As a South African, travelling in my own country, I’ve often bemoaned the apparent lack of interesting, affordable off-the-beaten-track places to visit. But it would appear that my moaning has been unfounded, because there are some incredible places in South Africa – they are just hiding their respective lights under rather large bushels.
One of them is Leshiba Wilderness. It’s been around for 18 years or so, hidden at the top of the magnificent Soutpansberg mountains, a short hop from what used to be Louis Trichardt and is now Makhado.
During all that time it’s been quietly getting on with things, building and rebuilding accommodation options, getting involved with local communities and immersing itself in the wonderful, intricate spirit of Venda hospitality and culture.
But we urbanites, blinkered by the concrete jungles we inhabit, haven’t heard of it, or investigated the possibility that a damned-good holiday can be had a few short hours from central Johannesburg.
Leshiba’s commitment to its own, colourful brand of responsible tourism has been rewarded with certification from Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa, giving it another huge tick on the check-list of places you just have to go visit.
So, in the spirit of adventure and discovery, my mad friend and legendary safari guide Mark Tennant and I took the early morning road north to the distant peaks of Limpopo to find out more about Leshiba Wilderness.
A big bonus is that it’s easy, and relatively quick to get to. Four to five short hours is all it takes from Johannesburg (depending on navigation skills). My navigation was flawless and the journey seamlessly fuelled by Mark’s immaculately packed range of healthy padkos (literally, road food). By lunchtime we were at the gates of Leshiba, believing ourselves arrived at our destination. But wait, there’s more … a long, extremely winding and very vertical mountain road up to almost cloud level unfolded and 25 minutes later we truly had arrived – in paradise.
Leshiba is situated in a hidden valley literally on top of the Soutpansberg. It is home to one of the most unique bio-diverse habitats in the country and breath-takingly beautiful, with panoramic views and incredible vistas at every turn.
Our home from home was to be Leshiba’s Venda Village lodge – a lovingly rebuilt former Venda homestead given a touch of panache and originality by renowned local artist and sculptor Noria Mabasa.
Noria’s touch can be seen everywhere, from the reclining clay forms of voluptuous women and contented cattle to perhaps the most interesting bathroom in South Africa, where you relax in a stone tub with a view of forever over the Dulini valley next to the prone form of a sleeping Venda maiden and whose outdoor shower head protrudes, gramophone-style, from the ear of a rather imposing clay man.
Other works of art include amazing wood carvings by Paul Thavhana and some delicious Venda textiles.
The rooms are fabulously decked out, from the luxury Mwedzi and Duvha suites, complete with plunge pools, to the standard huts with their oversized beds and colourful attire.
The overall style and look of the lodge is a breath of quirky fresh air in an industry peppered with lookalike “out of Africa” safari experiences.
But then, Leshiba is so much more than a safari lodge, even though game activities are order of the day.
Sitting on a game vehicle with Mark is never boring. For a start he jumps off at regular intervals, enthusing over amazing little things at the side of the road a normal person would miss.
But when he springs to the ground from a moving vehicle, pausing only to utter the word “leopard” and makes off into dense undergrowth, you understand where the “mad” in Mark’s TV series “Mad Mike and Mark” comes from.
We get out and make ready to follow when he emerges from the bush… pointing to the now visible pawprints in the soft sand at our feet.
“He’s up there somewhere…” Mark whispers, looking up at the towering mass of Soutpansberg rock above us. I can almost feel those yellow eyes boring into me from above.
Back on the vehicle, and not 100 m further on, our path is blocked by white rhino. Leshiba owner John Rosmarin explains that his resident rhino population is relaxed and very used to humankind, allowing guests to enjoy endless hikes and trails unhindered.
He didn’t say anything about the leopards though. But Mark read my mind, saying that the leopards of Leshiba would likely steer well clear of humans, as is their kind’s reclusive nature.
Our exploring takes in Hamasha Bush Camp – a self-contained self-catering option at Leshiba, located on the edge of an impressive gorge and encircled by the ever-present peaks of the Soutpansberg’s finest.
Hamasha offers accommodation for eight people in two spacious, two bedroomed chalets, with en-suite facilities, a communal lounge, kitchen and outside braai pit. It’s booked on an exclusive basis making it an absolutely perfect option for a family getaway.
The Village is also a great family option, but because of its position on a sheer bluff and the valuable works of art on site is not suitable for small children.
Sitting in the fire pit after an exhilarating afternoon game drive, looking up at a picture-perfect canopy of stars and listening to the buzz of crickets and Mark’s informative star-spotting, I wonder why Leshiba has remained such a secret in the South African tourism firmament. The rigours of life in the fast lane seem a million light years away and the spirit of Africa close at hand.
One of Noria Mabasa’s sculpted cows peeks out from the undergrowth and I understand how it came to be here – artist and visitor alike cannot fail to be inspired by this place. It’s a physical impossibility.