While game lodges are a dime a dozen in the Hoedspruit area, Camp Jabulani is something quite special. The lodge offers elephant-back safaris and fine dining in a luxurious setting.
Hoedspruit is a five-hour drive from Johannesburg, but if you want to maximize your time, fly direct to the Hoedspruit airport with SA Express. I opted to drive, and took full advantage of the delicious farm stalls along the way, stopping for a pancake lunch midway in Dullstroom. Upon arrival at Camp Jabulani, we were given cold, refreshing towels and were guided across a spectacular bridge to our private villa.
With only six villas, plus a family villa, the lodge is completely exclusive and boasts luxury in a pristine setting. Once in our villa, we couldn’t hear or see anything but nature, so it was a great way to unwind and detach from our busy lives. Villas are designed to be integrated with the environment, so expect grass pressed mud walls, an outdoor shower, a bath with treetrunk taps, your own private plunge pool and a gorgeous fireplace in the lounge area. No expense is spared in making these villas as comfortable as possible — the lounge in our villa had a fully-stocked bookshelf, with books appealing to most tastes, plus decadent L’Occitane amenities.
With these touches, Camp Jabulani manages to achieve luxury and class while still being warm and homey. It aims to surprise and delight the guest at every turn. Our first taste of this was the afternoon sundowners–complete silver service with homemade sweet and savoury treats, set up in the middle of the bush, in a different location each day.
The usual routine for the day is to follow sundowners with an evening game drive. Camp Jabulani has the Big Five, with talented rangers that can scout out once in a lifetime sightings, like leopard (notoriously difficult to spot during the day) and lion kills.
After the evening game drive, we freshened up and then headed to dinner, served in the lodge’s dining room, which also has a very homey feel to it. Dinner is a set menu, but don’t worry if, like me, you’re a fussy eater. The chef personally went to each table and asked guests if they didn’t like anything on the menu so that he could revise it if necessary. Because the lodge is so small, meals can be served at any time — if guests only feel like dinner at 11pm, this can be arranged.
Expect fine dining, like deep-fried quail with apricot puree, and eland with butternut puree and baby corn. Desserts are particularly memorable: try the chocolate torte with cashew nut puree and pistachio ice cream–sublime. Breakfast is even more of a treat: there’s no menu, instead, guests can order anything they like, and it will be prepared for them.
During dinner, our game ranger came to our table and chatted to us about our plans for the next day. Camp Jabulani also runs the nearby Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC), a visit to which makes for a great day out. Originally designed as a breeding centre for cheetah (the species is at risk of endangerment), the HESC team went out and rescued cheetah from hunting farms and zoos, where they were being treated badly–a pair was even found in a Johannesburg apartment!
Our visit to HESC started with the opportunity to watch the cheetahs exercise–it is quite something to see the fastest animal in the world run. We were then taken to the wild dogs, where we watched them ravage their weekly feed. Finally, our visit ended at the “vulture restaurant.” Leftovers from the cheetah and wild dog meals are distributed to the hundreds of vultures in the area.
While we could quite easily have spent our time relaxing at the lodge, the real highlight is the elephant-back safaris, which are integral to the lodge’s origins. Camp Jabulani started when 12 trained elephants from Zimbabwe were at risk of losing their lives because war veterans had invaded the farm on which they lived. The owner, Lente Roode, rescued these elephants and brought them to Hoedspruit, with the intention of creating a lodge that would attract travellers from around the world interested in interacting with elephants.
We were given an opportunity to visit the elephant stables, where the keepers explained their daily ritual to us, which starts with them heading out at 7am to clean and collect food for the herd. Elephants have quite a weak digestive system, and digest only 30% of the 200kg of food they eat a day, so as you can imagine, cleaning up after them is a job in itself.
The elephant safari is quite an experience. When you’re seated so high among the treetops, it adds a different perspective to a safari. We could see vast stretches of land at all times, and going up and down ditches and through dams was quite exhilarating. I also found a new appreciation for how gentle and calm elephants are.
As you can imagine, for this kind of luxury combined with a memorable experience, Camp Jabulani is pricey (starting at about US$1000 per night per couple), but the lodge has specials running frequently.