Mdluli Safari Lodge offers eco-friendly luxury and rich culture
Beware of elephant crossing the road
After a five-hour drive from Gauteng, seeking sanctuary from the city, we reach the Kruger National Park’s Numbi Gate.
In big, bold letters a billboard teases “tented luxury” as we turn onto a dusty and bumpy private road that leads to Mdluli Safari Lodge. Then comes a stern warning from our driver: “Turn off the music, animals don’t respond well to loud sound.” We, of course, oblige.
It’s just after 5pm, which apparently is the perfect time for an evening game drive. One of the promises of the lodge is Big Five sightings and, no kidding — while we’re driving along the gravel road an elephant comes charging towards us.
“That’s not a happy elephant,” the driver announces, as fear paralyses my body at the sight of the elephant’s fanned-out ears. But then, as soon as the elephant spots our car, it changes course and disappears into the bush.
We spot an antelope next, which looks less scary.
When we reach the lodge’s gated fence, I quickly fall in love with not only the wilderness but also the eco-friendly retreat and its rich Swati heritage.
Camping + luxury = the best
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine using the words “camping” and “luxury” in the same sentence, but Mdluli Safari Lodge opens my eyes to a brand new world. The camouflaged tents blend in seamlessly with the environment.
My 73m2 room is comfortable and spacious. And while the recycled flooring material, made out of plastic bottles, is seriously stunning and surprisingly cosy, my favourite thing in the room is the king-size bed with mosquito net. Cheesy as it sounds, I sleep like a baby.
According to Christelle Schalkwyk, marketing manager at Mdluli Safari Lodge, the rooms can sleep a family of four. Aside from the king-size bed, there is also a sleeper coach. Staying loyal to the lodge’s sustainability ethos, they deliberately didn’t put a bathtub in the room to save water — instead there are an indoor and outdoor showers.
If you want to keep in touch with the outside world, the USB charger next to the bed is a winner. The egg chair nestled on the patio is my other favourite piece of fine furniture — perfect for reflecting on the serene views over a cup of tea, with cackling hyenas or roaring lions providing the sound effects.
The infinity pool is another favourite — after all, it overlooks a watering hole, where, if you’re lucky, you can spot any of the Big Five while soaking up the sun, chilling poolside, and indulging in a cold beverage. There is also a granite rock within the fenced area that offers a panoramic 360° view of the Kruger. It’s said to be popular for wedding proposals, yoga sessions, romantic picnics, and meditation.
In terms of the food, a buffet restaurant provides breakfast and dinner (the tender kudu curry is absolutely delicious). You can also enjoy flavourful African cuisines around the flames of the boma fire, with entertainment by Swati cultural dancers. Plated menus are available on request.
The soul of the lodge comes from the warm and welcoming staff. The collaborative project that encompasses tourism, the environment, and the community is exactly what late chief MZ Mdluli fought for. It took over 20 years for the oasis to open its doors, after Mdluli embarked on a mission to have the pristine land of his people returned to them. Construction on the private lodge officially began in 2018 and it opened its doors in January 2021. Unfortunately, the pandemic upset most of their plans.
“Initially, it wasn’t anticipated that it would appeal to the domestic market, and our main focus was the international market. We had international bookings, but when the pandemic hit, we felt it with all the cancellations,” says Schalkwyk. “So we made our rates more applicable to the South African market and that has carried us for the past two years.
“We have close ties with the community and most of the staff who work here are from the community. These are their first jobs. Any guest who stays here has to pay a compulsory community levy. It’s R45 per night for each guest. That money immediately goes back to the community.”
*Tjiya was a guest of SA Toursim.