There’s a lot to fall in love with during a stay at South Africa’s Shambala Private Game Reserve: from the untamed savannah to mind-blowing wildlife encounters. But it’s the local community initiatives that make a lasting impression on us.
Sean Jones, our convivial head ranger at Shambala Private Game Reserve is made up of equal parts tracker, security expert, naturalist, conservationist and raconteur. It comes from years of training and experience out here in the South African bush. His stories of dazzling, diligent, dutiful and sometimes even dangerous encounters came vividly to life as we sat around a roaring firepit under the famously star-encrusted night sky. Campfire stories are, after all, part of the experience of being this deep in the bush, as well as the promise of spotting the reserve’s famed ‘big five’. We joked with Sean that he was our ‘big sixth’: his passion for sharing his knowledge of the local fauna and flora turning him into an attraction in his own right.
Shambala is just a three-hour drive from its sister property, Johannesburg’s legendary Saxon hotel, but it might as well be on another planet. Set in 30,000 acres of wilderness in the Waterberg region, it exudes a rustically secluded yet sophisticated charm. The air of remoteness is entirely intentional: it’s about total immersion here in the bush. Shambala’s camp structure is built upon the design principles of traditional Zulu dwellings. There are just eight luxury residences – each accessed by a meandering boardwalk – with earthen walls, thatched roofs and a private deck overlooking a small waterfall that trickles down to a watering hole right by the dining area and pool. Hippos sometimes congregate here. Add to this, solid Wi-Fi, in case guests need to connect to more than the African bush.
Early nights and even earlier mornings stood us a greater chance of seeing nocturnal, matutinal and diurnal species out in the reserve. Each game drive varied greatly, but we generally saw the first group of animals within a few minutes of setting off. During the course of three days, we spotted four of the ‘big five’ – the African bush elephant sadly eluded us. But we did spot plenty of rhinos, uncommon in other reserves (Shambala is actively involved in a comprehensive anti-rhino poaching programme), as well as blue wildebeests, black-backed jackals, vervet monkeys and long-horned buffaloes, to name but a few species. However, nothing could beat the experience of watching a pride of lions lazing around unperturbed by our presence, despite being just a few feet away from our vehicle. There’s nothing quite like being close to apex predators to remind you of your place in the natural order of things. Furthermore, unlike many other reserves, which are often overrun with vehicles, in Shambala, you’ll rarely see another.
One morning, we took off on foot for a bush-walk to get close to birdlife and diverse flora. Many plants here are useful to humans: wild mint, for instance, is a natural painkiller and insect repellent (we didn’t need it as the area is malaria-free, and mosquitoes and flies aren’t rife in winter), while indica grasses indicate the presence of fresh water. Being on foot out in the open among potentially man-eating beasts was quite alarming, but also thrilling. Of course, armed rangers surrounded us, but we were relieved to get to an extravagant champagne breakfast, thoughtfully laid out at the edge of a lake.
On the other side of the lake, perched on a ridge, is an impressive hilltop mansion, belonging to Shambala’s owner Douw Steyn. It is the perfect place to spot and compare meerkats, perhaps that’s what gave him the idea for the name of his successful insurance-comparison website. A long-time supporter of Nelson Mandela, Douw built the premier a standalone villa here, comprising five bedrooms and two pools. Mandela famously welcomed world leaders, including the Clintons, to it. Today, it remains owned by the Mandela family, but is managed by Shambala and available for groups to rent.
Shambala is also involved in community outreach initiatives, which engage local schools, create educational opportunities, provide desks and footwear and produce fresh food for schoolchildren. The EMS Foundation, the philanthropic side of Shambala, has a mission to alleviate and end suffering, raise public awareness and lobby to empower, provide dignity and promote the rights and interests of vulnerable children, the elderly and wild animals of Limpopo.
To witness first-hand the impact of the foundation’s work, we visited the EA Davidson School. Nothing could have prepared us for the rapturous welcome we received, as the entire school came out to greet us, enthusiastically filling the air with their beautiful singing voices, then treating us to a fully programmed concert featuring poetry recitals and dance performances. The atmosphere was electric and the experience uplifting and humbling. The sheer joy that the children – who, in comparison with others, have so little in terms of material wealth – expressed was extremely moving. Our whole Shambala experience was proof that it always pays to travel deeper.
Martin flew with Virgin Atlantic Upper Class direct from London Heathrow to Johannesburg (connections are available from other major international hubs). Fully flat leather seat-beds, private social spaces and Clubhouse access, as well as complimentary food, drink and inflight entertainment, are standard.