Back in this country’s wicked past – before the days of Sun City – South Africans used to head to Swaziland (now the Kingdom of Eswatini) to gamble and indulge in various locally prohibited sins of the flesh. You’d see them on a Friday afternoon; males on their own or in small groups, “missioning” east along the highways out of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Unlike people headed for Kruger or the Lowveld, they’d turn south shortly after what is now the Alzu monstrosity outside Middelburg and drive to the Oshoek border post.
I know this because I grew up in a one-parent, carless family unit in Johannesburg in the Seventies. Once a year, my mother would book us on the Springbok Atlas bus for a five-night “safari”; which included two at Skukuza and one in Swaziland. We’d see the gamblers and porn-pervs lined up at the border post or waiting in the lobby of the Ezulwini Holiday Inn for shuttles to take them to local pleasure palaces or casinos.
I recently drove down the road to Carolina, Badplaas (eManzana) and the Eswatini border for the first time in more than 40 years and marvelled anew at the beauty of the hills, plains, valleys and forests of the Highveld plateau and southern Mpumalanga. Just outside eManzana – on the Barberton side – is Nkomazi Private Game Reserve which is in the final stages of extensive refurbishment after changing ownership last September. “We re-opened in November and have been really, really busy with a mix of South African and foreign guests,” says general manager Ashleigh Dunn, a 17-year “veteran” of the safari hospitality industry.
“We’ve even had repeat visits from guests who only discovered Nkomazi after we took over!” Dunn attributes this partly to special discounted rates for South African residents. Tariffs have been reduced from R7 360 a night per two-person tent to R4 420 for locals, including all meals and two daily game drives, until 31 March.* The 15 000ha reserve was owned by Dubai World, the investment company that oversees business and projects on behalf of the Dubai government, for more than a decade before it was bought by conservation-minded members of a local macadamia-farming family. Guest accommodation comprises a camp with 14 new luxury tents, two designed for families or parties of four.
The property is managed by Newmark, administrators of a portfolio of upmarket hotels, residences, reserves and lodges in South and East Africa as well as Mauritius. Nkomazi takes its name from the river (also known as the Komati) that rises near Carolina and Sins of the flesh for the virtuous Nkomazi Private Game Reserve Sloth and gluttony: southern mpumalanga at its gorgeous best wriggles like a puffadder through the reserve for about 30km. It eventually flows into the Indian Ocean after following a convoluted course of nearly 800km.”There is a mixture of highveld and lowveld game because of where the reserve is situated on the escarpment.
There are a lot of grasslands and these are populated with species that you don’t often see in the lowveld such as red hartebeest, blesbuck and eland,” says senior guide Mike Roy. “We’ve got springbuck and impala, typical lowveld animals, as well as oribi which are quite rare but endemic. “Nkomazi has four of the Big Five – leopard, lion, elephant and buffalo. As far as numbers go, we have seven lions – two males, two females and three cubs – and a similar number of cheetah. We’ve identified 11 leopard and our elephant population stands at nearly 40 animals. There are about 38 disease-free buffalo, with more on the way. ”
We do not stock rhino. These were heavily poached in the past and the survivors had to be moved to Shamwari in the Eastern Cape for their safety,” adds Roy. Shamwari was also owned by Dubai World. From what I can gather, Dubai World’s tenure in the land of the Makhonjwa Mountains (declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2018) was fraught from the start. In 2008, the Competition Commission approved the sale of a noncommercial game reserve called Nkomazi Wilderness to Dubai World from a locally registered entity called Business Venture … which was already half-owned by a South African subsidiary of the Emirati company.
The plan, which was apparently put in place three years earlier, was to transform the reserve into an ultra-exclusive getaway which would feature a “seven-star” lodge under Sol Kerzner’s One&Only brand. Nkomazi is almost surrounded by Songimvelo Nature Reserve which, at 47 000ha, is the largest provincial park in South Africa. In 2005, however, government earmarked the land for restitution to the local community. Some claimants immediately “expropriated” 13 000ha from the reserve and began grazing their cattle. Local and cross-border poaching gangs moved in, massacring rhino and almost all animals of monetary value. Land claims have not yet been resolved but the beleaguered reserve has been identified as the core of a potential 120 000ha peace park known as the Songimvelo-Malolotja Transfrontier Conservation Area.
Politics were the last thing on my mind as Nkomazi field guide Corné Kotze sat just metres away from a magnificent male cheetah known as Nonyx (from the scientific name for the species, Acinonyx jubata) who sprawled across a large rock and surveyed his domain. The Nkomazi management had heard of my avid interest in cheetah and invited me to finish my postmorning game drive Eggs Benedict for an impromptu excursion that lasted into the afternoon. What a joy not to be subjected to a “bushveld Grand Prix” (as friend and colleague Brendan Seery describes it) to see the entire Big Five every game drive!
The next day, en route to the river to terrorise the local barbel population with bait and hook (Nkomazi also offers catch-andrelease fly-fishing to interested guests), we encountered one of the female cheetah – Amira – but left when she later made it clear she wanted to hunt. “All of our adult predators have names,” Roy admitted as we enjoyed morning coffee (me with the obligatory Amarula instead of sugar and milk). “Many of us don’t believe in naming wild animals because it makes guests think the animals are tame. We do it so guides can differentiate between individuals over the radio.” Other highlight sightings of my visit were a baby giraffe that couldn’t have been more than a few days old and a pair of mating lions that wasn’t in the least inhibited by the presence of a gameviewing Landcruiser full of camera-wielding spectators.
A visit to a top-class private game reserve is, for many people, the acme of a relaxing getaway. At Nkomazi, your only (sort of ) obligations are the morning and afternoon drives. The rest of the day can be spent on optional activities such as the aforementioned fly-fishing or going on a walking trail with a qualified – and armed – guide or lazing around camp. Six of the plushly furnished en-suite tents (40m²) look over a set of rapids in the Nkomazi River towards the looming foothills of the Makhonjwas. Each features an air-conditioner and plunge pool (essential in summer) as well as outside showers and baths.
With top-class camp cuisine (Nkomazi has its own wood-fired pizza ovens) presented three times a day in the boma or in the dining tent that also overlooks the river, it’s a rare guest that doesn’t pick up weight on safari. And, if you’re feeling peckish and thirsty in the late afternoon, there’s always phuza … sundowners and snacks in the veld. Sloth and gluttony in between looking at wild animals? These are my kind of sins of the flesh. v For more details of the SA residents’ special, visit www.newmarkhotels.com.
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