Wonders In The Wild

From unexpected wildlife encounters in the bush to majestic oceanside retreats galore, a trip to South Africa yields experiences and memories that will last a lifetime.
Words by Estrellita S. Sibila | June 26, 2024 | Lifestyle

I’ve spent my life chasing the most luxurious, thrilling, and unique experiences across the globe, a testament to my love of adventure, savoring culinary delights, and collecting memories. Yet, my journey to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, marked my first venture to the African continent — promising an unparalleled blend of wild safari adventures, animal encounters and serene beachside relaxation by the sea.

It all began with an impulsive bid during a live auction at a Voices For Children gala. My husband had stepped away from the boisterous bidding battle to go to the restroom when the auctioneer introduced an action-packed luxury safari vacation package to Zulu Nyala Heritage Safari Lodge. I wasn’t about to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — my arm shot up in the air and I waved my bidder padel frantically, vying for the auctioneer’s attention…and won! It was a serendipitous and spontaneous decision that would lead to one of the most unforgettable trips of our lives.

Our African odyssey started at Zulu Nyala, a colonial-style private reserve in the middle of lush hills and savannahs. It is a sanctuary for wildlife that primarily hosts guests who bid on their stays at fundraising events, like we did. Guided by our expert ranger, Chris, a fearless and charming Dutchman considered one of the best on the continent, we navigated the sprawling landscape, encountering most of the Big 5, as well as scores of animals we had yet to learn about. The intimate setting of the private reserve allows for close-up experiences that feel both exclusive and deeply personal, offering a warm introduction to life in the bush. In the evenings, dinner is served alongside traditional Zulu dances around a roaring bonfire, coupled with stories of the land narrated by local elders, providing surreal insights into the region’s heritage. 

After our stay at Zulu Nyala, our journey continued to Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge atop Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, offering a more expansive and rawer encounter with the African wilderness. The lodge itself is about an hour drive inside the reserve from the Memorial Gate. We rented a car and drove ourselves, passing pretty much the entire animal kingdom as we made our way up and down narrow hills, over small bridges and back up to the ridge where we were met with Rhino Ridge’s contemporary, industrial design that seamlessly blends luxury with the rugged landscape.

Waking up to the sounds of the wild, we embarked each morning on game drives with our guide, Tobi, a Zulu woman whose encyclopedic knowledge of the local flora and fauna is astonishing. As the sun rose each day, painting the sky in neon hues of yellow, orange and pink, we encountered a thousand photos worth of birds and animals. On our second day, we relished in the thrill of spotting a pride of lions bathing in the sun just inches away — an experience we’ll always treasure. 

The magic of Rhino Ridge isn’t limited to daytime excursions. The night safaris had us on the edge of our seats as we explored the nocturnal secrets and delights of the region. Upon returning to the lodge, guests are welcomed by a warm fire and gourmet dining that rivals the best Michelin-starred restaurants around the globe. The evenings are spent on the deck, sipping South African wine and Amarula cream liquor, recounting the day’s adventures with fellow international travelers under a starlit sky.

After the raw and exhilarating beauty of the bush, it was time to set off on a different kind of adventure — one that combined ultra-luxury with the vibrant coastal culture of Umhlanga near Durban. The drive from Rhino Ridge is a scenic journey, offering glimpses of small South African towns, its diverse people and landscapes. 

Arriving at the Oyster Box Hotel feels like stepping into a timeless colonial-era dream come true. The towering and iconic red-and-white Umhlanga Rocks Lighthouse, a sentinel over the Indian Ocean, adds to the hotel’s charm. The King Willow Suite, where we stayed, offers a blend of classic elegance with romance and contemporary comforts overlooking breathtaking views of the ocean amid a soundtrack of crashing waves. The rugged beaches of Umhlanga are a playground for adventure enthusiasts, peppered with natural sand, massive rocks and the Whalebone Pier, designed to make you feel like you’re walking inside a whale. The hotel’s famed curry buffet, a melange of spices and flavors, is a gastronomic journey through South African and Indian cuisine. Dining at the Ocean Terrace, guests are amused by surprise visits from mischievous monkeys that make every meal an event to remember as they bravely swing overhead looking for their next culinary heist. Inside, the legendary Grill Room showcases an elevated dining experience with live jazz nightly adding to the world-class ambiance.

Africa profoundly effects anyone who sets foot on the continent. At some point, you wake up and realize that the lack of modern-day comforts, though initially perceived as an inconvenience, actually accomplishes the opposite. Without distractions, you can sit, observe and cherish each moment. After a while, you will see different parts of yourself in each of the animals you encounter — proud like a lion; protective like an elephant; dazzling like a zebra; vigilant like a giraffe; wise like a buffalo; spunky like a warthog; and mischievous like a monkey. The journey through KwaZulu-Natal is a symphony of contrasts — wild and serene, adventurous, luxurious and heart-pounding, perfectly encapsulating the diverse beauty that is South Africa.