landscape in a subtle play of shadow and light.
The air is dry and so is the veld (grassland), but the impala ewes are growing fat with their lambs, and the hillsides are dotted with splashes of green from the euphorbias and wild figs. 'This is my favourite time of year,' Hof explains as we take in the landscape poised between winter and spring. 'Look at the colours, the light ...'
It’s great to be developing this area, but development doesn’t mean lots of concrete and infrastructure. I want to offer pure and genuine experiences to people who want to learn and explore with me.
There are constant reminders in this little-known section of the Greater Kruger National Park that nature comes full circle; a breeding herd of elephants, mating leopards and returning migrants, like the yellow-billed kite and lesser striped swallow. In just a few months, all will be green again.
So the wheel turns, just as it has in lodge owner Joris Bertens' life. He still remembers his very first trip to Kruger, driving from the Phalaborwa Gate to Letaba and then Olifants Camp – 'especially that section along the Olifants River, right down to the spot where I saw my first elephants'.
More than 20 years later, he’s back alongside the Olifants River. Now, instead of being a newly qualified hospitality professional just arrived from the Netherlands, he’s opened a 10-bed lodge and a tented camp that can sleep up to 24 people in a 3 500ha concession that offers exclusive traversing along several kilometres of river frontage, open to the Kruger National Park.
Well known for having built up the beautiful Sefapane Lodge in Phalaborwa since taking it over in 1998, Bertens has been a significant figure in the promotion of South Africa’s Limpopo province and is known as an astute businessman and energetic entrepreneur.
Sefapane River Lodge seems different to his other projects, though; it’s more personal, and as we talk over dinner on the deck, I sense it expresses something about this man and the things that are close to his heart.
'It’s great to be developing this area, but development doesn’t mean lots of concrete and infrastructure. I want to offer pure and genuine experiences to people who want to learn and explore with me,' he says.
That he’s committed to providing excellent hospitality is self-evident. The food, prepared by chef Gabriel Malaje and served by Thandy Hlatshwayo, is tasty and plentiful. The rooms are comfortably furnished and there are a wide variety of activities for guests to choose from, including mountain biking, interpretive walks, game drives, sleep-outs and more (including family-friendly specials and packages just for kids). You'll find details of packages and activities on the Sefapane website.
Bertens still makes time to lead activities like overnight trails, interpretive walks and mountain biking himself, despite the fact that he has great team that can do this for him. 'I love the details in the bush, the learning that I still do, and the sense of peace I get walking in the bush, using my senses and being alert to everything around me,' he says.
This hands-on approach keeps it real and ensures he knows his piece of paradise intimately, from where the vultures are nesting on an island downstream, to how many baby hippos there are in the pod that wallows around in front of the lodge. Nature, which has provided the spectacular curve of river framed by the dramatic contours of the landscape, does the rest.
The Big Five isn’t guaranteed, and you won’t be expected to adhere to a strict timetable of activities. This is not a ‘Ferrari safari’, where you can quickly tick off all the animals of choice. Rather you can tailor an experience to suit your interests, knowing that there are no other vehicles or operators in the area as you slowly reconnect with the natural world around you.
As the sky floods with stars, hippos bellow and an African wood owl calls, I realise once more that this is exactly the way I like to spend my time in the bush – with warm, like-minded people who love what they do and the prospect of an adventure-filled day when the sun rises in the morning ...
Thank you to Joris Bertens, Sascha Hof and the team for hosting me at this lovely new lodge.