15 Jun
2018

Once a cattle farm, this beautiful Elephant Coast property has been given back to nature, writes Andrea Abbott

 pictures andrea abbott and supplied

Hluhluwe – an important town on the Elephant Coast, famous for pineapples and for being at the heart of KZN’s Big Five country. To the east lies iSimangaliso Wetland Park; to the north, Phinda and uMkhuze. Inland is the oldest proclaimed game reserve in the country, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. In town, open top game viewing vehicles are a common sight ferrying tourists to these great parks. Travellers in 4x4s abound too, stocking up on provisions en route to distant nature destinations like Sodwana, Kosi Bay, Ponta and beyond. And yet, the Hluhluwe district itself also offers rewarding wilderness experiences thanks to a number of excellent private game reserves.

One of these is Kuleni Game Park, 16km from the town on the R22. Once a cattle farm, the nearly 200-hectare property has been given back to nature. Four habitats have re-established themselves: sandforest – one of the rarest and most endangered forest types in the country; thornveld; wetlands; and grasslands. Together these ecosystems are home to a diverse array of wildlife including giraffe, wildebeest, red and blue duiker and other antelope, countless small creatures, and about 600 species of bird of which 29 are Red Data (threatened) species. Absent though are the Big Five, which means guests can explore this beautiful reserve on foot. With the emphasis being on peace, game drives are not permitted.

As a private reserve, Kuleni isn’t open to the general public, but several of the shareholder-owned lodges operate on a commercial basis and cater for small numbers of guests. One is the surprisingly affordable four-star Bushwillow, a collection of six luxury units, each set well apart and hidden in the sandforest. Except for two, all have self-catering facilities. But for those who prefer a break from kitchen duties, there’s a good restaurant and bar in the reception area where you can pick up WiFi too.

We stayed in Yellowwood, a light-filled, beautifully appointed chalet with its own splash pool and an all-enveloping tranquillity guaranteed to make anyone unwind. We were as happy as clams in our gorgeous hideaway and were thrilled when a handsome male nyala called by to drink from our pool. We were sitting on the deck just metres from him, also enjoying a drink, so it was a rather convivial scene. Previous guests reported a giraffe popping in to siphon up some pool water!

Surrounded as we were by nature and revelling in the constant birdsong, we felt no need to explore beyond Kuleni’s boundaries and were content strolling through the park in the cooler hours. On each occasion, we had close encounters with families of wildebeest, zebras and impalas, and chanced upon shy red duikers. But we also took the opportunity to learn about lesser-known creatures by signing up for a couple of guided walks with specialist guides Ryan and Jana Tippett of Ukuhamba Guiding, who focus on smaller critters like spiders, dragonflies, butterflies and frogs that are no less fascinating than the charismatic big animals. Some of the walks take place in Kuleni and start out from Bushwillow, while others are on surrounding farms and other reserves or in the nearby False Bay Park.

For those who want the best of both worlds and want to look for the Big Five, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is less than an hour’s drive from Kuleni. Leave early enough and you could be there at opening time. But, like us, you might find it hard to tear yourself away from your little slice of paradise.

*083 502 5556, www.bushwillow.com

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