The pilot turned to me: ‘Yes, if I switch this screen on it gives us a weather radar. Black indicates no significant weather, blue the beginnings of cloud cover and red means a high chance of hail and intense electrical storms.’ He switches it on and the screen remains a monotonous black. No JFK Jr worries there then. On goes my iPod (Something for the Weekend Vol 2 if you insist on the details). Mr Smith is happy surveying the beginnings of the Low Velt (where many of South Africa’s most popular bush experiences are located) with one eye on the radar. Mrs Smith is playing airhostess passing the drinks and snacks to a quiet German couple, their 11-year-old daughter in the row behind. The sky is clear and the irritation of a two-hour severe weather delay forgotten.
The radar screen suddenly becomes much more colourful and I yelp. The pilot is clearly regretting my cockpit spot in the co-pilot’s seat. He assures me that the light is a result of the more mountainous terrain of the stunning Waterbergs. The GPS indicates two minutes 30 seconds to the our dirt landing strip where the German family are due to be deposited but the next thing we know it goes completely dark. The pilot turns off the weather radar and I casually retrieve my diary to make sure there are no eclipses planned. No such luck…. The first peal of thunder resonates through the plane. One minute 10 seconds to the strip. Lightening strikes just beyond the right wing. Then there is an enormous fork directly ahead. Forget Sébastian Tellier through my headphones, I can’t even hear myself think any more – hail, rain, whatever is pelting down on us. 35 seconds to the strip says the GPS.
Disaster averted and so begins the next adventure – we have to do a fly-by over the dirt air strip to clear the elephants and zebras. You can’t help but fall in love with this part of Africa: the landscape that dreams (and wildlife documentaries) are made of. We are all stretching our legs, when the pilot gathers this Mr and Mrs Smith together: ‘Guys, that wasn’t just a bit of drizzle that we went through as you may have noticed, so we’re not going to be able to land where we need to in order to get you to your camp. I’ve called ahead to where the German couple are staying and they’ve agreed to look after you until your lodge can send a vehicle to collect you.’ We agreed this is definitely a time to go with the flow.
Feeling energised from a rather unexpected flying experience, both of us are taken aback by the beauty and majesty of this unexpected place, the silent splendour of the peaks of the Waterberg mountains. As we went through the second set of electrified gates we at last knew the name of where we were headed: Marataba. With images of Robin Williams’s Jumanji running through our minds we began to slowly pick up titbits of information. The camp is on private land bought by a Dutch philanthropist some 30 years previously and is comprised of a meagre 23,000 hectares, and supports only one camp. As we wend our way across dry riverbed, spotting impala, zebra and giraffe, we began to relax – fortune seems to be smiling on us after all.
As we round a turn in the road and through trees so dry they look like they have never seen water, we fleetingly catch our first glimpse of Marataba. It is drawn with modern lines, yet matches the landscape by using stone clearly drawn off this land. Pulling up to the entrance and parking under the shade of a hardwood awning we are greeted by the manager proffering a local fruit drink concoction that immediately soothes the aches and pains of heading into the unknown.
We are guided down the hallway and into a vast open-plan dining room decked out in such an elegant style that it could be ready for an interiors shoot. Just-so lighting and urbane stylings befitting an exclusive French ski chalet. To the left is the sitting room, furnished with huge chocolate-coloured leather sofas and a discreet library. Both rooms face a huge, uninterrupted glass wall overlooking a kraal below with the magnificent mountains rising above. Praise be, that our fellow travellers from the fatherland had such great taste.
‘Well it looks like you’re going to have to spend the night with us Mr & Mrs Smith. It seems that not only have problems been caused with the airstrip after that storm but also the roads.’ ‘Oh no, what a disaster’ we beam back, completely overjoyed at stumbling across such a beautiful place. We are shown into our room, termed one of their family areas. Comprised of two tent/cottage hybrids, elegantly sculpted into the side of a hill, replete with view to die for and a high wall enclosing the two, creating a tiny community. As we open the screen doors which are on sliders rather than those fiddly zips), we truly know we’ve hit the jackpot.
A freestanding bath of dark-brown stone and a stand-alone no-curtain shower form a stylish wet room, located behind a screen of wire filigree bejewelled with ruby-like stones. The bed itself is an incalculable mass of softness, dark greens, soft woody brown combined with cooling and immaculate white sheets topped off with an air-conditioning unit above (quite a significant luxury in a tented camp). The whole experience being garnished by an ice-cold bottle of champagne. By now any animal-spotting has been well and truly gazumped. We’re starting to like our safari lifestyle just like this, thanks.
After a hot soak in the bath watching the sunset (among other things, ahem), this pleased-with-themselves pair radio for a guide to guide us back to the candle-dotted gardens in front of the main building. It is like something out of a forgotten era, two fires on either side of the garden burning in shallow metal cauldrons. The gentle chirp of the crickets is occasionally interrupted by the deep resonance of lions in the distance.
The only two mistakes we made? Not to book Marataba in the first place. Oh, and maybe the plane option. When this outpost of Hunter’s boutique-hotel hideaways, is so close to Johannesburg, a two-hour drive, you can hire a driver for less than the cost of the flight, it really makes more sense. How do we know all this? That’s right, we’ve planned a trip back.
This luxury tented safari lodge was reviewed by Matthew Williamson