Hooked by fish, friendliness and a feral cat
Jozi to Jozini for a dam good time
People enjoying themselves in a cruise boat. Picture: Jim Freeman
Regardless of how useful a navigation tool it might be, placing your faith exclusively in the hands of Google Maps can add more spice to a roadtrip than you might like.
With my flight from Cape Town to OR Tambo International Airport* landing at lunchtime and still facing waits for luggage and a car (a 1.2-litre Hyundai Grand i10 sedan), I’d decided to break the 500 km journey to Jozini in KwaZulu-Natal and spend the night at a friend in Newcastle.
I took his advice, leaving the N3 freeway just south of Heidelberg and travelling the R23 via Standerton and Volksrust. Apart from a short stretch from Heidelberg to Balfour, the road was relatively devoid of truck traffic, in reasonably good condition and I avoided all toll plazas.
Day Two started swimmingly: Utrecht, Vryheid and onwards until Auntie Google told me I had to turn on to a less-used stretch of R69 that linked up with the N2 as it skirted Jozini Dam.
It wasn’t so much that it was a 40km stretch of bad gravel overrun by livestock, but rather that a massive coal truck had used it as a shortcut and dumped half its load on the road.
Shaken rather than stirred, the plucky little Hyundai and I arrived at Jozini quite late. All you need to know about Jozini itself is that the local mall is one of the largest in the northern part of the Kingdom of Shaka and it comprises only about 10 shops.
A modern and picturesque setting at Jozini Tiger Lodge
Thankfully, one of these was a Tops! I saw enough of the town to be a mite anxious about what awaited me at my destination, the four-star Jozini Tiger Lodge, leased and operated by Dream Hotels and Resorts (www.dreamresorts.co.za).
There is four-star and there is “four-star in a rundown peri-urban area”, if you know what I mean. My fears were for naught. The lodge opened in 2012, making it more modern than most comparable facilities I’ve visited in the rural reaches of the province in recent years.
With two major external shareholders from Pongola with expertise in property development and management – as well as considerable buy-in from the National Empowerment Fund and local community – construction and finishing touches are both of superior quality.
While other places in the KwaZulu-Natal hinterland are dark and often dingy, Jozini Tiger Lodge is light and airy with all rooms looking over the 16 000 hectare Pongolapoort/ Jozini Dam, South Africa’s fifth largest.
With such an abundance of fresh water filtering down from the Ubombo and Lebombo mountain ranges, the surrounding vegetation is lush and the birdlife magnificent.
Guests can even indulge their twitching inclinations without moving from the balconies of their rooms: in three days I spotted lesser-striped swallows (a pair of which were nesting under my eaves), bulbuls, weavers, emerald-spotted wood-doves, egrets aplenty, kingfishers, cormorants and darters, spoonbills, herons, a western osprey and a hunting secretary bird to name just a few.
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Jozini Tiger Lodge’s corporate appeal and upgraded guest experience
Jozini Tiger Lodge is a bit of an anachronism, says general manager Ryan Crossley, in that occupancy is greater during the week than at weekends.
“This is a very popular business destination because there’s a lot of government and development activity in the area. There are big schools and clinics, Eskom has a huge presence and the dam itself is a strategic national and regional resource,” Crossley says.
“We’re also close to midway between Johannesburg and Durban.”
The latter factor helps make the 70-room Jozini Tiger Lodge a popular corporate conference venue.
Guests are also catered for by a gym and spa. Crossley arrived in Jozini in December last year, tasked by Dream Hotels and Resorts with improving its holiday destination profile.
“Our immediate priorities were to improve our food and beverage experience – something we’ve done to a quite remarkable extent – as well as our family friendliness. A year ago, our weekend occupancy rate averaged between 20% and 30%. This has more than doubled… thanks mainly to us improving our food and beverage, as well as accommodation offerings.”
My experience of busy resorts and hotels is that one’s stay is often spoiled by poor fare emanating from their kitchens; generally unimaginative and limited, bland and – especially when it comes to meat – over-cooked.
Culinary surprises and welcoming family activities at Jozini Tiger Lodge
Don’t get me started on the trepidation I feel when confronted by an array of bains-marie chafing dishes. Again my fears were unworthy.
Both my buffet-style dinners were extremely enjoyable, including, to my great surprise, the Saturday night braai where the meat (wors, chicken, chops and beef brisket) was still tender and flavoursome. There was a plethora of salads, accompanying dishes and several vegetarian alternatives.
Sitting on the pool deck that evening, I struck up a relationship with a completely feral little cat that lives in the garden but approaches the restaurant with a hopeful look.
By the time I left on Monday morning, she was taking food delicately from my fingers and revelling in being stroked. The Saturday of my stay was the night the Springboks faced England in the semifinal of the Rugby World Cup.
I was delighted to discover the rooms all had a comprehensive DStv bouquet that included sport, movie, history, cooking and children’s channels. Family accommodation includes loft-style apartments and double rooms, with an additional sleeper-couch.
“We’ve put together a children’s programme that will keep the little ones occupied from morning to night, leaving adults to do their own thing,” says Crossley. Supervised activities include mini-golf, fishing, swimming and riding the newly completed waterslide, pizza and burger-making, baking, colouring-in and tailored junior boat cruises.