Abelana Game Reserve

Red leaves heaped on the earth in colourful swirls snap and crackle as our tracker leads us into the bush.

His eyes, nose and ears are on the alert for animals in a soft morning light that paints the marula trees in gorgeous shades of russet. We spend a fascinating morning looking for the culprits that left behind the elephant dung and some tantalising paw prints, but it’s almost a relief that tracker Tavengwa Chikwavava and head trails guide John Fouche don’t actually find them from our vulnerable position on the ground. Yet connecting with the land around Abelana River Lodge is still a magical experience.

The lodge sits by the Selati River in Abelana Game Reserve, a tract of land that was handed back to the Mashishimale community in 2010 after a land rights claim. For a few years afterwards they leased the land to a hunting operation, but very few local people were employed and little money flowed back to the community.

Today it’s a much happier story, and not only for the animals. Now the land is leased by MTH Lodge Holdings, which has already employed 52 people from the Mashishimale community in two lodges it’s constructed. There are plans to build at least two more, and even then Abelana’s 15,000 hectares will still have fewer vehicles and tourists on it that the average game reserve.

Every guest also pays a levy of R100 a night which goes straight into a fund to uplift the local town of about 20,000 inhabitants. The two lodges hadn’t been open long before the Covid lockdown abruptly closed them again, but they’d already pumped R22,000 into the fund.

The land and animals are also benefitting, with the reserve being rehabilitated and the wildlife restocked with lions, white rhino and sable. Imminent plans include adding more black and white rhino, disease-free buffalo, and two mature male elephants to calm down the current boisterous youngers. It’s all very different from the days when a hunting operation killed, rather than conserved, the animals and did nothing for the human population either.

A boundary fence with the adjoining Selati reserve is being taken down, allowing the animals to roam more freely. Eventually an underpass could be built to open up Abelana to the Kruger National Park, on the other side of the R40 road. I’m sceptical about that, but the guides assure me that once an underpass is built, it won’t take long for the animals to migrate between the two.

Meanwhile the old hunting lodge was revamped entirely and extended to create 20 luxurious bedroom suites along the river bank. A pool was added at the main lodge with a glorious view over the river. Further south, Abelana Safari Lodge was built from scratch, with an eco-friendly design that takes its four tented suites completely off-the-grid. A highlight there is the large viewing deck up in the granite koppies, looking out over a waterhole and endless plains with an ancient baobab just visible in the distance.

The Safari Camp is the base for horse safaris for experienced riders led by Tamlyn Whitebread, lasting up to a week and including a night under the stars. I was happier at the River Lodges, where I could admire the stars and then admire the hot outdoor shower and a king sized bed.

At both camps, all the waste is removed and recycled by a company from the community, local businesses handle the laundry, and neighbourhood farmers grow as much of the fresh produce as possible. An on-site water bottling plant ensures no single-use plastic bottles are used.

The meals are fabulous, with a breakfast buffet and hot choices to order, a light lunch, afternoon tea and a four-course dinner. In the evenings I enjoyed chatting with barman and sommelier Phetole Senyolo, who talked me through the carefully curated wine list.

Ian Beauchamp, the CEO of MTH Lodge Holdings, is a former head Ranger at Mala Mala who became its international marketing manager. He went on to run Motswari Private Game Reserve then become CEO of the Thornybush Collection.

Now his dream goes way beyond just running a handful of lodges. Next they’ll open an environmental education centre to run game drives for local schoolkids and teach them about the value of their land, the benefits of conservation, and career opportunities in eco-tourism. “We’ll show the children that they don’t have to go to the bright lights of the city because they can actually get a job here,” he says.

* Abelana is about a six-hour drive from Johannesburg through the scenic countryside around Tzaneen. The rates are on special offer to SADC residents, at R3,300 pppn sharing at River Lodge and R1,935 pppn sharing at Safari Camp. Single occupancy is R4,950 and R2,900. That includes all meals, and two game drives a day, and you can buy a voucher now and travel until December 2021.

For details email info@abelanagamereserve.com, call 061-952-4302 or click here:

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