The landscape around Babanango Game Reserve is a sorcery of craggy outcrops, acacia-flecked plains, flourishing grasslands and meandering valleys draped in moody mists.
Once denatured farmland, this new 22000-hectare Zululand reserve is currently under biodiversity rehabilitation being stocked with animals of all sizes, from the humble steenbok to the surlier lion, intending to boast the Big Five by 2022.
This newly protected area is now home to three beautifully refurbished lodges in varying habitats – Babanango Valley Lodge, Zulu Rock Lodge and Matatane Camp – all managed and staffed in partnership with local communities.
Settled snugly into the Nsubeni River valley at the southern end of Babanango Game Reserve, more often than not a cosy fire and beaming hostess will welcome you to Babanango Valley Lodge. It's the weather you see. Mist often cloaks the slopes around here. Look closely; the crackling flames are surrounded by small ceramic tiles daintily painted with a shield, one of many design details that offer homage to the area's rich Zulu culture.
Beyond the relaxed lounge, encircled by an impressively-stocked bookshelf, a crystal infinity pool beckons once the weather clears and glorious gardens wind around the luxury hideaway. But first, let's settle our bags into the ample embrace of an en-suite bedroom.
Each considered guest suite boasts broad windows that let in soft light and overlook the lawns, aloes and indigenous plants carefully curated by Durban local and green-fingered extraordinaire, Chris Dalzell. Curator of Durban Botanic Gardens from 1990 to 2010, Chris was then part of the team that built the new Gardens by the Bay in Singapore but turned his expert hand to shape these humble grounds. The result is a marvellous medley of flowers, evergreens and towering trees.
Babanango Valley Lodge sleeps 18 people across nine luxurious suites. The clean interior design mixes natural woods with industrial elegance resulting in a contemporary ambience that sets it apart from other typical game lodge stays.
Back inside the main lodge area, and over at the dining room table, guests will find impeccable South African-inspired cuisine. Classic braai dishes are grilled outside in the open-air boma while you comfortably swig a sip of Pinotage red wine around the flames of the communal fire. Malva pudding is always a favourite for dessert, but during the day, lunches are lighter, consisting of wholesome wraps and fresh garden salads. Even turn down is an exceptionally tasty event. Instead of a paltry chocolate plonked on the pillow, beside the bed lies a nightcap of Amarula and chocolate-dipped strawberries.
Come morning, and you will probably be grateful to work it all off on the myriad hiking and mountain biking trails that snake across the landscapes of Babanango Game Reserve. Or perhaps, content with the excellent cooking, a game drive will suffice. Rumble up the valley for endless views, blue gnus and perhaps a kingfisher or two. Otherwise, strap in for a lengthier trip that crisscrosses the White Umfolozi River in search of bigger game.
More of a culture vulture? Do not miss a historical dive in the stories of Shaka's clan. This is sacred land after all and spills over with stories when explored with the lodge’s expert guides. Nearby sites include the Isandlwana battlefield, Rorke's Drift, Devil's Pass, the grave of Piet Retief and the location of the Battle of Blood River.
Then there's always the simple pleasure of moving about Babanango Valley Lodge itself. It's just as satisfying to vary your day between the pool lounger, reading lounge and suite sofa.