Peace of mind

Good for the soul. Good for the environment. Safari lodge getaways that are tailored for the discerning, eco-conscious traveller

Peace of mind

We all want to go on holiday with a clear conscience as well as clear schedules. It’s hard to relax when worried about plastic ruining the ocean we are gazing out over, or hearing the rumble of a diesel generator powering that energy-hungry air conditioner. Happily, the trend in tourism circles is towards lodges that impact the Earth lightly, whether it’s dune-friendly construction or battery-powered game-viewing vehicles. For an eco-minded escape, these places won’t disappoint.

Lekkerwater Beach Lodge, Western Cape
De Hoop nature reserve, some 50 km along the coast from Africa’s southern-most point at Cape Agulhas, is one of the country’s unsung conservation hotspots. And yet few travellers high-tailing it towards the Garden Route take the time to turn off the N2 highway and down the gravel roads leading to this remarkable corner of the Overberg.

That’s their loss, for it’s well worth spending a few days exploring this sprawling reserve; home to everything from endangered vulture colonies to herds of rare bontebok. Spend some time on the expansive De Hoop vlei and you could tick up to 260 species of birds off your list. Offshore, the declared marine protected area makes this a haven for sea life, from dolphins and inter-tidal birds, to the southern right whales that migrate here from June onwards. Forget the crowded cliffs of Hermanus – De Hoop is SA’s finest spot for shore-based whale watching, which makes now the perfect time to book a room at the reserve’s latest attraction, Lekkerwater Beach Lodge.

Operated by conservation-minded travel company Natural Selection, this new lodge has been built on the foundations of what was once FW de Klerk’s presidential retreat, ensuring minimal disturbance to the sensitive coastal ecology. It’s also powered entirely by solar and wind energy, and single-use plastics are banned from the property.

An eco-sensitive overhaul has transformed the site, with seven eye-catching suites offering floor-to-ceiling windows to let the panoramic ocean views pour in. The stylish dining area and communal lounge form the social heart of the lodge. To fill the days, experienced naturalists reveal the reserve’s unique tidal ecology, or lead nature walks through the endemic fynbos. Nature drives to Potberg, to observe the breeding colony of Cape vultures, are also available.

Thonga Beach Lodge, KwaZulu-Natal
Beaches don’t come more wild and unspoilt than the stretch of sand fronting Thonga Beach Lodge in Maputaland. Cast away amid the northern reaches of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (SA’s first Unesco World Heritage site), Thonga’s 12 thatched suites dish up superlative views of wide-open oceans or lush indigenous forests from their private decks. And, with all rooms raised on wooden platforms above the forest floor, the impact on the indigenous vegetation is kept to a minimum.

Those forests are best explored on daily nature walks with the lodge guides, who’ll bring the forest ecosystem to life. But it’s the beach where you’ll want to spend plenty of time – whether it’s taking a dip in the balmy waters or enjoying the excellent snorkelling on offer in tidal pools just a short walk from the lodge. All gear and a guide are included at no extra cost.

While there’s a good chance of seeing humpback whales along this coastline in winter, the main marine attraction of any stay at Thonga is the chance to watch leatherback and loggerhead turtles heave themselves up to the high-tide mark to lay their eggs. Peak season for turtle-nesting runs from November until May. However, Thonga’s eco-credentials extend beyond sensitive construction and turtle conservation. The lodge is a partnership between tourism operator Isibindi Africa and the local Mabibi community, who also benefit from water-treatment facilities, employment opportunities and entrepreneurship development.

Makakatana Bay Lodge, KwaZulu-Natal
While Thonga is all about the beach, Makakatana Bay Lodge is the perfect location for exploring the vast waterways of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Located on the western shores of Lake St Lucia, the lodge has been in the Morrison family since the early-1900s, and today it’s Hugh and Leigh-Ann Morrison who lay on warm KwaZulu-Natal hospitality for visitors.

The lodge offers eight rooms across three categories, catering easily for couples, families and honeymooners seeking a little peace and privacy. Set amid lush dune forest, the timber-framed rooms tread lightly on the sensitive ecosystem, while private decks and outdoor bathrooms bring the outdoors inside. Trips to the nearby Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park are on offer for safari fundis, but the highlight of Makakatana is the full-day adventures on Lake St Lucia. These begin with a leisurely game drive on the western shores of the lake, to where a pontoon boat collects you for a morning cruise on the estuary. Look out for pods of hippo, sunbathing crocodiles and abundant birdlife before returning to a picnic lunch under the trees, and a memorable night at the lodge.

Bulungula Lodge, Eastern Cape
With its thatched rondawels perched atop a grassy bluff in the Eastern Cape, Bulungula Lodge offers a classic Transkei scene that is quick to capture the imagination. One of the first lodges to be accredited by Fair Trade Tourism in SA, Bulungula is owned and managed by the local Nqileni village, a Xhosa community that lays on the overnight accommodation, which ranges from simple two-bed rondawels to ‘glamping’ safari-style tents.

Firm believers in providing a hand-up, not a handout, the local community runs all activities, with fees going directly to the villagers who share their expertise and traditions. During your time at Bulungula you could join the village women who will teach you to make mud bricks, or ask local fishing expert Mkhuseli to help you cast a line in the ocean. Canoeing, hiking and village tours will soon have your days filled with unforgettable Eastern Cape adventures.

Tintswalo at Lapalala, Limpopo
Teaching kids to care about planet Earth couldn’t be easier at this recently revamped lodge, just a three-hour drive north of Johannesburg. The latest addition to the Tintswalo portfolio is situated in the Lapalala Wilderness reserve, a 44 500 ha conservancy established in 1981. Part of the broader Waterberg Biosphere reserve – also a Unesco World Heritage site – Lapalala boasts all the big five credentials you could ask for. But that’s only part of the reason to visit.

Lapalala is a hotbed of forward-thinking conservation – from its wilderness school introducing local learners to the bush, to the Lapalala conservation and breeding centres, which are aimed at boosting the populations of endangered species. Top of that list are the sable and roan antelope, a highlight on any safari drive here, while guests can also marvel at Lapalala’s ancient rock art on the daily bush walks.

The Waterberg is a malaria-free region, making it ideal for introducing young travellers to the wonders of safari travel. The lodge offers a pair of twin-roomed family suites, and rest assured that between game drives, the swimming pool, bush breakfasts, fishing trips and boat cruises, there won’t be an ‘I’m bored’ heard for days.

Cheetah Plains, Mpumalanga
This newly revamped lodge in the Sabi Sand game reserve has upped the ante for bushveld luxury in SA. Unlike the typical set-up of myriad private suites surrounding a communal lodge, Cheetah Plains offers three exclusive ‘bushveld houses’. Each house (an understatement of note) offers four bedrooms, a pair of lounges, private dining spaces and adjoining wine cellar, exclusive-use boma and a private swimming pool. During your stay you can also enjoy the use of a designated field guide and your own private vehicle.

That’s where it gets interesting. Cheetah Plains is the first safari lodge in the country to introduce fully electric safari vehicles. Built around a Toyota Land Cruiser body – the workhorse of many safari lodges – the prototypes use Tesla battery technology to power the hefty 4x4s. The lodge is also going entirely off the grid, meaning those solar-charged batteries reduce the environmental impact of your twice-daily game drives.

Without the metallic rumble of a diesel engine coughing to life, the new electric off-roaders enable guests to creep ever closer to wildlife, with less noise pollution ruining the serenity of the safari. And as winter in the bushveld can be chilly, the inclusion of heated seats and USB chargers will be welcome.

By Richard Holmes
Images: Tonga Beach Lodge, Makakatana Bay Lodge, Cheetah Plains, Tintswalo