Caroline Phaho’s smile is infectious. “Welcome to Sediba Lodge!” she beams as she opens the Land Rover’s door. I smile back in thanks, grateful for the fragrant, cooling face-cloth offered on a silver platter. It helped to wipe away the dust from the 25-minute drive from the Western Gate of the Welgevonden Game Reserve.
Smiles are order of the day at Sediba. Caroline’s was matched by safari guide Justinius Mothabela when he met me at the gate for the lodge shuttle. In the Welgevonden you don’t drive anywhere, leaving your vehicle in a secure parking area at the gate and letting the Landy take the strain while you relax and admire the stunning views.
The reserve is a wonderfully well-kept secret. At just over 34,000 hectares it nestles unassumingly amid Limpopo’s impressive Waterberg range. The town of Thabazimbi is a short hop away, as is Bela Bela (the former Warmbaths), and the hustle and bustle of Jozies is a mere three hours down the road.
This is Big Five territory, but with the added panache of upmarket, exclusive getaways. Sediba is one of these, perched precariously on a mountainside with unending views of forever. And lots of fabulous, and very infectious smiles. I soon had one to rival Caroline’s glued to my face.
Her impromptu tour of the facilities made that smile stretch wider with each step… “Our lounge… (smile!) The dining room… (bigger smile!) The viewing deck…. (huge grin!) The pool… (amazed grin!) The therapy rooms (my cheeks are aching!) The rasul chamber… (OK, enough already, my face hurts!)”
Sediba’s two properties – Letlapa and Letlapala – are all–suite affairs, putting the capital L back in luxury. My suite at Letlapa was less of a room and more of a luxury indoor soccer pitch. As Caroline showed me around my excitement knew no bounds, taking in the huge sliding doors, comfy loungers on a huge deck with more views of forever and a tempting Jacuzzi, an equally tempting chaise in front of an open fireplace packed with logs, walk-in wardrobe, enormous bed and bathroom big enough to hold a ball in.
Half an hour later I was unpacked, freshly showered and lazing in the Jacuzzi with a glass of Sediba’s finest red in hand, watching kudu browse on the opposite mountainside and vervet monkeys leap fearlessly from branch to branch in the acacia canopy below.
At 4 o clock sharp, Caroline and her smile came to fetch me for the afternoon game drive. She’s truly a star in Sediba’s firmament, having been part of the Sediba family for years. During that time this lovely lass from Hammanskraal near Pretoria has worked her way upwards to her current position of hostess and therapist.
All of the 21 members of staff at Sediba are from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and have been given an opportunity to rise through the ranks with a comprehensive training programme dedicated to furthering careers and widening horizons. At the same time, Sediba has expanded its guests’ knowledge and appreciation of the varied cultural communities its staff members come from.
The BaTswana, Swazi, SePedi, Zulu and Xhosa cultures are featured in artworks, textiles and carvings throughout the lodge and each evening at dinner the staff treat guests to an amazing show of traditional songs, giving Caroline the chance to shine in a different arena – as a songstress, with her voice matt sparkling smile.
Fascinated by the cultural melting pot on offer at the lodge, I set off on the afternoon game drive with the now prerequisite grin affixed to my face. Head ranger and assistant lodge manager Victor Dlamini soon added to it with his keen passion for the bush and its various inhabitants, displaying a wide knowledge of all things wild and wonderful and a particularly captivating knack of sharing traditional beliefs and knowledge with his guests.
Before long the Big Five – elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard – became insignificant as Victor taught me all there was to learn about bushes which look dead but spring to life in a matter of hours when you add water and why kudu always browse upwind.
We returned to the lodge after late sundowners (thanks to some captivating rhino) and dined like kings around a roaring fire under a velvety black sky peppered with stars.
Hours later, full of fabulous food and several Amarulas, I lay draped across the chaise, chunky logs crackling beautifully in the grate and gazed out of floor to ceiling windows into the dark African night and the glittering sky above.
With the sliding doors open the crackling of the fire was occasionally interrupted by the distant roar of lions, the odd trumpet of an elephant and the chirps of a myriad crickets and frogs. I remember falling asleep with a smile on my face.