African homecoming

DECEMBER 2014 – From its enviable position under a canopy of leadwood trees overlooking a game-rich waterhole and the open savanna of Madikwe Game Reserve, Jamala Madikwe combines the intimacy of an exclusive-use villa with all the luxuries of a boutique lodge. Playing host to just 10 guests in five spacious suites, it offers intelligent, highly personal service and what has been voted the best safari cuisine on the continent. No wonder so many come back for more.

“All of a sudden three leopards, two brown hyenas and a black rhino appeared at Jamala’s waterhole. Dinner had to wait…” A combined sighting like this would be incredible anywhere, but this description, posted by a recent guest to Jamala Madikwe Royal Safari Lodge, is a classic example of what owner Rodney Steyn calls the lodge’s “sofa safari”.
“Actually it was one of our guests who coined the phrase. He was sitting in the main lounge, looking at a group of zebra and buffalo make way for a huge herd of elephants,” explains Rodney. “He just couldn’t believe it – that he could be witnessing such a show, without having to leave the comfort of the couch.”

Jamala’s waterhole – viewed from all five villas as well as the open-plan lodge – is what is known in safari parlance as “productive”: a place where many species congregate in numbers to slake their thirst. If the aim of your safari is not only to see animals but also to mentally defrag, then you’ll appreciate the meditative experience of simply watching, slouched into deep cushions, an attentive barman at your side.

Not that you’re confined to the sofas – you can spot what’s ambling up while lolling around on your huge four-poster bed, or cooling off in your very private plunge pool. Better still, from your private dining table, set up in Jamala’s newest venue, the aptly named Watchtower, a comfortably furnished thatched turret that grows out of the front deck, used for sundowners, romantic dinners and sleepouts. “We get a lot of photographers coming to Jamala,” Rodney explains, “and we thought an elevated platform overlooking the waterhole would provide them with an interesting vantage. The results have been amazing, particularly at those times of the day when the animals are reflected in the water. From up there you also get a real sense of how vast the reserve is.”
And vast it certainly is. Located right on the Botswana border, the 75 000-hectare malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve offers one of the most diverse ecologies on the continent, its acacia-dotted savannas offering a typically African landscape, and a far greater chance of spotting endangered animals like cheetah and wild dog.
“With Unique Air now flying three times weekly between Kruger and Madikwe, we are finding that Jamala makes an excellent and easy add-on to a Sabie Sand experience,” says Rodney. “We’re also picking up more clients after their Okavango Delta safari – it’s just a short charter hop from Maun to Gabarone, and then a hassle-free 90-minute transfer by road to Jamala. So guests can experience a game drive in two completely different areas in the same day.”

It’s not just the game viewing that is superb. Each Jamala villa is the size of a small house, with luxurious interiors incorporating a lounge with fireplace, and outdoor facilities that include an individual rim-flow pool and sala, expansive wooden decks and a private outdoor shower. But it’s the level of intimacy that really sets this lodge apart.

The general rule of thumb is that you require 12 to 18 units before what the number crunchers call ‘economies of scale’ kick in enough to offer additional luxury services that so enhance the guest experience. Jamala must be the only lodge in Africa that offers this level of luxury (there’s even a spa, with a full time therapist) – for just five rooms. “We prefer it this way,” says Rodney. “It allows us to really get to know each of our guests. We also appreciate Madikwe’s policy of limiting the number of beds in each concession. It means that visitor numbers overall are strictly controlled, and the sense of escaping into the wilderness is never compromised. But mostly we just like offering a highly tailormade experience.”
That said, the interest and care is never intrusive or cloying. Staff clearly love working here, and the joy is contagious. You leave Jamala feeling lighter in every respect. Except perhaps, your waistline.

Recipient of the Best Safari Cuisine in Africa in the 2014 Safari Awards (based on the votes of more than 4 000 vetted tour operators, travel agents and travel journalists), meals here are legendary. But then food has always been integral to the Jamala experience: executive chef Nico Verster, who helped design the lodge, is also the general manager – and the author of Savannah to Sea, a beautiful hardcover book featuring recipes developed during a decade of working in the most prestigious lodges in southern Africa.
Nico takes the dietary requirements of his guests very seriously, but for him this goes way beyond allergies or intolerances. “We like to design our menu daily around guests’ palates – they may be happy to eat red meat but much prefer beef to lamb, or be more inclined to vegetarian, or be more attuned to savoury than sweet. We get to know each guest’s preference, then source the best quality produce, prepare it simply and present it beautifully. Simplicity is key – to be innovative without overcomplicating things. But this level of flexibility and customising is only possible in a lodge this small. It’s very intimate.”

No wonder guests can’t wait to return. “About 60 percent of our visitors are repeats,” says Nico. “They add new safari destinations to their itinerary but they keep Jamala. They say coming here feels like coming home.”

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