Stories from the Savanna: A Tour of South Africa

Stories from the Savanna: A Tour of South Africa

South Africa may have a rich diversity of cultures, landscapes and habitats, but it is also at the epicentre of a conservation crisis, caught at the tipping-point between modernisation and preservation.

story was originally published in SUITCASE Volume

South Africa may have a rich diversity of cultures, landscapes
and habitats, but it is also at the epicentre of a conservation
crisis, caught at the tipping-point between modernisation and

Geographical marvels like the mountains of Drakensberg and the
Karoo Plateau remain unscathed, offering sanctuaries for wildlife
to flourish. Yet so many South African savannas are facing
potential ecological disaster due to years of disastrous poaching
and urbanisation. The animals and plants that have called these
vast expanses home for thousands of years are facing the crippling
prospect of losing their natural habitat. Spearheading the campaign
against a steady slide into destruction are the indigenous tribes
of the savanna, including the Zulu, whose past is so strongly
rooted in this incredible landscape, and whose very future depends
on its survival.

Blogger Mahaneela Choudhury-Reid went on a whistle-stop tour of
the country’s remarkable eastern expanses with the Leading Hotels
of the World, starting in Johannesburg before travelling to
Shambala Game Reserve, and then the Thanda Game Reserve in
Zululand. With pit-stops at historical landmarks – including Nelson
Mandela’s matchbox house in Soweto – and meetings with the
legendary Zulu tribe, her travel diary touches on the country’s
blurred boundaries between past and present, offering a testimony
to the efforts made in South Africa to counteract the way humans
have shaped and formed our natural surroundings.

The Saxon Hotel, Johannesburg

The first stop on my travels is the Saxon Hotel, which offers a
real oasis of peace and calm right in the heart of bustling
Johannesburg. Made up of both suites and villas, the décor here is
warm and inviting and there are accents of African art throughout –
Zulu spears and handcrafted artifacts adorn the walls.

After I have had time to settle in, I am treated to a fiery
South African breakfast – a blend of tomato, chillies, poached eggs
and boerewors sausage. Early wake-up calls are a breeze here when I
have this calibre of cooking to look forward to, and after any
sightseeing you can pay a visit to the in-house spa and slip into
its whirling hydro pools, relaxing and releasing each muscle at the
end of a long hot day.

Matchbox Houses, Soweto

Under half an hour’s journey away from the glorious interiors of
the Saxon lies a very different type of landscape, where the
infamous matchbox houses of Soweto can be found. Vincent, my guide
for the day, explains that it was typical for six to ten people to
live in these tiny homes. Nelson Mandela himself lived in a
matchbox house before he was imprisoned, and his former home is my
destination for the day.

Almost all of Mandela’s original furniture remains in the house,
and his certificates, diplomas and family photographs line the
walls. Outside there is a large plaque inscribed with his full
name: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. My guide tells me that in Xhosa,
the language spoken by Mandela’s Thembu tribe, his name actually
means ‘troublemaker’. A large photograph of a young Mandela hangs
in the kitchen – the last picture of him before his imprisonment.
Alongside this sits another portrait of the former president – the
first picture that was taken after Mandela was released from

Zulu Camp at the Shambala Game Reserve

Located around 160 miles north of Johannesburg in the heart of
the Limpopo Province, Shambala Game Reserve is so remote that the
best way to get there is by helicopter. As I near my destination,
wildebeest, antelope and zebra run for cover as the chopper blows
clouds of dust across the ground.

The lodges of Shambala are built in the traditional Zulu style,
with rounded thatched roof chalets overlooking a watering hole and
a stream running through the reserve. Blending into the landscape
rather than standing out, the design lends itself to a blurring of
boundaries between the hotel and its natural surroundings.

Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation

To many, the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation is a
symbol of hope. Once the great man’s private retreat, it opened to
the public in 2001. Everything has a ring of authenticity here,
from the circular ‘kraal’ enclosures to the traditional woven
designs and vibrant art adorning the walls. The large area at the
back of the reserve overlooks a watering hole and leads straight
out onto open bush land.

The next morning it’s time for my first game drive. The vast
reserve here is quiet and still as I drive out with Dean my guide
at around 6AM – just as the sun is rising. If you are travelling to
South Africa between May and August then be sure to pack extra
layers, as these months are the country’s winter.

During the trip I spot a stunning kudu, a beautiful species of
antelope, as well as herds of zebra, collectively referred to as a
‘dazzle’ by bush experts. A group of giraffes are known as a
‘journey’ and a group of wildebeest is wonderfully referred to as
an ‘implausibility’ I quickly learn.

One evening Dean and I brave the fast-approaching darkness after
hearing lions roaring nearby. After a long 25 minutes of
observation, we spot two females on the hunt in the bush. We then
watch in awe as two fully-grown male lions arrive, roaring loudly
as they join the pack.

Visitors to the reserve can opt for an elephant-back safari
accompanied by a team of experienced and passionate elephant
handlers who have developed a close bond with the animals. After
their ride, the elephants roam free. One particular family were
rescued from poachers in Zimbabwe, and have lived on the reserve
ever since. Anna, one of the females in the herd, is 18 months
pregnant (an elephant’s pregnancy lasts a gruelling 22 months) but
she still likes to come along for the ride, ambling calmly
alongside the other elephants on the safari.

Safari Lodge at Thanda Game Reserve

My final Leading Hotel destination is some 400 miles away in
Kwazulu Natal. Nestled in the heart of northern Zululand, the
Thanda Game Reserve is ungated, so animals are free to come and go
as they please.

A short drive away is a village surrounded by open hillsides and
breathtaking views where I meet the Ntshangase family, who live in
a traditional Zulu homestead. Here I spot children with a wide
variety of ages, and I learn that in Zulu culture, the whole
village raises a newborn child, rather than only one family.

On another stop I meet four young Zulu men, who are all
extremely proud of their heritage, and encourage people to visit
South Africa to educate themselves about their tribe’s history.
Music is at the heart of their culture, and both the men and women
sing with beautiful, harmonious voices.

One song that stands out touches on the fate of the white rhino,
of which there are only 25,000 remaining in the world. I learn that
poaching affects both the animals and the people living in the
communities near the game parks. People living in poverty are
sometimes lured by the promise of thousands of South African Rand
to remove rhino horns. This is extremely dangerous, and many have
lost their lives for the sake of the horns. The song is moving and
thoughtful, but when I ask if they have to practise to produce such
a beautiful sound, they openly laugh at the suggestion.

At the end of a remarkable trip, the tribe’s community guide
Mxosi Duma, whose name roughly translated means ‘peacemaker’, lets
me in on their secret. “We are always singing,” he explains,
looking me in the eye and repeating: “We are always singing. We
sing together. What you can hear is the music that comes from


The Saxon Hotel Rooms from £325

Zulu Camp at Shambala Private Game Reserve
from £455 per night

Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation From £3,500 per night,
for exclusive use only

Safari Lodge
at Thanda Private Game Reserve Rooms
from £305 per night


Comprised of more than 400 hotels in over 80 countries, The
Leading Hotels of the World are a luxury collection, committed to
providing remarkable travel experiences. Rooted in the locations
where they are found, Leading hotels embody the very essence of
their destination, perfect for the curious traveller looking for
their next discovery. LHW hotels include former castles, palaces
and monasteries, converted banks, safari camps, and private


There are two British Airways flights a day from Heathrow
Airport to Johannesburg. Return prices start from £681 in World
Traveller and from £1,258 in World Traveller Plus.

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